Make ‘Em Cry Scriptwriting with Julian Fellowes; or, Why I Love Carson


Alright. Wipe your eyes. It’s not too soon to discuss this.

“You know this is a soap opera, right?” my husband Lala said that time he watched five minutes of Masterpiece Theater’s “Downton Abbey.”

“Yes,” I said.

Sometimes my South African husband calls British period dramas “racist” just because they’re wall-to-wall white people. I used to protest, but then again, that was pretty much the same reason I scoffed at the 2012 Republican National Convention.

But Lala says it’s ok because these dramas – also known as “your English crap” – are my heritage. He’s right – my mom’s dad’s family is British and many of my distant relatives live in England today.

I won’t lie – I haven’t missed an episode of the entire series (written by Julian Fellowes), whose season three finale just aired in the US a few days ago.

For the uninitiated, the show is about the fictional Earl of Grantham and his family and staff, who live on a massive estate in early 20th-century Yorkshire. The story follows the insufferable entitlements, infighting and romances of the noble Crawley family, and the below-decks machinations of their (mostly) loyal servants. It’s worth watching just for the glorious costumes.

I’m going to continue now; if you’re not familiar with the show, I will neither entreat you to watch nor explain the plot and characters further – feel free to ditch this post if you haven’t already, and come back next time (I promise the blog isn’t becoming a TV rehash zone).

Does anyone else wish that Mr. Swire had kept his money in the family? I really would have enjoyed watching the Crawleys sell out and move to a smaller house, which, as Lord Grantham dolefully points out, would require a staff of just eight.

Imagine living with only eight servants.

The fact that I actually felt sorry for Lord Grantham is the biggest reason I hate to love Downton Abbey.

Besides, as the Crawleys bemoaned the imminent loss of their ancestral home, wondering what their identity could possibly amount to without Downton Abbey, I couldn’t help thinking that if their home is an abbey, it’s only belonged to Lord Grantham’s forebears since Henry VIII dismantled England’s Catholic institutions to enrich himself and his allies. Talk about rightful ownership.

Season three had a goodly shock for us midway through, when we lost the saint-like Lady Sybil to eclampsia. She was mourned as one of Downton Abbey’s best-loved characters, but to me, she was also one of the least interesting.

Lady Sybil

I understand about actors departing and all, but Sybil’s dabbling in progressive politics had been eclipsed by her chaste, patient and wholly disinterested romance (disinterested in the Austen sense, you know what I mean), and then Tom Branson joined the Crawley fold without bloodshed. Other than that scandalous Aladdin-pants incident, Sybil was goodness itself, and the only other drama her character could conceivably create (no pun intended) was to die in childbirth.

Besides, if you ask me, Anna Bates has the steady, uncomplicated angel vibe covered, along with her limping, faithful, crinkly-eyed husband.  In a true soap opera, there’s only so much room for these types.

Now blow your nose – we’re coming to it.

All of Edith’s lovers are desperately affable yet unavailable middle-aged men. But have you noticed that everyone who hits the sheets with Mary ends up dead?

Yes, Matthew survives WWI and the Spanish flu, recovers from paralysis and (surely worst of all) the threat of inheriting a smaller house with only eight servants, only to die in a freak car accident just after his wife gives birth to a son.

Hearts stopped all over the world as season three ended with a wide-eyed Matthew crushed beneath his car, blood pooling out of his ear.

Hanging was too good for Fellowes.

Women expressed grief at Matthew’s death as if he was a real person – except worse, because with real grief, much as we’d often like to lay blame somewhere, even if it’s God, there’s really no point when it comes to truly coping with death. But in this case, we can rail against actor Dan Stevens, who refused to renew his contract for the tacked-on season four, or writer Julian Fellowes, who (perhaps in a fit of pique over losing this golden boy) devised a graceless, gruesome death as clichéd as it was shocking.

I’ve been doing my best to process this in the twenty-four hours since I watched the episode, and you may hate me for this, but I think it’s the Sybil syndrome all over again.

Yes, Matthew’s blue eyes were more beautiful than glaciers lost to global warming, and his voluminous blond bangs were so well-sculpted that Alfred, had his arm grown tired, could’ve rested a dish of hollandaise sauce on them. But the only thing bigger than Matthew’s torch for Mary was his moral fortitude. Now that the whole thing with Lavinia and the inheritance was put to rest, how much blissful connubial nuzzling could one audience take?

Many people knew some kind of demise for Matthew was in the works. News had broken of the actor leaving the series before the final episode aired in the US, but I was totally out of the loop.

I still knew Matthew was going to bite the dust, though.

The first clue was the end of the penultimate episode of season three. Lord Grantham joyously embraces his two sons-in-law on the cricket green in a closing scene more sticky and golden than the jar of honey in my cabinet.

Fellowes couldn’t have spelled it out any clearer: he was about to break our hearts.

The second clue was Matthew’s season three dialogue.

When Matthew wasn’t declaring his undying love for his wife every time they turned back the sheets, he was sticking up for Edith, Tom, the whole Downton estate, and that new floozy, Cousin Rose.

When Mary gave birth to a son, Matthew was so happy he felt as if he’d “swallowed a box of fireworks.”

Some commentators argued that Fellowes punished Dan Stevens with the nature of Matthew’s death because the actor had the gall to leave the hit show. But if the writer really was trying to stick it to Stevens, I think the best evidence is the truckload of sappy lines that characterized Matthew in season three.

Fellowes knew that such a stream of unadulterated goodness and progressive wisdom could only be matched by our tears.

But I’m willing to forgive him, because of my favorite moment in the final episode.

“Downton is safe,” Mary sighs as she cradles the estate’s new heir. The entire family is likewise in raptures because her baby doesn’t have a vagina. But Carson, the butler, a terminal traditionalist and the biggest snob in the building, loves Mary so much that when he gets news of the birth by phone, he’s the only one in town who completely forgets to ask if it was a boy or a girl.



Add yours →

  1. What, no comment? 14&3/4 hours. Lala is probably one I’d like to have discussions with. 🙂 My take on all I read on your posting fits the world’s troubled history. Making this short, not very, I read something many years ago that helped me understand not only the British, French, Spanish, Dutch, etc, up to the USA today– nations of people living in temperate zones had to struggle much like squirrels because of the seasons. Their prime way of getting what they needed to survive was to set sail in ships, have great warrior skills, carry a few extra flags, and conquer, especially peoples who didn’t have to do as they did, to this day mind you.

    Flags, boats, guns, superior fire and killing power, sounds so familiar. My greatest entertainment shock came to me in the movie Gandhi. Fast forward, close to intermission time, and you have the elite arrogant officers being driven by their lower ranking drivers to the slaughter that took place in the stadium, machine guns blazing.

    Wow! what a start! What flashbacks. Next I thought of Gone With The Wind– soap opera Hollywood style. Now you didn’t see wall to wall whites in the mansions, because the white servants could run off, so did the indigenous people of the new world. Thanks for posting a great piece. Got my piece said too.

    I’m glad many years ago, I read of the nature of those who live in temperate zones. It helped me to better understand even Pearl Harbor.

    Men like Gandhi, MLK, the Kennedy brothers, who were human as we all are– allow me to express this view in compassionate kindness. We are all redeemed at a great price– only blood redeems and redeems absolutely without regards to color, class, race, religion.

    Warts and all I post this w/o spell check– be kind!

  2. Well done, Alaina. I especially love your shout out to Carson. I’m pretty mad at Dan Stevens. Couldn’t he just sign on for 1 or 2 more episodes? He could cheat on Mary with a maid and run away to New York. He deserves to be despised.

    • I read a couple interviews obsessing over how Matthew, being such a decent chap who loves his wife and babe, could never exit the series by anything but a sudden death. Yes, I was rocked by the car accident, even though I knew the death was coming (when I started the episode I was sure he was going to die in a freak shooting accident), but I’m content to say goodbye to Matthew and see what Sir Julian unearths for season four.

  3. You should’ve put a spoiler alert on here. I don’t think we got to that series yet. I might’ve been blogging and missed it. Oh well, I’ll still watch. I am addicted to this show. Although I’m not proud of it. And I don’t get the servant master mentality.

    • Sorry about the lack of spoiler alert. When I’m afraid of spoilers I usually just skip TV/movie articles until I have time to watch, but not everyone else does that.

      Yes, that live-in staff thing is bizarre, isn’t it? I still can’t get over the scenes of Barrow or Bates dressing his Lordship for dinner, or Anna brushing Mary’s hair before bed. It’s the like super-rich are perpetual children…

  4. I’m happy for the spoilers. Now I feel like I can actually watch Season 3. I heard so many exclamations of dismay via FB or wherever that I was getting pretty trepidatious about viewing it, but now that I know the worst parts I won’t be subject to the highs and lows I generally need to avoid in my entertainment these days.

    • I just spent the whole final episode of season three (in which nothing much actually happens, to be honest, despite its hour and a half run time) waiting to see how Matthew was going to die.

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