Well, that was weird. Not quite as weird as season 2--no creepy Canadian "heirs" for example, but still really weirdly paced. It's the way that the major plot developments get introduced and resolved in minutes, while the small things get drawn out to such a degree that the whole season feels out of balance.
And for gods' sakes, there will be spoilers, so only read this if you are prepared to discuss endings!
We spent two years worth of episodes on the Matthew and Mary story line. TWO YEARS. And they get married in the first hour, and the honeymoon takes place in the gap between episodes. Meanwhile, Anna and Bates (who are really hopelessly boring) take a picnic and walk the garden paths and look at each other with an appalling amount of schmoopiness. I'm glad they are together, I'm glad they are happy, but who cares if Anna knows how to reel? Who really wants to watch her take lessons from Rose? It's not dramatic, the payoff is non-existent, and it's hopelessly dull.
Or the restructuring of Downton Abbey and the elevation of Branson the Estate Agent. We had to sit through Lord Grantham being a big whiny baby about making any changes to the farms and the estate, we had to listen to him flirt with Ponzi schemes as a better solution than adopting efficient farming practices, we had to put up with his whinging about "but is it fair to the tenant farmers" far too many times...
...and suddenly it's all be done already, the entire business plan for Downton has apparently be created, adopted, and successful, to the point where Shrimpy simply says "If only we had restructured like Downton, then I could have saved Duneagle. . . ." What? In a single year? A farm-based economy has, within a single calendar year, been entirely restructured and the economic benefits became sufficiently apparent by mid summer? How is that even possible?
It's not. It's like Fellowes has an attention problem--he seems to believe that he needs to have major plot developments, but he's really not interested in them. What he is interested in are the details of how a life like the Downton's is actually lived. That's why the question of Thomas and his sexuality plays out across several/many/most episodes, ending in the weirdly anti-climactic scene where Jimmy confronts him and in two sentences they agree they can be friends, no problem.
Similarly, the Big Plot Twist at the end of the season. It's only a Big Plot Twist if you hadn't seen the many many articles about Dan Stevens' decision not to sign on for another season. Or if you didn't know he's been starring on Broadway with Jessica Chastain for the last several months. Of course Matthew had to be killed off. But killed off in the Fellowes Fashion (TM), where there is really no emotional arc or resolution. Nope--he gets run off the road, and the season ends with nobody learning about it. What do you bet that next season is at least another year later, and everybody is over him too?
BUT! He couldn't die without leaving behind a male heir, because as much as Fellowes hates change, he hates chaos more. That's why Thomas had to not be dismissed, despite everything--because he's part of the furnishing of the plot by now. He had to come back as a servant, even after his war service, and his attempt at entrepreneur status, because Downton without Thomas is apparently unthinkable. It's why Branson is staying with his aristocratic in-laws instead of setting up his own life, but he remains an employee so they don't have to call him "Tom."
I really wish Fellows would recognize that he really doesn't do melodrama very well, and just drop it. It's the small details--what does a Gillies Ball look like? How do Scottish people wake up in the morning? (To a piper treading across the bridge over the dry moat, apparently.) What is it about Rose's dress that is so scandalous, and what did the Dowager wear to her first ball?
At least Lord Grantham apologized for his opposition to Matthew, so perhaps he can stop being such a whiner and idiot. Plus, he did it just in time so Matthew can die without anybody thinking he was anything less than perfect. And Lady Mary is now free to "inherit" as regent to her son. Too bad she's such a nasty woman too. Matthew at least got to die without getting tired of her snobby, bitchy comments about Edith and Michael. So I guess it was a win-win?
There have been internet commenters who feel that Dan Stevens should have remained with Downton, either because Matthew was their favorite character, or because they feel he is not "good enough" for a different career path. Frankly, as boring as Matthew's character arc has been this season, and as uneven a writer as Fellowes has shown himself to be, I have a lot of sympathy for someone who wants to do something different for a change. I wish him luck.