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

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.