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Downton Abbey: Christmas special (2012) - Review

Downton Abbey

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 3 out of 5

BEWARE of having babies on Downton Abbey… it sounds the death knell for major characters!

Just as Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) had passed away following childbirth midway through the show’s third season, so Downton‘s Christmas special was marked by the death of another favourite immediately post-child birth – albeit in this case, the father.

Speculation has been rife for many weeks now that Dan Stevens, aka Matthew Crawley, was about to leave the show. But the manner of his departure looks guaranteed to have left a nation stunned.

Series creator and scriptwriter Julian Fellowes has form, of course, for throwing in this kind of ‘twist’ but in a Christmas episode that had hitherto been marked by outrageously high levels of saccharine, this was a particularly savage sting in the tale.

For nigh on two hours, this had been about having fun. The Crawleys had taken to the Highlands of Scotland for their annual summer getaway at the home of their amiable relation “Shrimpie”, the Marquess of Flintshire (played nicely by Peter Egan). And real ‘drama’ was in short supply.

Set a year after the climactic events of season three, in September 1921, this was an episode where emphasis seemed to be on good humour and will they/won’t they romances.

Primary among these was whether Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) would become the mistress of married journalist Michael Gregson, while back home at Downton put-upon cook Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol) was offered an unlikely shot at love (and even marriage) with a local food supplier.

In between, there was a gentle (not quite simmering) relationship between new maid Edna (MyAnna Buring) and still grieving widower Tom (Allen Leech), which allowed for the obligatory topless scene from one of the Downton heart-throbs.

But overall, the pace was gentle and nothing much happened. Indeed, for every highlight – such as Rob James-Collier’s rare moment of bravery at the village fayre that left him badly beaten up, or Anna’s ‘surprise’ for Bates – there were numerous lowpoints to make you shudder… ironically, most of which took place during the cloyingly sentimental bedroom scenes between Matthew and Mary.

But then came that kicker. Mary left Scotland early and was forced to give birth alone while Matthew valiantly made the journey back down to be with her, post-birth.

News of a Crawley heir was greeted with out-pourings of joy by virtually every cast member… and even Robert (Hugh Bonneville), whose own relationship with Matthew had been tested by disagreements over Downton’s future during season three, gave thanks for his presence in their lives.

Matthew, too, got one last moment with Mary to declare yet more undying love…

But then the camera shot to a scene of a beaming Matthew driving at high speed back to Downton and you knew it couldn’t end well. And it didn’t.

With just seconds remaining, a lorry appeared around the corner and – while members of the Crawley household looked forward to meeting the new baby – Matthew made his dramatic exit.

It felt like a particularly cruel end to a hitherto non-event episode. And while certain to have left the jaws on the floor of everyone who witnessed it, the manner of its delivery deprived the death of a certain emotional impact.

Where Lady Sybil’s departure arguably marked one of the show’s most dramatic highpoints, Matthew’s almost underwhelmed and felt more like a kick in the gut that left you little time to absorb. There was no aftermath… only a shot of Mary holding her baby and then darkness, as the credits rolled.

We’ll have to wait until September to see the tears and the repercussions – and even then, Fellowes may opt to jump forward in time once more rather than wallow too greatly in the days and months after.

That’s not to say that Matthew’s departure won’t be felt. In Dan Stevens, the show possessed one of its brightest and most endearing stars, no matter how contrived his scenes had become with Lady Mary. But his loss is akin to that of George Clooney’s on ER in that Fellowes now has his work cut out in filling the void that it leaves.

Downton will continue, for sure (a fourth season and a 2013 Christmas special have already been commissioned). But whether it will prosper remains to be seen. Few could deny that it’s best days are behind it.

As for this Christmas episode in general, it marked the best and the worst that the show has to offer. It was slight and mostly amiable for long periods, contrived and horridly sentimental at others and, finally, not averse to throwing in some genuinely gob-smacking plot developments.

Or, to put it another way (in line with the time of year that it aired), it was giddy, wildly excessive and often sickeningly sweet… before leaving you with a bit of a hangover. It should be interesting to see where we go from here.

Read our verdict on the season three finale or find out why Dan Stevens left the show