Devotees of the phenomenally popular PBS series Downton Abbey -- and we are legion, spanning the globe -- are devastated with the death, in the final seconds of this season's finale, of Matthew Crawley, heir to Downton, new husband to Lady Mary, and even newer father to his son, the "little chap" he held in his arms the same hour he died in a head-on crash driving his roadster (see here, here, and here).
Matthew was the linchpin character bringing the Edwardian aristocracy, represented in the series by the house of Grantham, into the modern age. Thrust into the role of scion by accident of entail (Downton goes to male heirs, Lord and Lady Grantham bore three daughters), Matthew landed on his feet and did so without having his head turned. Unlike most aristos, he knew how to work, having worked as a lawyer before his anointment, and, once anointed, he continued to take his fellow human beings as they were, human, and not suddenly as members of an upper or lower class.
But more than that, this viewer was always glad to see Matthew in a scene, or come into it, because, invariably, if a matter of moral import were at issue, Matthew could be counted on to do the right thing, put it right. In a word, Matthew was a mensch.
Such moral heroes are rare in any age, but even more so in our modern age -- or are we post-modern? -- when the culture has done away both with heroes (the bad-boy anti-hero reigns now) as well as with the moral (to get a laugh, try making a moral point). Yet any age, again especially our own, needs moral figures to set things right, point the way upward. Matthew did that, and did so with grace, while bringing others along with him. He had a firm grip on his moral compass, but he worked it with a light touch.
While we wonder how Downton -- the estate and the series -- will get on without Matthew, let us count the ways this moral hero worked in just this season:
* When Branson, the former chauffeur and Irish firebrand who married one of the Grantham daughters, was slipped a mickey by a local toff, launching him on a drunken tirade at dinner against the English occupiers, Matthew rose to announce this apparent lout would be best man at his own forthcoming wedding, if "Tom" would agree. All kinds of barriers, social and political, crashed with that gesture.
* When his other sister-in-law, Edith, received an offer from a London newspaper to write an opinion column, Matthew defended her to her disapproving father, who's not sure about "women's rights," plus Edith's an "amateur." With Matthew publicly acknowledging her worth, Edith, the family punching bag who'd also just been jilted at the altar, begins to blossom.
* When Matthew was named heir to a former fiancee's fortune, he resolved to turn it down because he hadn't been truly in love with the woman, a decision his wife-to-be, Lady Mary, fights because that money could save Downton, which was about to be lost because of bad investments made by Lord Grantham. Matthew persisted -- "It wouldn't be right" -- leading to fierce quarrels, until a letter came to light from the dead fiancée (an outrageous dramatic device, even to devotees), stating she knew Matthew didn't love her but that she loved him all the more for agreeing to marry her anyway (in this, Matthew perhaps took moral fastidiousness too far). And what does this hero then do? Still morally uncomfortable with his new fortune, he gave it to his new father-in-law -- to save Downton -- which Lord Grantham accepted only if Matthew became co-owner.
And it can't be forgotten Matthew earlier volunteered to fight in World War I, serving as an officer but fighting in the trenches with his men, and getting grievously wounded.
All this uprightness might have made the teeth itch if not for Matthew's light touch. When he stood up to announce the former chauffeur and Irish firebrand was to be his best man, it was because, in that moment when English hauteur toward the lower classes and subject countries was most meanly displayed, Matthew recognized Tom was indeed the best man present. When he defended Lady Edith's journalistic ambitions to her father, he jollied Lord Grantham, appealing with a wink in his voice, "You support her too, really -- when you have a chance to think about it."
Matthew's equanimity was tested as Downton's new co-owner when, going over the books, he had to confront his partner, Lord Grantham, about his mismanagement of the lands and farms. Harsh words were exchanged; as the Dowager Countess, Lord Grantham's mother, predicted, "I can safely say many noses will be put out of joint." But now, with Matthew's death, one can also safely predict Lord Grantham will, with prayers of thanks, continue with his son-in-law's modern methods that had, at his death, secured the estate -- not the case with many other peers of the realm.
With Matthew's death, let's hope more respect will be accorded his mother, Isobel, who til now has been mocked by the ladies of Downton as a pushing do-gooder, with her hospital work during the war and her social work since then. Isobel wants to live a morally meaningful life. So did Matthew. The son acquired his moral compass from his mother. We'll see if that truth is recognized in the coming season.
Of course moral heroism is put over best when the actor taking up the challenge, in this case Dan Stevens, is a subtle and virile player (interviews here and here). I'd love to see Stevens in an even tougher test, for example playing the tragic whistle-blower Dr. Stockmann in Henrik Ibsen's play An Enemy of the People.
George Bernard Shaw defined a gentleman as "one who puts more into the world than he takes out." This also partly defines moral hero. Matthew Crawley combined the best of the Edwardian world, the gentleman, with the modern insistence on the worth of the individual. As such, in death he will live on not only in the hearts of those he left behind, but in their consciousness -- where moral heroes are blessed to find their final resting place and where they continue working their influence.
Carla Seaquist is author of a book of commentary, "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she is author of the recently-published volume, "Two Plays of Life and Death," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."