Telegraphing the Reaper: (In)convenient Deaths in Downton Abbey, Seasons 1-3

Because I'm in love with this show and can't leave well enough alone.

Apologies for the hiatus! Many things have been occurring in the real world, and will continue to occur, but I will make a concerted effort to actually make good on my promise to provide content on a regular basis. There will, in fact, be Greta-related content, I swear. For now, have some words about a show everyone else in the world has already seen, and the way in which its writers use character death for fun and profit.


Spoilers beware, obviously.

In these three seasons, a total of six characters died, all of them in ways that made it possible for the drama of the plot to continue. It is of course perfectly acceptable to use character death as a key plot point, but this series seems to rely more heavily on it than most. To take them in chronological order:

Hot Foreigner, Kemal Pamuk of Turkey, who sets off one of the major underlying threads that drive the rest of the plot when he randomly dies in Lady Mary’s bed post-deflowering, which could either be taken as a profound testament to her abilities or the absolute worst Inconsiderate Dude move in ever. Without Pamuk’s death and the subsequent coverup, in which Mary, her maid Anna, and her mother Lady Cora have to drag him back to his own room so that he can be found dead there in the morning, we wouldn’t have the complex web of blackmail material that shapes many of the cast’s decisions and actions over the rest of the series’ initial arc. This death, while somewhat pat -- I’d have preferred it if we had any idea he had a heart condition and therefore was being doubly irresponsible sneaking into Mary’s room for deflowerments -- is totally necessary. Fine. Enough of Mr. Pamuk.

William Mason, adorable footman

War is hell and he is adorable and accompanying a major character through the trenches, which means by the rules of narrative causality that he is going to get dead sooner or later. When he and Matthew Crawley get blown up by a German shell and invalided back to Downton -- now a convalescent home for wounded officers -- Matthew is merely paralyzed from the waist down but William sustained what, severe blast injury to his lungs from the shock wave and still somehow survived the journey back to England? -- only to die prettily in bed, having just married Daisy the kitchenmaid. 

This one is important for two reasons: one, it sets up the theme of characters refusing to do a thing they clearly ought to do out of a misplaced but rock-hard sense of righteousness and honesty, and two, it connects Daisy and William’s father Mr. Mason, who will later on be of use to Daisy once she gets over the but I didn’t love him roadblock. Again, acceptable, and we knew from the start he was going to die.

Lavinia Swire

Here is where we get into the really obvious escape-hatch plot element aspect of these deaths. Lavinia is Matthew’s insipidly sweet fiancee, all huge eyes and red-gold hair in a style that reminds me suspiciously of Joan Holloway, and he is both definitely in love with her and also still very much in love with Lady Mary, whom it is obvious he should end up with. Lavinia and Mary have become friends. She is a nice person, who deserves nice things, and loves Matthew enormously, and therefore the writers have sort of painted themselves into a corner: if she were horrible underneath or hiding some deadly secret that would give Matthew a disgust of her, it would be easy to get rid of Lavinia to free Matthew for Mary. As it is, Spanish influenza falls and not quite everybody dies. 

We are made to believe it’s Cora who won’t make it (I applaud the acting and hair and makeup here enormously, excellent sweaty pallor and retching) but no, she begins to improve, and Lavinia -- with whom Matthew has had a but I adore you, you must get well conversation hours earlier, suddenly succumbs. This death not only frees up Matthew to get back together with Mary, but also puts into play the element of Lavinia’s father’s inheritance which may or may not go to Matthew and which will form the core of a major conflict later on. Lavinia has to die: therefore Lavinia dies in a way that neatly fits into the rest of the plot.

Vera Bates

Mr. Bates’s Evil Wife, who refuses to give him a divorce so he can marry Anna for -- reasons of her own? It’s never made quite clear what her deal is, other than that she hates her husband and wants to fuck up his life as hard as she can no matter what he does to try to satisfy her. Vera keeps popping up every time we think Bates can finally relax and enjoy being in love with someone who isn’t evil, so when she dies after eating an arsenic-laced pie (the pastry, not the filling, has arsenic in it) there is brief rejoicing! And then Bates, who bought the rat poison many months ago, is accused of her murder. Unwisely, he has not come forward with this information of his own accord. 

Vera’s death and the subsequent trial and incarceration of Mr. Bates (and Anna’s amateur detective work, which along with some hostile-witness intimidation eventually frees him) forms a large part of the arc of season 3. What I find somewhat less than satisfying about this death is the method of it. Framing your husband for your murder while committing suicide via arsenic-laced pie crust is theater-of-the-absurd. Presumably she put it in the sugar or flour and then made the pastry with it -- arsenic-contaminated sugar is period-appropriate, as is arsenic-contaminated salt and flour, or rather instances where arsenic was mistaken for other white powders. It just seems like rather a complicated and uncertain method, and also a really awful way to die. Of course she gets her way, at least to begin with: Vera Bates ruins her husband’s life from the grave. Just when everyone was thinking the worst was over with Bates and his situation, along comes this death to screw everything up. It’s a get-out-of-happy-ending plot device -- which is to some extent necessary in an episodic storytelling form, but in this show it seems more obvious than usual.

Lady Sybil

(I’m sorry, I cannot dissociate the name from Sybil Ramkin. It’s a me problem.) 

This is the one where I was yelling at the screen “IT’S TEXTBOOK PRE-ECLAMPSIA, YOU WALNUT, PROTEINURIA AND SUDDEN SWOLLEN ANKLES AND CONFUSION, LISTEN TO CLARKSON”. I will give the Downton Abbey people enormous props for how great the acting is on these death scenes, although by now they’ve had some practice. 

This is an interesting example of the Death in Childbirth trope which ups the dramatic toll taken on the other characters because they think she’s fine and the baby is fine and they have avoided the danger and suddenly they are very wrong indeed. 

It also serves to -- again -- prevent the happy situation of Sybil and Tom as a young couple in the bosom of their family, complete with bundle of joy to melt the hearts of frightful adversaries; they’ve fought so hard to get where they are, they’ve both given up a lot, they’re back together after a harrowing escape and have just had their healthy baby and everything might actually be okay and NOPE, here comes narrative causality again. I knew something was going to go horribly wrong as soon as she went into labor, probably in such a way as to maintain or increase the tension between them and Lord Grantham, and I was not surprised when they managed to use it to increase tension between Lord and Lady Grantham as well. 

And finally Matthew Crawley. This one is masterfully done, stretching out all the way back through season 2 when we first think he’s dead -- missing in action -- and he returns in a dramatic fashion to surprise everyone at a concert, to the time we think he’s dying of his wounds (but no! Only paralyzed, so he can spend several episodes going on about how no one could ever love a creature such as himself, woe, ableism). Because it would be awkward to have a main character spend the rest of the show in a wheelchair, although a clear illustration of the period’s complete lack of accommodations for the disabled and an opportunity for commentary, Matthew turns out not to have severed his spinal cord at all, just bruised it really really badly. This is a misdiagnosis on the part of Dr. Clarkson which leads Lord Grantham to disregard his (correct) diagnosis of Sybil’s condition later. He slowly but surely regains the ability to walk, and also the ability to get it up, which was one of his major sources of angst to begin with: he could never give Lavinia children, she must not marry him, etc. 

He is, in fact, all better by the time his wife, the very pregnant Lady Mary, has to leave a dire house party they are all attending at a Scottish castle featuring compulsory bagpiping at breakfast, and we leave him and the others behind to follow Mary directly to the hospital at Downton, where...she gives birth quietly and neatly and without any mess. Because she is Lady Mary. Matthew arrives to a Madonna and Child shot with Mary and infant haloed with light from the huge window behind her bed, and they have an incredibly touching scene where they profess their love for each other in ever-more-intense ways: they say things like I have never been this happy in my life, I did not know I could be this happy, and it is entirely we have passed through bitter waters to reach the sweet: without saying it in so many words they have reminded the viewer of all the things they have survived to make it this far. War, love, hate, misunderstanding, arguments, three whole seasons of a TV show, all leading up to this moment of perfect, utter grace.

So when we then cut to Matthew speeding along in his open-top roadster very quickly it is extremely obvious what is going to happen next. 

This one is the most obvious example yet of the get-out-of-happy-ending death. They need this one or there won’t be another season of the show: peace, the spell’s wound up. Something terrible has to happen to break the bubble of satisfaction and give everybody something more to do, and so of course it is Matthew who has just spent ten minutes glowing with perfect happiness who must be sacrificed to the hunger of narrative causality. 

I talk a lot about Stephen King’s can you, from Misery, one of the best books on writing ever written. What is happening here - what is happening in every episodic storytelling form -- is a series of Can You challenges which wrap up with Yes, I Did and have to start again with Okay, Given That, Can You? The deaths which form the escape-from-happiness are a kind of Can You series and they are necessary, but I will be interested to see how the show handles further character deaths as the various ongoing arcs intersect.

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