ALERT! – The following contains spoilers for Sunday (2/17/13) night’s Downton Abbey and The Walking Dead. Only read if you’re all caught up, or just don’t give a hoot.
One death shocked and awed, while a parallel death merely frustrated.
What was the difference between Matthew Crawley’s sudden death on Downton Abbey, and Prisoner Axel’s death on The Walking Dead?
I’m not sure what the crossover is like for audiences of both Downton Abbey and The Walking Dead (seems safe to assume that they just about lose it over Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies), but viewers who managed to navigate the conflicting timeslots of the shows were treated last night to final act “shocking” deaths.
Axel, the last remaining prisoner in The Walking Dead camp, took a truly surprising sniper’s bullet through the skull. At virtually the same time, Cousin Matthew, fresh off the birth of his son and the happiest moment of his life, was killed in an automobile crash.
The Walking Dead death sparked the most exciting ten minutes of the show (possibly of the entire third season), while the Downton Abbey death defiantly sucked the joy out of the season three conclusion, and may have altogether ruined the series.
So again: Why did one death invigorate where another infuriated?
The Nature of the Characters
In part, we can attribute the difference to a very simple understanding of the two characters involved.
In the case of The Walking Dead, we have a tangential player with no long-term investment. He’s just one of the prisoners Rick and the crew find in their new hideout. He’s so far out of the mix that I had to look up his name to even reference.
Downton Abbey presents the polar opposite. Cousin Matthew has been the central focus of the show since season one. While Downton thrives on a rotating cast of characters and examining the complexities and intricacies of their personalities in full, the overarching storylines of Downton regularly centered on Matthew Crawley.
So on a very basic level, it’s natural that the two deaths would register in very different ways. One is an expendable crewman and another is the dramatic season finale death of a main character.
But that’s not the full story.
The Somebody Has to Die Complex
Death of prominent characters has become a near-necessity for a show to be taken seriously.
In a lot of ways it seems like the boldest decision a tv show can make – allow you to develop an attachment to a character, over the course of many hours, and to then rip them away.
Think of the shows that get bandied about as the most critically acclaimed: The Wire, Lost, Breaking Bad, Mad Men.
Each show delivers in different ways, but the Reaper is never far behind.
The Nature of the Shows
For The Walking Dead, death as audience revelation is inevitable. Moreso than even the inherent violence of The Wire or Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead is about WALKING DEAD PEOPLE.
Death is everywhere in this show! It’s a zombie apocalypse! The question isn’t will anyone die, but who and when.
With Downton Abbey, death has been used with far more subtlety, and with good reason.
Before season three’s conclusion, the most memorable deaths were truly shocking.
For starters, think back to season one when Mary literally sex’d the Turkish beefcake to death. Here we are in the middle of this polite, antiquated, British extravagance and the scandal of an illicit after-hours hook up is coupled with a heart attack.
There has been a lot to love about the show, but that moment of the completely unexpected is what hooked me on season one.
And then, in the middle of this season, we of course had the tragic death of Sybil, immediately after she gave birth. It was a surprising death, and a deeply depressing episode because of our investment in this character and her house.
What makes Matthew’s death any different from Sybil’s?
Part of the problem is the proximity of one event to the other. Sybil’s ghost has cast a pall over the entire second half of this season. To add Matthew’s death after another birth feels recycled, forced, and lazy. We get it; a life comes into the world as another is taken.
Did the message really need a second delivery?
What makes The Walking Dead scene with Axel so compelling is that it propels the plot forward, came out of nowhere within the context of the episode, and came just as Axel was becoming a likeable, funny character.
It’s a reminder that in the world The Walking Dead, laughter is sparse and must be savored. In a world with evil like the Governor, and oh yeah the Zombies everywhere, good men WILL die.
Downton Abbey has no such claims to such a dismal world! Yes, it can show that on occasion life is very hard and tragedy strikes, but otherwise these people mostly enjoy catered meals in a castle.
The Established and Violated Fictional World
At the end of the day, my biggest problem with the killing of Matthew is the fact that it violates the tenets of the world of Downton Abbey.
The use of shocking deaths as a method of achieving and maintaining critical acclaim works with the aforementioned shows, largely because the deaths seem plausible. They aren’t afterthoughts, and they’re either the sudden disastrous result of established circumstances, or they’re the long-in-the-plotting end of storylines.
Matthew’s death was none of those things. It was a contrived and recycled way to dispose of an actor who decided to leave the show.
While it was disappointing to see Downton Abbey end this way, I’m very excited about the future of The Walking Dead. The showrunners are taking chances and avoiding the complacency that plagued much of season two. Plus, they’ve done a pretty amazing job of toning down Robert Kirkman’s comic Governor while keeping his evil core.
Maybe Axel can take charge as the romantic interest of Lady Mary in Downton season four. Otherwise, I’m not sure I’ll be watching.