When Fellowes killed off the beloved heir to the estate, Matthew Crawley, in a shock twist in 2012’s Christmas special, he explained to anguished fans, “By him dying, [his and Mary’s] love can remain intact.” At the time the writer-creator was merely resolving the matter of Dan Stevens’s three-year contract, which had come to its end—but, whatever the circumstances, the early exit turned out to preserve not only fans' love for Matthew, but good feelings all around. Stevens began a promising career in independent film, and Fellowes didn’t have to contrive unnecessary drama from a happy marriage, which fans could remember as being purely romantic.
The same principle behind Matthew's departure holds for the show as a whole, which entered the cultural zeitgeist at a time particularly susceptible to its charms—during the financial crisis. In January of that year, the unemployment rate was at 9 percent, a federal inquiry into the 2007-8 crisis concluded it had been “avoidable,” and the Iraq War continued to drain national resources. That same month Downton premiered on Masterpiece Classic and inspired a U.S. cult and cosplay culture, with themed viewing parties, “Edwardiana” fashion, entertainment tourism at Highclere Castle, and lines of wine, homeware, tea, and jewelry.
Some critics, like The Financial Times' Joe Moran, have argued that the show's rigid class system appealed to viewers threatened by the day’s economic instability. Others have said Downton's uncommon attention to the downstairs members of staff was increasingly relevant to the modern-day Americans in the midst of the Occupy movements and Obama’s efforts to combat income inequality.
Whatever the particular reason, Downton took off with a time stamp dating the show to a moment of financial flux. It's a period piece in more ways than one, which may explain why the show has experienced a slow decline in quality and a waning sense of relevance ever since. The first two seasons didn’t have this same problem: In the first, the grounded, progressive outsider Matthew provided the moral compass for the era’s excess and social conservatism. In the second season, World War I, and the additional roles it afforded the show’s women and servants, gave the series a fresh, progressive update. But by seasons three, four, and five, Fellowes’s Tory politics began to show through as liberal characters made nice with the family’s stick-in-the-mud conservatives, servant villains became ever-more cardboard-like, and the show's resident martyrs suffered fresh afflictions.
The most recent season, with plotlines including a kitchen maid teaching herself at night and the purchase of female contraception, in part acknowledged the show’s recent failings. But in spite of all these subplots, the major ones involved the preservation of the old-world lifestyle—Mary’s marriage prospects, Cora’s return to appreciating her husband, Violet and Isobel’s peace-making with their perpetual widowhood. It underscored the reality that actual change was never Downton’s strong suit—just its favorite talking point.