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
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