Previously, on Downton Abbey: Tom’s behavior means he and Sybil have to flee Ireland, Ethel gives her son to his grandparents, Anna and Bates have a whole episode where their main storyline is whether they get letters from each other (zzzzzzz…), Carson hires the most attractive footman in Northern England, and Robert should not be trusted with Monopoly money, let alone an estate fortune.
Series 3 rolls on this week with an episode packed with emotional moments large and small and one shocking, unexpected twist. Click through and let’s get to chatting.
Sybil’s About to Have a Baby. Our episode opens with the arrival of Dr. Clarkson at Downton in the middle of the night. He’s there to check on Sybil, as the family’s worried she’s going into labor. Turns out it’s just a false alarm and Dr. Clarkson starts dropping some medical knowledge on the assembled family members, complete with names of various bits of female anatomy. Robert looks horrified at this and Cora jumps in with a quick “I’m afraid Lord Grantham doesn’t enjoy medical detail” to shut him up. Awkward!
It turns out that Robert has invited some fancypants posh/titled doctor named Sir Phillip Somethingorother to come to the estate to see Sybil, telling Cora that he likes Dr. Clarkson just fine but that hey, he managed to misdiagnose that whole Matthew paralysis situation last year amongst other epic medical failures. Cora doesn’t like entrusting her daughter to a stranger that doesn’t know her, so Robert says that he’ll tell fancy Sir Phillip to include Clarkson on his diagnosis as well.
O’Brien: Evil Matchmaker. O’Brien has figured out that Thomas – along with virtually everyone else in the house – has a crush on new footman Jimmy. Jimmy, being new, has not figured out that when O’Brien starts being nice to you, you ought to start running immediately in the other direction. Therefore, he listens to her quite intently when she tells him that he should basically become besties with Thomas because he knows all about how the house works and has the ear of the Earl. She says she can see Thomas likes him and that therefore he won’t mind at all if Jimmy seeks him out for some career advice and that doing so would probably really help his quest to become first footman over Alfred. Jimmy – who is very attractive but apparently not very smart – thinks this is a great idea. O’Brien smirks.
Jimmy goes to see Thomas and get him to show him how to wind the clocks in the great hall, an activity which is apparently the equivalent of nuclear physics or something. What follows is basically an Edwardian version of that scene from every chick flick ever made where the leading man has to show his date how to fire a gun or swing a golf club. Thomas is allllll up in Jimmy’s personal space and getting a bit touchy feely while he explains how clocks are awesome and basically like people and it’s pretty creepy. Not that I am averse to Thomas getting a boyfriend – in fact I think him having a friend or significant other would go a long way to humanizing him and making him less one-dimensional, but, well, let’s just say his particular style of courtship could use some work.
Planning for a Christening. Or, Hey, Hope You Didn’t Like That Part Where Sybil’s Spine Showed Up Last Week. Sybil is sitting in her bedroom with Mary, looking a bit of a mess and complaining about the trials and tribulations of pregnancy. Mary’s not too interested in the whole headaches and swollen ankles thing, she just wants to have a baby of her own as soon as possible. Sybil suddenly realizes that because she and Tom are currently trapped in England, their baby will have to be christened at Downton, and Tom wants the child to be baptized Catholic, so this is a problem. Mary points out that it’s Sybil’s baby too and that she doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to do. (Finally, someone says it!) Sybil says she’s not really fussed about the Catholic thing – she believes in God but doesn’t really have strong feelings in any direction about organized religion. She also stresses once again that she loves Tom sooooo much and their baby being Catholic will make him so happy. Here’s the thing: I appreciate the show attempting to give Sybil a voice about all this after so long. That’s necessary and right and, honestly, has been sorely needed for a long time. However, when her point of view is so wishy washy and weak and almost solely based on Tom’s feelings about it, it frustrates me, even while I’m relieved that the show is (rather hamfistedly) attempting to address a character weakness. I miss Series 1 Sybil so badly, because as it stands presently, it feels like everything about this character that was striking has been subsumed into her being part of Sybil-and-Tom instead of herself.
Thank Goodness We’re Back at the Prison! Oh, wait, actually, I’m sure no one at all ever has said that. (I wish I could FF this storyline so badly.) ANYWAY, visiting rights restored after last week’s epic Mystery of the Missing Letters snoozefest, Anna returns to visit her husband in jail. They discuss the story that creepy neighbor Mrs. Bartlett told Anna about the day Vera died. Finally the two of them appear to come to the conclusion that I think most viewers probably arrived at weeks ago (or possibly last season) that Vera killed herself and framed Bates for her death.
The two of them realize that they need someone official to interview Mrs. Bartlett, because she is the one who told Anna about Vera’s obsessive pastry making that night, which was ultimately the vehicle for the poison she consumed and an item that would have been inaccessible to Bates. Anna takes this information to Crawley family lawyer Mr. Murray, who promises to visit Bates himself and sort out a strategy for talking to Mrs. Bartlett, whom everyone agrees will be an extremely hostile witness who is already predisposed to wanting Bates to suffer.
Isobel Gives Ethel a Job. Because this Ethel storyline seriously will never ever end, Isobel makes Ethel come pay her a visit. Isobel says she’s been thinking about her since last they saw each other when Ethel had to give her child away and has been wondering how she was living. Ethel’s quick to reassure her that she’s not going back to her life of PROSTITUTION because now without her son to worry about she doesn’t care if she starves and she’d rather starve than live than kind of life. Isobel says that she wonders if Ethel wouldn’t like to come work for her – helping Mrs. Bird out and whatnot around the house (I am sure Mrs. Bird will love that) so that when she moves on eventually she’ll have a respectable reference. Ethel asks Isobel if she’s quite sure she’s thought this through, because obviously the Granthams, their servants and the whole of the village are going to talk about her hiring a woman like her. Isobel says she doesn’t care (obviously) and that everyone else is just going to have to deal with it. I suppose it’s nice enough that Isobel is using her crusading ways to really try and improve someone’s life and that this behavior does really illustrate that under it all, she’s a good person, but why she’s become so fixated on Ethel particularly is unclear. The other problematic bit is that Isobel’s been so focused on CAUSES up until this point when she finally redirects her reforming zeal at a particular person, it’s difficult to tell whether she’s doing this because of who Ethel is as a person – which, let’s be real Isobel can’t know all that much about – or because of the kind of life she was leading. Possibly I’m being too hard on what is, on the surface, a very nice gesture, but it’s hard to tell.
Matthew Wants to Revitalize the Estate. Mary and Matthew are taking a stroll around the estate and looking at some of the adorable if slightly ramshackle cottages. Matthew says that Robert and the estate management have not worked most of the farms on the estate for twenty years and that many of them are just sitting there going to waste. Mary says they can’t turn out all the tenants who live there, but Matthew argues that if it comes to it they should just give them free rent if it means that the land gets used as it ought to. Matthew says that Robert doesn’t really understand this because he seems to equate being businesslike with being mean – “or worse, middle class” – and that means that Downton will continue to struggle until changes are made.
Apparently Making Awkward Baby Comments is a Thing Now. This episode builds on another recurring theme that popped up last week – and that’s when exactly are Matthew and Mary going to get on with the important business of producing an heir. Since the two of them have maybe been married for like three months, the continued harping on this topic seems a bit over-the-top, but let’s just go with it. Besides Mary’s comments to her sister earlier, we also have an adorable but mostly awkward moment between the newlyweds where Matthew expresses how much he sympathizes with Tom, who is clearly terrified and also over-the-moon happy about the impending birth of his child. Matthew clunkily, because that seems to be how he rolls these days, informs Mary that he too would be so excited in that situation – or you know will be so excited whenever it’s their turn. Just in case she hadn’t been paying attention.
After Sir Philip Fancypants arrives, Matthew takes a moment to corral the good doctor after dinner in the great hall – because I certainly can’t think of anywhere more quiet and private in a house full of people who are always eavesdropping – to ask him about whether he thinks that his bout with paralysis might have affected his prospects for fatherhood in some way. (Again, you guys have been married like five minutes Matthew. Chill out!) Dr. Fancypants assures Matthew that there’s likely nothing wrong and that a lot of the problem is probably because he’s anxious about the situation and stressed out. He says he can run some tests if it’ll make him feel better, but he’d advices against it for a while. Yup, definitely going to hear more about this plot point down the road.
Edith the Fledgling Columnist. The editor of another newspaper, the Sketch, saw Edith’s letter to the Times and wants to give her a regular weekly column on the problems faced by modern women. Edith’s pretty excited, because someone somewhere has actually taken notice of her and she seemed to have enjoyed writing about her feelings on women and the vote. Robert is not very excited about this and snappily says that this editor is only interested in his daughter’s name and title, not what she might have to say. His reaction upsets Edith who laments that she’s always the failure in her family and stomps off.
Oops, Mrs. Bird Quits. Isobel informs Mrs. Bird that Ethel’s to come and work for them and Mrs. Bird’s not having it. She says that she can’t work alongside a woman like that and says that she’ll be tarnished by tolerating her. Isobel says she’ll give her a month’s wages in lieu of notice and that’ll be that. Mrs. Bird is shocked because clearly she thought that Isobel wouldn’t really accept her resignation, but she says she’ll go to her sister’s for a while. It’s actually nice to see Isobel stand by her convictions even when it directly impacts her personal life and comfort, but again I have to admit that her obsessive dedication to Ethel is a bit strange. Perhaps it’s because she feels she knows her, I’m not sure. At any rate, Ethel comes to Crawley House and is now, amazingly, Isobel’s new cook. And of course she is horrific at it.
Mrs. Bird does one last thing on the way out – she sends a letter to Molesley that Isobel has hired a PROSTITUTE to work in her house. You can imagine the reaction of Mr. “I think we are staring into the chaos of Gomorrah” Carson to this news. Mrs. Hughes tries to argue with him that this is just Ethel they’re talking about and that Isobel was trying to do something charitable for her. Carson understands this, but doesn’t care because Isobel’s now made it impossible for any respectable person to enter her house. Mrs. Hughes finally gets him to agree that they won’t tell in the house about this news just yet, but he forbids maids or footmen on the Downton staff from visiting Crawley House for any reason as a tradeoff.
OMG, Sybil. Downton Abbey manages to pull off what I think is the first real shocker of its existence as a series, but sadly it’s also an extremely heartbreaking twist. While Sybil is in labor the Crawleys, Dr. Clarkson and Dr. Fancypants have a heated debate about what the appropriate course of treatment is for her – Clarkson is concerned about signs that indicate that Sybil could have eclampsia but Dr. Fancypants insists nothing’s wrong. Cora sides with Clarkson and Robert with Dr. Fancypants and you know once one of them mentions the dreaded word “Caesarian” that something pretty bad is going down.
Sybil starts screaming while they’re all arguing about what they should do, and everyone rushes to her side. The show actually manages to pull off a decent fake out here – where you think that Sybil’s in danger and then Mary appears to announce that Sybil’s had a little girl and everything seems just fine like it’s another one of those happy miracles that skirt the edge of danger that Downton is famous for, such as Cora’s bout with Spanish flu or Matthew’s paralysis. This feeling of safety within the narrative is actually the real fakeout though, because after a very tiny scene between the new parents and their baby, Sybil suffers from horrible post-birth complications and dies later that night. The scene is horrifying to watch, with everything from Jessica Brown Findlay’s uncomfortably realistic depiction of Sybil’s pain to the panic of her family at her bedside, to the desperate pleas of her husband and mother that she stay with them all basically conspiring to make you cry. This scene is pretty much like a punch in the face and that it comes out of nowhere in the middle of the episode is pretty emotionally devastating. For the record, the bit where I teared up was when Robert just said “This cannot be. She’s twenty-four years old.” Gut wrenching.
Grief Comes to Downton. It’s really okay if you decide to spend the rest of the episode crying at this point. We won’t tell anyone. Carson assembles the servants downstairs and tells them that Sybil has died. Everyone looks stricken, even O’Brien, and Carson looks as though he’s aged about thirty years in the trip downstairs. Daisy cries on Mrs. Hughes’ shoulder as Thomas – yes, cruel, frequently horrible Thomas – sneaks into the stairwell to sob alone. Anna follows him out to check on him, and a sniffling Thomas says Sybil was one of the few people who had ever been kind to him. It’s a new feeling, this empathy for Thomas, but the fact that he so obviously and genuinely mourns Sybil says a lot for him.
Cora Blames Robert. Cora sits up with Sybil’s body, taking time to say goodbye to her youngest child. Mary comes to tell her she must go to bed to have the strength to face the next day, but Cora doesn’t want to just yet. She clearly blames Robert for Sybil’s death, and she sends Mary to tell her father that he has to sleep in the dressing room tonight. Way to delegate there, Cora.
The next day Cora lashes out at the rest of the family, saying that she has to write Dr. Clarkson a letter and apologize for their behavior because if they’d listened to him Sybil might still be alive. She also openly blames Robert for their daughter’s death in front of everyone, and poor Robert just stands there and looks so confused and lost. Oh, dear. I mean, okay, yes, Robert and Doctor Fancypants were wrong about Sybil, but Dr. Clarkson has literally already been wrong about almost everyone else, so it doesn’t seem an incredibly odd move for Robert to want a second opinion or to not believe that this would be the one time that Clarkson turned out to be right about something. What happened to Sybil is obviously a tragedy and a horrible thing and it’s clear that Cora is behaving the way she is because she’s in so much pain over her loss, but man. Robert doesn’t deserve this, even if what she says is a little bit true.
Mary and Edith Actually Have a Nice Moment. Mary and Tom are sitting with Sybil’s body when Edith brings word that the undertakers have arrived and the girls take a moment to say goodbye to their sister. Mary laments the passing of the only person living who always thought that she and Edith were such nice people. Edith asks if she thinks Sybil’s death makes it more likely that the two of them will get along better in future. Mary replies that she doubts it, but since it’s the last time the three of them will be together they should love each other now, as sisters should. It’s extremely moving and yet still oddly true to the prickly relationship that exists between the two of them that’s really unlikely to change, despite the loss of Sybil. It’s a nice gesture, I think, to acknowledge that the two of them can love each other without really getting along and that they both grieve for what Sybil was to them. And it feels much more real to not pretend that things between them aren’t magically going to change just because a tragedy happened.
Maggie Smith Proves Why She’s the Best There Is. This is really such a small thing in the course of this episode, but it’s possibly my favorite moment just because it says so much with so little. The Dowager Countess arrives at Downton the morning after Sybil’s death to see the family. Dressed all in black she greets Carson at the door and says that the two of them have seen some troubles together, but nothing worse than Sybil’s death. Carson says that nothing could be worse than this. (Unrelated sidebar: I know Carson’s been the butler at Downton for all the girls’ lives, but I do wonder – was he part of Violet’s staff first? Did he sort of come with the house when Robert inherited it? Has this been established at any point?)
Violet takes a minute to compose herself in the doorway before proceeding ever so slowly into the main part of the house – but there’s a moment where you can see the mask that is the Dowager Countess crack for a tiny second and she’s on the verge of tears and looks for all the world like such a tiny frail old lady, and has to steady herself against the wall before going on. I honestly had this horrific second where I thought she was actually going to fall down and I had so many emotions that seemed out of all proportion to what was actually going on in the scene that I thought I was going to cry again, but I suppose that’s just what Maggie Smith can do as an actress. She’s stunning, and I can’t really think of many other performers that could do so much with a moment that small. (Sidebar: She just won her next Emmy with this scene. Bank on it.)
Wow. What an episode. A lot happened actually – even though I imagine that we’ll probably most want to talk about one particular thing. What say you, Telly Visions readers? Can’t wait to see your thoughts on this episode – how do you feel about the loss of Sybil? Where does the show go from here? Sound off in the comments.