Downton Abbey lovers, it is important that you NOT continue to read this post if you have not seen Episode Four of Season 3. PBS is streaming each episode one day after it airs at this link. Do watch it and then come back to share your thoughts.
As many of you know, a major character is killed off during this season (perhaps more). It’s been all over the Internet for months. In fact, some headlines in the U.K. have totally spoiled the surprise for some U.S. viewers. Fear not. For the first time in the 3rd season the writing is up to snuff. While some of us already know who has died, the writers have managed to create scenes that stir us, make us laugh, or promote the plot. More importantly, we are able to react with disbelief, grieve alongside friends and family, and still be stunned by our reactions.
Why did the writers kill off such a popular character? Downton Abbey has made the cast uber famous. Who can fault the younger ones from jumping ship to what seems to be a more promising land for their careers? Us! For we oldsters know this is a big mistake 90% of the time.
Actors are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. Some who stay with a successful series are never able to rise above their stereotypical roles and quietly drop out of sight after their run is over. The same fate happens to most actors who drop out prematurely. Only a lucky few manage to carve a solid career for themselves.
Take Dame Maggie Smith, for example. While hanging onto her meaty role as Violet, she’s performed in the following films during the same time period: Nanny McPhee Returns, Gnomeo & Juliet, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and Quartet. Maggie, who’s no spring chicken, dug deep inside herself, found a few extra hours in the day, and decided to go for the gusto, staying with Downton while accepting other film projects. (Take that, Leonardo Di Caprio. That poor tired old/young soul is takinga break after making 3 films in 2 years.) Dame Maggie could show him a thing or two. She has proven her acting chops, which is where she has a leg up on the young’uns.
It is no secret that offers are raining down upon some of the more popular Downton actors. Godbless’em for being tempted and providing the writers with marvelous ways to “Auf” them, but all I can say is “Sayonara, darlings. You’re not doing yourselves or your careers a favor.” To make my point, visit IMBD to see the projects for which our much lamented expired cast member left Downton.
Now that I’ve had my rant, on with reviewing the show!
The Battle of the Physicians – or a standoff at the Downton corral
It all started normally, with Dr Clarkson assuring the family that Sybil is a healthy young woman going through normal childbirth.
The earl solicits a “society doctor”, Sir Phillip, to oversee the birth of Sybil’s child, explaining to Cora: “We can’t risk her welfare to soothe Clarkson’s feelings. I like the old boy, but he did misdiagnose Matthew and he did miss the warning signs with Lavinia.”
When Dr. Clarkson notices Sybil’s alarmingly thick ankles and muddled mind, Sir Phillip puffs out his substantial chest. “You are upsetting these people for no reason at all!” and warns Clarkson off, telling him not to interfere with doctoring or his much superior social skills in schmoozing with the ladies at the dinner table. We know Sir Phillip is not too swift for 1) He probably received a second-rate education in a first-rate institution simply because he’s upper class, and 2) He disses our pretty Sybil by accusing her of having fat ankles in the first place, which back in those days was considered a major physical defect. Had I been Papa Crawley, I would have decked Sir Phillip.
But Clarkson won’t be put off: “I think she may be toxemic with a danger of eclampsia, in which case we must act FAST!”
Gasps all around. By now the viewers are reaching for their medical dictionaries (click here for explanation of the condition).
Two factions emerge: On one side is the Cora/Clarkson contingent, on the other side the Robert/Phillips naysayers. Clarkson continues his portents of doom, despite Sir Phillip casting dagger eyes at him: “Her baby is small, she’s confused, and there’s far too much albumen in her urine.”
This is TMI for Robert, who reminds Clarkson that the Crawley matriarch is in the room listening.
Violet, godblessher, retorts, “Peace! A woman my age can face reality far better than most men.”
Continuing with his gloom and doom predictions, Clarkson warns that an immediate delivery is Sybil’s only chance. He urges the chauffeur to hie his wife off to a hospital, where they may yet save Sybil and the baby and deliver it by Caesarian.
Sir Phillip puffs up his chest again and declares that a caesarian will be surely kill Sybil and ruin her flat tummy for life. All eyes turn to Clarkson, who reluctantly agrees that as things stand, a caesarian might just do Sybil in.
“Honesty at last,” intones Robert in his best Yul Brynner as Rameses voice. I will NOT put Sybil at risk. I am the master of Downton Abbey and my decision (even though I co-own the place with Matthew) shall stand. So let it be written, so let it be done!
“The decision lies with the chauffeur”, Violet says sensibly, cutting through the bullshit with a rapier voice.
Branson is summoned. Poor man. All he can hear is If… If…If… If… If… If. He looks this-away way, he looks that-away and … stands paralyzed like a pillar of salt.
Meanwhile, what of the lovely Sybil, she of the slim ankles now thickened? We begin to understand why Jessica Brown Findlay’s role was so minor in the first 3 episodes, for the viewer is starting to realize that she is doomed – that it is Sybil, the most popular and most beloved sister, who is about to DIE. But is she?
The next thing we know, Sybil has successfully delivered her baby. She’s radiant! Tom is bursting with pride. They ooh and ah over their little girl.
The servants rejoice. The family is happy.
Cora apologizes to Robert for doubting him. Sir Phillip’s chest is now so puffed he looks like a mating pigeon just given a come hither look.
My friend, who watched Episode 4 with me, kept sighing with relief. “Ah, she lives. Good, she lives. I thought they were going to kill her off.” I started braiding my tongue to remain quiet.
Back to the cozy little post-labor scene: Jessica Brown Findlay has all of two lines, which was more than she’d been given all season.
She then nuzzles into her sheets, ready for rest, which leaves the viewers sighing with relief and thinking, “All is well. Someone else besides our beloved Sybil is going to die.”
Tick tock tick tock.
The denizens of Downton Abbey are fast asleep when Mary sounds the alarm. Wake up! Wake up. It’s Sybil!
Lady Sybil, we hardly knew ye.
And now it’s time to lay my tongue-in-cheek tone aside, for Sybil’s death bed scene was as splendid a bit of writing and acting as I have seen. Like you, I sat on the edge of my seat and cried. Every one, from a desperate Cora and Tom, to the disbelieving sisters, father and witnesses, to the resigned yet horrified face of Dr. Clarkson, tugged at my heart.
Sybil, convulsing and unable to breathe, dies swiftly, but the reactions of family members take longer to settle in.
The camera lingers on each face, all showing the same horror and disbelief that I felt.
Elizabetth McGovern could not have been more perfect as the grieving mother. Her last talk with Sybil “( my baby, you will always be my baby”), was heart breaking.
Even though I knew that Sybil would die in this episode, this scene with McGovern’s superb, restrained acting was a revelation. I could not watch it without crying a bucket of tears.
Sybil was the glue that held the three sisters together and now she is gone. The reality has set in for the two remaining sisters:
Mary: She was the only person living who thought that you and I were such nice people.
Edith: Oh, Mary. Do you think we might get along better in the future?
Mary: I doubt it. But since this is the last time that we will all be together in this life, let’s love each other now, as sisters should.
Thank you Julian Fellowes, for giving us back the Downton that we have come to love.
We are even given a foreshadowing of events to come when Cora has the earl sleep in his dressing room.
The next day, she can barely contain her civility, saying in a hasty, tight-lipped phrase:
“I must apologize to [Dr. Clarkson]. Because-if-we’d-listened-to-him,-she-might-still-be-alive.-But-Sir-Phillip-and-your-father-knew-better,-and-now-she-is-dead.”A devastated Cora cannot forgive Robert for his part in promoting Sir Phillip over Dr. Clarkson, and who can blame her?
While most of the hour concentrated on Sybil’s tragic end, there were other plot developments, believe it or not.
Lady Edith flexes her career muscles
Edith can’t win for trying. Arising early in the morning to join the men for breakfast, she happily discovers that she has been offered a regular once a week column in The Sketch to discuss problems faced by the modern woman. Wondering if she should use her name, Robert retorts that this is exactly what they want: her name and title. When Matthew rises to her defense, she says with resignation: “Don’t bother, Matthew, I’m always a failure in this family.”
Violet’s response at dinner is hardly better: “When may she expect an offer to appear on the London stage?” This prompts Edith to mouth – “See?” Yet we’re rooting for her. Let’s hope this sister gets her chance to prove herself and find her niche in the world, as middle children are often wont to do.
Ethel Cooks Badly for Isobel
Isobel finally has a meatier role to play, however minor, in which she tries to rehabilitate Ethel into a respectable servant.
Her good Samaritan gesture results in Mrs. Bird walking out the door and Isobel reaching for the pepto bismol any time Ethel serves up one of her culinary disasters.
Downton Servant Merry Go Round
Daisy, likes Alfred, who is O’Brien’s nephew. He likes Ivy, the new kitchen maid, which prompts Daisy to behave super bossy towards her, which sinks her in Alfred’s eyes. Ivy likes Jimmy, or James, the wannabee footman, which gives Alfred a hang dog look and prompts him to help Ivy out of kitchen scrapes. Sound complicated? Yeah, well, this story line is like watching puppies tussle. Cute at first and then a little boring.
Thomas is falling into O’Brien’s trap …
O’Brien’s jealousy of Jimmy and hatred of Thomas sets her in motion to do both of them in. When it looks as if Jimmy and Alfred will have to vie for first footman, O’Brien sets a trap for him. “Want to wind the clocks? You’d better ask Mr. Barrow,” she advises the gullible young man. And so he does. Thomas is only too happy to oblige and explicitly sets out to teach James a new skill.
After his lesson, O’Brien attempts to pry some details from a reluctant Jimmy. “What are you implying?” she prompts, “Nothing unseemly I hope?”
“No, nothing like that,” he mutters before scurrying away. Our last glimpse of O’Brien has her wearing a Chesire cat smile and rehearsing the next bad thing for Thomas.
This concludes my review of Episode Four. I am so over Bates’s predicament and Mary’s non-chemistry with Matthew, that I am happily skipping over their story lines.
What did you think of this week’s DA and Sybil’s death? Please, no plot spoilers on future developments.
My other Downton Abbey Season 3 posts: Click here