Downton Abbey, Episode 3.4
Written by Julian Fellows
Directed by Jeremy Webb
All season long a dark clouds have hung threateningly over the Downton household, but thus far, our esteemed characters have managed to dodge disaster at every turn. So naturally something drastic had to take place to remind us viewers not to get comfortable, that a real danger does exist and that no one is really safe, especially our most beloved darlings. There’s no question that after last night, Downton will never be the same. There is now a huge gaping absence in the exhaustive roll call that is the cast list.
Up until now episodes of Downton Abbey have certainly coddled its audience and lulled them into the conviction that serious illness is no big deal. Whether it was Mrs. Hughes’ benign health scare at the beginning of this season or Matthew’s miraculous recovery from a spinal cord injury, so far the rule has held that neither disease nor disability can keep a good character down. But not so for poor Lady Sybil.
Having Sybil succumb to eclampsia was an incredibly bold choice. Sybil may have been the one character with no outstanding conflicts, which may also make the argument that she was the easiest to remove. Edgar Allen Poe and every other romantic writer throughout literary history have taught us that to pluck a heartstring there’s nothing like the death of a young innocent woman. And no one was more innocent in the schemes and controversies that regularly crop up at Downton than Laby Sybil, a point which several characters take every opportunity to elucidate. Whether it is her bickering sisters, the butler who has known her since birth, or even the Machiavellian valet downstairs, everyone revered Sybil as a paragon of righteousness, and so did we fans, which is not to suggest that the third or fourth reminder of Sybil’s saintliness didn’t get a bit wearisome.
The creative forces laying waste to our sympathies this week couldn’t even afford dear, gentle Sybil a dignified passing. She suffers an ugly death, and the camera does not blink away for a second as she convulses in the arms of her panicked husband. Family members scramble about her sick bed shouting powerlessly for something to be done. Not only does the unflinching camera capture every disheartening detail of the violent death, but it returns time and again to Sybil’s greenish corpse, forcing the distraught viewer to confront the cold reality of this. Sybil is dead. This happened, and there’s no going back.
Sybil didn’t deserve to die. There’s no question there, but the question remains, did she have to die? That uncertainty will haunt fans as much as it tortures her mother. Robert’s overblown sense of worth and propriety has cost him a lot over the span of his character arc, but this time it may have cost him his daughter. That Robert sided with the doctor who had the most aristocratic credentials should surprise no one, but that his mistake results in such dire consequences surely comes as a shock. Cora stands ready to blame her stubborn husband, and no doubt countless others will as well. If this isn’t the wake-up call Robert needs to abandon his pride, what else can do it?
Whether Sybil’s death was necessary from a storytelling standpoint or even preventable does not lend itself to easy answers, but it certainly made very dramatic viewing. A tragedy of this kind unites upstairs and downstairs in their grief. It even exposes a rarely seen sensitive side in Thomas, who monopolizes a lot of screen time this season to indulge in a little personal growth. Thomas so frequently operates as a caricature of selfish ambition, so seeing him weep for his former wartime colleague serves as an indication of his multi-faceted personality and sheds light on the incredibly tricky balancing act an ensemble show of this magnitude has to manage in its creation of well-rounded characters. The Dowager Countess also trades in her typical catty comments for crestfallen commiserations and one moment of clarifying wisdom. It seems even the most obstinate of personalities lose all pretense in the face of such staggering loss.
As heart-wrenching a goodbye as it was, this untimely death endangers the stability of the Crawley’s family life in ways it has not yet faced. It leaves in its wake a series of complications that beckon anything but simple solutions. While some characters bond in their grief, others are divided. Downton Abbey exists in a more uncertain world now, one of equally exciting and potentially devastating possibilities.