So ended a terribly sad season on Sunday night – and now to look forward to season 4

By Tom Gliatto
Updated February 17, 2013 10:00 PM
Credit: Carnival Film & Television/PBS

Downton Abbey‘s third season finale on PBS’s Masterpiece was, to say the least, a spoiler’s paradise. The episode, which saw the Granthams and servants going on holiday in the Scottish Highlands, started on a joyful note – Lady Mary was pregnant! – and ended with a shock that would have knocked the hat off Lady Violet’s wobbling head.

SPOILER ALERT: Major plot points to be revealed immediately.

Cousin Matthew (Dan Stevens) died in a car accident. He was driving back to Downton, so happy he was practically whistling, just after Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) had given birth to their son – the male Downton heir everyone has been so obsessed with since Season 1.

Many viewers probably saw this coming: For one thing, Stevens had said he was thinking of decamping before season 4 started shooting. And after the finale had its premiere broadcast in Britain in December, he blabbed all about it, including for an interview posted online by The New York Times.

Even so, the death was almost sadistically abrupt and arbitrary, especially after the soft tenderness and growing love between Mary and Matthew in recent episodes. Now we saw dead poor Matthew dumped on the cold mossy ground, eyes wide open.

You can never be sure Downton writer-creator Julian Fellowes won’t pull some shameless stunt to kick-start a story – in season 2 Matthew, paralyzed during the war, suddenly leaped out of his wheelchair – but he seemed to want us to be sure that Matthew was 100% gone. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the car backed over the corpse.

So ended a terribly sad season of Downton.

We already suffered the loss in childbirth of Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). Her deathbed scene was unflinching and deeply moving as she gasped for breath and called for help. Her poor mother (Elizabeth McGovern) sobbed in despair, and the doctors couldn’t agree on what to do.

Millions of viewers cried, too, and sighed for a long time afterward. Those who didn’t are probably evil.

That scene was the heart of the season: Sybil was so beautiful and kind and gracious and spirited, and so different from her fractious sisters. It was if one were to discover a rare, transcendent soul among the Kardashians. Her death robbed the show of a lovely presence, and also brought out the best moments yet from McGovern and Maggie Smith, as Lady Violet.

It never ceases to annoy me, to be honest, that Lady Violet’s feeble witticisms are treated as if they were Oscar Wilde one-liners on loan, like Harry Winston jewels. If you want real witticisms, try any contemporary American sitcom, including FX’s Archer.

But this season, as Violet grieved, we saw how much depth Smith can invest in a single moment. At one point in the finale, she looked up as dinner was announced, and in her enormous eyes you saw a woman who wished she could just chuck the whole damn thing and dwell on her memories.

I wish I could say I will miss Matthew, but all in all an unattached Lady Mary is better than a married one. She was never sexier than in the first season, when she sneaked off to bed with velvety, sensual Mr. Pamuk, who unfortunately kicked the bucket while they made love.

Mary is a wonderful creation – the show’s most original, complex character – capable of bouncing from romance to sorrow to sarcasm. You could say her love for Matthew transformed her, but it also had the potential to dull her.

Matthew was blandly handsome and good and patient and full of improving notions, but not terribly exciting. He was like a Bachelor from a much earlier period.

There isn’t much else to say about the finale. Fellowes worked through a number of plots with his usual tangy glibness. The performances were all delightful, tart, full of emotion, humor and regret.

For now, we can look forward to Lady Mary at her most beautiful, because most woeful, in season 4.