TV

'Downton Abbey: Season 3, Episode 5': Let's Break Into a List to, You Know, Lighten the Mood

Serious business occurs in this week’s episode, and it doesn’t involve marginal progress in one of the lame stories, or a footman spilling something at dinner. No, this is about as good as the show gets, and it really is predicated on shocking you.

Wow. Well, just wow. Serious business occurs in this week’s episode, and it doesn’t involve marginal progress in one of the lame stories, or a footman spilling something at dinner. No, this is about as good as the show gets, and it really is predicated on shocking you.

Here goes. In this episode, Sybil delivers her baby against the backdrop of some doctorly disagreement, before, hours later, succumbing to eclampsia and, incredibly, dying. I must say that I found this development profoundly surprising, mostly because she seems like such an odd character to kill off and because I had no prior notion that it was going to happen. While I fear that much from this third series has been spoiled by anyone who ever reads things about TV on the internet (which, by definition, includes you), I can attest to the fact that, for an unspoiled viewer, this was a shocking and momentous episode. Honestly, this is all so dark that, like a character in Glee spontaneously breaking into song, I feel compelled to break into a list. You know, to lighten the mood a little.

Six Observations about Sybil’s Death

1. But They Never Killed Mulder!

It bears mentioning, right at the start, that Jessica Brown Findlay did not intend to renew her contract, which ended after the third season and which directly led to her character’s death. Fellowes stated in an interview, “I’m rather amused by the idea that these plot decisions are taken by producers and writers rather than the actors. In truth, they are taken entirely by the actors.” Mental note: don’t cross Julian Fellowes. He will kill you off.

In all seriousness, though, this is a fascinating and somewhat bizarre decision on the part of Fellowes. While it would be odd for Sybil to exist in the world of Downton Abbey but never appear on the show, it certainly would be explainable. Living in Ireland, she has no reason to appear on the series if she was unwilling to appear in future episodes. The point to be made here is that there are plenty of ways to write off a character other than kill off the character (with Mulder on The X-Files, for example, they tried several of method), particularly in a show with such a massive cast. With Sybil, Fellowes chose to cut ties in the most painful way possible for his viewers.

2. Julian, I Can See Your Pen

For someone like me, who wishes to analyze and write about structure, who deifies showrunners and thinks deeply about narrative structure, Fellowes’s quote dredges up some problematic thoughts that makes writing about television fundamentally harder than writing about film. When we start to think about budgets, contracts, and scheduling, analyzing the structure of television becomes increasingly difficult, if not downright impossible. It's interesting, though, to consider how different showrunners handle a situation like an actor wishing to leave the show.

Of course, on one hand these are entirely situational, and every situation is composed of a variety of variables (how important the character is, what the circumstances of his/her plot are, what season the series is in, how popular it is, how much longer it plans to air). On the other hand, though, a wide range of decisions could be made, from the gentlest -- recasting the character, seen on soap operas constantly, on Bewitched famously, and on Roseanne probably (right?) -- to the harshest, killing off the character.

Fellowes dispatches Lady Sybil in a fascinating way; while her death isn’t meaningless (she delivers a living child and provides some final instructions to her family about its care), it certainly isn’t painless (for her, that is). Her death is memorably and impressively gruesome, and Fellowes does not spare the character from the intense pain that accompanies eclampsia, as Sybil’s death scene is graphic and difficult to watch. While for the remainder of the list, I will consider the death in the context of the show, these are important questions that haunt both the rest of the season and Downton’s legacy.

3. Our Weekly Thoughts about Structure

While I will withhold most of the discussion about larger structural matters until nearer the season’s conclusion, it bears noting that Sybil’s death occurs right at the center of the season. It pushes us further away from that pod of early episodes, which feel increasingly separate from what has and is coming after them. Storylines like the near-downfall of Downton, Mrs. Hughes’s cancer scare, and “Wow, Shirley Maclaine!” recede further into the background. And while the structure of the episode – Sybil dies right in the middle of it– downplays its gravity, the deeply moving scenes of grieving that fill the episode’s second half ensure that we don’t take it lightly and make clear that the show will not move past it quickly.

4. Didn’t You Guess I’d Talk about Predictability

What I find fascinating about Downton is its deep predictability on a local level, in comparison to its unpredictability on a global level. This episode is a great example of that. Within the episode,, after about five minutes, it became very clear that something was going to happen to Sybil. The arrogance of the upper-class doctor, with whom (obviously) Lord Grantham aligned himself, in comparison to the cautiousness of the local doctor, was an obvious signpost that he would be on the wrong side of the diagnosis. As soon as Doctor Clarkson took the opposite position, with Cora pushing for her husband to listen and Branson stuck in the middle, the audience knew that there was going to be trouble for Sybil. Her scenes throughout the early part of the episode began to feel appropriately FINAL – instructions for how to raise the baby, significant conversations with her mother, father, and sisters – and everything about the episode’s tone clued any kind of active viewer that something was very wrong. Fellowes regularly uses this technique to draw viewers into the proceedings, making us feel a part of them by teaching us to read the signs and predict what will happen next.

In contrast, though, on a global level the show is deeply unpredictable. Both smaller and larger plots vacillate wildly in terms of believability – remember when Matthew got paralyzed for a while, and then wasn’t? Remember when Lord Grantham tried to cheat on his wife, and then only sort of did? This episode is a prime example of that. Remember when they believably wrote out a semi-major character, then brought her back only to kill her off?

5. A Brief Feminist Reading

This episode brings many of the gender issues raised throughout the season (including the recurring debates about women’s suffrage, Edith’s fledgling attempts at journalism, and the need for a male heir), into sharp focus. As the males sat around bickering about Sybil’s fate, Cora in particular intuited that something was off with her daughter. Significantly, Sybil gave careful instructions throughout the episode for the care not only of her child but also of her husband. However, the episode is particularly rough on Lord Grantham, whose decision to cast his lot with Sir Phillip (any doctor going by “Sir” is probably trouble) demonstrates that his reluctance to embrace the future is leading to the most dire consequences imaginable.

6. Best Episodes?

Writing this blog has forced me to think about Downton Abbey – a series that I usually watch in marathon viewings and analyze in season-long chunks – from an episodic perspective. While the show is perhaps better analyzed in season-long form (the first season, in particular, was chopped up and pieced back together in slightly different form, for some reason, for airing in the US), this method helps us see the extent to which this episode represents Downton Abbey at its finest. Filled with emotional moments that register deeply – the heartbreaking and hilarious scene of Mary and Edith mourning their dead sister, the moment when we realize how deeply Cora blames her husband, the Dowager Countess’s powerfully sad reaction, the emotion we see in Carson, other staff members, and surprisingly even in Thomas – most everything here works. And while it is sad to see Sybil, and Jessica Brown Findlay, go – she is a multi-faceted character portrayed by a talented, up-and-coming actress – at least Fellowes and co. make the most of her loss.

Next week: Probably no B-stories about malfunctioning toasters.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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