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Forgiving the Downton Abbey Finale

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SPOILER ALERT: This blog post discusses the ending of Season 3 of Downton Abbey. Not to say it's an ending you'll enjoy watching.

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My Facebook newsfeed usually suffers from split personality syndrome. Every possible side that can be taken on sports teams, elections, social issues, etc, can and will pop up after any significant event and bombard me with opinions. This past Sunday night, however, there was only one prevailing type of post—WTF Downton Abbey?!?!?!?!

I admit I should have seen the uproar coming. I actually watched the season finale, which aired on PBS this past Sunday, weeks ago, and I have been dutifully keeping the secret of its ending ever since. If Lady Sybil’s unexpected death in episode 5 had reduced people to tears—I will be bold and admit to being one of them—how could I possibly expect a less passionate reaction to Matthew’s death in the last seconds of Season 3?

And passionate it was. It wasn’t tinged with the shock and sadness that followed Sybil’s death, but betrayal and anger instead. A particularly distraught watcher wished for writer Julian Fellowes to become the next heir of Downton, because apparently all the heirs of Downton died, and maybe this would save him from ruining the show. Another pondered whether Fellowes hated babies, and was offering this season up as a cautionary tale, because whenever a baby was born, one of its parents died. I know. I have very blunt friends.

And the thing is, I get it, I really do. Good TV manipulates you into caring deeply for its characters because it needs you to keep tuning in week after week. Mary and Matthew’s budding relationship and Sybil’s choice of bucking tradition have been story backbones from day one; it’s hard to imagine the show without them. But let’s first start placing the blame, if there indeed is any blame to place, where it belongs.

Julian Fellowes is not out to get you. I promise. Being the shallow creatures that we are, it is much easier to direct our outrage at a bald, middle-aged man than it is to concede that our blonde-haired, blue-eyed dream of a Dan Stevens might have let us down, but fact is fact. The truth is that Dan Stevens wanted out, and Julian Fellowes tried to give him an exit that stayed true to the relationship between Mary and Matthew. They had finally committed to each other and trying to convince viewers that anything other than death would keep them apart would have been insulting.

And before you regress to high-school-esque judgment of a fallen idol, go easy on Dan Stevens too. Downton Abbey was a surprise success—no one thought it would continue as long as it has. He has a unique opportunity to go out there and make a name for himself that is not Matthew Crawley, and that is very hard to pass up. Similarly, Jessica Brown Findlay (Sybil) also decided against continuing her contract, and is currently filming the movie adaptation of Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale in New York. So you can’t really blame Lord Grantham or Julian Fellowes for her death any longer either. (Even if Lord Grantham was insufferable in that episode.)

Downton fans probably have a year to wait until Season 4 reaches our side of the pond. I for one will be anxiously awaiting it. As shocking as they were, the deaths of Sybil and Matthew allow room for the characters of Mary and Branson to grow and develop in new ways. Neither one of them showed their best sides after getting their way in the past, so perhaps this is a good opportunity for them to move beyond what we expected of them.

And maybe, just maybe, it is also a good opportunity for fans to let Downton Abbey grow beyond what we expected of it. After we get over our righteous anger, of course.

Photograph via dinoboy on Flickr.

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Monica Weigel

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Monica Weigel is education coordinator at Park Avenue Armory in New York and author of "

The Women of Downton Abbey

" published in 



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