- By John Stark
Most unknown actors in America would kill to get cast on a hit TV series, especially one as prestigious as PBS’ Downton Abbey. (Season four debuts on Sunday, January 5, at 9 p.m.; check local listings.) And yet in England, this doesn’t seem to be the case at all. Once performers achieve steady work and international fame on the opulent period drama, it seems they can’t wait to say “Cheerio!” and exit stage left.
Their explanations, when they provide them, are vague — usually something about wanting to find new challenges or not get typecast. In America, the real reason would be a clear-cut dispute over money. Maybe British thespians simply prefer being artists to being stars, for which I can only applaud them. That’s why I’m writing for a website dedicated to improving the life of boomers and not penning best-selling novels.
Downton Abbey fans — me at the top of the list — are still reeling over the deaths of Lady Sybil (the Crowleys' youngest daughter, who died in childbirth, played by Jessica Brown Findlay) and, even more so, the demise of the show’s romantic lead and central character, cousin Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens). He was Lady Mary’s husband and the love of her life.
Although there were plenty of rumors that Stevens was planning to leave the show, it still came as a shock when his character was killed in a car crash in the waning moments of the Season Three finalé.
At the rate cast members are dying off, Downton Abbey might have to include a post-show recap of who didn’t survive the latest episode, like The Walking Dead. And it’s not just Lady Sybil and Matthew who are pushing up daisies.
Remembering the Ones Who Didn't Make It
Don’t forget Lavinia, Matthew’s kind-hearted fiancée, who succumbed to Spanish influenza; William, the second footman, who was engaged to Daisy the kitchen maid and perished in World War I or Vera, the blackmailing first wife of Bates, the valet.
World War I purged a fair number of other cast members besides William, notably Mrs. Patmore's nephew and Major Bryant. If you recall, Bryant fathered the bastard child of Ethel, the scheming housemaid. Then there was the blind soldier that Thomas-the-evil-underbutler loved and cared for. He committed suicide while convalescing.
Oh, and let's not leave out Kemal Pamuk, the Turkish diplomat who died in Lady Mary’s bed.
Of course, the whole series began with the death of Patrick Crawley, the heir to Downton Abbey, who went down with the Titanic.
Unlike in the theater, when TV cast members leave a production, they take their characters with them. Another actor can't step into the role. You can’t, for instance, have Lord Grantham announcing over dinner, “I’ve just been told that Lady So-and-So won't be renewing her contract next season, so ta-ta to her and do pass the pudding.”
Death is the easiest way out. So when an actor is ready to move on, his character needs to conveniently croak.
Personally, I find these deaths starting to detract from the show’s concept. They’re turning this sly, brilliantly realized portrait of the fall of the British aristocracy into a broadly played, American-style soap opera. Think As the Abbey Turns.
(MORE: Downton Abbey Is in My Blood)
Leaving Their Royal Pasts Behind
“I wanted a chance to do other things,” Stevens told the Telegraph, an online British newspaper. And so he did, though none of those things so far has elevated him to superstar status. He has edited an online literary journal, served as a judge for the Mann Booker Prize and appeared on Broadway in a revival of Henry James’ The Heiress.
His departure from Downton Abbey has prompted a melodramatic development in the Season Four opener. It involves a lost letter that Matthew wrote to Lady Mary shortly before he died, which is discovered tucked into the pages of a book. To get away with that kind of plot twist, you’d have to be Charles Dickens.
Findlay’s earlier departure changed the show’s dynamics, and not for the better. Lady Sybil was the most interesting of Lord Crawley’s three daughters, having boldly defied her privileged world to marry the family chauffeur — a Catholic from Ireland, no less.
Now instead of Lady Sybil having to deal with the realities of life in a Dublin tenement, her husband, Tom Branson, has to adjust to life among the swells. Rather than being a bomb-tossing separatist, he's now property manager of Downton, where everyone’s come to love and accept him. He even takes tea in the salon. Group hug!
Talk About a Soap Opera
For me, however, the show’s biggest loss was O’Brien, Lady Cora’s revengeful, scheming maid — the one who deliberately caused her mistress to slip on a bar of soap in the bathroom, thus miscarrying.
But unlike Matthew or Lady Sybil, O’Brien didn’t die. She just disappeared at the end of last season with no explanation. Siobhan Finneran, who played O’Brien, told The Daily Mail, “I had great fun doing it, but I just didn’t want to do it anymore. When I stop loving something, I stop doing it.”
Maybe what she stopped loving was playing a frump; she wasn't willing to sacrifice that much for her art. Photographs of Finneran show her to be a voluptuous beauty, looking nothing like O’Brien, who’s a dead ringer for Ruth Buzzi’s Gladys Ormphby on Laugh-In.
Just what Finneran is up to now hasn’t been announced. But in the Season Four opener, the Crawleys are informed that her character, O’Brien, has run off to India for a job opportunity. It’s my guess she’s been outsourced by Comcast to handle customer complaints. In fact, I think I spoke to her this morning.
Who Else Is Dying to Leave?
The Internet buzz is that viewers can anticipate two more major deaths this season. Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Lady Cora, says she’s tired of wearing corsets and would rather concentrate on her pop-country band, Sadie & the Hotheads, with whom she sings lead vocals and plays acoustic guitar.
If another major character does have to die, I say good riddance to Lady Cora. Her whole role consists of little more than getting in and out of bed.
The Vegas odds for who’s headed to the graveyard next point to Lady Violet, played to campy perfection by Dame Maggie Smith. The actress, who’s pushing 80, has said she’d like more time to devote to theater. Even though Lady Vi is the show’s biggest treasure, her demise would make perfect sense. She’s the oldest cast member, next to the castle. Oh wait, there's also Shirley MacLaine, who plays Lady Cora’s American mother.
Last week, I previewed Sunday night’s season opener. Spoiler alert: I know who dies. If you'd rather be surprised then read no further.
It’s the entire cast, including Isis and Pharaoh, Lord Grantham’s faithful Labradors.
They’re all found dead by Scotland Yard.
The culprit? O’Brien, who is caught sneaking around the castle’s hallways, placing bars of soap in strategic places.