The Downton Abbey Rumor Mill: Whither, Dan Stevens?

It’s been kind of a rough couple weeks for British television lovers everywhere. First Merlin gets cancelled, then Sherlock Series 3 filming gets pushed back and now there’s a very unsettling rumor going around (again) about everyone’s favorite costume drama Downton Abbey.

Americans everywhere are eagerly awaiting the premiere of Series 3 in the States in just about a month and the news that Series 4 has already been commissioned by ITV has been greeted with widespread excitement worldwide. Therefore, it’s extra hard to contemplate this particular rumor, which is a bit on the upsetting side. Take this with a gigantic grain of salt considering the source, but the Sunday Express has reported that Downton leading man Dan Stevens will not be returning for Series 4. (Warning: there are major Series 3 spoilers in that Express article, so tread carefully if you want to read more over there.)

The charismatic actor, who plays Matthew Crawley, is extremely popular with fans and one-half of the show’s central romantic relationship, opposite Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary. The Express quotes a source as saying, "Dan Stevens isn’t returning to the series. He will probably do the first episode of the fourth series, but that will be it."

Um. What?

Well, first of all fellow Downton obsessives, let’s take a deep breath. There’s every reason to hope that this story isn’t actually something that will come to pass. I’ve gone on at some length before about the fact that the Express is not the most trustworthy of sources given their extreme reliance on citing seemingly random and unnamed “production sources,” so there’s every possibility that this story isn’t true. (Yes, this rumor has basically run everywhere, in every kind of entertainment publication over the past week. But those stories all track back to the Express as the initial source.) ITV has yet to issue any sort of statement or confirm or deny this report. All we have to go on are these “unnamed sources” who could realistically be anyone at all.

But…what if it is true? Can Downton Abbey survive without one of its biggest leading men? And, more importantly, would people still tune in?  There are a lot of possibilities/issues to address on this topic, so bear with me and let’s hash it out.

It would be unpleasant – and certainly not what any fans would ever consider ideal – but Downton could definitely continue without Stevens’ presence, though it might look like a bit of a different show.

The Big Picture: Downton Abbey is More than One Character. While Matthew and Mary are the series’ central romantic pairing and have provided some of its most memorable moments – the proposal in the snow last Christmas was particularly iconic – there is more to Downton Abbey than this particular couple. (Fond of them though most of us are.) Mary is interesting enough on her own to survive in a show without Matthew, and there are plenty of other beloved characters on the canvas who could benefit from receiving some expanded screen time. On some level, it would be nice to see some of the secondary characters (Edith, Anna as a person separate from Bates, Branson) become more fully realized, it would be nice to spend a little more time on other romantic relationships, it would be nice to have a few more storylines directly incorporate life on the estate (such as the flower competition in Series 1).

This is not to say that Stevens’ presence would not be sorely missed on the Downton canvas. (Of course he would be.) But there is still be plenty of storyline to go around within our existing character set, and it’s very likely new faces would also pop up in Yorkshire to help fill the gap as well.

The Fallout: What of Lady Mary? Though the rumors about Stevens’ departure have been recurring for months – particularly since he announced he was coming to America for a few months to star in the Broadway revival of The Heiress – there are very few similar rumblings about the status of his co-star Dockery. At the moment she seems content to stay on at Downton and work on additional projects (such as the Restless mini-series) when the costume drama isn't filming. Further, Dockery also re-signed a multi-season contract earlier this year. Obviously, Lady Mary’s not going anywhere. But, her story has become so tightly tied to Matthew’s that one has to wonder what might happen to her character if he were to suddenly no longer be around. The idea of exploring an independent Lady Mary is interesting, but, then again, the couple of Matthew and Mary has always been greater (and more likeable) than the sum of their parts, and the thought of Mary without the humanizing influence of their relationship is….fairly offputting.  And, as the show’s signature leading lady, it’s also very likely that Mary would eventually have to have some sort of post-Matthew romantic relationship and it’s difficult to predict how audiences might respond to that.

The Logistics: How Would Matthew Exit? Would Downtown creator Julian Fellowes leave the door open for Matthew to return should Stevens really decide to depart? Or would he go for the maximum tearjerking/heartbreaking impact on his audience and kill Matthew off? I’m torn about this – while it would certainly be preferable to have Matthew be sent off to deal with “urgent business in America” or something similar, keeping the character alive does create some other storytelling problems, most notably how Mary’s not going with him would be explained and how her character would fare with such a major piece of her storyline (her romance) exiled off-screen. But Matthew dying is a horrible twist to contemplate, even if it is possibly “easier” from a storytelling perspective, in that it frees Downton’s story and characters to move forward. (I can’t imagine watching Dockery, Hugh Bonneville or Penelope Wilton play those scenes though. I would need to buy stock in Kleenex.)

Crazy Question: Would You Watch a Recast Matthew? Downton creator Julian Fellowes has apparently already gone on record as saying that he wouldn’t recast the character of Matthew should Stevens decide to exit the show at some point. Truly, such an option probably ought to be a last resort in the best of cases – no matter how much we all love Matthew Crawley, there’s no guarantee that a replacement actor would have the same viewer appeal or the same type of romantic chemistry with Dockery that Stevens possesses. It is, however, an option that probably has to stay on the table given the fact that Matthew is central to so many plots within the series – not just his relationship with Mary, but his status as the Robert and Cora’s heir (which is, ostensibly, the linchpin of Downton Abbey entirely). Losing Matthew would mean untangling a lot of very complicated plot threads, some of which have been building since the first episode. It’s possible that might also be less traumatic than losing the character entirely, because we’re all so emotionally invested in him.

How about you all? Would you still watch Downton Abbey if Dan Stevens were no longer a part of it? Do you think the show would still be compelling if the character of Matthew were no longer there? And how would you prefer to see them write the character out? (If this horrid rumor is true, of course, which, I will just reiterate, we have no proof of yet. But, you know, something for discussion.) Leave your thoughts in the comments.