The third season of Downton Abbey, the popular British TV series, came to a shocking end last weekend on PBS stations all over America. Over the past three years millions of Americans have tuned into this fictional account of an aristocratic English family and their staff of servants.
I must confess that my wife and I have not been among the devotees. We watched the first episode three years ago and tuned out when we figured that it would just be the same old class warfare stuff so often seen on Masterpiece Theater. So we missed the whole saga until two weeks ago when we watched the next to last episode at the urging of our visiting daughter, a big fan. She admits that it is a high-class soap opera but likes the characters and has really gotten into their unfolding stories. In addition, the show is beautifully presented and photographed with outdoor scenery matched by the indoor furnishings of the Abbey as well as the costumes of the characters. Moreover, it is well written and beautifully spoken, something rare in TV today.
We watched and enjoyed the episode and got caught up in the story or stories of the characters both upstairs and downstairs. We looked forward to the final episode and planned to watch even though our daughter had gone back to California. I even added the first season to my Netflix queue. The episode was interesting enough as some of the intertwining story lines appeared to be resolved. Most of the melodrama centered on the family heir whose beautiful wife was finally going to give birth to the next heir.
They played it for all it was worth including the final anxious rush to the hospital. But all went well. To everyone’s joy she produced a baby boy and moments later was sitting up in bed beautiful as ever with the baby in her arms waiting for her husband Matthew to return from a family visit to Scotland. He rushes in beaming and we are presented with a kind of Holy Family tableau. Was it possible that the show could have such a happy ending? No.
For some reason Matthew had to leave his wife and baby and drive back to the Abbey. So we see him speeding back in a little convertible along a single lane country road with an ecstatic grin on his face. Next thing, a lorry (truck) comes over a rise in the road and smash! The camera pans to the shattered convertible and there lies this very attractive and sympathetic central character of the whole show dead as a doornail with blood streaming from his head.
It was a shocking end to the show and a real downer. My wife and I looked at each other in disbelief. Apparently, many shared our reaction. Stories on the web indicate a real outcry about the ending. Some suggested that in true soap opera fashion the character would miraculously rise from the dead having only been injured in the accident. Others believed that it was just business. A contract dispute meant that the main character would not appear in Season 4. The director of the show offered some lame excuse for his incredible lack of artistic judgment. British audiences, he said, are used to shocking endings.
It is hard to imagine how any creative artist would take the trouble to build up and create such a sympathetic leading character and then kill him off by mere accident at the end of a book, play, or film. Even a tragic dark Russian author would not have considered such an ending. It’s like Leonardo painting the Mona Lisa and then putting a mustache on the woman. It's not just an injection of realism. How many men are killed by accident on the day of s child's birth? If they wanted some grim realism, they could have ended with a newspaper headline announcing the election of Hitler as Chancellor of Germany.
The legendary film director Frank Capra made some of the greatest films in history. He was an Italian immigrant whose family settled in California right before the First World War. By accident he got into the film business in Hollywood just as it was taking off. In his autobiography he describe how he learned the craft of filmmaking from the ground up. At the peak of his career he was the most famed director in Hollywood during what all regard as its Golden Age. He was the first director to get his name above the title of the film-- recognition that the film was his creation.
Despite his fame and status, Capra never forgot his audience. Even his biggest hits were previewed in local theaters before they would be released. He and his associates would sit in the back and observe the reaction of the audience. If they laughed in the wrong spot, or failed to laugh when expected, Capra knew that he had done something wrong and the scenes were redone. Speaking of emotions no one could make an audience cry like Frank Capra. Some critics call his films Capracorn but few have been able to move an audience as he did. But he knew his audiences and though he might enlarge their understanding, he would never offend them.
A good example is “Meet John Doe” one of his greatest films. He had a wonderful story with a great cast that included Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. In the story set in the Great Depression, Cooper plays a washed up minor league baseball player who is built up into a national hero by a voracious newspaper and scheming politicians. He is turned into John Doe, an ordinary guy who plans to jump to his death from the city’s tallest building on Christmas Eve in order to protest all the world’s injustice.
Capra created a great cast of characters but he had real difficulty coming up with an ending. At least four different endings were shot and even though Capra was never completely satisfied, he trusted not his own intuition but the opinion of his preview audiences to produce one of the most powerful and emotional endings in film history. Here it is in stark black and white. ###