- The shocking death of Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey devastated viewers.
- The show’s creative team tried to find an alternative to killing off Matthew Crawley, but ultimately, it was the best choice for the character’s story arc.
- Dan Stevens, the actor who played Matthew, had his own reasons for wanting to leave the show and pursue different roles.
The unimaginable death of Matthew Crawley (played by Dan Stevens) was as devastating to viewers as it was to the fictional family he left behind in Downton Abbey. The shocking exit of one of Downton‘s popular characters seemed illogical to many viewers. The leading man, who had just become a new father, had so much potential left unexplored. Loyal viewers of the show had lots of reasons to get invested in the character. And just like the car accident that claimed the Downton heir, there was little anyone could do to change Matthew Crawley’s fate off-screen.
When the episode involving the death of Matthew Crawley first aired on Christmas Day in the United Kingdom, there was an outpouring from some horror-stricken viewers. Many claimed their happy holiday had been ruined by such a terrible tragedy, especially after the character had just welcomed his child with wife Lady Mary. Viewers in America were similarly stunned only a few weeks later on PBS. But it wasn’t just the audience who wished for a different outcome. Behind the scenes, the show’s creative team pulled out all the stops to try to find another way.
Updated October 9, 2023: It’s a testament to how well Dan Stevens played the role of Matthew Crawley that fans were upset at his loss. In truth, the moment made for incredible drama on the series, and it remains one of the few times in television or film that a male character dies to advance a female character’s pathos. Yet, the decision to kill off Matthew Crawley wasn’t just a creative choice made by the storytellers. Dan Stevens also played a role in decided his character’s fate, in part, because he didn’t want to play the role anymore.
Why Did Matthew Leave Downton Abbey?
Julian Fellowes, the co-creator and writer of Downton Abbey, acknowledged viewers’ disappointment over the death of Matthew Crawley, but defended the decision, telling The Express, “I didn’t have a choice.” Fellowes said he tried to convince Stevens that he could leave the show as a main character and pursue new opportunities, yet still be able to return at a later date for smaller appearances. But even this level of minimal commitment wasn’t the clean break Stevens was looking for. Perhaps Stevens wanted the character gone so he wasn’t tempted to return to an admittedly great show with a wonderful cast. If Matthew died, Stevens had to look elsewhere for roles to grow his career beyond this single, beloved character.
Executive producer Gareth Neame felt the harsh exit was the best choice for the character given the circumstances. “We were all agreed that the only way we could break Mary and Matthew apart was for one to die,” he told The Evening Standard. “There really was no alternative.” With only one episode in which to do the deed, there was no time for a drawn-out death, and a quick exit was exactly what Stevens wanted.
Stevens’ fame reached a new level thanks to his time on Downton Abbey. The actor was looking for new opportunities beyond the fictional Yorkshire estate and was feeling ready to leave. In an interview with The Telegraph, Stevens explained that status and money had little to do with his decision to exit the show. Instead, he was looking for the freedom to take on a range of different and interesting roles.
His three-year contract with the show was going to expire, so it needed to be renewed if he was going to remain in any capacity. But it seemed there was little anyone could do to make that happen. The actor was already thinking about new opportunities in the United States, where he went on to appear in wildly different projects like an episode of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities.
Downton Abbey and Dan Stevens Moved On Successfully
The man behind Matthew Crawley later explained to Collider that he was apprehensive getting stuck doing an endless run of historical “posh house dramas, and World War I dramas, and anything with floppy hair.” Remaining on Downton Abbey, in his mind, only seemed to perpetuate the typecasting he was trying to get away from. By heading to Hollywood, there was a better chance for greater career fulfillment with more diverse roles to choose from.
As a testament to both the actor and the series he left behind, both were able to achieve continued success without the other. Downton Abbey finished its award-winning run on TV and produced two feature films, with Downton Abbey: A New Era bringing stories full circle. It’s also possible the characters could return for a third film, if Fellowes is game to write it. Meanwhile, Stevens found success beyond Downton Abbey starring in FX’s Legion and establishing a movie career, with his name is in the mix to possibly be the next James Bond. His risky decision to leave the hit series has proved worth it.
Dan Stevens Wasn’t the Only One To Leave Downton
Matthew Crawley wasn’t the only character to make unceremonious exits from the beloved British drama. Also in Season 3, Jessica Brown Findlay decided to leave the show for similar reasons to Stevens. She was still in art school at the time of filming and the series’ success “freaked” her out, according to an appearance on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch back in 2019. She also wanted to branch out in her acting career, taking roles in Netflix’s Black Mirror series, a BBC drama called Life After Life and The Riot Club. Also in Season 3, Ed Speeler’s character Jimmy Kent was fired from the house. Since then, the actor appeared in Netflix’s You and as Jean-Luc Picard’s son in Star Trek: Picard Season 3.
It’s always sad for viewers when a beloved character is killed off in a series, and the death of Matthew Crawley in Dowton Abbey was one of the most shocking for its viewers. Sometimes, the loss of an actor or character can kill the magic in a show. It’s a testament to how great Downton Abbey was that the loss of Matthew Crawley, Sybil or any of the others who left the series didn’t derail the story.
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