SONIA BRAND-FISHER: In the still relatively new season of “Downton Abbey,” we get an episode so full of sorrow, confusion, and woe that it feels, like tragedy, so out of the blue. Sybil was my favorite of the Crawley sisters, and her relationship with Branson was in turn one of my favorite love stories. Her death felt like one of a dear but distant friend, whom you have always loved and admired and who always gave so much with every decision and every action she made. The glee with which she displayed her turquoise harem pants to her shocked family in Season 1 will never be forgotten, and will always be my favorite moment at Downton. A woman “at the height of her happiness” departs from this world and leaves behind all that she has been so important in anchoring.
I truly didn’t want to say that I saw this coming at the beginning of the episode, with the constant reiterations of Sybil being healthy and alright and comfortable. What made the scene of her death and those that book-ended it so particularly painful was the very obvious shock from the Crawley family and the servants that something of this magnitude could happen, and in turn affect every last person in the house in a different way. More hauntingly so was Sybil’s shock at her own pain in her last moments before her seizure. Sybil’s death was depicted very differently from Lavinia’s silent demise, and certainly not as bittersweet as William’s, or as secretive and sequestered as Pamuk’s. It was violent, awkward, honest, and ugly. It was not a gentle peaceful passing, not was it something kept confined to the smaller wings in the house. Her entire family was there staring, horrified, at a human death unlike what they, minus potentially Sybil, have seen before. This realism, I feel, was necessary to provide that numb, silent pang of suffering that shook the house like lightening, and sent Downton into slugging disarray.
The reactions to the deaths throughout the house were fascinating to watch, especially among Sybil’s closest family. Mary’s coldness maintained in the form of a reserved distance from the situation, taking the place of her mother as Countess in keeping the household running in proper manner and etiquette (wondering about how this event will play into her own decisions about having children). Cora’s bedside vigil following Sybil’s death, delivered in an extraordinary performance by Elizabeth McGovern, cast a macabre veil over their previous scene together, as Sybil was settling down to rest after giving birth. Thomas’s reaction, as the villain treated kindly by Sybil in their wartime service together, was heartbreaking, and reminded me of the degree to which Thomas has suffered in his life, and how rare those people like Sybil are to him. Yet the entrance of the Dowager Countess in her mourning attire, her solid and human moment shared with Carson that united them in sadness and strength, and the otherwise prim and smirking face we have come to love and take solace in on this show gave forth the pathos of a woman processing the death of her youngest granddaughter. And poor Branson, holding his newborn daughter as he fades into the window of a house that marks an institution he resents, as well as some of the most pivotal moments of his life.
Without Sybil to mollify her family members and bridge the gap across political and social lines, the obvious conflict will occur between Branson and Lord Grantham, over many if not everything. Now we have introduced this resentment of Lord Grantham by Cora, who wanted to get Sybil to a hospital when Dr. Clarkson suggested it and Lord Grantham sided with Dr. Tapsell, saying Sybil should stay at Downton and that everything would be fine. Cora punishing Lord Grantham is a plot line that I see getting very old very fast, quite the opposite of the Thomas/Jimmy story line which, with Thomas’s burst of vulnerability following Sybil’s death, might take some interesting turns. And what’s to become of this new evidence in Bates’s favor? For the time being, these questions will have to wait as I, and many others, mourn losing the revolutionary, the gutsy, the elegant, the warm, the compassionate Sybil we loved so dearly.
NAVA BRAHE: I could not possibly add anything to Sonia’s description of the events leading up to, and following Sybil’s death. What I would like to tackle, however, is what this portrayal of a young woman’s demise in childbirth means outside the bubble of popular culture.
I read something yesterday comparing “Downton” to any other soap opera when tragedy strikes a beloved character. What differentiates “Downton” from a typical soap opera, many of which have met their demises in recent years, is the reality of the lives portrayed in this series. There is no fantasy or alternate universe here, like there is in “Genoa City” on “The Young and the Restless,” or on popular British soaps like “EastEnders” or “Coronation Street.” When I watch an historical drama like “Downton,” what keeps me coming back is the painstaking attention to detail paid to the lives of each character, not whether so-and-so will miraculously come back from the dead after the previous actor wound up on the wrong side of a contract negotiation and was written out until a proper replacement could be found.
What I believe Julian Fellowes has done in the third season of the show, is give us quite an education on what life was like for women in the 1920s. We see how hard the female servants must struggle to not only hold down a job, but to preserve their honor, even though their very existence means little to the majority of the people they serve. This was clearly evident when Isobel’s cook, Mrs. Bird, refused to work with Ethel, quitting her job to preserve her good name. Apparently, the very whiff of scandal surrounding Ethel could not only tarnish the good name of her employer, but those of her fellow servants.
Then, we have Lady Edith Crawley. Who could have foreseen an even greater tragedy than getting jilted at the altar? Edith seems to be heading in the right direction as a modern woman, seriously considering the magazine job against her father’s wishes. What woman in the year 2013 could imagine having to make that choice? Unfortunately, a decision like that was a fact of life for women of Edith’s generation. Even if they were not to the manor born, a woman had to self-scrutinize her every move in order to maintain her precious reputation.
Now, we have the ultimate sacrifice made by Lady Sybil Branson: death in childbirth. Here, Sybil had no choice but to surrender herself to the care of two male physicians, each believing they knew what was best for her. The more sympathetic of the two, Dr. Clarkson, knew Sybil was in danger, and wanted to do everything possible to save her life, as well as the life of her child. True, a Caesarian section in 1921 was not the routine procedure it is today, but Dr. Clarkson seemed to have a better idea of the danger Sybil was in. I was horrified at the lack of confidence Lord Grantham had in him, based solely on his supposed misdiagnosis of Matthew’s spinal injury. Dr. Tapsell, on the other hand, exhibited an arrogance that was shamelessly misogynistic, making it seem like childbirth was something so routine, that a lady’s maid could deliver a child while simultaneously lacing up a corset. His demeanor spoke volumes about how upper-class men viewed women. It was utterly shameful.
Lastly, Cora’s reaction to Dr. Tapsell’s neglect, and Robert’s decision to allow him to continue attending to Sybil, illustrates a distinct “Americanness” that no proper British woman could conjure. As touching as Violet’s encounter with Carson was, she seemed resigned to yet another tragedy in her family, rather than angered at the squandered opportunities that could have saved her youngest granddaughter. Cora’s reaction was genuine anger at her husband, and rightly so. If he would have stopped to consider just how risky childbirth is, he would not have allowed Dr. Tapsell to placate him with his dismissive attitude.
Yes, we got quite a lesson in Episode 4. I always joke that I never would have fared well as a nineteenth century woman, what with all the corseting and coquetry that would have been expected of me. I don’t think I could have handled an early twentieth century upper class English life, either. If Sybil were my daughter, I never would have let a charlatan like Dr. Tapsell anywhere near her. Sadly, the decision most likely would not have been mine.
HOWARD MEGDAL: I, too, wouldn’t have done well with corsets, Nava. You are not alone.
I tend to agree fully with how you both have described the death of Sybil; terribly affecting, and from a dramatic standpoint, not the worst idea. Sybil’s drama was, to an extent, played out, I believe, with the new baby in tow. Still, a difficult loss, especially as such a likeable character on Downton.
By the way, that other character we are browbeaten into liking, Bates, struck a very different note this week. That the Bates storyline was criminally absurd has gotten ignored, thanks to the death of Sybil. Just to recap, we have:
1. The time when pie was made as an exonerating detail from Vera’s friend.
2. That somehow, the guard and Bates’ cellmate conspire to get Bates to tell the cellmate exactly what will free him, and why. This, despite the fact that they are sworn enemies.
3. Then, the cellmate and guard managed to take this information no one actually can believe Bates would give them, and fix things- presumably, Vera’s friend is no more. What else? Could a prison guard and prisoner have enough money to bribe her? She’s dead, right?
But seriously, what is this storyline? And was it really necessary for Bates, as he’s meeting with his lawyer, to emphasize that all he could think about was Lady Sybil, who he’d worked for over a period of what, a few months? We get it. He’s virtuous.
We loved Lady Sybil because she wasn’t always striking one note; her upbringing, and her desire to do right, came into constant conflict. Oh, if only Julian Fellowes would allow for a bit more depth and variation in Bates.
Regarding Ethel, the high comedy of seeing Isabel deal with whatever that kidney souffle turned out to be, and imperfect tea, was a distinct pleasure, watching ideals come up against realities. But for me, the conversation between Carson and Mrs. Hughes about Ethel was similarly enlightening. By the way, this ties into my point about Bates.
Carson is my favorite character. It’s not even close, and I am partial to many others. Do I agree with his old-fashioned views of women? I do not. Was it probably hard for some in the Downton audience to hear him describe Ethel in such irrevocable terms? Certainly, and far less would be tolerated out of, say, Todd Akin.
But this is part of the depth of character Carson embodies. It wouldn’t seem right for Carson to embrace liberalism here, any more than in his reaction to the idea of Lady Edith writing for a newspaper last week. Now, I certainly don’t agree with that, either, and Sonia and Nava provide ample evidence that Lady Edith needn’t avoid these pursuits because of her gender.
But this is Carson. He is absolutely fleshed out and human.
If Fellowes isn’t careful, he’s going to try and force feed us so much of Bates’ goodness, we’re all going to turn on him. And I don’t want to live in a world where we need to start rooting for that odious cellmate.