[**Spoiler Alert**: Do not read if you don’t want to know the outcome of Sunday night’s episode of “Downton Abbey.”]
Julian Fellowes, how could you? How could you break the collective hearts of “Downton Abbey” obsessives everywhere with a plot twist so heartbreaking and so shocking that, on the evening I watched this episode, I dreamt about it and woke up thinking about it the next day.
Thank goodness I watched it earlier in the week because honestly, I was so emotionally spent when I first saw it all I could do was sit on my sofa staring into space for an hour. Really.
Lady Sybil died.
I’m still reeling from the shock and I suspect I’m not the only one. Literally two minutes after the episode aired I checked my Facebook page where one friend posted: “I don’t think I’ll ever get over this.” Said another: “I know that it wasn’t real, but I don’t think I’ve cried like that since my mother died.”
It was devastating. The event itself was hugely affecting made even more so by the shock of it. Bravo to PBS and everyone involved for keeping Sybil’s death largely under wraps despite the flurry of Internet spoilers. The outstanding performances of the entire cast —especially Allen Leech (Tom Branson) and Elizabeth McGovern (Cora) who both do their best work in of the entire series here — make this incredibly sad episode a standout. It seems very fitting that at the same time this episode was airing on PBS, the cast picked up the SAG Award for best ensemble in a drama series.
Perhaps I should have seen Sybil’s death coming. After all, death is no stranger to Downton. I knew poor, naïve William was a goner from the moment he enlisted. Someone from the great house would have to be sacrificed in order for Downton’s inhabitants to feel a sense of personal loss in a time of war. I was less sure how Lavinia would be cast aside in the end so that Matthew would reunite with Mary, but as soon as Dr. Clarkson said she was among those who’d gotten Spanish flu, I had my answer.
Sybil’s death was absolutely shocking to me because thankfully I’d carefully avoided seeing any Internet spoilers and warned my Facebook friends under no circumstances to reveal anything about future episodes when posting about the series or its cast. Up until this point in the season, there was no foreshadowing of her death in the show. In fact, it would seem Fellowes was working towards some turn of events that would keep the couple at Downton rather have them return to Ireland if, for no one reason, both Jessica Brown Findlay and Leech are so good in their roles. This season, when the plot centers on them and they’re allowed to shine, the show is at its best. The idea of the couple living at Downton with their Irish — and inevitably Catholic child — who just happened to be the embodiment of Lord Grantham’s ugly bigotry was pregnant with possibilities.
But alas, that is not to be.
An opening shot of Downton in the middle of the night usually means trouble (as it did when the news of Matthew and William’s disappearance in Season 2 awoke the house). Dr. Clarkson arrives to examine Sybil who is experiencing labor pains. She is in bed and surrounded by her worried sisters and mother. After the good doctor reassures Tom that his wife is fine, Lord Grantham dismisses all the fuss as a “false alarm.” Not exactly, says Clarkson, who starts to explain her body is preparing to deliver her child when he is stopped by Cora from sharing any further detail with Robert when say she says, “I’m afraid Lord Grantham doesn’t enjoy medical detail.” A point that turns out to be critical in how the events over the next twenty-four hours unfold. Robert informs Dr. Clarkson that he’s called in his own specialist, Dr. Phillip Tapsule, to care for Sybil. Clarkson reacts with one of his patented pained expressions and mutters, “If you think that’s advisable,” as he exits for the evening.
We all know Dr. Clarkson’s spotty track record. He tried to prevent Isobel from treating that tenant farmer with adrenaline that wound up saving his life in Season 1. Last season, he told Matthew he’d never walk again and when Matthew jumped out of his wheelchair to save Lavinia from falling over with a tray of hot tea, later admitted there was a slight chance of recovery but he’d kept it to himself so as to not get the patient’s hopes up for no reason.
This is where Fellowes is so brilliant. He’s set the stage for this long ago. Robert reminds Cora of Clarkson’s misdiagnosis of Matthew while Cora is convinced that the family doctor should treat Sybil because he’s known her since she was a child.
The next morning, Mary goes to Sybil’s room where she finds her sister extremely uncomfortable. So much so that she tells Mary, “I cannot recommend this to anyone.” Undaunted Mary tells her, “I’m dying to start” which surprises Sybil because she thinks Mary has been holding off getting pregnant. Then, a very prescient Sybil tells Mary that she wants the baby to be baptized Catholic. Mary, who thinks Sybil has been talked into this by Tom tells her, “You don’t have to do this, it’s your baby, too.” But sweet Sybil explains her reasoning simply by saying, “I love Tom very, very much.” Touched by her sister’s desire to please her husband, Mary tells her, “I’ll fight your quarrel with (Reverend) Travis.” Uh-oh.
Once Sir Phillip, a knighted gynecologist, arrives later that day and regales the Crawleys with tales of his own importance at dinner it’s clear from the get-go that he’s a pompous snob whose arrogance will prove costly. At Cora’s invitation, Clarkson comes to the house.
The next evening at dinner the family anxiously awaits the birth. “There’s nothing more tiring than waiting for something to happen,” says Cora when suddenly a nurse wordlessly arrives in the dining room. It’s time!
Clarkson, who has come to the house at Cora’s invitation to assist with the birth much to the chagrin of Dr. Pompous, tells the Crawleys that he is concerned about Sybil who is slipping into delirium. “She’s not quite there” and a bit “muddled,” he explains. Of course she is, dismisses Sir Phillip, “She’s having a baby!”
While the doctors argue over the proper course of action for Sybil, Robert tells Cora, Violet and his daughters, “I don’t want to hurt Sir Phillip’s feelings” by listening to Clarkson. Cora and Matthew insist the doctor’s observations be considered and the Dowager Countess rebuffs her son telling him that’s the least of her concerns.
It was frightening to see Sybil endure a difficult labor. A terrified Tom tries to take his wife’s mind off her pain and tells to his wife telling her he’s thinking of taking a job “working with cars” in Liverpool. She strong enough to come out of it by telling him: “We are not going backwards, you must promise me that.” But then says, “We can lie back and look at the stars.”
Clarkson tries to make the case as to why Sybil should be moved to a hospital where she can deliver the baby by caesarian section. Sir Phillip, of course, is horrified by the notion of an aristocrat delivery a baby in a public hospital where she would be exposed to god knows what.
Lord Grantham has already made up his mind. Sybil will remain at the house and they will follow Sir Phillip’s course of action. “Tom has not hired Sir Phillip. He is not master here,” he bellows. And just like that I really started to hate one of my all time favorite Downton characters.
The always level headed Cora says, “You’re being ridiculous. Obviously we have to talk to Tom.” Looking for a tie-breaker, Robert looks to his mother but the Dowager Countess agrees with his wife, “The decision is with the chauffeur.”
The whole thing comes to a head when Sir Phillip grandly shouts, “Moving her now is tantamount to murder.” Clarkson, who is worried that Sybil could develop a fatal case of eclampsia if she does not get proper treatment, counters with “Time is running out.” Poor Tom, looking for reassurance begs Clarkson, “Do you swear you can save her?” No, says the doctor but he warns, “If I’m right about her condition she will die.” Just as Tom is convinced Sybil needs to go to a hospital (“I would have taken her an hour ago” says Cora) Sybil’s screams are heard from down the hall. “God help us,” he says as they run to her room.
Just when I thought it was going to end badly, things turn sunny again. Mary comes down from Sybil’s room to the library where the men are waiting and announces, “It’s a girl.” Tom rushes to Sybil’s side and tells her, “Oh my darling, I do love you so much.” Everyone beams over the baby and Sybil tells her family she wants to sleep. But before she lets her mother go to bed, Sybil tells her, “Tom is thinking of being a mechanic. He needs to move forward. Will you help me do battle for Tom and the baby if the time comes.” That’s when I know, things are going to end badly. Very, very badly.
Another shot of Downton at night and some overly ominous music swells as the camera pans to a light in the hallway in the darkened house. Mary bursts into her parents’ room. “It’s Sybil!” The scene in Sybil’s room is terrifying and heartbreaking (I know I’ve used the word before but honestly, it’s true) to watch.
Sybil begins to have convulsions while Tom tries to cradle his wife in his arms. Clarkson ruefully tells Robert, “This is eclampsia.” How can this be? “Human life is unpredictable,” says Sir Phillip realizing the horror of his mistake.
All the actors are fantastic here. Matthew’s (Dan Stevens) face falls into a look of defeat as he leans against the bedpost when he realizes all is lost. A terrified Edith (Laura Carmichael) silently watches her sister slip away with wide eyes brimming with tears.
“Help her! Help her!” Tom desperately cries over his shoulder while he tries to will his wife to live, “Just breathe, just breathe love.” Leech is fantastic and incredibly believable in this scene. McGovern as Cora give a gut wrenching performance as a mother desperate to hold on to her daughter. Together, they wring every last tear out of this scene. In the end, Tom and Cora are huddled together at Sybil’s bedside propelled by their own unspeakable grief what they are witnessing can’t let go. “Please don’t leave me, please don’t leave me, please don’t leave me,” pleads Tom. Finally, Mary recoils in horror after she’s seen her sister take her last breath. A Disbelieving Robert speaks for everyone in room when he says, “But this can’t be. She’s 24 years old.” Suddenly, they hear the baby crying in the distance.
I have never sobbed as loudly as I did watching anything on television as I did watching this scene.
Downstairs, upon hearing the news of Sybil’s death the servants are stunned into silence. “What should be do now, Mr. Carson?” asks Daisy. “Carry on, Daisy as we all must.” The young girl dissolves into tears and is comforted by Mrs. Hughes. Thomas (Rob James-Collier) breaks down telling Anna (Joanne Froggatt) that Sybil was one of the few people that ever showed him any kindness.
As Cora keeps vigil over her daughter’s body Mary tries to get her mother to go to bed. She calmly tells Mary she wants to stay because this is her last chance to say goodbye to her baby and to please tell her father to sleep in his dressing room. Her silent fury at Robert is all pent up emotion because she feels he’s to blame for Sybil’s death having dismissed Clarkson’s advice about taking their daughter to a hospital. When she’s alone again she looks over at Sybil’s lifeless body on the bed and tells her youngest daughter: “We’ll look after them both” and then, “You are my baby, you always will be. Always my beauty, my baby.”
The next day Mary and Edith say their final goodbyes when the men from Grasby’s arrive. Dressed in black and paler than usual, they look like ghostly apparitions as they stand over her sister’s body. “She was the only living person who always thought you and I were nice people,” says Mary. Edith asks Mary if they might get along better in the future now that Sybil is gone. I doubt it says Mary speaking more truthfully than spitefully but then she softens the blow. “Since this is the last time we three will be together in this life let’s love each other now as sisters should.” I have now used up every last tissue in my house.
Maggie Smith also has one of her most affecting scenes in this episode. After speaking to Carson when she arrives at the house (“Oh Carson, we’ve seen a lot of troubles but nothing like this”), she slowly makes her way to the drawing room. We see her shot from the back and I’m struck that for the first time she looks like a very old woman. She stops long enough to hold back tears and push her veil back from her face. Carry on, indeed.
By the time the Dowager Countess joins the rest of the family Cora’s quietly controlled rage at her husband has bubbled up to the surface. She gets up and announces she must write to Dr Clarkson so her letter can be delivered before dinner. There’s no need for that, says Robert. Oh yes there is – she wants to apologize for their behavior: “If we’d listened to him, Sybil might be alive, but Sir Philip and your father knew better and now she’s dead.”
Robert knows there is some truth in his wife’s words and tries to explain that to Violet when she asks what Cora could possibly mean. “No one is to blame,” she says. “Our darling Sybil has died during childbirth. All we can do now is cherish her memory and her child.”
Cut to the final shot of Tom holding his motherless daughter while standing at one of Downton’s hundreds of windows viewed from the outside. Cue another river of tears.
Hard as it is to believe a lot of other things happened in this episode:
Matthew is moving full steam ahead with plans to modernize Downton and keep it out of financial ruin. Unfortunately his timing stinks. When Mr. Murray comes to call on Anna to talk about Bates’ appeal the day after Sybil has died, he makes a terrible blunder and engages the solicitor in a conversation about what they must do to change things. Mary walks in on them and is furious that Matthew would talk of such matters. “Forgive me darling, I wasn’t thinking,” says Matthew as his wife seethes with anger.
Isobel has hired Ethel (who has given up being a prostitute because she no longer has Charlie to support) which doesn’t sit well with Mrs. Bird. The only moment of levity in the episode came when Mrs. Bird indignantly tells her employer that she can’t work with Ethel because it would sully her reputation. What if people thought I was a prostitute? she huffs. No chance of that, says Isobel and sends her on her way with a month’s wages.
Jimmy is freaked out by Thomas’ touchy-feeling behavior. The scene where Thomas guides Jimmy’s hand when setting the clock did feel awfully uncomfortable. It does seem that Thomas is being rather reckless in his dealings with the new footman. Of course O’Brien’s fingerprints are all over this one as she encourages Jimmy to accept Thomas’s attention for the benefit of his standing in the house. But when Jimmy tells her Thomas has become too familiar, she plants the seed when she asks “Nothing unseemly I hope” and at the same time, drops hints to Thomas that Jimmy feels the same way about him as he does towards Jimmy. It won’t be long now.
The very boring love quadrangle between Daisy, Ivy Alfred and Jimmy continues apace. Daisy has a crush on Alfred who like Ivy who is pining away for Jimmy. I don’t care about this story at all. I’ve said many times that too much screen time is devoted to Daisy but at least the story with William’s father is interesting.
Anna and Bates think they’ve seen light at the end of the tunnel because when Anna went to see that nasty Mrs. Bartlett she said that Vera had pastry dough under her nails the day she died which means she cooked the poisonous pastry and ate it as her suicide to frame Bates. What a bitch! “I hope she burns in hell,” Anna tells the ever stoic Bates who gently warns her “not to go down that road.” Huh? Why the hell not? But prison gates may not swing open for Bates just yet since they have to convince Mrs. Bartlett to recount her story to the authorities and that nasty guard and Bates’ charming cellmate (what’s his problem really?) are planning to sabotage things and have already gotten to her. Crikey!
Edith gets an invitation to write a newspaper column and while Lord Grantham is predictably dismissively of it, Matthew is full of encouragement. God knows she has plenty to write about.
Diane Clehane is a New York Times best seller author and journalist who writes on her many obsessions: television, fashion, pop culture, parenthood, the British royal family, and Downton Abbey. She will be recapping Downton’s entire season.