The death of Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey shocked viewers. But why did Dan Stevens choose to depart the award-winning period drama?
The unimaginable death of Matthew Crawley was as devastating to viewers as it was to the fictional family of Downton Abbey he left behind. The shocking exit of one of the series’ most popular and integral characters seemed illogical and unfair to many viewers. The leading character, who had just become a brand new father, had so much story potential ahead of him to lead the series. Loyal viewers of the show had lots of reasons to get invested in the character. And just like the car accident that claimed the Downton heir, there also seemed little anyone could do to change the fate of Dan Stevens on the series.
When the episode involving the death of Matthew Crawley first aired on Christmas Day in the United Kingdom, there was an outpouring from some horror-stricken viewers. Many claimed their happy holiday had been ruined by such a terrible tragedy, especially after the character had just welcomed his child with Lady Mary. Viewers in America were similarly stunned only a few weeks later on PBS. But it wasn’t just the viewers who wished for a different outcome. Behind the scenes the show had been pulling out all the stops to try to find another way.
Julian Fellowes, the co-creator and writer of Downton Abbey, acknowledged viewers’ disappointment over the death of Matthew Crawley, but defended the decision, telling The Express, “I didn’t have a choice.” Fellowes said he tried to convince Stevens that he could leave the show as a main character and pursue new opportunities, but still be able to return at a later date for smaller appearances. But even this level of minimal commitment wasn’t the clean break Stevens was looking for.
Executive producer Gareth Neame felt the harsh exit was the best choice for the character given the circumstances. “We were all agreed that the only way we could break Mary and Matthew apart was for one to die,” he told The Evening Standard. “There really was no alternative.” With only one episode in which to do it, there was no time for a drawn-out death, which is exactly what Stevens wanted.
Stevens’ fame reached a new level thanks to his time on Downton Abbey. But the actor was looking for new opportunities beyond the fictional Yorkshire estate and was feeling ready to leave. In an interview with The Telegraph, Stevens explained that status and money had little to do with his decision to exit the show. Instead, he was looking for the freedom to take on a range of different and interesting roles.
His three-year contract with the show was going to expire, and it needed to be renewed if he was going to remain n any capacity. But it seemed there was little anyone could do to make that happen, because the actor was already thinking about new opportunities in the United States.
The man behind Matthew Crawley told Collider that he was apprehensive getting stuck doing an endless run of historical “posh house dramas, and World War One dramas, and anything with floppy hair.” Remaining on Downton Abbey, in his mind, only seemed to perpetuate the typecasting he was trying to get away from if he stayed in England. By heading to Hollywood he says there was a better chance for greater career fulfillment with more diverse roles to choose from.
As a testament to both the actor and the series he left behind, both were able to achieve continued success without the other. Downton Abbey, after its award winning run on TV, is now in production of its second feature film. While Stevens’ success in Hollywood has proved the choice to leave the hit series, while risky, may have been worth it.
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