What a heartbreaking episode.
For the past few weeks i’ve been using this space to complain about how plotlines on Downton Abbey are feeling unearned, ungrounded, disjointed from what we see as the characters’ experiences. Sybil’s death in childbed (from a rare but real condition called eclampsia) is not any of those things. It’s harrowing, and the tragedy of it binds together the episode.
Lady Sybil has been one of the show’s unsung heroines, I think—one of the quiet, backgrounded, consistent characters keeping the family dynamic together. Her story in season one was probably my favorite, and though her sudden courtship and marriage to Branson stretched imagination (as did her sudden acceptance of a domestic role after being the type of woman who would go to a public protest and sign up to be a war nurse), she has always been feisty and opinionated, with that beautiful sultry voice. She was not as carefully written as Mary or even Edith, more the type of character to do things rather than to be things. But if Sybil was headstrong and impulsive—and she certainly was, compared to her sisters—she was also unfailingly kind, one of the few characters on the show who felt a strong duty towards public service. Indeed, outside of a certain noblesse oblige, the Crawley family is content to let the world outside spin on. Only Sybil felt it necessary to challenge the status quo, and her early stories showed her crossing the upstairs/downstairs divide long before she married Tom Branson.
Last week I bristled a little at Julian Fellowes’ penchant for using the show as a vehicle for a history lesson. At times his tone can be a bit too didactic, mostly because he doesn’t tie in the encroachment of modernity to anyone’s particular story, but introduces it instead as an in-joke for the modern viewer. This is a well-established device (Mad Men does it all the time), but if you do it too many times, without weaving it into the characters’ story, you push the audience out of the show, instead of immersing them in the story. The wink at the audience is a cheap laugh—fun at the time, but usually not worth the narrative consequences, and hard to justify in the long-term. (That got most egregious in Downton last week with the toaster plotline, which is literally the equivalent of any joke made about how confusing Twitter is.)
But this week’s episode demonstrated how well the history lesson can work, when it’s couched in the overarching themes of the show. The lens of Downton Abbey has been, from the start, fixed on the limitations of women in the early 20th century; the first major plot point is of course that Mary cannot inherit the estate due to the entail. Fellowes (who as far as I can tell, is the only writer on the show) is not great at investigating queerness, race issues, or even class lines, which are other identity categories we might find important when looking at a show taking place a century ago. But he is near-phenomenal at exploring gender—especially the plight of the upper-class white woman. (Interestingly, his wife cannot inherit her family’s title because she is a woman, which might explain his fixation with the topic.) Indeed the show to date has been most consistently about the struggles of even the most privileged women in this culture. Whereas the stories about Thomas' sexuality or Bates' disability or Daisy's class started out strong and have since been muddling around looking for definition, meandering into the treacly and sentimental, questions of gender tend to be the most emotionally complex. At its core is how often women in this era are denied their agency, even when they have all the money and power in the world.
Sybil was the sister that rejected her role the most; she did not want to be treated like a noble lady, and if giving up her responsibilities meant giving up her privileges, she was more than willing to. And yet even Sybil is subject to this world’s crueler demands on women, and is left in a situation where many men are standing around her, determining her fate, while she lies helpless and delusional. It’s an absolutely gut-wrenching moment, made worse by the gaps in medical knowledge and the strangeness of giving birth at home, away from medical help, should it be required.
At first I found myself frustrated by the numerous conversations happening around a dying Sybil—between the two doctors, both Clarkson and a doctor to the royal family, as well as of course her parents, Branson, and her sisters, all decked in their evening dress because you have to have a formal dinner, even when your daughter is giving birth upstairs. But that’s because they are frustrating—or to be exact, the fact that they are frustrating is the point of the slow build-up to Sybil’s death. Something very, very bad is about to happen, but old British adherence to decorum and polite dithering slowly pave the way for a woman’s death. And it’s notable that Cora and Clarkson are the two characters trying to assert their minority report against Lord Grantham and Lord Philip—but are overruled by them, two men who are essentially embodiments of patriarchy and privilege. Sybil dies at least in part because of the careless superiority of a certain type of powerful man, and that rankles. Needless to say, Sybil’s baby turns out to be a daughter. The wheel turns.
(Lest we forget, Fellowes also makes sure to turn the screw with regards to Mary and Matthew’s inability to conceive so far. So many different characters bring it up—only to have Mary respond with, “oh, it’s not a big deal”—suggest that it is a very big deal, and that the estate will not be secured until Mary has a male bun in the oven. Mary’s clearly on edge about it, and smoothing it over with her customary reserve. And Edith is trying to be someone of consequence and getting constantly belittled by her father. They’re all dealing with this.)
In some sense, of course, Sybil’s death is a melodramatic twist, peppered with gratuitous will-she-won’t-she-they-see-it-coming foreshadowing. I feel that the details above make it into a narrative with more weight than that, but it’s worth bringing up, if only because it’s the problem Downton keeps running into. Last week I said I was afraid Downton Abbey is turning into a soap opera, which is inaccurate—it is a soap opera (and I do, in fact, love it for that). It would have been more clear to say “bad” soap opera—because lately the characters in Downton have lost some sight of who they once were, and as Fellowes struggles to fill up more seasons, he’s forced to do drastic things to the characters to hold our attention. Sybil’s death is one of the most drastic things he could have done, short of burning the house down. It’s a testament to the core worth of the show that this episode works as well as it does. Even if Sybil’s death were merely a plot stunt, the reactions of the rest of the family ground it in the reality we’re familiar with. Cora absolutely loses it, which I think we may have always known she’s capable of under those crazy eyes, and Branson is, of course, shattered. His reaction made me realize that while Sybil gave up her life for him, Branson also gave up a good job and his future career to marry her, and he’s going to have a lot of trouble figuring out how to be now that she’s dead and he has a child to raise. I smell future plot points.
That being said, I still have my reservations about this episode, and the unevenness of this season as a whole. Reportedly, Sybil was killed off because Jessica Brown Findlay wanted to pursue her film career. Given the externalities, I think it’s a well-written departure for the actress. But it troubles me that there isn’t a clear endgame for Downton Abbey. I know that’s a lot to ask from a serialized television show—especially a relationship-based one—but as it seems that Fellowes is making everything up as he goes along, in order to maximize length and viewer engagement, I’ve found it difficult to have faith in the show's long-term health. This episode contained the bravest plot development of the season so far—the development that permanently upsets the status quo of the show. (I thought Edith’s heartbreak was also well-handled a few weeks ago, but it essentially meant that Edith was in place at Downton just as she always is, while this signifies a real change for the family.) But the show can’t kill someone off every time it needs to spice things up—or to be exact, maybe it can, but if it does, it has to make sure we love those characters first. For example, as shocking as Lavinia’s death was, she was not a character I ever felt attached to or took seriously. A big death can feel like a stunt, and that’s because sometimes it is one. And when major plot developments are being written because actors are leaving or staying—that begins to feel very sloppy indeed.
As much as I enjoyed the subtle thematic grounding of Sybil’s death, I feel I’m pulling most of my interpretation of it from the earlier two seasons. This season has lacked subtlety and it has lacked direction, which are two things we know it had in the past. Downton has never been the most subtle show, but it could stand to build some more nuance into its characters. Right now it’s trading on one great season and one good season to produce a third mediocre season, which is drawing on the bank of what was to create quick, short fireworks today. Sybil dies! Edith left at the altar! Matthew and Mary have sex! The emotional value of all of these stories, without fail, comes from the first season. What are we moving toward, though? What’s next for these characters? I don’t have to know—but the show ought to know, and I’m not convinced it does.
- For more on how serialization breaks down television narratives, I strongly recommend Rowan Kaiser’s post about it (with diagrams!)—I learned a lot, and you might, too.
- Wow, Lord Grantham really sucks this season.
- Ethel burned a kidney souffle, leading me to wonder: Who on earth would want to eat a kidney souffle?
- So, in a particularly devious turn of events, Vera killed herself to ruin Bates’ life? Seems like a lot of work, but okay.
- “Dan Stevens clutches a bedpost in despair,” your new Internet meme. (No, really.) It’s a rough life, Matthew Crawley.
- Mary and Edith have some touching moments as loving sisters in this episode. “She was the only person that thought we were such nice people.” Of course, Mary shuts down the idea that she and Edith could ever be friends—which is weird, because I thought they’d reconciled last season?
- The moment that absolutely did me in is Thomas’ breakdown in the corner after the servants are told. “She was kind to me, and I can tell you, not many have been kind to me in my life.” Ugh. Done. Just done.