Friday, February 22, 2013

Friday Fricassee

Warning: THIS POST CONTAINS DOWNTON ABBEY SPOILERS.  If you haven't finished watching Season 3, please don't read beyond this point!

*waits for the Spoiler Avoiders to leave*

So, this is weird--mostly because Mr. A and I stopped watching TV years ago.  We watch movies; we watch British series that we own on DVD; we watch Peter Gabriel's Secret World concert when the spirit moves us.  But we don't watch TV.  It's not part of our lifestyle anymore.

(Well, there's the NFL.  Mr. A will watch his weekly games during the fall.  But I am as far away from the TV room as possible during those horrid hours.)

And then, thanks to the wonder that is Apple TV, Mr. A discovered Downton Abbey several months after the first season had aired.  We'd never heard of it; we'd missed the hype. And we fell in love with the lush cinematography, the glorious soundtrack, the brilliant writing, and the flawless acting.

We were hooked.

And then, a few nights ago, we watched the final episode of Season 3, and it all went down the toilet.

Hear me out -- this is not a schmoopy, oh-my-gawd-how-could-they-kill-Matthew-I-am-in-love-with-him rant.  There was so much foreshadowing in the episodes leading up to this one that it was no great shock.  I knew something was going to happen to destroy Mary and Matthew's happy union.  And this was certainly the worst possible thing that could have happened.

But, seriously?  The melodrama of a violent car crash in the last thirty seconds of what had been a delightful finale is not what I had come to expect from Downton.  Now, I know the writers had their hands proverbially tied, since Dan Stevens had announced he'd be leaving the show.  And, truly, there wouldn't have been a much more believable way to get rid of him, considering Matthew's undying love for Mary.  The writers did what they could.

Which brings us to Dan Stevens himself.  Of course he's free to make his own career choices.  Of course he had the right not to renew his contract with Downton.  But the nagging question is--did he think this through from a fan standpoint?  Did it occur to him what a severe impact his decision would have on those who have invested in the show and its characters?

Because I am not invested in the show anymore.  I don't even want to go back and watch the old episodes (we own 2 of the seasons), because always the knowledge of what looms ahead for poor Matthew will spoil it for me.

And I'm not your typical fangirl.  I'm not swooning on my fainting couch and tearing locks of my hair out.  This is a gut-level, tear-free reaction.  Because I was just that invested in the characters.  They are that well written.  They are that well portrayed.

But I can't afford to invest in a show that would foist a sudden, melodramatic, oozing-very-dark-blood death scene, and then fade to black.  It was easy to talk myself out of it afterward.  Downton Abbey is, in the end, nothing more than a period soap opera.  The is-he-dead-or-isn't-he cliff hanger is a longstanding trope.

But you knew he was dead, and so did I.  It was the death stare.  Nobody loses consciousness with his eyes open; but people do die with their eyes open.  So, yeah.  As soon as I saw him, I blurted, "Oh, he is so dead."  (Which is not quite the same as shrieking, "Oh no! Oh no! Oh nooooo he can't be dead he can't be dead he can't be dead!")

And that was before the ominous, dark blood trailed down his too-white cheek.

Downton has lost my heart.  And I'll bet I'm not alone.

So, what does this have to do with being a writer?  Well, it's the writers of shows like this who are ultimately making it happen (or not).  The best actor in the world isn't going to shine without a stellar script.  And Downton's writers were basically told, "Dan's leaving," and they had to go with it.  Apparently, they didn't kill him off earlier in the season because they wanted as much time as possible with him.  I don't blame them.  But the last-minute tragedy was far beyond the anguish of watching Lady Sybil die of eclampsia.  (I was wrecked for a week after that episode.  But ultimately it worked, and I was able to move on with the series.)

There's no moving on for me after this.  (Yes, I'll be watching Season 4.  But I'm not looking forward to it; I'm dreading it.  I won't let myself stay invested.)  I'm not "wrecked" this time.  I'm disgusted and deflated.

I'm sure you've all read how J.K. toyed with the idea of killing off Ron Weasley in one of the books.  Can you imagine the fan backlash that would have occurred?  I'm not saying writers should defer to a fan base over what is best for a story, but it is certainly a consideration.  (Once you have a fan base, that is.)  You all know that a well-planned character death can be a poignant and necessary thing.  But Ron's death would have destroyed a part of what was magical about Harry Potter -- the ne'er-say-die threesome who made it all the way through to the end.  We loved them.  We loved some of the characters that did die, but we didn't have a Ron Weasley level of investment in those characters.

Imagine if Peeta had died.

Imagine if Sam Gamgee had died.

Life can be hard, and fiction has the power to create in our minds something apart from life.  I'd rather leave behind a story or a show with a good feeling.  Even if terrible things were part of the story (and a story without terrible things would be boring), I still want to feel hopeful at the end.  Relieved that the characters who mattered most are still there.

That's just me, as a reader and as a viewer.  Not everyone will react to Downton as I have.  Not everyone will feel betrayed enough to disengage their hearts from the show.  But for me, the magic is over.

I feel supremely better, having vented. I'm eager to hear your reaction to Matthew's tragic end, and what it means for the future of Downton (and for your emotional state).  Please share!


  1. I too have loved Downton Abbey. It’s so much better than anything else on television these days. I was greatly dismayed when I heard that Dan Stevens was leaving. I learned this a few weeks before this season’s last show and I kept wondering how he would exit. I decided I would rather have him die than have him leave Mary for some hyped–up reason. Then I read an interview published in a British paper and learned his reasons for leaving:

    Good grief, the guy is soooo overloaded. He is currently acting in a Broadway play, he was a judge for the Man Booker prize (145 books), he produced and acted in a film last summer, he co-edits an online literary magazine, writes a column for the Sunday Telegraph and has two children under four. And his acting career is now taking off. So I decided not to hate him for leaving.

    And having made that change in attitude, I just accepted that dramatic accident last week. I am not happy with the touch of soap opera that is emerging, nor am I happy with the shorter and shorter scenes that Fellows is swinging back an forth between. (“between which Fellows is swinging?...) But I’m delighted that Maggie Smith has said she will not leave until the end and I will look forward with delight at hearing her utter those lines that only she can deliver so perfectly.

  2. I am SO picking up what you're putting down. :) I didn't realize until after that Dan Stevens had wanted to leave, and I agree that they really had no other choice - it wouldn't have been believable if he'd just left town or something. BUT...I still found it all very off-putting. If they'd done the death differently, I still think I'd feel angry about the whole thing. I mean, come on! With he and Tom basically SAVING Downton...I WAS IN SUCH A HAPPY PLACE, FANGIRL-WISE. And, perhaps Dan never wanted to do a period drama or maybe he thinks he can go to action flicks or something, but I don't get it. You're on a hugely popular, well respected show. Why, how, why, how, WHY????

    I am dreading season 4. I will watch, yes, but not with the same excitement. It'll be more like watching my son clean up his room after he's made a complete disaster of it. "I know it's never going to be the same, but lets see how you do." :)

  3. Great link, Sestina -- thanks for that! It does help a little. A very little. ;)

    Vivi -- Yes, that. WHY? :)

  4. I killed off a favorite character in a book, and one of my beta readers had the same angry reaction.

    Actually, "angry" is too mild of a word. "Teeth-spitting rage" is more like it.

    Her point? The death felt more manipulative than necessary - even though there had been definite set-up and plot necessity established.

    While it wasn't a particularly pleasant conversation, I did rewrite the scene on the spot - and her reaction was tears and a "THAT'S more like it."

  5. Fellowes has actually gotten a lot of flack in the UK - everyone loved Downton season 1, but after that the general view is that the writing got sloppier and soapier each season. By the time Matthew died, we were already sick of all the cliches. I think "Parade's End" is being shown on PBS around now - it's set in WWI as well, but is considered a much more thoughtful, nuanced journey than Downton. Love me some BBC :)

  6. My old college roomie, who now lives in the UK, has a contract for a four-book series. A main character dies at the end of book two. I know she received lots of backlash. A great writer creates a connection between characters and the reader (viewer). Even with characters we love to hate (Mrs. O'Brien!). I hope all of us get to hear from our readers one day about the connection they formed with the characters we birthed.

  7. I think what irks us most is not for our favorite characters to die, but for those characters to die in an unfulfilling way.

    You expect (and want) heroes to go out a blaze of glory, you expect (and want) villains to get the justice they so deserve. So when the lovable sidekick dies because of a relatively random event that comes out of nowhere, it does feel like the death is simply there to manipulate the emotions of the reader. When the villain dies because he tripped and fell down the stairs (without the hero even being there), it provokes a, "What the HELL was that!" reaction.

    What frustrates me most is when I don't even get to *see* the death. I'm reading a popular urban fantasy series (I won't say which one), and two well-established characters just died. The protagonist (and reader) is informed after the fact, so there's just this sense of, 'Yeah, they're dead now, deal with it.' Looking back, I realize that most of the (non-villain) deaths in this series were done 'off-screen', which annoys me.

    Yes, death is often unfair, and sudden, and disheartening. Nothing is more cruel than having a loved one die not due to some eternal struggle, but because some idiot got drunk and hit them with a car. The question is, do you, as an author, want to extend that frustration to you readers?

    Well-written tragedy makes you cry tears of heartbreak as you wish the truth was not so harsh. Poorly-written tragedy punches you in the nuts while shouting, "Are you crying yet!"

  8. Well-written tragedy makes you cry tears of heartbreak as you wish the truth was not so harsh. Poorly-written tragedy punches you in the nuts while shouting, "Are you crying yet!"

    LOL. Very succintly (and vividly) phrased :-)

    When people get upset about these poorly-written deaths, there's always someone who replies with "But that's what happens in life! Death is stupid and random sometimes!"

    True, but this ain't life. It's a story.

    Stories, by their very nature, have a point. A meaning. A purpose. And unless your entire point is "Life sucks sometimes," then poorly-written tragedies aren't the way to go.

  9. I didn't know the actor was leaving, and I didn't catch the foreshadowing, so I was left with the feeling I had when I watched City of Angels. Along the lines of, "You've got to be kidding." Not because I was invested in the character (even though I was), but because it was just a horrible choice in the writing. So I'm with you. I'm in the camp with people who think they just should have gotten a different actor. However, I also think they played out the storyline between Matthew and Mary as far as it could go. So what angst would there be going forward? It is a soap opera after all. And I do love me some good angst.

  10. I thought it was all too easy for the writers - can't figure out a clever way to solve an issue? Have a beloved character who is leaving the show? Kill them off!

    It was such a disappointing way to end the season.

    I'm a big fan of George RR Martin. He's notorious for killing off his characters unexpectedly. Killing off Matthew just seemed far too convenient a twist.


  11. I don't know if I'll continue to watch or not. There isn't much point if I'm not invested in the characters, and I'm not anymore. Lady Sybil was my favorite. I still adore a few of the servants and the Dowager, but what would the writers do if Maggie Smith died? I just don't trust them anymore.

  12. Alas that a show with such potential became too much of a soap opera.

    Sorry,can't help myself, it's Sam Gamgee, not Baggins.

  13. I think a lot of people are going to agree with you on this one. I certainly do. The way they killed Matthew made the show jump the shark. A pity. It was so powerful up to that point.

    The thing that gets me is that they COULD have done things to prepare people for the possibility of a car accident. It wouldn't have taken that much effort, even. Ah well ...

  14. In the UK it was common knowledge that Dan Stevens was leaving so came as no surprise to us that he was bumped off. Downton has lost class since the first series. Sometimes things go on for too long - maybe its time for it to go. If you want period drama par excellence try Pride and Prejudice BBC 1995. I never tire of it and the writing and acting are sublime x

  15. Personally I stopped watching when they killed Sybil. I must be the only person who doesn't like Mary, I find her character very shallow and with few redeeming qualities, and I couldn't face her without Sybil as a counter balance.

  16. Margo -- OH MY GOSH of COURSE it's Sam Gamgee. THANKS! I'm changing that right now. O_O

    Valentina -- I LOVE LOVE LOVE P&P! It's Mr. A's and my all-time favorite. :)

  17. I knew what was coming because it aired a couple of months ago in Britain and the internet... Anyway, I don't know if this will help, but the writer explains some of his reasoning in why that episode was written that way.

  18. oh my, my whol comment disappeared.

    I think Downton's true "jump the shark" moment was when Matthew's legs mysteriously started working again in season 2. He just stood up, limped for a little bit. I don't know, it seemed too convenient. Plus the burned and bandaged false heir who showed up at the house for only two episodes was a bizarre and brief plot twist. Even Daisy's crushes had longer story arcs than that.

    I thought Matthew's death scene was pretty cheap; I don't know how else the writer's could have salvaged it, but I expected more based on how other issues were handled on the show. Disappointing.

    I'll have to check out those other BBC series, the parade one and the one about midwives--I hear both are excellent. I wish BBC America played more actual BBC stuff. They've resorted to airing old Star Trek and X-Files episodes.

  19. My sister ended up dropping Harry Potter after a certain character died, so I can understand why authors need to be careful about who they bump off.

    On the other hand, I think if the character's death has some meaning (motivates the protagonist, is a consequence of another character's actions, ramping up tension, or cements a major antagonist as a threat), then the audience won't be as enraged as they would be if it was just for shock value.

    BTW, if the Sam you're referring to is from Lord of the Rings, then his last name is Gamgee not Baggins.

  20. I think no matter how disappointed we are about the end, the fact that we were ever that invested in the characters shows amazing writers. Even though the general audience will be going into the fourth season thinking "I will watch this, but I'm not going to enjoy it", they'll still watch it. And isn't that how it is in life? When someone we love dies our tender little hearts warn us not to invest our emotions like that again. We'll go on living, but we won't enjoy it. But life always seems to redeem itself and we learn to love again. I think the writers have proven they have the talent to redeem themselves and make us fall in love again. Will that actually happen? Who knows?

  21. Great post, Authoress. Thank you for for writing so eloquently about issues for we Downtownites who are reacting with disgust to the end of season 3. Like Myrna and AW, Lady Sybil was my fave--and I barely recovered from that disaster to have this foisted upon us so horribly. I told my wife I was through with Downton!! (Like you, I will watch seeason 4, but with a mistrustful heart.)

    And you have a fainting couch!! My wife recently asked me what I wanted for my 50th next month--and now I know! (She can throw in some smelling salts too!)

  22. Michael -- Don't ALL writers need a fainting couch? ;)

  23. My 13-year-old daughter lost her will to carry on for a few hours after. She lay in misery, finally proclaiming, "How dare he ruin millions of women's happiness just so he could follow his dream!!!!" I concur. Think of US! We made YOU. :)

  24. Amen, Authoress. Amen.

    I will continue watching, because I love Maggie Smith (if they are foolish enough to kill her off, I'm done).

    I didn't know the actor was leaving the show, but I did know something horrible would happen to ruin the happy couple's--well, happiness. And when I saw him driving away in the car, I knew instantly that he was going to wreck.

    Like I said, I'll give season 4 a chance and hope for the best, but I'm not invested anymore either.

  25. Authoress asked
    "But the nagging question is--did he think this through from a fan standpoint? Did it occur to him what a severe impact his decision would have on those who have invested in the show and its characters?"

    The answers are no and no.

    FYI - if you think it's bad here in the UK they showed the episode on... Christmas Day. Nothing says Happy Holidays like killing off a fav character right?

    So anyways Dano just completed 2 feature films and felt the small screen was not big enough for him. Downtown could have tossed tons of quid at him (quid = pounds for you non anglophiles) but the producers decided not to... Perhaps they are spending all their money on their cinema quality cameras (gee... is it a good idea to FILM in cinema quality with a feature film outfit co-producing???) Nothing like TV filming in widescreen to make actors yearn for the bigtop and 3 rings...

    So let me help all you Downtowners out with the inside scoop. The driving force behind a UK actor suddenly _NOT_ being available for UK TV is simple. It's because he has to come to the US to star in a feature film. Yep someone thinks he can be the next Hugh Jackman. After all if our A list male leads are now all Australian with cute accents... why not cast a young brit?

    10 quid says he stars in a Victorian era romance... with Jenifer Lawrence. Pride and Prejudice knock off anyone...

    of course Production house is at this moment shopping for a Victorian Romance Scriptwriter or anything... no no could not be :)

  26. "Imagine if Peeta had died."

    Yeah, I might have like the second and third books then. :-P

  27. Downton will always be magical for me as long as Lady Violet dominates the screen. :)

    After watching the season finale and learning of Dan Steven's decision to leave, I realized that we book writers have a great advantage over screen writers. Screen writers have actual people they have to consider when they write. But all of our people are made up in our heads, of our own creation, and they cannot leave without us wanting them to.

    All TV show plots are bound by whether an actor renews a contract, but in books, the stories can be absolutely anything we want them to be.

  28. I'm not sure what choice Julian Fellowes had other than to bring another actor to play the role or send him off to India somewhere for a year and have them communicate only by letter. "How's Matthew doing, Mary?" "Oh he's just FINE. But I do miss him so and so does little Fauntleroy."

    Leaving a series like this probably not the best career choice - remember how well things worked out for Shelley Long when she bid adieu to CHEERS?

    But do not despair Dowtonites. I think next season will end or begin with Mary coming out of the bath (they had baths and not showers in those days), seeing Matthew in the other room and he will hug her and tell her it was all a bad dream just like Bobby Ewing did in Dallas lo those many years ago. :)

  29. I'm not a TV'r either. We watch movies on our TV and we're not connected to cable or satellite either, so I'd never heard of this show until I read your post this morning.
    I agree wholeheartedly with what you're saying. I read a book this last fall. I'd been following this author on Facebook and she offered her books (3 of them for .99 each) Can't go wrong there. The writing was pretty good for a self published author.
    In the first book, I became very attached to the main hero and heroine. At the end, she turned he heroine into the bad kind of vampire, verses the good kind of vampire that the hero is. It was a long book too. I was devastated. And mistrustful of reading her next book. Consequently, I read the first few chapters of the second book and did something I NEVER do. This time was the first. I skipped to the end and read it. She supposedly killed both of them after an agonizing reunion, but there is a chance that they'll survive. I don't think I'll read the third book when it comes out. She lost my trust.

  30. I just keep thinking of MISERY by Stephen King when a fan objected to the death of a heroine!

  31. I've never been a big fan of the Matthew character - he was too much of a milksop for me. Too wishy washy - all his dithering over his doomed fiance and then his carrying on over taking the dead fiance's money to save Downton - blah.
    I do think it would've been better to have killed him during the war but like you said, that's what the writer was dealt.
    BUT I agree w/ you re: Dan Steven's career. Rob Morrow left Northern Exposure, the show ended a year later *sob* and his career never went anywhere bc fans never forgave him for leaving NE.

  32. I don't watch Downton Abbey, but on some level, I know what you mean. I don't think characters should avoid death in a book/show if it's unavoidable, but I DO think that if the person dies, it shouldn't be senseless (and if the point of the story IS how senseless death is, but the writer has already killed a bunch of other characters to drive that point in, why kill [insert beloved character here] just to make the same point?).


    The story I'm thinking of when I say that is The Hunger Games, specifically Mockingjay. Finnick's death ruined Mockingjay for me (or rather, it was the first of many plot twists that ruined it for me). I grew to love Finnick over the course of the series, mostly because his characterization surprised me. I didn't expect this loveable, vulnerable person to come out of the arrogant character we were introduced to in Catching Fire. The end of Mockingjay brought about plenty of senseless deaths--most of Katniss' party storming to President Snow's estate or whatever it was, and then of course, Prim. Not to mention all those Hunger Games contestants in previous books.

    But WHAT was the point of killing Finnick?? He had a miserable life until he married his beloved Annie, who is now alone and pregnant (not to mention crazy, and Finnick was the only person who calmed her down). Collins already killed Prim and Rue and plenty of others, so it's not like we needed Finnick to die to get the message of, "Sometimes innocents die and the living just have to move on." And he barely got two sentences describing his death. And Katniss barely thought about him afterward.


  33. I also got a shock. I wasn't aware but I thought that last minute was so shocking. It wasn't hard to guess when he drove along what was going to happen. I was shocked. I hadn't expected it and I only now learn the character's actor was resigning...

    Nevertheless, what happened was, for me a spoiler. It has turned from a beautiful series to a soapie in the last episode. I understand now why they said the ratings had died. Until then I didn't.

    But it got me thinking about this in relation to writing. If you do this the reader loses faith in you and won't trust you.

    I won't trust Downton Abbey any more.

    I will watch and probably collect all the episodes but I wont trust them.

    Part of an author's duty is to give us a reason to love or hate a character, but if you spend your time worrying whether there will be some silly unnecessary action then what's the use of reading the story?????

    I'm glad to see so many other people had the same reaction.

    Zara Penney

  34. You all thought it only got soapie with Matthew's death? :) hehehe - let' see,,,,,the chaufeeur marries the rich daughter, the maid arranges an accident so that Lady Grantham miscarries, a disgifured man turns up claiming to be suffering from amnesia and is the true heir to Downton, Matthew is paralyzed but miraculously walks again, they lose all their money only to have more fall from the sky, Lady Sybil dies in childbirth....and it is only NOW that you think it is showing signs of being a soap opera?? As someone stated above, you are all starting to sound like "The number one fan" who was Nurse Annie Wilkes! Give the writers a break - the actor decided to leave and that's life. :) I am reminded of the time from MASH when they had to kill Henry Blake in a last scene chopper was sad and shocking but the actor (McLean Stevenson wanted off the show). Give the Downton producers a break....Dan Stevens wanted out.

  35. I think the main problem with Matthews death was the timing. With Sybill's death we had time for other characters to grow into the space left by her exit.

    With Matthew's death we are just left with a big hole and a big wait, until the next series.

    It would have been more commercially astute to have his death a couple of episodes prior to the end of the series, and give us some more on a new character.