The most frustrating feeling when watching a show really manifests itself when the characters you love are utterly incorrigible. As a firm follower of the Matthew and Mary camp, I felt completely alienated by the former who throughout this episode of Downton Abbey seemed completely void of any emotion other than self-pity.
Because of Matthew’s wartime injuries, he is no longer able to bear children and thus if he remains the heir to the title of Lord Grantham, he won’t be able to populate Downton Abbey with little Crawleys. This startles everyone in the house, making them all run around like mad while hurting others in the pursuit for their own largest goal.
Cora tries to spoil Mary’s chances with Matthew by throwing Lavinia back into the mix, effectively hurting both of them. The former because she would happily give up her engagement to Sir Richard Carlisle to be with Matthew again, the latter because she is now in the position of choosing whether or not to remain engaged to a paraplegic. Edith is her usual terrible and annoying self in the midst of trying to ruin Matthew’s chances at retaining the estate when the relative and previous heir to Downton that had supposedly died, Patrick Crawley, returns.
And this was where Matthew became completely and utterly terrible.
In a fit of personal dejectedness he rambles on and on about how the estate would be better run by a man who he describes as being more suited for the role now than Matthew. “Well, he seems a nice enough chap. He's not very pretty of course, but he can walk around the estate on his own two legs and sire a string of sons to continue the line. All in all I'd say that's a great improvement on the current situation,” said Matthew with a slightly mocking tone of indignation. But what he was mocking wasn’t entirely clear. Was he laughing at the situation as a whole – that the heir at returned and all of his efforts had been for naught? Was he scoffing at the return of this man, thinking he deserved to run the estate, but knowing he couldn’t? Either way, in that moment I despised Matthew for being such a defeatist.
Mary, in contrast, guides the episode with her devotion to disproving the theory of Patrick’s return. While Edith complains that no one cares for Patrick, whom we later find out is merely an imposter, Mary spends all her time trying to save Matthew. Her dedication to saving Matthew’s place as heir really sets her apart from the self-absorbed version of her from episodes and series past.
Though I truly adore Matthew for always having the feelings and thoughts of others in mind, in this episode of Downton Abbey his motivations seemed primarily powered by his own feelings of inadequacy and therefore were significantly more selfish than in the past. He pushes away those who love him, specifically Mary and Lavinia, and though he says that it is because he wants the best for them, as an audience member it is hard not to wonder the truth behind his words.
Matthew is human just like anyone else and it is undeniable that he should want companionship, especially if he were to disinherit Downton. So the idea that he would choose to alienate those who are prepared to offer him that companionship is a terrible reflection on his character.
As wonderful as Downton Abbey is, its power is primarily defined by the strength and conviction of its characters. Even when we hate them for always undermining others in the pursuit of their own pleasure, we appreciate them for being reliably resolute. Matthew’s performance in this episode, while it made sense in context as he returned from the Somme with injuries and a lost comrade, reached a level of self-pity that it became almost aggravating. We can only hope that in the future he will come to his senses and accept aid without being irreparably despondent.