Downton Abbey: So, Where Do We Go From Here?

Series 3 of Downton Abbey wrapped up a week ago with what is arguably the biggest twist/cliffhanger/shock in the show’s history and fans everywhere are reeling (and not in the Anna-and-Rose-dancing-at-a-Scottish-ball adorable kind of way).

We’ve got months ahead of us to debate the wisdom of Series 3’s final minutes – but with Series 4 filming kicking off in England sometime in the next few weeks, many around the internet have already started speculating about what the next iteration of Downton will – and ought to – look like. Here’s my attempt to sort through some of my (apparently quite complicated) thoughts on the subject – I imagine some of you have also been mentally brewing over similar themes.

Obviously, there be spoilers here, so tread with caution if you haven’t seen the conclusion of Series 3 yet.

Losing Dan Stevens is, in many ways, a supreme gut punch for the world’s biggest costume drama. Matthew Crawley was the centerpiece of many of the show’s plots – as the heir to the titular estate, his existence was the driving force behind Series 1 of the show and despite the fact that this is, on paper, an ensemble drama, his extremely popular romance with Mary Crawley was the centerpiece around which the whole enterprise was built. The situation in which we now find ourselves is basically like Pride and Prejudice suddenly offing Mr. Darcy and expecting Lizzie Bennett to find someone else to verbally spar with at parties. It seems weird and wrong to imagine Downton with a Matthew-shaped hole in it. And yet, here we are.

There is certainly valid discussion to be had about Matthew’s death – would it have been better to recast the character or have him exist offscreen? If Matthew had to die, shouldn’t we have gotten to spend a bit more time reacting and adjusting and grieving and processing, rather than getting blindsided by the episode’s final minutes (particularly after the sugar sweet Crawley family scene that preceded Matthew’s accident)? These are all issues worthy of deconstruction in a basic “how does this episode work structurally” kind of way, but at the end of the day we’re still back right where we are now and looking toward a Downton future that seems murkier and less predictable than ever before. The real questions are what happens next for these characters? How does this story continue? And will viewers care about it still?

So, what next? Honestly, as much as I see a tremendous amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth online (and let’s be real, a little bit of it is/was my own), we all know we’ll all be back next season, even if it’s only to check out the first episode. (Let’s be real: we’re all addicted to this show. It’s okay.) But what will Series 4 of Downton Abbey look like? What should it look like? Behold my stream of conscious style thoughts on the subject. (Warning: More than normal amounts of rambling follow.)

The Matthew Effect. Early interviews with creator Julian Fellowes following the US airing of the finale indicate that one of my worst fears is probably going to come true – and that we’ll be time-jumping ahead from the closing moments of the Series 3 finale – to six months in the future, in fact. This makes me sad in so many ways, not for the least of which reason is that we, the viewers, are never going to get to properly say goodbye to and mourn for Matthew. I mean, I don’t want the whole of the next season to be Mary wearing black and crying all the time either, I’m not a masochist, but the thought of jumping back into things and not getting to really grieve a bit with these characters we’ve come to love, for another character we loved, seems to deny the audience a kind of catharsis and closure we probably all need. Particularly because this show handles time shifts so hamfistedly (see also: the Edith/Her Editor year-long relationship limbo from the other night, as well as Mary’s out of the blue pregnancy and Clarkson’s sudden crush on Isobel), we should pretty much just start preparing ourselves now that some of our most fervently desired emotional beats are going to get skipped over.  Here’s hoping that’s at least in some part wrong, because fans – and Matthew’s memory – deserve better. To be fair, skipping six months into the future isn’t as bad as it could be, yet it also seems a weird limbo zone at the same time. Six months is far enough out that we’ll miss the funeral and watching everyone’s ugly crying, but is it really far enough in the future that people will be able to find it believable if there’s another love interest for Mary introduced this year?

How About Mary on Her Own? Honestly, let’s hope they don’t try and force the Mary character into another romantic plot next season. Personally, I don’t know that I could take watching such a thing just yet – and it seems unlikely that most viewers would be particularly eager to watch Mary embark on another relationship just yet. For the entirely of the series, Mary has either been a woman looking/in need of a romantic attachment or a woman whose love of her life was apparent – if we must go forward into a world where Mary is without Matthew, why not take the time to really explore the woman she has become, independent of any need for or influence from the men in her life. She’s a widow, she’s well off and she’s the mother of Downton’s heir – perhaps having her focus on raising her son (who will be named Matthew, I expect) and keeping her husband’s vision for the estate’s modernization on track would give her something to do that’s about her as an individual, not as a former or future part of a love story. It would be quite a nice change, honestly.

Foreshadowing during the finale hints that we’ll likely be moving back toward a colder, crueler Mary as well, probably closer to her Series 1 origins than anything that one might recognize as “Matthew’s Mary.” Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it does give Michelle Dockery some great lines to work with – but that is a character decision that could become tiresome very quickly.

Anna and Bates Fans Should Probably Be Pleased and Scared. The loss of the Matthew and Mary relationship automatically puts Anna and Bates at the top of the Downton Love Story Sweepstakes. However, given what’s happened to the show’s other two big marquee couples, we should probably be worried if the Bates suddenly decide to start a family. (I’m kidding, I’m kidding…mostly.)  Honestly, after a season in which Bates spent the majority of it at the Incarceration Facility Where Joy Goes to Die and Anna was stuck wearing the same outfit week after week while she got her Nancy Drew on all over town, this couple certainly deserves some happiness and an actual storyline together. I loved Anna and Rose’s burgeoning friendship in Scotland and the scene in which Bates gave Rose a peppermint was super sweet, so here’s hoping they can maybe help the newest Downtonian settle in a bit. They deserve something to do story-wise that isn’t about one or both of them suffering in some way.  

The Edith Factor. Something I just realized yesterday – Matthew was the only person who knew that Edith’s Rochester-esque editor was married. He never told Mary, so the secret has died with him. What does this mean for Edith’s latest unsuitable romance? Will she become Gregson’s mistress? Will they get married anyway and just not tell anyone about the whole madwoman in the attic problem? It’s not like anyone else knows about it – without Matthew there to tell them otherwise, they all thought he was there to propose in Scotland anyway. Since I think we’d all like to see a storyline – any storyline – that doesn’t involve Edith in some degree of misery/unhappiness, it could be an interesting twist to give her the sort of story (Modern Woman Flouting Established Class Conventions) we all assumed was meant for Sybil. This situation is obviously much more dramatic and potentially scandalous than an earl’s daughter running off with the family chauffeur, but I wonder if – now that we don’t have Sybil anymore – Edith will be used to explore some of what we’d call “Sybil issues” regarding women’s rights and opportunities outside of finding a romantic partner. Of course, there’s also the possibility that Rose is bring brought onto the show to serve as a Sybil 2.0 sort of character and Edith will continue to languish in her particular brand of romantic misery forever, but here’s hoping the show can find equally interesting things to do with both of them.

This is particularly important because one of the few consensus opinions that seemed to take shape during Series 3 is the general swell of audience support for Edith. Given how much we all basically hated her in Series 1, this is a minor miracle, but here we are. Let’s hope the show can capitalize on this by giving her something to do besides suffer or get involved with unsuitable men. We’re all rooting for her now, so give us something to be positive about, please.

Expect Some More New Faces. Admittedly, Downton has not had the best track record as far as introducing new characters goes. If we think about the new faces we’ve seen over the past year or two (Ethel, Edna, Rose, Alfred, Jimmy, Ivy, Michael Gregson, etc.), are any of them as essential – or even as interesting – as core characters like Robert, Mrs. Hughes, Mary, Carson or Anna?  If we’re honest, it’s basically a toss up between Rose and Alfred for Best Downton Newbie and that’s after they basically had to overhaul Rose’s character from Petulant Fiesty Teen to Nicer Independent Minded Proto-Feminist in the course of two episodes. And Alfred tried to have Thomas thrown in jail and spent the whole season inexplicably crushing on Ivy of all people. The bar is pretty low.

However, given the loss of both Sybil and Matthew this season, Julian Fellows is going to have to bring in some new faces next year and get the audience to like them. And that might be kind of challenging. I mean, won’t we all automatically hate any young man who is obviously introduced as a love interest for Mary – at least a little bit? Or any young lady that might serve as a realistic partner for Tom (Edna obviously does not count)? They are going to have to do a better job of creating and writing characters that actually appeal to the Downton audience, instead of…whatever process it was that gave us Ethel for two years. To be fair, I warmed a bit to her over time, but that’s not to say I wouldn’t have rather used that screentime for Carson or Mrs. Hughes or even to flesh out the boring Jimmy/Ivy/Alfred situation, which might have been better if it had involved them doing anything other than standing in the kitchen together. I don’t know.  But when they inevitably cast the young lady who’ll be running the Downton nursery next year (or any new character, I just made that one up), let’s just remember that she they need to be a person – someone who has likes and dislikes and habits and weakness and everything – before they’re a plot point. They need to have some personality beyond a default setting of “crush on Tom” (Edna) or “moon over boys” (Ivy).

Will the Second Tier Get a Chance to Shine? The obvious solution to some of the problems Downton is going to face next year is simply to re-ground the series by returning its focus to characters we already know. What storyline did Daisy really get last season? If we’re going to keep Alfred, can we at least expand on his dreams of being the next Top Chef? Wouldn’t it be nice to see Tom develop a real relationship with Robert in the wake of Matthew’s death? Isn’t it about time that Carson and Mrs. Hughes realized that they are completely and totally made for each other? (This is the romance people probably want to see – much more than Mary trying to move on or anything like that.) Part of the reason it’s been such a struggle to accept characters like Ethel or First Version Rose is that they’re strangers taking away time from the characters we really care about – and who we feel we never see because these people we don’t even know are hogging up all the screentime. Perhaps a silver lining can be found in this situation if it means more time with the original recipe Downton gang.

What about you all – what do you think Downton Abbey will look like next year? What would keep you interested without Matthew?  Do you want to see a romance for Lady Mary? How about Tom? Lots to think (and chat!) about.

Lacy Baugher

Lacy's love of British TV is embarrassingly extensive, but primarily centers around evangelizing all things Doctor Who, and watching as many period dramas as possible.

Digital media type by day, she also has a fairly useless degree in British medieval literature, and dearly loves to talk about dream poetry, liminality, and the medieval religious vision. (Sadly, that opportunity presents itself very infrequently.) York apologist, Ninth Doctor enthusiast, and unabashed Ravenclaw. Say hi on Threads or Blue Sky at @LacyMB. 

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