It's been a long, difficult third season for "Downton Abbey," and it wasn't too much for any of us to hope that the show might cruise calmly into a happy ending with this, the seventh and last episode of the season. Of course, this would be the point in the recap where I tell the four of you who've been able to sidestep spoilers for this episode to watch first and then come back. I would hate to be the person to blow the twist in this one for you, simply because it must have taken great effort to block out the hints and full-blown revelations that have been everywhere short of the nutrition labels for Wheetabix. There might even be one there, if you read the fine print. 

Anyway, I will say this one last thing (SPOILER ALERT AD NAUSEUM), then continue onward with the sad, bad news of this season. I think some of you remember that I knew two awful spoilers before I began watching Season 3, and for that reason I've tried to give some of the writing the benefit of the doubt when it seemed thuddingly obvious. The first spoiler was about Sybil's death, and the second was this...

Matthew becomes a dad and dies almost immediately afterward

I'd love for anyone who managed to tune out the minor hints (Dan Stevens deciding to leave the show was a business item in some papers) as well as the major ones (the U.K. articles about the twist, as well as the not-very-nice comments about this sad turn of events) to weigh in this.  Was Matthew's sudden death in a car accident as much of a shock as it was clearly intended to be (and likely was for U.K. audiences)? For  me, I felt that all the cuddling and canoodling between Matthew and Mary for many episodes leading up to this one was, though boring in the moment, intended to make this shocker truly poignant. Only moments after holding his first born son, he plows into another vehicle on the way home from the hospital. My initial thought was, who the hell let Matthew drive himself home alone? Don't these people have drivers? Yes, he has his own sports car and is the independent sort, but I'm fairly sure someone should have suggested he wait for the family and go home with at least someone coherent enough to keep him from slamming into another vehicle.

I think this could have been a powerful twist had I not known about it for the simple reason that "Downton Abbey," which managed to keep death reserved for secondary characters through a World War and the most lethal influenza outbreak of that century, killed off two members of the Crawley family within just a few episodes. I realize that when an actor wants to leave the show, and he plays a character who isn't likely to want (or, in this time period, get) a divorce, there aren't a lot of choices beyond killing him off. Still, it's a little jarring that "Downton Abbey" seems to be getting a glut of bad luck in just one season -- Edith being dumped at the altar seems like small potatoes in light of how the season ultimately wraps up. 

What this all means for Mary I'm curious to see, as we've had plenty of set-up to suggest a return to the Mean Mary of the first season. As much as she wants to be the loving woman that Matthew sees, I'm fairly sure she's not going to let a lot of other people hold her naked in their arms so they can see "the real Mary," and Matthew's death is likely to bring out the old bitterness. Maybe motherhood will soften her up, but I suspect season four will be a rough one for the eldest Crawley daughter. 

Of course, many other things happen on this "Christmas" episode, though none of them measure up to the awful conclusion. 

Robert comes to appreciate Matthew albeit too late

The visit to Shrimpy and Susan's Scotland estate was probably as uncomfortable for us as it was for the Crawleys, who got to see what a loveless marriage really looks like at close range. I'm guessing we're going to see more of Rose, who is now committed to live at "Downton Abbey" while her parents are miserably toughing it out and loathing one another in India. I'm sure Rose's purpose on the show is to inject new, young blood into the storyline and possibly fire up Jimmy (just a guess, but it does seem two pretty, vapid people should gravitate toward one another), but I can't say I'm looking forward to her arrival. Rose seems to be as annoyingly self-absorbed as any teen on "Gossip Girl" or a bad '80s sitcom, and I'm not really sure I can stand to see her bounce around the house while almost everyone is mourning and shell-shocked.

The other purpose of Shrimpy and Susan, other than giving us the unpleasant Rose and a view to a bad marriage, is to make it absolutely clear to Robert that Downton was on a fast path to ruin if not for Matthew shaking things up. I grimaced at Robert's ploddingly on-the-nose statement to Cora about how Downton will survive because of Matthew's vision. He gives thanks for Matthew! And his home and his family! And he doesn't know what he's done to deserve all this wonderfulness! 

Thankfully, all of that palaver is a set-up for the Dowager Countess to say, in her wonderfully dry way, "But then, we don't always get our just desserts," delivered in voice over to Matthew's accident. Though the scenes leading up to this one were mostly leaden, and this cruel storyline verged on soap, the juxtaposition of Robert's musings and Matthew's unlucky fate was still unexpectedly moving. 

Mrs. Patmore finds and dumps a fella

We can guess Mr. Tufton is up to no good almost from the beginning, when he seems far more interested in Mrs. Patmore's cooking abilities than Mrs. Patmore herself. Mrs. Hughes catches on to his womanizing ways at the Thirsk fair and then takes on the unhappy job of breaking the news to Mrs. Patmore. Usually this is an opportunity for the woman about to enter into a mess of a marriage to shoot the messenger, but the good news is that Mrs. Patmore is no dumb cluck. Instead, she's relieved that she can show Mr. Tufton the door, as she was already bored of his non-stop drivel about  how he wanted his eggs. Problem solved, and big laughs all around.

I suspect this is a story that might have had a chance for more poignancy and weight in another season. Even though she's called Mrs. Patmore, that doesn't mean she was previously married -- the 20th century was a time of transition, as Mrs. had been used to denote a mature woman, not necessarily a married one, up until the previous century. Mrs. Patmore seems perfectly content to be the queen of her kitchen, but that moment when she debates what to wear to the fair could have been more loaded, or at least given us insight into who she is when she isn't slaving over a hot stove. 

O'Brien might get a chance to travel

It was good to see O'Brien find a new rival, and Wilkins may at first think she and O'Brien are on the same footing. No chance. When Wilkins complains about having to accompany Susan and Shrimpy to India, O'Brien can't understand her reluctance -- she'd love to travel, and that's certainly not in the cards as long as she's at Downton. Later, when Wilkins becomes jealous of O'Brien's abilities as a hair stylist and spikes her drink at the GIllies Ball, O'Brien quickly figure out Wilkin's obvious ploy, abandons the drink (which poor Molesley guzzles down) and announces she's glad to no longer have to be loyal to her former friend.

When we see O'Brien chatting with Susan, I can only assume O'Brien is offering her services. I'm not sure what this would mean for O'Brien's other key loyalty -- she's sworn to protect Cora ever since that unfortunate incident with the soap -- but I can't help but think Cora could get a perfectly nice lady's maid in O'Brien's absence. I would hate to see O'Brien leave for India simply because she's been so effective at churning up drama downstairs, but I could see where it's getting a little dull for her. After she manipulated Alfred, Thomas and Jimmy like pieces in a game of Candyland, I think she may just need a change of scenery to keep herself from going insane with boredom.

Thomas and Jimmy make nice

I'm not quite sure if Thomas' continued fascination with Jimmy is sort of sweet, sort of pathetic, sort of creepy or all of the above, but it was nice to see that the tension between the two of them has, after a year, finally been resolved. A drunken Jimmy, flush with the wins from a well-placed bet on a tug-of-war match, is jumped by thugs, and it's Thomas who sacrifices himself for his crush. Thomas gets mugged and beaten, but it's all worth it for him to finally have an honest conversation with the kid who almost had him sent to jail. Yes, he still has a crush on Jimmy. No, he doesn't believe anything will ever come of it. But he doesn't want anyone to ever hurt Jimmy, which even Jimmy can't resist. They decide to be friends, which suggests Jimmy may be growing up a bit and Thomas is, yes, revealing the soft, mushy center we all knew he had within him. 

Edith inches closer to scandal

It's been a year, so the idea that Edith and her boss Mr. Gregson haven't gotten it on yet suggests remarkable restraint -- and the fact that Edith isn't in a rush to flaunt the old school morals she's grown up resenting. Mary is her usual snarky self when Gregson invites himself to Duneagle and just happens to bring his tails along for a fishing and sketching trip (it seems that fragile detente between Mary and Edith didn't last all that long after Sybil's death). Unfortunately for Edith, Cora is the only one who seems the least bit happy about Gregson's visit. 

Either Edith has given Gregson reason to believe Matthew is more open-minded about a single woman becoming a married man's mistress or Gregson is entirely clueless, but for some reason he thinks that if he whines about his mentally ill wife enough, everyone from Downton Abbey will embrace him with open arms. Yeah, that's not happening. Yes, his situation is awful, but that hardly means anyone wants to add Edith to the mix to cheer him up. 

As Matthew says to Gregson during a bucolic day of fishing, "You've been misled by our surroundings. We're not in a novel by Walter Scott," a statement which seems to throw Gregson entirely. He's offering his love, isn't that enough? I'm wondering why Gregson thinks saying he really, really likes Edith will make everyone entirely happy about his presence -- it may be the jazz age, but back then a fair number of women (and, by extension, their families) still preferred that a guy, if he liked it, put a ring on it, to paraphrase Beyonce. 

Matthew orders Gregson to break up with Edith, and he makes sure Edith knows his opinion as well. But guess what? Edith doesn't care. She seems ready to embrace her second-billing status as Gregson's paramour, and now she just knows she needs to keep her affair on the down low from Matthew. As much as she worried about Rose getting in to trouble with a married man in last week's episode, she seems perfectly okay with getting into the same "trouble" herself a year later. 

I'm not sure what this is going to mean for Edith in season four. I would think she might slow her roll with Gregson immediately after Matthew's death, though the "benefit" of his passing will be one less person to stand in her way. I hope that Edith will find true love with Gregson, but I'm starting to feel as if Edith is the character on "Downtown" that Julian Fellowes must likes to punch. 

Branson finally accepts he's not the chauffeur anymore

So, we get a new maid at Downton Abbey -- Edna. At least, we get a new maid for about an episode. I was hoping we'd give Branson a little air time this week, as I was curious to know how he was faring a year after Sybil's death. The answer is that the wound is still raw, and his embrace of the upstairs world is still understandably shaky. 

Although it could be argued that Carson and Mrs. Hughes didn't need to meddle in Branson's affairs, I was glad to see them come between Edna and the emotionally fragile Branson. Edna seemed only too eager to manipulate Branson and didn't hesitate to hone in on his soft spot -- his discomfort with his no-longer-new status. As she taunted him, suggesting he was ashamed of who he was and that was why he wouldn't come to dinner, it was pretty obvious the opposite was true -- the former idealist still isn't entirely happy about having become part of the world he once so thoroughly dismissed.

When Mrs. Hughes takes Branson's hand, it's a powerful scene and one of the ones that makes "Downton Abbey" worth watching. "Edna make you ashamed of your new life. But you've done well. And Lady Sybil would be so proud," Mrs. Hughes says before reassuring him that someday he'll find someone to love when he's ready. It's no surprise that Branson falls apart, and I think he found exactly the right person -- from either downstairs or upstairs -- with whom to share this moment. Though Mrs. Hughes knows Edna wants nothing more than what Branson himself got when he married Sybil, she also understands that Branson needs time, not a manipulative girlfriend, to deal with the enormity of his loss. I'm not sure Edna is gone for good, but I hope so.

Many, many more things happened (big thumbs up to Mrs. Crawley giving Dr. Clarkson the most tactful brush off ever, as well as for the casting of a truly cute baby for little Sybil), and feel free to bring up any favorites in the comments.  But alas, it's time for us to say goodbye to season three of "Downton Abbey," bracing ourselves for another wave of mourning and maybe relief (the one silver lining is that Mary did deliver that much-needed Downton heir, as Mary was so quick to point out). Let's hope no one else decides they want to leave the show prematurely, though. I'm not sure if I can take another season like this one, can you?

What did you think of Matthew's death? Did you avoid all the many, many spoilers? What did you think of this season overall? And what do you think of Thomas and Jimmy becoming friends?