Let me cut straight to the chase. A lot happened on this week’s Downton Abbey, from Jimmy Kent (Edward Speelers) getting suspicious about the sexuality of Thomas (Rob-James Collier), to Anna (Joanne Froggatt) finding compelling evidence that might prove Bates (Brendan Coyle) innocent, but there’s absolutely no point whatsoever in my discussing any of it. This episode is all about the heartbreaking shocker at its center, so I’m not going to be talking about anything else, and I hope that’s okay. Frankly, I’m still sort of reeling from the tragedy of it all, made all the more incongruous by my relative indifference towards the character in previous seasons.
Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) seemed to serve little else but the twin purposes of being the doe-eyed bombshell of the Crawley sisters, while also serving as something of a saint, as sweet-natured as she was progressively-minded. She wasn’t infallible, but she was pretty much the gentlest character in the series, a sweet woman aglow with goodness. And in case anyone has forgotten the fate of our late footman William Mason, one need look no further than Daisy’s late husband to see that goodness is never long for this world. Lady Sybil dies as a result of eclampsia, and though the episode attempts to lull the viewer into a false sense of security, I found myself wondering if any other viewers felt the creeping sense of impending tragedy, a dread hanging over every other moment in the episode, until the preventable became inevitable. I found it weird that I was choking up over a character that the narrative had done such a good job of weening us off of, but then the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) lost out to her grief, and I was done. “The sweetest spirit under this roof” indeed.
All things considered, Downton Abbey deserves tons of credit for keeping this death as well-concealed as it did. In many respects, an American show would have played the “Will [x] live?” card in the previews, yet Downton’s sneak peeks gave the impression of another relatively routine hour with the Crawleys, a bit of business with Bates, and perhaps new footman Jimmy Kent questioning the increasing “familiarity” of Thomas. That the death comes a little more than half way through the episode adds to the shock of its happening; a shock made a thousand times worse by a staging that renders this as perhaps TV’s most disturbing death in years. As Sybil slips into a seizure, her throat seems to swell to the size of a melon, and 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, then goes blue, and then…well, goes. And all this, while Cora and Tom are awash in desperate, panicked tears, begging her not to leave them. It’s as profoundly messed-up as TV deaths get in this day and age, hardly affording us the quick rip of the sudden “What the hell just happened?” death, and leaving us to stew in our panic as we hope for an eleventh hour reprieve. From Matthew’s (Dan Stevens) sudden recovery from 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 routine business, but for the presence of Sir Phillip, a visiting doctor who is as respected as he is high-class, who 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 Clarkson is frequently given to misdiagnoses and imperiling precaution, from his doubts that a shot of adrenaline would save a dying farmer, to his aforementioned misdiagnoses of Matthew’s bruised spine, to say nothing of how he dropped the ball with Lavinia. That said, it’s not that he’s incompetent, he’s just overly careful, and very suspicious of newer medical procedures, and very leery of giving unnecessary hope to his patients. This is why Sybil’s death becomes such an inevitability, in terms of 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 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), all seemed well, with Violet giving a “Thank God!” and an accompanying “hallelujah.”
Yet it turns out that the one time Dr. Clarkson is right about a diagnosis happens to also be the one time no one listens to him (well, except Cora, and we’ll get to her in a bit). It’s strange how the episode lingers on after Sybil’s death, with the servants getting the news, and Thomas completely breaking down (in a moment that totally gutted me, even though Thomas is hardly a character we’re given to feeling sympathy towards), as Lady Sybil was one of the few people on Earth who was ever truly good to him, owing to their time together, working in the hospital with Dr. Clarkson during the war. The inconsolable Branson (Allen Leech) and each of the Crawley women get to have a moment with Sybil’s lifeless blue corpse, lying prostrate in her deathbed, and one of the episode’s most touching moments involves Edith (Laura Carmichael) asking Mary (Michelle Dockery) if perhaps they could maybe get along better. Mary doubts it, but adds that, since this is the last time all three Crawley sisters will be together in this life, they should simply love one another now, as sisters should. It’s a punch to the gut that exacerbates the senselessness of her loss, a fact that Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) has difficulty reconciling. 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 his mother that there is truth in the accusation. Of course, that admission will do nothing to endear himself to Lady Grantham, as Cora, while saying goodbye to her “baby,” requests that Mary tell Robert she wants him to sleep in the dressing room. Cora has receded 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 some 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. However, it’s strange that Sybil’s death will likely have fewer far-reaching consequences than Lavinia’s, which further estranged Matthew from Mary (the show’s preordained “couple you should be rooting for”), while nearly bringing about the ruin of Downton through Matthew’s white-knightery (not a word, but then, where the future Earl of Grantham is concerned, you need to take some license with the vocabulary). With Sybil, the only consequence I can imagine is the estrangement of Cora from Robert, and the continuing enmity between Branson and the Crawley family, a storyline with stakes that were never really all that high. 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’ve seen in a very long time, and the skill with which the story was rendered (from the acting, to the staging and direction of Sybil’s dying moments) deserve commendation. But I can’t say I’d ever want to see this episode again, even while doing a “refresher watch” in preparation for subsequent seasons of Downton. The episode is simultaneously the best and worst kind of drama – excellently conveyed but too heartbreaking to revisit.
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