In the middle of series three of Downton Abbey I was one of many shocked by the sudden death of Lady Sybil following childbirth. I'll admit I was in floods of tears, then and the following twice I watched the episode. But, following the Christmas special that saw Matthew Crawley crash his car and die on the road, I was left a bit...cold actually. Luckily, I can easily ascertain why.
Sybil's death was sudden, yes, but it was as foreshadowed during the episode as Matthew's was. We saw her loving conversations with Tom, Mary and Cora; we knew the pompous doctor was going to lead to a dead end - possibly quite literally. But this foreshadowing didn't ruin the surprise because there was always a chance she'd pull through. After all, they'd be pretty stupid or brave to kill off such a popular character so swiftly. Whereas, with Matthew, the rumours about Dan Stevens's departure had been circulating for months. It was so damn obvious that he was going to bow out - if not in the Christmas special then in the early part of series four - that the emotion was sapped from the moment. It became all about the actor while Sybil's death was all about the character. I don't seriously believe that the cast and crew couldn't have kept silent if they'd really been induced.
Perhaps the most important aspect of any character death is emotional resonance. During Sybil's actual death scene I was invested, yes, but I didn't cry. What actually set off the tears were the reactions of the staff. Once Thomas started blubbing I did too. The difficulty with Matthew's death is that we had the 'event' but no emotional resonance afterwards. Okay, we saw Mary with her baby conflicting with the harsh images of her husband lying dead but there was no moment of revelation. There may be in the opening scenes of series four and, if there is, that will make it better but the actual death will have lost much of its emotional resonance by then. I can't help feeling that the audience has been let down a bit. There is, of course, the credible chance I'm in a minority on this one.