Downton Abbey – Season 3 Episode 4 – Recap Video and Review
Recap and review of Downton Abbey – Season 3 Episode 4:
Plenty happened on Downton Abbey tonight, from Jimmy Kent (Edward Speelers) growing suspicious about Thomas (Rob-James Collier) getting overly “familiar”, to Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and her continued quest to prove Bates (Brendan Coyle) innocent, along with Isobel (Penelope Wilton) catching hell from her cook for having the temerity to employ Ethel (Amy Nuttall). We also had the very rudimentary business of Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Mary (Michelle Dockery) discussing his investiture in the Downton estate, in an episode that, for the first half, was business as usual for the series. But I hope I won’t offend anybody when I say I that I don’t intend to really talk about any of that, given how little any of it actually matters in the wake of the biggest tragedy of the series thus far.
Jessica Brown Findlay has never really had much to do in the role of Lady Sybil, which isn’t her fault so much as it is that of Julian Fellowes and his tendency to relegate the non-Mary sisters of the Crawley clan to the background. Of course, there are few things of greater import that a person can do on a show like this than die, but it still felt, to me, as though Sybil had much more to offer to the series than another pretty face – perhaps this is what makes the loss all the more staggering. When I first watched this episode upon its airing in the UK this past fall, I found that many Downton viewers were as devastated by the loss of Lady Sybil as I was, even in spite of the ostensible insignificance of the character to major storylines. She wasn’t entirely unimportant, granted, but she seemed to serve little purpose than to act as the simultaneously sultry, doe-eyed bombshell of the Crawley sisters, while also providing the series with a saintly figure to canonize, as sweet-natured as she was progressively-minded – a modern woman, to the last. It’s no understatement to say that Sybil was pretty much the gentlest character in the series, positively awash in goodness. And in case anyone has forgotten the fate of Daisy’s late husband, the kindhearted William Mason, one need look no further than the end of that lovable footman, or the the fate of Lavinia Swire, to see that goodness is never long for the world of Downton Abbey.
From a strictly dramatic standpoint, this is among the most well-crafted episodes of season three. The narrative essentially lulls the viewer into a false sense of security, allowing us to believe that danger lingers around the corner as Sybil’s labor nears, but offering the relief of a childbirth that seems to go off without a hitch. Once Sybil’s daughter was born and all appeared to be well, I found myself wondering if any other viewers felt the creeping sense of impending tragedy that I found myself experiencing during the episode’s original airing. There’s a kind of dread that hangs over every moment with Sybil or Branson, and the vagueness of this dread is what lends the episode its unsettling atmosphere, as the preventable gradually becomes inevitable. That the death comes little more than half way through the episode adds to the shock of its occurrence; a shock made a thousand times worse by a staging that makes this one of TV’s most disturbing deaths.
Sybil slips into a seizure, and her throat appears to swell to the size of a grapefruit. Her family, gathered around the bed in a panic, alongside doctors who admit that there’s nothing to be done, can only watch on in horror as she struggles to breathe. She then goes blue, and then…well, she goes. And all this, while Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and Branson (Allen Leech) are ravaged by panicked tears, begging her not to die, the noise and racket of death all around the tightly-cramped space. It’s as profoundly messed-up as TV deaths get, and is extraordinarily disturbing, in any case. Sybil’s family can do absolutely nothing to help her, nothing else to do but watch her die, slowly. The entire scene is one long act of torture, for the characters and for the audience. The episode doesn’t afford us the quick rip of the sudden “What the hell just happened?” death, instead leaving us to stew in our panic as we hope for an eleventh hour reprieve. From Matthew’s sudden recovery from a misdiagnosed paralysis to Cora’s recovery from Spanish Influenza, it’s not as though Downton hasn’t dabbled in miracles before. But there’s no miracle forthcoming here, and as Sybil slips away, and the distant cries of her newborn daughter break the stunned silence, we’re left with nothing but the Crawleys’ (and perhaps our own) unassailable grief.
The episode, up to that point, had been fairly rote business, but for the presence of Sir Phillip, a visiting doctor who is as respected as he is high-class. Sir Phillip takes over as Sybil’s obstetrician due to Robert’s (Hugh Bonneville) distrust of Dr. Clarkson (David Robb). Okay, maybe “distrust” is a bit strong, but Robert’s concerns are well-founded. It’s been something of a running joke within the Downton Abbey fandom that Dr. Clarkson is frequently given to misdiagnoses and imperiling precaution, from his doubts that a shot of adrenaline would save a dying farmer back in season one, to his misdiagnosis of Matthew’s bruised spine in season two. That said, it’s not that he’s incompetent, he’s just overly careful, and very suspicious of newer medical procedures. In particular, he’s especially leery of giving unnecessary hope to his patients. This is why Sybil’s death becomes such an inevitability, in terms of the storytelling. Once Dr. Clarkson is recommending the dangerous, and still widely unaccepted, Caesarian section, you know s*** has officially gotten real. Robert and Sir Phillip’s certainty that it isn’t eclampsia, and that they don’t want to go through with a procedure that could kill both mother and child on the recommendation of a doctor who can’t promise he can bring them through it, seals Sybil’s fate. The episode attempts to paint Dr. Clarkson as having been wrong again when Sybil successfully delivers a healthy baby girl, and even though Sybil had been overcome by a brief bout of delirium (believing that she was back on duty with Dr. Clarkson, as she was during the war alongside Thomas, with whom she developed a close friendship), all seemed well.
But this is a TV drama, so it stands to reason that the one time Dr. Clarkson is right about a diagnosis is also the one time no one listens to him (well, except for Cora, who we’ll get to in a minute). It’s strange how the episode just kind of marches on after Sybil’s death, as if in a fugue state, with the servants getting the news, and Thomas completely breaking down, in one of the most nakedly emotional moments of the series, given that this is a character to whom we’ve had no previous predilection towards sympathy. More heartrending still, the inconsolable Branson and each of the Crawley women get to have a moment with Sybil’s lifeless blue corpse, prostrate in her deathbed. Edith (Laura Carmichael) asks Mary if perhaps they could maybe get along better, in the wake of having lost a sister. Mary doubts it, but adds that, since this is the last time all three Crawley sisters would be together in this life, they should simply love one another now, as sisters should. That’s a marvelous sentiment, in theory, but you’d think Mary would show something in the way of tenderness and warmth towards her sister, as opposed to the resigned civility of this moment, which is less genuine affection, and more affection out of necessity. It’s particularly distressing since Mary had made such progress from the fairly immature character she had been in season one.
This contentiousness within the Crawley family is a punch to the gut that exacerbates the senselessness of Sybil’s loss. In the rudderless grip of her grief, Cora latches onto Robert as the culprit in her daughter’s death, claiming that she and Dr. Clarkson thought they should have taken Sybil to the hospital, but because Robert and Sir Phillip “knew better,” Sybil’s now dead. Robert, subdued by his grief, admits to the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) that there is truth in the accusation. Of course, that admission will do nothing to endear himself to Cora who, while saying goodbye to her “baby,” requests that Mary tell Robert she wants him to sleep in the dressing room. Cora recedes into herself, preferring loneliness to the company of a husband who’d drop the ball so egregiously. It’s all like a plot out of an episodic Victorian novel, an illustration of the equal measure of God’s benevolence and wrath, bestowing life while taking away an angelic soul for seemingly no other reason than to speak to the ephemeral nature of goodness. In that sense, it reminded me a lot of Lavinia’s death, except that we were never really given the opportunity to become invested in Lavinia as an individual, angelic though she was.
That said, if Sybil’s death accomplishes nothing but the monument to grief that this episode so crushingly illustrates, then it will have been more than fitting enough. This was one of the most devastating hours of television I’d seen upon its first airing, and its none the less devastating now. The episode is simultaneously the best and worst kind of drama – excellently conveyed but too heartbreaking to revisit. Upon its first airing, I found it strange to be choking up over a character that the narrative had gone to such extents to ween us off of. I tried to keep it together, even now, but then the Dowager Countess lost out to her grief, and I was done. There’s a certain desperation in the characters (which is reflected in the audience) to believe that the worst won’t happen, and then an abiding shock at the reality that it has. While the show, structurally, won’t be weaker for the loss of Sybil, the tragedy of her death remains enervating, because few things are as tiring as grief, particularly when it concerns one so young. “The sweetest spirit under this roof” indeed.