“Grief makes one so terribly tired.”
This line encapsulates this week’s Downton Abbey in a nutshell, and is such a tautology that it likely could have gone unspoken. Yet it felt necessary once we see the individual fugue states of the residents of Downton Abbey. This isn’t really life that they’re living anymore, it’s simply existence. Well, except that it is life, because this is what life entails, all the triumphs, tragedies, and all the vicissitudes of being human. But for Downton Abbey, time is at a stand still. No one seems to be engaging in the act of living, as much as just moving from one moment to the next, hoping to get as far away from the moment of Sybil’s death as possible, praying that time will allow the wound to scab over. But time doesn’t work like that. Not really. Not when you spend all that time in a state of combative grief, refusing to move on because it’s easier to hold another person accountable than to confront the finality of what has happened, avoiding the issue altogether by couching it in terms of a vague “If only” scenario.
“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…”
In this scenario, time can’t heal anything because time isn’t actually given permission to move. Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) is holding onto her grief, and, in her mind, Sybil pretty much just died yesterday. And it will always be yesterday. But here’s the thing. It isn’t the accumulation of time, in itself, that heals a hurt, but what you do with that time that closes the wound. As much as this week is about the vilification of Robert (Hugh Bonneville), it’s as much about Cora finally learning to let go. In this sense, it’s a fittingly poignant cap to last week’s shocker, even if much of the peripheral happenings feel unimportant (excepting the business with Bates).
For the entire first half of the episode, Downton Abbey might as well have changed its title to Everybody Hates Robert. And while I’m not really of the mind that Sybil’s death was Robert’s fault (if weeks of watching Call the Midwife has taught me anything, it’s that a person had about as much hope recovering from eclampsia as they did the Bubonic Plague), Robert sure goes out of his way to earn his family’s ire this week. His downward spiral begins with his hurried attitude towards being rid of Tom (Allen Leech), rebuffing the suggestion of Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) that Branson stay at Downton until he’s back on his feet, saying that Tom ought to get about the business of building a new life for himself. It’s not bad advice, actually, but his cold delivery does little to round off the edges. And it only gets worse once Tom announces that he intends to raise his daughter (whom he’s naming Sybil, after her late mother) in the Catholic faith, owing to her Irish heritage. Robert is incensed, and doesn’t seem to understand why nobody else shares his frustration. “There hasn’t been a Catholic Crawley since the Reformation!” Robert shouts to his eldest daughter, as though Mary (Michelle Dockery) would give two taps of a rat’s ass about it. Really, the quote tells you all you need to know about Robert’s clutch on tradition, particularly when Mary reminds him that Baby Sybil isn’t a Crawley, but a Branson. Refusing to let the issue go, Robert argues that the only opportunity Baby Sybil has at achieving anything in life is through her mother’s highborn blood. This ignores that Mary more or less made up the story that Sybil, on her deathbed, claimed that she wanted her daughter to be raised Catholic. It was simply Mary extrapolating that quote from Sybil’s genuine desire for Tom to be happy.
Robert’s indignation speaks to a point Cora makes while at a “Sorry your daughter died” luncheon being thrown by cousin Isobel (Penelope Wilton), when she states that Robert makes his decisions based off of standards that are shown to be increasingly irrelevant in these modern times. Robert is stubbornly old-fashioned, but more than that, he’s an inveterate gentleman. It’s 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. I don’t feel as though Baby Sybil being Catholic offends Robert on a religious level; it’s merely a matter of principle. You don’t just break with tradition in this family. Robert cannot abide it. Nor, apparently, can he abide naming a child after a recently-departed loved one. Robert finds that practice “ghoulish.”
Robert does nothing to help his cause when he storms into the luncheon after learning, from Carson, that the event is being catered by street-walkin’ Ethel (Amy Nuttall). Given what a threadbare character Ethel was in series two, she’s really come a long way to becoming one of the show’s more tragic figures. She made a selfish decision in keeping Charlie initially, and her poverty and desperation led her down a dark path. But she showed those rarest of virtues: self-awareness and growth. Ethel decided to think of what was in Charlie’s best interest, sending him to live with his grandparents. She gave up prostituting, and rededicated her life to service, and the turnaround deserves to be commended, when she just as easily could have gone back to a life turning tricks. But Robert won’t stand for the possibility that his family might be gossiped about, attending a luncheon catered by a fallen woman. He 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), leading to Violet remarking that Ethel appears to have a costume for every occasion (and man, did we need some Dowager Countess zingers after all the doom-and-gloom of last week). To their credit, 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.
And yet this still isn’t the extent of Robert’s mad descent towards outright, borderline-cartoonish supervillainy, as he flips out on Matthew (Dan Stevens) for daring to suggest that Downton has perhaps been mismanaged. Matthew has a point when, during a healthy bit of pillow talk with Mary, observes that Robert acts as though Downton is his by divine right, either failing or refusing to acknowledge that it takes a whole lot more than that to earn the right to run Downton. The idea of “Robert as unworthy of Downton” is a surprising place for the narrative to go, but the episode sort of bears it out, as Robert is aghast at the idea of changing anything about how Downton is run, and is offended that Matthew would brook such an argument. When Mary later confronts Robert about Matthew’s suggestions about the estate, he adopts a “woe is me” perspective, claiming that if a fool and his money are soon parted, then he must be a fool. Mary isn’t really trying to provoke this kind of response, she just wants him to see reason, and stop fighting Matthew on everything, even adding that he also needs to give up the baptism argument with Branson. Mary is nothing if not modern herself, and so it stands to reason that her beliefs would clash so considerably with her father’s. That said, the scene is undercut with a beautiful little moment that briefly brings Robert back into the viewers’ good graces, by illustrating just how much Robert misses Sybil. He states that he often forgets that 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. Hugh Bonneville goes subtle with his grief, playing it more bittersweet than anything else, which is part of a strong undercurrent that runs through the episode.
The undercurrent is that there’s no real explosion of grief. Sybil died, but beyond the abject terror of watching her death, there’s no big clothes-tearing, glass-shattering, shouting to the Heavens outburst. This is perhaps because, wisely, the episode opens after Sybil’s funeral, so whatever histrionics were to be seen take place off-screen to build for what’s to come later in the episode. Everyone is frozen in their grief, delicate like glass, with the potential to shatter at any moment. The Cora nearly breaks completely when Robert asks if he can come back to bed, and is rebuked by his wife, who still blames him for not listening to Dr. Clarkson. Robert’s response to her accusations (“Do you think I miss her any less?”) speaks to the broader issue of how people deal with grief, connecting to a conversation between the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and Dr. Clarkson (David Robb). Violet wants Dr. Clarkson to lie to Cora and tell her that even if Robert had listened (and why was it Robert’s choice anyway, and not Branson’s?), there was hardly any chance of Sybil surviving. Violet wants him to do this because she recognizes that Robert and Cora can only get through their grief together. It takes the full strength of their marriage to bear that weight, and Violet recognizes that Cora is mourning her marriage as much as the loss of her daughter.
Though Clarkson has serious reservations about outright lying to Cora, he eventually does go through with it, telling both Cora and Robert that there was only an “infinitesimal” chance of survival, and that they did Sybil a great service by not subjecting her to the terrible pain and fear of a rushed operation. Where Robert closes his eyes and takes a relieved breath, Cora is absolutely devastated. The contrast reflects the attitudes in hearing the news, as Cora now 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 grief head-on, keeps her fists clenched, her arms straight at her sides. Until the outburst. Robert and Cora finally let it all out. Together. And though it’s a devastating moment, it implies that there’s hope now of moving on, with husband and wife giving each other strength, bearing the brunt of all they’ve lost. Really, no one should have to go through that sort of loss alone.
In other developments, it looks like Bates (Brendan Coyle) is finally going to be set free. Mrs. Bartlett, who’d confessed to Anna (Joanne Froggatt) that Vera likely killed herself, intending for Bates to hang for it, recants when questioned by Mr. Murray (Jonathan Coy), the lawyer for our beleaguered Bates. Bates suspects that somebody tipped Mrs. Bartlett off to what would happen if she made a statement to the proper authorities, namely that Bates would go free. And 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 likely a mere formality at this point. This is good news not simply because it grants us a light reprieve from all the dark clouds hanging over the business of Sybil’s death, but it’s also great news since we won’t have to sit through another dreadful collection of prison scenes. This is a win all-around.
However, the episode sees fit to cram in a whole lot more than that, and I’m not sure any of it really connects the way that some of the more substantive material of the episode does. Carson (Jim Carter) has a bug up his ass about Mrs. Patmore cavorting with Ethel, and states his disappointment in Hughes (Phyllis Logan) for not being more judgmental. Meanwhile, the interminable love triangle between Daisy (Sophie McShera), Alfred (Matt Milne), and Ivy (Cara Theobald), which becomes a love rhombus if you add Ivy’s crush on footman Jimmy Kent (Ed Speelers), continues on, with Alfred asking Daisy to help teach him the Fox Trot so he can impress Ivy, leading to a lot of bruised feelings. Of course, the love rhombus then becomes a love pentagon if you factor in the likelihood that Thomas (Rob James-Collier) has a crush on Jimmy as well. Jimmy, for his part, is properly creeped out by Thomas’s familiarity with him, and complains about it to O’Brien (Siobhan Fonneran). There’s also a development in which Daisy goes to visit her father-in-law, Mr. Mason (Paul Copley), on her day off. Upon reaching his farm and spending most of the day with him, Mr. Mason offers to make Daisy his heir, and goes 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, but I can’t imagine she’d leave Downton. That said, when Daisy argues that she always imagined she’d spend her life in service, 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 in that it draws parallels to the human anachronism that is Robert Crawley.
While not as strong an episode as last week, it makes a fitting cap for tying up the loose ends following Sybil’s death. If nothing else, I imagine last week’s episode would make for a good movie when paired with tonight’s offering. Hopefully this is the beginning of a more substantial growth in Robert’s character, since I don’t feel like the show really needs a villain, much less a villain we don’t particularly want to hate. Robert Crawley has, more often than not, shown himself to be a good man. A flawed man, but good nonetheless. The quicker he gets with the times, the better off his estate will be.