Yep, if you’ve been able to tear yourself away from the Quality Street and sherry and managed to go on the internet at any point since Christmas Day, you’re probably aware that Downton’s insipid male heir is most likely a gonner.
But first things first. In traditional Downton style, we’ve moved on a year since our last visit. Remember errant flapper Rose who was briefly introduced to us in the last episode of Series Three? Well, the family are off to spend Christmas at her family seat, Duneagle Castle – a Scottish mansion in the middle of a whopping estate. They go on the train, which presumably takes about fifteen hours, taking select servants with them – Bates, Anna, and O’Brien.
Poor old Branson, being new to the family and also once a filthy commoner, isn’t invited and is left to roam the formal rooms of Downton alone. It’s almost as though there’s a new maid, Edna, at the house for him to have romantic inclinations towards.
But the big news is, Mary is finally pregnant! Quite heavily it turns out, to the extent that Matthew is worried about whether she should be going to Scotland at all. She does, although quite why anyone is going up there expecting festive cheer is baffling, as they are greeted by Rose’s father, ‘Shrimpy’ (from the days when it seems aristocrats could be called names which might otherwise be associated with a childrens’ pirate character) and her mother, Susan.
They all hate each other. Susan can barely muster a civil word to Rose, and her relationship with her husband is so passive-aggressive they barely speak to each other any more – if they were in a student houseshare they would probably communicate via a series of laminated notes placed in prominent places in the kitchen.
Despite this, everyone seems very pleased to be there, and conveniently, Edith’s editor Michael, who fancies her but is married to a madwoman, is holidaying nearby! What are the chances?!
So of course he ends up joining them for dinner, and being invited by Matthew to go ‘stalking’ with him the following day, even though it sounds like Michael’s been doing quite enough stalking already. The stalking itself is a bit like something from the Apprentice, but with deer hunting. The men divide into two groups, and the winning group gets a crap ‘treat’ – in this case a luncheon with the ladies.
Matthew, being on the losing team, takes the opportunity to tell Michael to back off because whilst he’s a nice bloke, he can’t have Edith bringing scandal on the family by getting together with him, and that he should use the forthcoming country ball as an opportunity to say goodbye. So that’s the end of that, then. Well, at least unless Edith has anything to do with it. She should really stop introducing unsuitable older men to her extended family.
Naturally, being Downton – there are quite a few subplots, although the relief here is that there don’t appear to be any beginnings of Bates-in-prison style meandering things that go on until everyone has stopped caring what happens, as most of them are neatly wrapped up in the same two-hour long episode.
Highlights include the servants’ trip to the fair, where Mrs Patmore has a fleeting love interest, until we find out that he flirts with everything in sight and is just after a wife who cooks for him. Also, Thomas is beaten up in a brutal assault, and this is a catalyst for Jimmy to feel sorry for him and come to his room to bury the hatchet, although not as passionately as Thomas would presumably have liked.
If Jimmy is in the closet, he’s showing no signs of leaving it at the moment.
Any romantic liaisons between new maid Edna and Branson are scuppered when Mrs Hughes finds out about their plans to go on a pub date, and Edna is swiftly given the sack. But as it seems likely that Rose is going to be living at Downton in the next series to escape her miserable family life, there may be a potential love interest for Branson there – not that I’m suggesting Downton is predictable or anything.
The stay at Duneagle culminates in a traditional Scottish ceilidh. Now, throughout her stay with the Earl and Countess of Bickering, Lady Mary has been banging on about how she loves to dance a reel, oh if only she wasn’t pregnant then she would be dancing all night, did she mention she really loves to dance, and so on. What could possibly be about to happen here?
Lo and behold, against everyone’s advice, she is dancing around like a whirling dervish. And then, in a development which surprises absolutely nobody, she feels tired out the following day and has to go back home early, only for her labour pains to kick in just as she is leaving the train – well, either that or one of the on-board sandwiches is repeating itself. A telegram is dispatched to Matthew and the rest of the family, who follow her the next day.
It wasn’t the done thing in those days for the father to be present at the birth, so there are sadly no labour scenes of Mary looking red faced, sweaty and knackered whilst screaming for morphine and demanding Matthew has a vasectomy Instead, he arrives to find her looking serene and demure in a bright, private room holding their son (naturally – they needed another male heir, especially with his father about to pop his clogs) in her arms.
This is the first and last time we are to see them together as a family. On his way back home, Matthew is driving with all the nonchalance of a new father travelling on a sleepy country road in the early twenties – admiring the simple pleasures of life as he looks to the scenery around him, completely not expecting the possibility of a goods van coming the other way. Juxtaposed with a happy scene from Downton in which Robert expounds on the family’s reversal of fortunes now that it has two generations of male heirs, Matthew meets the van head to head, and he winds up underneath his car in a ditch, with a not inconsiderable amount of blood pouring from his ear.
To me, it’s not completely clear whether Matthew is dead or not, but there was a hastily-issued press release from ITV the following day explaining that Dan Stevens had not renewed his contract, and that they had no option but to kill the character off, so I guess we can assume he is.
I don’t think even Downton is implausible enough to pull the wool from under us and resurrect him using a different actor in the new series. A well kept secret it may have been, but it’s hard not to get the impression that he was quitting before the show that made him a household name jumped the shark completely.
A fourth series of Downton has been commissioned: it had better pull out all of the stops before it becomes a car crash itself.