Downton Abbey's not-so-grim reaper — and what happened Sunday night

The New York Times

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Kill off these characters at your own risk
The New York Times
The shocking ending of this season's “Downton Abbey” — shocking at least for those who managed to avoid the news when the finale was shown in Britain in December — most likely left thousands of the show's fans mourning the loss of a beloved character and angry with the show's creators for erasing him from their lives.

The plot twist, though, was just the latest in a long tradition of television character assassinations, many of which have elicited reactions of shock, pain, sorrow, fury and sometimes laughter from devoted watchers. “Downton's” leading man, Matthew Crawley, played by Dan Stevens, left the series in a screech of tires on a country road on Sunday, never to return.

That is, unless, some other character, perhaps his beloved Mary, steps into a shower at some future time and declares that his death was all a dream.

That, of course, was the infamous solution employed by the venerable television family saga “Dallas” in the ill-conceived decision to kill off a central character, Bobby Ewing, in 1985.

Generally, though, the decision to terminate a television character means there is no going back.

And while many show creators say the decision to kill off a popular character carries a risk, potentially alienating viewers, in almost every case shows survive.

They often thrive, the producers say, because shaking up viewers is almost always a good thing.

The death of Matthew in “Downton” recalls many other plot developments that have taken place in the middle of successful television runs, like the heart-tugging death in 1998 of Bobby Simone, the character played by Jimmy Smits in “NYPD Blue.”

But some deaths have taken place on shows as little recalled as the comedy “The Hogan Family,” which changed names mid-run from “Valerie” after the series lead, Valerie Harper, staged a salary protest.

(Her character died, like Matthew, of an auto accident.)

As happened in “Downton,” a character's exit is often driven by an actor's decision to pursue other artistic challenges or bigger paychecks.

The latter was the case with the demise of Lt. Col. Henry Blake, the character played by McLean Stevenson for the first three seasons of “M*A*S*H” on CBS.

After Stevenson signed a contract with NBC, the “M*A*S*H” producers gave Colonel Blake a send-off episode, in which he said his goodbyes and flew away.

Even the cast (other than the star Alan Alda) didn't know a coda scene would be added, to deliver the news that the colonel had gone down in a plane crash.

Stevenson's career went with it. His character's death stirred hostile reactions not only from the fans, who poured in angry letters, but also from CBS, which wasn't happy its hit comedy had broken viewer's hearts.

Today, thanks to the Internet and social media, audiences have more immediate ways to voice their fury.

When the ABC drama “Lost” had a core character, Charlie, played by Dominic Monaghan, drown trying to save his friends, the show's top producers were inundated with protests.

“People were really angry,” said Carlton Cuse, who with Damon Lindelof, was a main creative voice on the show.

"They proceeded to blast the heck out of Damon and me for this woefully misguided decision. We thought people would be shocked, but we were unprepared for that level of anger.”

Mr. Cuse noted the unexpected extinguishing of characters is a growing — and mostly welcome — trend. “If you watch 'CSI Miami' and someone puts a gun to David Caruso's head, you know he's not going to be shot,” he said.

In recent years, especially on cable dramas, writers are more willing to blow up such conventions. “Now I think people are reaching further narratively, and maybe those shots of adrenaline are not as unusual as they were in the past,” Mr. Cuse said, pointing out that “The Walking Dead” on AMC kills off familiar characters almost routinely. “These moments are really good for television, because as a storyteller you want to attack and break up those conventions the audience has in their minds.”

The producer Terence Winter knew his character Jimmy Darmody (played by Michael Pitt) was a hit with fans of HBO's “Boardwalk Empire,” but he decided, for the credibility of the story, he had to be gunned down. “People freaked out,” Mr. Winter said. “They said: 'I'm never watching this show again. I feel betrayed.' It's a little disconcerting to have thousands of people say they're never going to watch your show again because you killed my favorite character.”

Fans ultimately stayed loyal to both “Lost” and “Boardwalk.” As Mr. Winter said, “Every once in a while it's good to jolt the audience, keep them off balance.”

Like the time David E. Kelley, then running the NBC drama “L.A. Law,” had the show's hugely popular villainess, Rosalind Shays, accidentally step into an empty elevator shaft. “That was one of the greatest moments in television ever for me,” Mr. Cuse said.

That scene played more comically than tragically, as did another famous exit, when Susan, the fiancée of George Costanza on NBC's “Seinfeld,” licked wedding invitation envelopes tainted with toxic stickum and succumbed (off camera).

That decision had more to do with the show's main actors having trouble playing off Heidi Swedberg, who played Susan. As reported in Warren Littlefield's book about his days running NBC programming, “Top of the Rock,” Jerry Seinfeld described having problems in a scene with Ms. Swedberg, which led the co-star Julia Louis-Dreyfus to declare, “I just want to kill her.” With that the show's co-creator Larry David was inspired.

But television death is usually more traumatic, especially if it comes when violence is not a part of a character's usual life. The admen in “Mad Men” live a “self-destructive lifestyle,” said Matthew Weiner, the show's creator. But death is not a regular part of the story line. So last season, which built to the suicide — by hanging — of Lane Pryce, played by Jared Harris, challenged Mr. Weiner.

“Your stomach churns a little bit,” he said. “For me dealing with one of the best actors I have ever worked with and whom people have seen struggle, I wanted to make sure I didn't waste that, that I fully exploited it. Because I was committing to this. I'm going to lose this guy. The audience is going to lose this guy. It's very easy. It's the stroke of a pen. I better get some story out of it.”

Angry reactions to characters killed with a stroke of the pen have a history much longer than television. Consider what Charles Dickens, who delivered his novel “The Old Curiosity Shop” chapter by chapter to his fans, went through when he decided to kill off his heroine, Little Nell.

Daniel O'Connell, an Irishman who was then a member of Parliament, is said to have read of Nell's death and cried out, “He should not have killed her,” before throwing his copy out the window of a train.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Dan Stevens: Why I left Downton Abbey:

THESE HAVE BEEN dark days for the Crawleys and their household staff at “Downton Abbey.”

(And for heaven's sake, don't read any further if you didn't see last Sunday's series finale and you don't want the events of Season 3 of this PBS “Masterpiece” series spoiled for you. This goes double if you're Maggie Smith, in which case you should really go back and start with Season 1.)

After the popular period drama returned this year with the arrival of Cora's mother, Martha Levinson (played by Shirley MacLaine) and her outspoken ways, the family lost Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), who died after giving birth, and confronted deep prejudices when they learned Thomas (Rob James-Collier) was gay.

Then, in the closing moments of Sunday's season finale, broadcast in Britain at Christmastime, after Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) celebrated the birth of their first child, Matthew was killed in a car accident.

These developments are all the handiwork of Julian Fellowes, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter who created and writes “Downton Abbey.” But some were twists that he chose for his characters, and others were made necessary by circumstances beyond his control. In these edited excerpts, Mr. Fellowes spoke by phone recently from his home in London about a season of comings and goings at Downton, and how he is thinking about his own exit from the show.

Was it your decision to dispense with Sybil and Matthew in the same season?

No. You see, in America, it's quite standard for an actor to sign, at the beginning of a series, for five or seven years. The maximum any British agent will allow you to have over an actor is three years. And Jessica and Dan wanted to go. The show had been very, very successful, tremendously so, and they were being offered great opportunities. Don't think I'm saying it critically – I don't blame them at all. I can remember when I was a young actor, and I just had this feeling it was time to go to London. I was doing repertory theater in the country, and I resigned halfway through the season. Of course, all my friends and my parents thought I was completely mad. I went up to London and I got a job in a West End show with Hayley Mills. I reminded myself of that when Jessica and Dan said they wanted to go. I thought, “Well, you can't be that snippy because on a scaled-down version, that's exactly what you did.”

Did you try to persuade these actors to stay on?

We wanted them to stay and said, “Would you just do two or three episodes? And then you're living in America or in Dublin.” But they both felt they wanted to make a clean break. When an actor playing a servant wants to leave, there isn't really a problem – [that character gets] another job. With members of the family, once they're not prepared to come back for any episodes at all, then it means death. Because how believable would it be that Matthew never wanted to see the baby, never wanted to see his wife? And was never seen again at the estate that he was the heir to? So we didn't have any option, really. I was as sorry as everyone else.

Once you'd made your peace with their departures, how did you decide to handle them narratively?

With Jessica, it seemed right to give her a whole episode that was about her death. With Dan, I had hoped that we would have one episode of this fourth season that I'm writing now, so we could have ended the Christmas episode on a happy note – the baby, everything lovely. And then kill him in the first episode of the next series. But he didn't want to do that. I didn't want his death to dominate the Christmas special, so that's why we killed him at the very, very end. In a way I think it works quite well because we begin Series 4 six months later. We don't have to do funerals and all that stuff. That's all in the past by then.

Another story line from this season dealt with the household learning that the servant Thomas is gay. Had you decided that about him from the time you created the character?

He was always going to be gay. I don't know about in America, but here, there are so many people under 40 who were hardly aware of the fact that it was actually illegal until the 1960s. Perfectly normal men and women were risking prison by making a pass at someone. Their whole life was lived in fear, and ruin and humiliation and career after career would be smacked down. I think it's useful to remind people that many things that they take for granted, are, in terms of our history, comparatively new. But I also felt it was believable that someone living under that pressure would be quite snippy and ungenerous and untrusting. But once you understood what he was up against, you'd forgive quite a lot of that. I like to write characters where you change your mind, without them becoming different people.

The reactions from the others in the house, particularly those who disapprove so vehemently, make you see them in a new light, too.

Well, I think it's a mistake to give people modern attitudes if you want them to remain sympathetic, because I think the audience picks up on that. If Carson had said, “Oh, yes, I think it's absolutely fine,” that's a 2013 response. My parents didn't have any prejudice about this at all, actually. In fact, my brother's godfather was gay, quite publicly, which in the 50s was pretty wild. This was a good friend of my father's. He was liberal. It didn't bother him if people were homosexual. But we can forget how we were ringed in with these prejudices until really quite recently.

This season, in particular, it felt like American viewers were much more aware that “Downton” was showing first in Britain, and were having plot details spoiled months in advance. You may not be able to control this, but would you like the series be shown simultaneously in both regions?

Well, I would love them to be simultaneous. And my own feeling is that the thinking behind different screenings belongs to a different era. The Internet has shrunk the world. We're the two English-speaking countries that enjoy each other's entertainment, it seems to me, as much as any linked countries in the world. I would vastly prefer that we all saw it together. The world is much more global. And so I look forward to the day when it changes, as I'm sure it will.

You're also writing a new period drama for NBC called “The Gilded Age.”

I'm not yet. I'm going to, when “Downton” finishes. But there are many hurdles that have to be cleared. You have to write the pilot, they have to decide they're going to make it, they have to decide whether they want to pick it up. So it's a line of ditches that lies between me and the series. But if it goes, and if I'm doing a series at NBC, I would not be able to write all of “Downton” and all of that series at the same time. I would hope that by the time all the hurdles have been cleared, the timing makes it so I can then concentrate on the new series. And if “Downton” goes on – of course that's not my decision – then it would be with other writers. Perhaps with me supervising, but with other writers.

Could you imagine a scenario where “Downton” continues without you?

I think it would be funny. But in life, you no sooner say “Oh, I'd never do such and such” than you find yourself strapped into a chair, doing it. There's no point, really, in making pronouncements of absolutes. The only thing is, I know I would not be able to write 11 hours of “Downton” and 10 hours of “The Gilded Age,” or whatever it is, side by side.

Wouldn't you prefer to end the series on your own terms?

I'd prefer to do everything on my terms. The business of life is learning that you can't lay down the terms. My own belief is that these things have a life. And one of the tricks is to recognize when it's time to come to an end. But we haven't made a decision when that will be. Some things go on for 20 years, don't they, but I just don't see “Downton” being one of them.

Can you say yet what the themes of this new season will be?

I'm not giving anything away by saying that one of the main themes is the rebuilding of Mary, that Mary has to rebuild her life in a society which is changing. We would see women's roles in the '20s as being very much behind women today. But it was a big advance on what it had been 30 years before. And that's all explored in the show.

Last modified: February 18. 2013 11:59AM
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