The short, useful life of Downton Abbey’s Matthew Crawley

Matthew[Spoiler alert] Poor Matthew Crawley. He survives World War I, early 2oth Century medicine, and plows into a milk truck just after becoming a father. How very British. How very Lawrence of Arabia. Americans were (are) furious.

I realize that I should not admit my love of Downton Abbey. But it is the only show that I’ve made an effort to watch in its original run in years. I know: it’s essentially a soap opera. Yeah, but with really great costumes. And wonderful writing. And Maggie Smith. I know: it romanticizes class divisions and contains historical inaccuracies. Oh well–it’s fiction.

I try to avoid spoilers. It was only by accident that I saw headlines about Dan Stevens, the actor who played Matthew, was leaving Downton. I figured that he would probably get killed off. If the series were made in the USA, we’d just pull a Darrin Stevens and switch actors. But, with the death of Sybil earlier in the season, there was always the faint possibility that the character would live on. But, alas, that was not to be. As soon as Matthew left the hospital after holding his newborn son for the first time, smiling, driving fast through the English countryside, I new he was a goner.

I’m not sure if anyone has asked creator Julian Fellowes about the possible homage to the opening of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia: T.E. Lawrence polishing his motorcycle (a Brough-Superior, first one to do over 100 mph), climbing on and then having a marvelous fast drive on gravel lanes in the English countryside (clip here). Until he encounters bicycles coming in the other direction. With poor Matthew, it was a convertible and a milk truck.

Someone did ask Fellowes for a reaction to the outrage among American fans. His response was not sympathetic, “Most of the [UK] soap operas always use the Christmas special to kill huge quantities of their characters.” Some writers have sympathized with actor’s dissatisfaction with the character of Matthew, saying that he got bad story lines.

I beg to differ. Matthew saved Downton at least five times: becoming the male heir, marrying his cousin Mary and securing her estate and reputation, investing his inheritance in Downton and saving it from bankruptcy, convincing Mary’s father to modernize Downton’s management, and fathering a male heir. He got to fight WWI and survive (even though they thought he was a paraplegic for awhile). He decked Sir Richard. At Christmas. Finally. Best punch thrown in the entire series. He made his Irish brother-in-law-to-be his best man and taught the family to value him.

Yeah, Matthew did spend parts of the series trapped in a wheel chair and then trapped in a period of mourning that reduced him to stumbling around like one of the undead, with dark circles that must have been designed to appeal to the Twilight crowd (do they even know PBS exists?). His character seemed to be frequently Embarrassed, Depressed, Confused, or Offended. And I understand his wanting to leave before he gets so type-cast to Americans that the brevity of his career rivals that of Hugh Grant.

Well, here’s to Dan Stevens in hopes that he made a good choice.

And here’s to Matthew Crawley. Thanks for saving Downton. RIP.

12 replies »

  1. Wondering when Lady Mary will begin dating again. It will have to be with someone as understanding of her contrariness as Matthew.

  2. Whoever it is, he’ll have to be a modern man–a lot easier in the 20s than it would have been earlier. Long shot: post WWI expat American?

  3. My partner and I are Downton Abbey fans, and were trying to watch series 3 on TV here in New Zealand, but we broke down and bought the whole series on Blu-Ray instead (easier to watch back-to-back). We haven’t watched the whole thing yet but, like you, I stumbled upon news of Dan Stevens leaving the show and immediately knew they’d probably kill the character off, so…

    I liked his character! Oh well. I’m sure they’ll find someone else to play an amusing character to take his place, as Downton does…

    • This is all fascinating to me. You’ve probably suspected that somewhere out there was a guy who hasn’t seen DA yet, and as luck would have it, I’m him. From my perspective, it’s hard to imagine how something as staid as this show’s setting could be so damned interesting. At some point I guess I need to rent season 1 and find out.

  4. @ scottfack: I got the UK Blu-Ray version with 2 episodes to go in season 3. I have shown remarkable restraint. We’re going to start from the beginning now.

  5. @ Sam: It’s fascinating and has the sort of writing you’ll appreciate. Watch the UK version: it was edited down for PBS in the first 2 seasons from the UK versions (I’m going to watch the UK versions to see what I missed).

  6. I watched “DA” many years ago. It was called “Upstairs/Downstairs.” 😉 Just haven’t been able to get caught in the mania this time…

  7. As one who, against his better instincts, has been sucked into the show’s gravitational field, it would be ingenuous for me to criticize it. I’l just say, regarding the humanity with which the family treats the staff: the show imputes too much nobility to the nobility.

    Also, I can’t resist pointing this out: ever notice that, besides the staff, only six people live in that gigantic house? If the camera panned down the hallways, I imagine you’d see a lot of closed-up rooms gathering dust (or providing busy work for the staff keeping them clean).

    • Building a house with 200+ rooms is just overkill. Granted, entertaining crowds of fellow-nobles with their entourages could eat up a lot of space for the couple of times a year it’s used. It seem that the house may really only be occupied by 2 people (the current Lord Canarvon and his wife).