[This post contains a massive spoiler for the finale of Season 3 of “Downton Abbey.” If you haven’t seen the whole episode, stop now.]
[Also, it contains spoilers for seasons 2 and 3 of “Torchwood.” But those came out ages ago, so you probably don’t care about them any longer. Assuming you did in the first place.]
[But seriously. If you haven’t seen the last episode of the third season of “Downton,” now’s the time to stop reading.]
[Still here? Fine.]
I knew it was coming. Right at the beginning of the new season of “Downton Abbey,” I naively Googled “Dan Stevens” (*insert obligatory “har-de-har-har” double entendre about wanting to Google Dan Stevens*) and the link to the very first hit loudly blared something along the lines of “‘Downton’ Actor Talks About His Character Getting Killed.” Thus for weeks I’ve just been watching and waiting for Matthew to kick the bucket.
So perhaps it was the advance notice that blunted my reaction to his demise at the end of last night’s episode. In any case, I took it with kind of a shrug. The Better Half, on the other hand, was pissed off.
Before I go on about that, though, let me briefly recount those bits of the episode that I liked. I loved the lady’s maid in Scotland trying to out O’Brien O’Brien, and getting royally O’Briened as a result. (I also kind of like that the show has pretty obviously decided that Molesley is going to be the running butt of jokes.) I loved the scene with Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore (easily my two favorite characters at this point) after the fair. And I will admit to getting a little bit choked up when Jimmy told Thomas that they could be friends.
So there was that. But obviously the big kicker was Matthew lying dead at the side of the road. And the Better Half was having none of it.
If I were to presume to summarize his objection, it would be that it’s a pretty shitty thing to do to fans of your show when you kill of not one but two major characters in the course of one season. Over at Slate, they’re asking is “Downton” is the cruelest show on television. He clearly thinks so. And he thinks people who watch the show deserve a certain amount of consideration from its creators.
Me? I’m not so sure.
I had a very similar reaction a few years ago when we watched the entire run of “Torchwood” (which is, for the unfamiliar, kind of like “Dr. Who” but a lot darker). At the end of the second season, two major characters get killed off in one episode. And at the end of the third season, another one dies unceremoniously. And it pissed the ever-living daylights out of me, particularly when Ianto was killed in a stupid scene obviously written for the express purpose of having him die and no other. I felt like there was some kind of contract that a work of fiction makes with its (in this case) viewers, and that “Torchwood” had broken it.
But the more I thought about it, the more I began to question that idea. Do our fictions owe us anything? Do we have a right to expect a certain degree of consideration for our feelings? Or is art there for us to receive and interpret, but not dictate? Does it vary if the fiction is a light entertainment vs a serious one? (I remember thinking “Burn After Reading” was far more nasty than it really had any need to be.)
Whether or not the creators of fiction have any obligation to consider the feelings of its viewers is, of course, a different question than whether or not it’s a good idea. I agree with them over at Slate that killing off two of the most likeable characters was probably a bad idea, and viewers may stop watching because they just don’t care any longer. But that’s not quite the same as being owed something.
Again, I’ve known this was coming for some time, so it’s impossible to know now how I’d have felt if I’d been surprised. Maybe I’d be swearing off the show like the Better Half was. Who knows? But I don’t know if I have a right to expect more pleasant stories. (Ones that are less lazy, on the other hand, I think we do have a right to expect. Enough already with the too-tidy storyline conclusions, writers.)
What do you think?
[Update: It seems the question about “Downton” in particular is mooted, since Dan Stevens apparently wanted to leave the show and he’s not an indentured servant. So the writers are off the hook. But I’m still curious what thoughts people have about the questions I pose.]