Both Seasons 1 and 2 ended on a tragic note - Season 1 with the outbreak of World War I. True, Season 2 ended with Matthew and Mary finally getting engaged, but Season 2's next-to-last episode had ended with Mr. Bates' arrest for murder. So it was to be expected that Season 3 would also end in further tragedy. Having already killed off Laby Sybil earleir in the season, the show faced the challenge of coming up with something comparably devastating at the end - or, better yet, a coexistence of joy and sadness comparable to the way Season 2 ended.
So I watched the final episode wondering what terrible tragedy was in store and looking for hints as to what it would be. With all the build-up to Lady Mary's pregnancy in the next-to-last episode (and given the importance of her pregancy for the succession), my first suspicion was that something might go wrong there. It would have been too much, I think, to have a second Crawley girl die in childbirth, but a miscarriage, for example, seemed distinctly possible - especially in light of all the anxiety being expressed about her trip to Scotland. But Mary successfully gave birth to a son - and heir to the earldom - in a sense the happy ending we've all been waiting for since the succession first became so problematic in the very first episode of Season 1.
The finale teased us with all sorts of unresolved problems. The Scottish holiday portrayed yet another aristocratic estate (and marriage) in trouble. By highlighting Matthew's great contribution to saving Downton - and Robert's belated recogniton of how much he owed to Matthew - was the show throwing us a hint? And what about Matthew's memorable line to Lady Edith's already married suitor that, despite appearances, they were not living in a Walter Scott novel?
As usual there was enough other tension to be resolved to distract us. There was Mrs. Patmore's unsuitable suitor. (Other than Matthew himself, it seems every single suitor in the story has been somewhat unsitable!) There was the village doctor's almost proposal to Isobel. But both those tensions were resolved happily. There was the new maid's attempt to seduce Tom Ranson and the inevitable wonder whether he was getting over Sybil and what that would mean. But Sybil (and Mrs. Hughes) won that round. There was the hint that maybe O'Brien would desert the family for a chance to go to India, but no such luck! The smoldering tension between Jimmy and Thomas might well have led to one killing the other, but instead the one-time coward showed some heroism and the pretty boy came up short - resulting finally in a final, feel-good reconciliation of sorts. All in all, thngs seemd to be moving to resolution. Peace seemed on the horizon for both family and staff, and, with the safe birth of an heir, even joy seemed possible. The Dowager's observation that we don't always get what we deserve sounded like a thanksgiving, but it contained a hint of foreboding.
In the end, it was obvious what had to happen. Mary and Matthew had overcome so many obstacles and now had it all - the estate and an heir. They were deeply in love and truly happy. It is a theme right out of Greek tragedy. There is only so much happiness allowable to mortals, lest the gods get jealous. The hint came when it was casually mentioned that Matthew would drive his own car to and from the hospital. Throughout the series, Matthew has represented middle-class modernity. (Richard would certainly have been chauffered and would never have driven himself). Perhaps it was only fitting that the great symbol (and curse) of 20th-century modernity, the automobile, should be the catalyst for this final insult to the family's hopes and happiness. When I heard that Matthew was going to drive himself, something told me that this was it. Still, I hoped - hoped that, at least on this occasion, life would make an exception to its default position of tragedy and sadness and allow some happiness and hope. But then, when the camera focused on him in his car heading back to Downton and highlighted the the look of joy and happiness on his face, it was clear where we were going.
As usual, the dowager coutness was right. We often get better than we deserve. But we also - and maybe more often - get less.