Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Downton Abbey S3, E4: So That's Why Sybil Hasn't Had Much Character Development Since Series Two...

Oh man.  A few posts ago, I mentioned that I read a major spoiler for the series.  Yep, it was for this.  I started having suspicions that this would be the episode when the previews didn't feature anything heavy.  Edith gets offered a newspaper column!  Ethel burns the souffle!  That meant they were hiding something.  Hmm.

I was never as attached to Sybil as many people, mainly because I never felt that the thing that made her most popular -- her total ease with shedding class conventions -- was terribly realistic.  However, she was still a likable character, and her death was a shock that has sent the Internet world reeling.  In reality, Jessica Brown Findlay wanted to leave to pursue a movie career, while Allen Leech (Branson) wanted to stay, so it makes sense that Fellowes couldn't just send the Bransons to Ireland to disappear forever.  Still, it does feel as though Sybil left behind so much unfinished business... not the least of which was her newborn daughter.  Farewell, Sybil.  I'm sure you're still breaking down social barriers in heaven.      

Plot Synopsis 

Sybil's delivery date is drawing near (she has been pregnant since the Series Two Christmas special).  Rightfully suspicious -- for a change -- of the local doctor, Dr. Clarkson, after he misdiagnosed Matthew's paralysis in Series Two, Lord Grantham decides to call in a specialist, Sir Philip Tapsell.  I would say that the "Sir" influenced him more than anything else, but then again, the man was knighted supposedly because of his good reputation.  He keeps saying that Sybil is completely healthy and normal, which of course, should be cause for immediate concern.  If I hadn't been spoiled for this episode, I would have been able to tell that Something Wasn't Right by the fact Sir Phillip kept saying it was.  Oh, and the fact that Sybil's face was pale and she had dark circles under her eyes.

Dr. Clarkson disagrees strongly.  He notes that Sybil seems confused and her ankles are swollen, possible signs of pre-eclampsia.  His concern progresses to alarm, and he says that Sybil needs to be taken to a hospital to have a Caesarian, or she and the baby could die.  There is a lot of back-and-forth between him and Sir "Everything's Fine" Philip -- too much back-and-forth.  Lord Grantham sides with the one with the title, while Cora favors Dr. Clarkson.  Then everyone remembers that Branson exists, but before he can make the final decision, Sybil goes into labor.

Before this, she has a conversation with Mary about the baby's baptism.  Sybil doesn't care whether the baby is baptized Catholic or Anglican, but is willing to have the baby baptized Catholic because she loves Tom so much.

The baby is born, and it's a girl!  Everything seems fine, with mother and father and baby all together, and weary happy music playing.  But you know that something is wrong when the happy music isn't happier, and it disappears quickly as Sybil tells her mother that she needs to sleep.  She also gasps out what would be her final wishes: that Cora help fight to prevent Branson from becoming an auto mechanic in Liverpool, which would be a step backwards.  From what, though?  Branson is supposed to be a journalist, but for which newspaper?  Does he cover every violent struggle, or does he just write op-ed pieces pontificating?  He obviously can't resume his journalism career any time soon, now that he can't even set foot in Ireland.  Why couldn't he be a mechanic and a columnist?  Damn show and its poorly thought-out characters.

So Sybil goes to bed, and all seems normal, until in the middle of the night, everyone is awakened by the sounds of her screaming.  Sybil is having seizures and is completely out of it, and Branson is trying to get her to calm down.  But what's really disturbing is how strained her neck is, as if her head could snap off at any moment.  Branson and the rest of the family note that Sybil isn't breathing, and both doctors just stand there, and it's pretty terrible.  Then all at once, Sybil's skin turns grey.  She's gone.  Lord Grantham, slow as ever, mutters that it can't be.  "She's only 24 years old."

After her death, everything at Downton is heavy and dark.  The servants are depressed now that the only Crawley they ever really liked is gone.  Thomas weeps in the outside yard, remembering how he and Sybil worked together during the war.  Cora blames Lord Grantham for Sybil's death, since he was the one who brought in Sir Philip, and who sided with him.  You could argue that the situation was too murky for any blame -- except for Sir Philip, that is -- but this has been SO long in coming.  I'm glad Cora blames her husband.  I want her to blame him, and for everything to come out about how she's tired of caring about his stupid ancestral estate, how she resents that he lost her fortune, how angry she is about the contempt he has for her family and where she comes from.  Then I want her to take Edith on an extended trip across the Atlantic, where Edith meets and marries a rich bootlegger.

In the meantime, Cora has a touching moment with Sybil after her death, where she says that Sybil will always be her baby.  Mary and Edith have a semi-touching scene as well, where Edith asks Mary whether Sybil's death will bring them closer together, and Mary answers honestly that it probably won't -- but that doesn't mean they can't share a moment now, since this is the last time the three sisters will be together.  And poor Branson, whom I never really liked until this episode, just seems lost.

Believe it or not, there are other plot lines in this episode, some with humor.  Isobel -- strangely missing in action during the dramatic scenes -- has taken Ethel on as her new cook and general housekeeper, and Ethel keeps making a mess in an attempt to impress her new mistress.  Meanwhile, Daisy treats Ivy, the new kitchen maid, rudely because she is jealous that Alfred likes her.  Mrs. Patmore finally takes her aside and tells her that being rude won't make Alfred like Daisy, and it doesn't matter if Alfred likes Ivy anyway, because Ivy prefers Jimmy.  Who, by the way, is busy getting touched inappropriately by Thomas.  Er, not quite how it sounds.  O'Brien decides to set up Thomas by telling Jimmy to stay close to him and submit to whatever caresses Thomas forces upon him.  I assume that she knows Thomas is gay, but don't recall when she first found out.    

In the never-ending Bates prison plot line, the Prison Conspiracy takes action to prevent Bates from getting released.  Bates and Anna realize that Vera cleaning dough off her hands meant that she baked the very pie that poisoned her to set him up.  Why would anyone think Bates baked her a pie?  Never mind.  Anna wants to get a sworn statement from Vera's friend about the matter before she learns that it could help Bates, or she might refuse to talk -- though I'm pretty sure they had subpoenas back then.  The Prison Conspiracy overhears Bates talking to Lord Grantham's lawyer and decides to get to Vera's friend first.

Meanwhile, Edith gets an invitation to write a weekly newspaper column.  Matthew supports her, but Lord Grantham nastily tells her that they only want her for her title.  Is it me, or do Edith and Matthew have greater chemistry than Mary and Matthew?  I guess it would be impossible to have less.  In this episode, Mary manages to understand Matthew's reasons for modernizing the estate for about two minutes before she turns against him.  She overhears Matthew discussing his plans with Lord Grantham's lawyer on the day after Sybil's death and is outraged.  I could support her outrage if her point was that on the day after her sister's death, no business of any kind should be discussed.  Instead, she frames it as a betrayal of Lord Grantham.  Daddy's girl to the end.

Other Observations

Paging Martha Levinson...  So it made sense for Cora's mother to travel across the Atlantic for Mary and Matthew's wedding, but not for Edith's wedding or Sybil's funeral?  I know it was quite a trip in those days, and her treatment at Downton Abbey was pretty insulting, but it seems like at the very least, she would have returned for the funeral.

And Where Was Isobel?  At one point in the episode, when Carson found out that Isobel had hired a former prostitute, he forbade any of the servants from visiting her house.  Had this prevented Isobel from learning about Sybil until it was too late, that would have been an almost genius move by Fellowes.  Because no way would Isobel Crawley stand there and let a bunch of men bicker over what to do when someone's life hung in the balance.  She would have stood chest-to-chest with Sir Philip and told him that he was being a huge ass, then made immediate arrangements to turn the sitting room into an operating theatre.  This would be after she visited Sybil and examined her herself, and was able to confirm Dr. Clarkson's findings.  No doubt Dr. Crawley had a case exactly like this one, so Isobel would know what to do.  She might have even guided the doctors in the proper way of performing a Caesarian.  And everyone's life would have been saved, yay!  Okay, maybe that wouldn't have all happened, but no way would Isobel have stood by passively while the doctors fought.  The reason she didn't come, as one forum member noted, was because Julian Fellowes wanted to make sure that there was no possibility that Sybil would be saved.

However, I doubt that Isobel was kept in ignorance due to the servants' prejudice.  Sybil's pregnancy problems stretched over more than one day.  Even if no servant had alerted her, I would have thought Isobel would be curious enough to visit.  I imagine Matthew might have told her at some point what was happening.  Not only was Isobel not present for the pregnancy crisis, but bizarrely enough, I don't even remember seeing her on the day of the funeral.  

If You Want to Stay Unspoiled, Don't Do Google Searches, Either.  If you want to, say, find out a little more about what movies Jessica Brown Findlay will be in or her thoughts about leaving the series, resist the temptation to Google if you live anywhere outside of the UK.  You will end up learning far more than you ever wanted to know about where the series is headed.  Damn our delayed start date.

Next Time: Branson wants his daughter to be baptized Catholic and Lord Grantham erupts.  Mary actually tells her father he's wrong!  Seas part and animals start speaking.  


  1. Taking her out of the picture to lessen the horror? Maybe. DIDN'T WORK. Wasn't in love with this character either AND YET. Jessica's fault for making her so lovely and her death so hideously awful. Your analysis is the best I've found online (kudos for seeing both problem and solution re Isobel), of this ep and DA generally. Sweet mobile template too.

  2. I was also terribly disturbed with the scene of Sybil's death.

    1. It was surprisingly graphic. I'm a little shocked that Downton Abbey would be so willing to subject its viewers to what was essentially five minutes of horror. What is this, Little House on the Prairie?