Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew (Dan Stevens) in the Season 3 finale of Downton Abbey.
Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew (Dan Stevens) in the Season 3 finale of Downton Abbey.

By Pete McQuaid

pmcquaid@lowellsun.com

Nobody on Downton Abbey is allowed to be happy.

Nobody.

It's a classic exercise in soap opera drama to not allow characters any type of overriding satisfaction, in order to maintain a sense of narrative propulsion. They can have little victories, but only ones that are either, on the whole, insignificant, or ones that will lead to a bigger problem in the future. For example, Edith can get a job as a newspaper columnist -- but only if the editor is a dreamy lovebag whom she can't marry because his wife is in an asylum.

Look at how many other threads of eternal sadness happened in the final episode:

-- The increasingly lovable Mrs. Patmore received some romantic advances of her own, realizing later that her suitor was a serial charmer only interested in her business and her cooking.

-- Dr. Clarkson, after experiencing a sudden longing to marry Isobel Crawley, never ends up proposing to her because she's so far gone from marriage that the thought of another husband doesn't even cross her mind.

-- Thomas will never get what he really wants -- another roll in the mud with Jimmy, a.k.a., the Young Mentalist -- so he has to settle for a tenuous, probably very awkward friendship.

-- Tom Branson has to go through life at Downton without his wife and without any more possible flings with the hot new maids.

-- Shrimpy will never be happy, because his nickname is Shrimpy.

-- And the most shocking/miserable of them all: Just when Mary and Matthew finally seemed happy after the birth of their son, Matthew swerved off the way-too-narrow 1920s street and ended up with his Great Gatsby roadster on top of his chest.

The mark of any good character is a clear vision of something he or she wants, but the writers of Downton sometimes make it easy on themselves by making these motivations too obvious. When that happens, you end up being able to predict the beats of each episode and narrative thread -- and when the writers finally decide to satisfy a character's desires, they end up having nothing interesting to write for them anymore.

Take Mr. Bates. For the better part of two seasons, Bates has been the worst offender of this phenomenon with his slog of a quest to eventually marry Anna. After many annoying and boring roadblocks, the two of them are together and now they're relegated to being that annoying happy couple that nobody wants to see.

With Matthew's death, it's hard to picture Downton succeeding much longer without some infusion of originality. They can't keep making these characters miserable -- because they're starting to make us miserable at the same time.

Follow Pete McQuaid on Twitter @sweetestpete.