Recap and review of Downton Abbey – Season 3 Episode 5:
“Grief makes one so terribly tired.”
There is no more succinct way of encapsulating this week’s Downton Abbey than in this line from the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), a simple truism that could just as well have gone unspoken. Yet it felt necessary to have it said. This isn’t really life that the residents of Downton Abbey are living anymore, it’s simply existence. Well, except that this is precisely what life is: it’s death and birth, love and heartbreak, and the inequity of justice. But no one seems to be actively engaged with the wearying business of living. They seem to be intent simply wandering from one moment to another, hoping to get as far away from the moment of Sybil’s death as possible, praying that the temporal distance will allow the wound to scab over, to hurt a little less than it does right now. But that’s not how time works. Time can help dull the pain, but it can’t actively fix a person, especially when that person is spending all her time refusing to move on because it’s easier to hold another person accountable than it is to confront the finality of what has happened. Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) finds it easier to cope with Sybil’s death by couching her grief in terms of a series of “If only” scenarios. If only Robert had listened. If only Dr. Clarkson had been allowed to take Sybil to the hospital. If only Sir Phillip had entertained the possibility that he was wrong. If only…
Cora is holding onto her grief because, in her mind, Sybil pretty much just died yesterday. And it will always be yesterday until she learns to forgive Robert (Hugh Bonneville), however wrong he might have been for his inaction. Even if the forgiveness is predicated on a lie, it’s the only way to get time moving again. As much as this week appears to be about vilifying Robert (and indulging viewers in their own vilification of Lord Grantham), it’s as much about Cora reaching the final stage of grief – acceptance. In this sense, it’s a fittingly cap to last week’s tragedy, even if, once again, much of what’s happening on the periphery feels desperately unimportant (excepting the blessed, thankful termination of the once-thought interminable Bates Behind Bars storyline).
One thing that struck me on the US airing of this episode that I didn’t really sense on the initial airing was just how much the series seemed prepared for how viewers would react to Robert’s role in Sybil’s death. One need only look to Twitter for some of the anti-Robert reactions in the wake of what happened, and while Robert does nothing to endear himself to his bereaved family, it does feel like the first half of the episode is the pilot for a spinoff about how terrible Robert is at most of what he does, from his archaic ideas about running his estate, to his short-sighted attitude towards being rid of Tom (Allen Leech) as soon as possible, rebuffing Edith’s (Laura Carmichael) suggestion that Branson stay at Downton until he’s back on his feet. Robert feels that Tom ought to get about building his new life, and while that’s not the worst advice in the world, I was struck by how coldly it comes across in its delivery. And it only gets worse once Tom announces that he intends to raise his daughter in the Catholic faith. Robert is furious about this, and he doesn’t understand why nobody else shares his horror. “There hasn’t been a Catholic Crawley since the Reformation!” Robert shouts at Mary (Michelle Dockery), completely unaware of how petty and ridiculous he sounds. Mary reminds her father that Baby Sybil isn’t a Crawley, but a Branson; however, Robert refuses to let facts get in the way of his righteous anger, arguing that the only chance baby Sybil has of achieving anything in her life is through the highborn blood of her Crawley mother.
Honestly, that right there tells you everything you need to know about Robert’s death-like grip on an archaic set of values, which privilege high-birth and class separation, in a world that is modernizing quicker than he can keep apace. Everything is apparently an affront to his sense of traditional values, right down to naming Sybil’s newborn daughter after her deceased mother (a practice which Robert finds “ghoulish”). Robert’s indignation correlates with a point Cora makes while at a “Sorry your daughter died” luncheon being thrown by cousin Isobel (Penelope Wilton), as she states that Robert makes his decisions based off of standards that are shown to be increasingly irrelevant in their progressively modern times. Robert old-fashioned to a fault, clinging to the role of gentleman because, well, it’s kind of his job. Hell, as far as we know, it’s the only job he’s ever had (or ever will have). So of course he’d hold fast to the precepts of his station. It’s practically his religion. Baby Sybil being Catholic offends Robert at the level of principle. You don’t just break with tradition in this family.
Of course, Robert does himself no favors in winning back his wife when he storms into the luncheon after learning, from Carson (Jim Carter), that the event is being catered by street-walkin’ Ethel (Amy Nuttall). Given what a threadbare character Ethel was in season two, she’s actually evolved into one of the show’s more tragic figures, purely as a result of a combination of poor choices and unfortunate circumstances, to say nothing of the pedestrian attitudes of people like Robert. While Ethel had initially made a selfish decision in keeping a son for whom she couldn’t adequately provide, she grew to show that rarest of Victorian virtues: self-awareness. Ethel decided to put Charlie’s best interests ahead of her own and sent him to live with his grandparents, giving up prostituting in the process, and rededicating her life to honest service when she just as easily could have gone back to turning tricks. But Robert, fearful of how his family will be perceived for attending a luncheon catered by a former street walker, commands his family to leave with him at once. Enter Ethel with a very pretty pudding, her cooking improved thanks to the help of Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), looking very earnest and well-meaning in her maid costume (leading the Dowager Countess to remark that Ethel appears to have a costume for every occasion – and man, did we need some Dowager Countess zingers after all the tears-and-snot-blowing misery of last week’s episode).
The Crawley women remain firm in their conviction to stay, and Robert storms out, slamming the door behind him because he’s secretly twelve years old. Mary is nothing if not modern herself, and so it stands to reason that she would be divided between the pain of her father and the grief and resentment of her mother. All the Robert-hating is beautifully undercut by a brief, beautiful scene that illustrates just how much Robert misses Sybil, as he states that he often will forgets she’s gone, and only remembers after he seeks her out to tell her about something funny he read in the paper, or to let her know that her favorite rose is in bloom. I could easily see this episode being Hugh Bonneville’s Emmy submission, owing to the subtlety with which he portrays Robert’s grief, the bittersweet pang of a father who failed. There is no real explosion of grief until the end of the episode, due to the wise decision to open the episode after Sybil has already been put in the ground. Thus, whatever histrionics took place as a result were left to take place off-screen, so that the frozen nature of everyone’s grief doesn’t feel unnatural. Cora nearly breaks when Robert asks if he can come back to bed, as she can’t bring herself to forgive Robert for not listening to Dr. Clarkson (David Robb), a man who is that most prickly of all things on a show like this: an honorable man.
The women of Downton Abbey are the only ones with any real concept of the greater good, and this point is brought to bear when the Dowager Countess meets with Dr. Clarkson and entreats him to lie to Cora and tell her that even if Robert had listened to him, there was hardly any chance of Sybil surviving. Violet wants him to do this because she sees the benefit in a lie if it serves the greater good of getting Robert and Cora to a point of understanding, as she recognizes that the two can only overcome their grief together. It takes the full strength of a marriage to bear that weight, and Violet recognizes that Cora is mourning her marriage as much as the loss of her daughter. Yet Dr. Clarkson is reticent to compromise his morals by lying. However, perhaps he feels a pang of grief over his own inability to have done much of anything to save Sybil, or a sense of duty to save a marriage in lieu of a life. Either way, Clarkson goes through with it, telling both Cora and Robert that he did the research, and there was only an “infinitesimal” chance of survival, adding that they did Sybil a kindness by not subjecting her to the fear and pain of a hurried operation.
While Robert takes a relieved breath, Cora is completely devastated, as she realizes she can no longer hold Robert responsible for Sybil’s death, which now means she must confront her grief anew. Robert slowly goes in for a hug, embracing his wife, and Cora, still desperate to hold onto her anger (because it’s easier than facing her grief head-on) keeps her fists clenched and her arms straight at her sides. But this obstinacy gives way to the rush of sadness and loss, with both Crawleys finally letting it all out. Together. And though it’s a devastating moment, it implies that there’s now hope of truly moving on, with husband and wife bearing the brunt of all they’ve lost by giving one another strength. Because no one should have to go through that sort of loss alone. It’s a beautiful resolution to the storyline, even if it doesn’t absolve Robert of his guilt, nor bring him to an understanding of just how esoteric his values are in this day and age. But it’s progress, or at least something like it. And that’s really the best we can expect from Robert at this point.
However, the episode wasn’t all Sybil-centric, as Bates (Brendan Coyle) is finally going to be getting out of prison. Mrs. Bartlett, who’d confessed to Anna (Joanne Froggatt) that Vera likely killed herself, intending Bates to hang for it, recants when questioned by Mr. Murray (Jonathan Coy), the lawyer for Bates. However, Bates suspects that somebody tipped Mrs. Bartlett off to what would happen if she made a statement to the proper authorities, so Bates, assuming that it was his conniving cellmate and the even slimier warden, corners Craig in the prison yard and tells him that if he and the warden don’t get Bartlett to tell the truth, he’s going to turn them in for trying to make him sell drugs for them (which isn’t true, but who’s going to care?). It doesn’t take long for Anna to receive a letter stating that Mrs. Bartlett has amended her statement, and that Bates’s release is a mere formality at this point. Naturally, this is excellent news not simply because it offers us a reprieve from the oppressive bleakness of post-Sybil Downton Abbey, but because this marks the blessed end of the absolutely dire prison storyline, an arc that seemed to be featured each week out of mere necessity (as if to say, “Well, we started this thing. I guess we’ve gotta see it through”). It’s win-win for everyone involved.
However, the episode also sees fit to cram in more plot than the hour can realistically hold. Carson has a bug up his ass about Mrs. Patmore cavorting with Ethel, and states his disappointment in Hughes (Phyllis Logan) for not being more of a principled, judgmental dick like he is; The Love Triangle That Consumed the Kitchen continues, as Daisy (Sophie McShera), Alfred (Matt Milne), and Ivy (Cara Theobald) beat around the bush without much progress; and now the triangle threatens to become a love rhombus, with Ivy’s crush on Jimmy Kent (Ed Speelers). Given how clear it is that Thomas (Rob James-Collier) has the hots for the new footman himself, I guess the rhombus is now a pentagon? Jimmy, for his part, is creeped out by Thomas’s closeness with him, and complains about it to O’Brien (Siobhan Fonneran), who lies and tells Thomas that Jimmy is over-the-moon for him – a twisted game of Telephone that has absolutely no hope of ending well. There’s also a subplot in which Daisy visits her father-in-law, Mr. Mason (Paul Copley), who offers to make her his heir, going as far as to ask her to move in with him, so that he can teach her how to run the farm. Daisy isn’t sure what her answer is going to be, arguing that she always figured she’d spend her life in service. In a return to the overarching theme of the changing of the times, Mr. Mason tells her that fancy estates like Downton are going by the wayside, and likely won’t even be around in forty years’ time. It’s a telling remark that draws parallels to Robert Crawley, our favorite human anachronism.
This was a moving, excellent episode of Downton Abbey, and among the best of this season. It doesn’t pack the devastating whollop of last week’s hour, but it was a fitting resolution to the tragic end of Sybil Crawley, although it’s far from the end of the show’s exploration into the ways in which her death will shape and change those whom she loved, in life. This character study-esque approach serves the series well, particularly the actors, who are provided the opportunity to show a greater depth of range than in seasons past. By the time it’s all said and done, season three could very well be the benchmark for Downton Abbey, going forward.