Downton Abbey fans were cheered Sunday night by the American premier of the “upstairs/downstairs” drama’s fourth season on PBS. That’s true, at least, for those who haven’t cheated by watching the previously-aired British version.
One of the challenges for script-writer Julian Fellowes has been finding ways to explain the departure of actors who, despite the popularity of the show, decided to seek their fortunes elsewhere once their three-year initial contracts were up.
The first was Jessica Brown Findlay, who played Lady Sybil and decided she’d learned all she could from the Downton experience. Findlay has gone on to star in an American movie (Lullaby, not yet released) and a German-South African mini-series called Labyrinth. Knowing of her imminent departure, Fellowes had her die in childbirth from a rare condition called preeclampsia.
Explaining the upcoming absence of Dan Stevens, the actor behind the charming Matthew Crawley, was more difficult. Though often caught between romance and principle, Matthew relieved faithful viewers when he finally married Lady Mary after an up-and-down courtship, managing to tease some softness from her prickly personality. When Stevens chose not to re-up for Season 4, Fellowes had little choice but to kill off the vibrant young aristocrat, but not until the final scene of Season 3, when he crashed his AC convertible to avoid a delivery truck on a one-lane road. Crawley, who wanted to explore other roles, has gone on to act on-stage in The Heiress in New York, and to make several movies.
Season 4 opened with the departure of Siobhan Finneran, who played the snippy senior lady’s maid Miss O’Brien. Whether colluding with footman-turned underbutler Thomas or conspiring against him (and anyone else who got in her way), O’Brien was dependably self-focused. Finneran said she had fun playing the role, but opted out after three seasons because “When I stop loving something, I stop doing it.” Rather than script another demise, Fellowes set up O’Brien’s departure with a family visit to the Scottish highlands, where she became a favorite of unhappy cousin Susan Fincher, who recruited O’Brien to accompany her and husband Shrimpy to a government post in India.
I’ve never been a fan of soap operas and don’t watch any other TV dramas, so it remains a surprise to me that I enjoy Downton Abbey. Perhaps it’s because Fellowes finds ways to redeem even the nastiest of characters while showing that the more upright folk have their lapses, too. Perhaps it’s because even the sternest of characters are shown to have hearts and show unexpected compassion.
And, perhaps, because every unexpected departure reminds me to cherish the people of my own world, with all their positives and their peccadilloes. One never knows when life may take them in a different direction.