Sunday, January 5, 2014

Review: Matthew's death may inject some life into 'Downton Abbey'

By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
January 3, 2014, 12:14 p.m.

"Downton Abbey"

Across the land, a great keening has arisen for the large number of main characters recently killed off on shows as disparate as "The Walking Dead," "Scandal" and "Game of Thrones." How ruthless have we become, the hand-wringers wail, how reckless and desperate in our need for tweetable moments and first-week ratings.

Honestly, it's as if no one in this country has ever read a classic novel or a poem by Edgar Allan Poe. People die, for heaven's sake, especially in fiction. Tragedy is a great catalyst, and even if the famous literary admonition to "kill your darlings" is impossible to trace to its origin, every gardener knows that pruning is an essential part of the job.

This is immediately and gratifyingly clear Sunday night on PBS in the Season 4 premiere of "Downton Abbey," that highly addictive meringue of Edwardian couture and socially tolerant politics that has sentimentalized British past beyond all recognition and done more for the "special relationship" between the U.S. and Britain than any president or prime minister.

Last year, in a finale that left women on two continents weeping into their "I'm a Lady Mary" T-shirts, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) was killed in his motor car just moments after his wife, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), gave birth to their son, treating viewers to the sight of all Downton's denizen's rejoicing in pathetic oblivion to the tragedy that had just befallen them. Sob.

Except Matthew's was no tragedy. Stevens took a lot of flak for choosing to leave the show, but creator Julian Fellowes should cut him a posthumous check. Never has the death of a character so obviously cleared away the brambles that can choke even a popular show to death.

Not to speak ill of the dead, but Matthew was a walking, talking deus ex machina — whenever a miracle was required, there he was, inexplicably cured of his paralysis or inheriting the funds needed to keep Downton afloat or just saying the Absolutely Right Thing.

More important, he inadvertently dimmed the lights of the show's two most astringent, and therefore most interesting, characters: Lady Mary and Violet the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith).

Who are now once again in the foreground, allowing "Downton" to return to its original themes of change and endurance.

On Season 1, "Downton Abbey" was presented as the story of two sorts of people, upstairs and down, on the cusp of cataclysm: The end of a class system that allowed places like Downton to operate along quasi-feudal lines; even improvements like the telephone and typewriter were perceived as a threat.

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