Writing Nowadays–Sloppiness at Downton Abbey

BLOGGER’S NOTE: Although I maintain that once a TV show has aired, it’s no longer necessary to issue spoiler alerts, I shall nonetheless warn you that I’m going to talk about the plot of Downton Abbey here.  Because I’m just that nice.

BLOGGER’S SECOND NOTE: Speaking of spoilers, this is a re-release of the blog I posted and pulled two weeks ago when, due to the fact that I get my Downton Abbey fix straight from England, I unwittingly released spoilers about episodes that hadn’t been released in America yet. I grovel before the spoiler court.

I regret to say I saw Matthew’s death coming.  The show telegraphed, telephoned, texted, emailed, and paraded about London with a bullhorn to tell us.  I hoped I was wrong, but I was dead on.  How did I know?  Because the show made much (overmuch) of how wonderful Matthew’s life was. He had just figured out how to rescue Downton Abbey’s finances.  His wife adored him, and we had several unnecessary, sappy, smoochy scenes to prove it.  The birth of his son had gone without complication, the baby was healthy, and the line of succession was nicely set.  The show shouted that his life was absolutely perfect.

Whenever TV shows make a huge, overdone point of how happy a character is, it means the show is going to kill the character off, usually in some meaningless or stupid death.  Star Trek did it to Tasha Yar.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer did it to Tara.  And now Downton Abbey has done it to Matthew.

I don’t have a problem with character deaths.  I do have a problem when the reasoning behind it is lazy writing.  And it’s even more upsetting when it happens in a place where the writing is otherwise so strong!

In a recent interview, Julian Fellowes, the writer/producer of Downton Abbey, defended his move to kill off Matthew, claiming “nothing is harder to dramatise than happiness. When two people are happy, that’s it.  That’s why in the old movies, they don’t kiss and marry in the middle–they kiss and marry at the end, because in a way that’s it.”

Utter crap!  This is TV writing at its worst, the idea that you can’t portray a happy couple, and that relationships are dull unless they’re chockablock with conflict.  But writers get sloppy or lazy and don’t want to bother figuring out what to do once the will-they/won’t-they romance plot has ended.

Look, I wrote three books about a long-term couple–four books, if you count the one in which the characters get together–and I would happily have written more if my publisher had wanted them.  (Obligatory plug: the Silent Empire series is available from Book View Cafe. Details below.)  Elizabeth Peters did an hugely successful series of books about Amelia Peabody and her husband Emerson.  The TV show Dharma and Greg successfully explored the relationship of a happily married couple over several seasons–three couples, if you count their parents.  Only foolish or sloppy writers whine there’s nothing left once couple murmurs, “I do.”

Weddings are a beginning, not an end.  As a writer, you can explore how the relationship changes after marriage, how children change the relationship, the way external problems like money, work, or travel have an impact on the relationship, how the relationship needs to avoid becoming stale, and more, more, more.  The idea that anything interesting in a relationship ends at the wedding is absolutely ridiculous.

Yes, it’s also true that Dan Stevens, the actor who played Matthew, wanted to leave the show. However, this problem could have been dealt with in other ways.  He could be talked about but not seen–Downton Abbey is a big place.  They could have sent him to London for long stretches.  Hell, they could have even hired someone else to play the role.  It’s not like England has a shortage of pretty-boy blonds.  Killing him off and then defending the move by claiming you can’t write about happiness is sloppy and foolish.  I hope you expect better from your own writing!

–Steven Harper Piziks
Visit my regular blog at http://spiziks.livejoural.com

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Writing Nowadays–Sloppiness at Downton Abbey — 11 Comments

  1. Yeah, it’s lazy to say you killed off a character because you couldn’t find any conflicts and then blame that on the fact that he had a happy marriage. He was a good guy, maybe? Doesn’t mean there were no conflicts in his life. I take this to mean there weren’t any conflicts big enough for this writing team. Or this show’s audience.

    People will watch anything if it’s in some way intriguing. But intriguing is not always easy to write.

  2. Uh-oh. I thought you meant spoilers for the US showing on PBS which has not yet shown that episode. Second time that’s happened to me–a friend posted about Sybil’s death on FB. Guess I need to stop reading the internet until I’ve seen all of season 3.

  3. Indeed. Season 3 is in progress in the US now. Won’t get to the “Christmas” episode for some time to come. In fact I don’t think Mary is pregnant yet in our universe. Or else she is and doesn’t know it.

  4. If this is a concern, Steven, you might go into the Admin area and simply change the pub date of this post. One week would do you; the finale in the US airs on Feb. 17.

  5. Okay, let’s roll! Here’s a writerish question. Given the parameters of the problem (actor moving on to greener pastures, substituting other actor not possible), what could the creators have done that is better that what actually did appear?
    The war being over, you could hardly have Matthew drafted and sent for five years to Afghanistan. It would be dimly possible I suppose for him to be sexually repulsed by his wife’s pregnant figure (lots of Madonna/whore Freudian stuff inserted here) and to zoom off with a social-climbing flapper to New York, but eventually the show would have to deal with this — he’d still be heir to the estate, after all. The SF writer in me says that little green men could beam him up to the mother ship for anal probing, but I admit this would bust the SFX budget. Elsewhere on the webs Darrell Schweitzer has suggested Something Eldritch in the manor Basement, which could devour him, but again this is not very consonant with the theme.
    So. What would YOU have done?

  6. Me, I would have turned him into Sir Not Appearing in This Scene. He would have been referred to but never in frame. Hell, it could be a great running gag. He would always have just left for London, or lying down for a nap or off with the baby or heading off for a hike. It’s not like there aren’t other characters on the show to talk about.

  7. And Matthew’s vital plot function now must be reassigned. As Foxessa rightly points out, he’s fulfilled his Young King function and engendered an heir, so OK he doesn’t need a sex life any more. Intimate war injury, here’s your cue! But he still is essential every time the estate falls into the financial hole, to inherit a mysterious and gigantic sum of money to rescue them. Now he’s gone, who’s going to do that?