What? Me crying?! No, I was just, uh… slicing some onions while watching “Downton Abbey.” You know how it is on Sunday night, the weekend is over and you just want to mindlessly chop vegetables watching your favorite British period piece. What? Doesn’t everyone do that? OK, fine. So maybe I was crying. Can you really blame me?
“Downton Abbey” is a show that triggers a wide range of emotions in its audience – frustration, fascination, amusement, titillation, boredom. It’s also been known to tug at the heartstrings rather aggressively, particular during the dark days of Season 2. After all, who among us didn’t well up at Mary and Matthew’s reunion via musical duet, or when Daisy granted sweet, dopey William one last wish by marrying him on his deathbed?
But never has “Downton Abbey” conjured more tears than it did Sunday night, with Sybil’s not entirely unexpected and yet still utterly heartbreaking death during childbirth. It’s obvious from the opening minutes of the episode that someone – either Sybil or the baby – isn’t going to make it, and yet her passing is no less moving for its predictability. To see Sybil wracked by seizures, her loved ones unable to do anything but watch, to know that her death may have been avoidable, and to be aware of how many women did (and still do) die under similar circumstances – well, it would take a far more cynical person than this blogger to be unmoved by that.
Her death provokes an atypical flood of emotions from the residents of Downton Abbey. Cora refuses to leave her daughter’s bedside, while Mary sets aside her increasingly inexplicable hatred of Edith long enough to give her only surviving sister a hug. But it’s the mourning downstairs that is the most affecting. Cold-hearted Thomas weeps over Sybil, one of the few people who showed him kindness over the years. He’s almost ashamed by his feelings, until Mrs. Hughes reassures him that it’s OK to grieve Sybil’s loss. “The sweetest spirit under this roof is gone,” she says, and it’s true.
This being “Downton Abbey,” it’s only natural that we have to suspend quite a lot of disbelief along the way. We have to buy that Dr. Clarkson, the Leo Spaceman of his day, is suddenly capable again, and that a man who has presumably delivered hundreds of babies would be unfamiliar with the symptoms of eclampsia, and that some alarm bells wouldn’t go off in Lord Grantham’s head when Sir Phillip explains away Sybil’s swelling with a flippant “Maybe she just has thick ankles. Lots of women do.”
But implausibility only matters insomuch as it undermines one’s ability to get carried away by the narrative, and in this episode at least, the story is powerful enough to wash away all our skepticism – and then some. And, if we’re being honest, it isn’t all that unfathomable that Lord Grantham would make a terrible, pig-headed, paternalistic decision that would have dire consequences for the members of his family.
“Our darling Sybil has died during childbirth, like too many women before her,” Violet tells her son at the close of the episode. She’s trying to reassure Grantham that he isn’t responsible for Sybil’s death, that childbirth often ends tragically. But her words speak to a larger theme emerging from this season of “Downton Abbey,” which has been marked by tragedy and disappointments suffered almost exclusively by women – by Edith, by Ethel, and now by poor Sybil.
“Downton Abbey” is not exactly a show we turn to for progressive social messages; it’s a show about the decline of the British aristocracy that’s at times bizarrely nostalgic about the bygone class system. (Then again, if Fox News is to be believed, the show is so popular because it proves liberals are wrong about rich people, so who knows.)
Yet it’s undeniable that the plight of women has taken center stage this season, and it’s difficult to look at Sybil’s death as anything but an indictment of Lord Grantham’s worldview. It seems fairly stark, in fact: Grantham, believing he knows what’s best for his daughter, brings in a doctor with a fancy title and a prestigious client list. He does so against objections of his wife – someone who has actually, ya know, given birth – and despite the fact that he finds it somehow unseemly to discuss the particulars of Sybil’s physical condition. (Matthew’s penis, however, he is happy to talk about.) Grantham also refuses to even consult Branson regarding Sybil’s treatment, until Violet declares that “the decision lies with the chauffeur.” Even when siding with progress, Violet can’t quite bring herself to call Branson by his name.
The episode calls to mind another terrific British period piece that aired on PBS last year, “Call the Midwife,” which in many ways is the inverse of “Downton Abbey”: A series about working-class women in postwar London benefiting enormously from a new era of socialized, female-centric medicine, rather than an aristocratic family desperately trying to beat back the changing tides of history. But for now anyway, the two shows don’t seem quite so antithetical. (Lord Fellowes, I’m sure the Labor Party would be happy to have you.)
Cora turns on her husband almost immediately, kicking him out of the marital bed and blaming Sybil’s death on his and Sir Philip’s interference, marking perhaps the first time ever that I am 100% Team Cora. While something tells me she and Grantham will eventually work things out, I am far less certain that Branson will forgive and forget. At the moment he’s overwhelmed by grief, but that Irish temper is sure to return with a vengeance, and if he’s ever had a justifiable reason to resent the Crawley family, it’s now. In other words, Carson better make sure all the smoke detectors at Downton Abbey have fresh batteries.
Happily there are some trivial subterranean high jinks to balance out all the heartbreak upstairs. O’Brien, consummate schemer that she is, pretends to be looking out for Jimmy and encourages him to befriend Thomas in order to get in with his lordship. It’s an inspired bit of manipulation: Thomas thinks Jimmy’s keen on him and is certain to act on it at some point, which will get them both in trouble and pave the way for Alfred to become first footman. Long live O’Brien!
To pile on the complications even more, there’s a bit of a love quadrangle a ‘brewing. Daisy has eyes for Alfred, who has eyes for Ivy, who has eyes for Jimmy, who’s inadvertently leading on Thomas. All the pieces are aligned for an outright civil war among the downstairs staff, if only someone would make a move.
C’mon, Jimmy. We’re counting on you.
All right, let’s hear it: How many boxes of Kleenex did you go through watching this episode?
--The clock-winding scene with Thomas and Jimmy is so wonderfully ridiculous, it plays like something out of a same-sex Harlequin romance novel (I mean that in the best way possible).
--There are two eye-catching shots of the house this week that emphasize its icy grandeur—once when the undertaker arrives, and once as Branson stands at the window with his newborn daughter.
--Vera Bates, who baked poison into a pie and ate it, is sounding more and more like the villain in a Grimm’s fairy tale with each passing week.