You may or may not remember this, but a few weeks back I wrote about my pledge to try to keep things spoiler-free when it comes to “Downton Abbey.” This hasn’t been easy given that everyone across the pond got to watch the entire third season before we even got started. But before you read this recap, I’m going to politely suggest you watch this episode — the fourth of the season — before you do. Then come back. We’d love to have you, and it’s not that I don’t want you here or anything so impolite. But, until you watch the episode, I’m begging you, please don’t read this yet. Please. Really. I’m not joking around, you guys.
Of the two awful spoilers I stumbled across for this season, one of them was a part of this episode. Knowing what was coming made the eventual reveal feel not so much shocking as inevitable and lent a sad sense of foreboding to scenes over the last three episodes that really shouldn’t have been there. Of course, given that you HAVE SEEN THE EPISODE (seriously, I am trying to delay discussing this particular detail until those of you who are thinking you’ll just take a quick peek and it’s probably nothing all that significant anyway and hey, you survived Edith getting jilted at the altar just realize that, truly, I have your best intentions at heart and it’s better not knowing until you see the actual show), you know that…
… Sybil — the nice one, the baby, the rebel, the least bristly of the sisters — dies
Of course, the episode starts out with much excitement and promise. But, as we know, medical care in the 1920s was far removed from what it is today, so I’m sure there was considerably more panic behind the happy faces than we’re used to seeing in today’s high-tech delivery ward. Back then, rushing to the hospital wasn’t an easy or quick option even for the very rich, so Sybil’s decision to stay at home to have the baby is hotly debated downstairs — at least until Mr. Carson tells everyone to get back to work.
Upstairs, the debate is focused on getting Sybil the best care possible. Cora, the Dowager Countess and the other sisters are all rooting for family physician Dr. Clarkson, as he has known all the girls since they were born. Lord Grantham, however, wants Sir Philip Tapsell to do the honors, as he’s more of a celebrity ob/gyn, having delivered “many lords and royal highnesses.” So, having Sir Philip deliver your baby is kind of like going to Beyonce’s baby doc even though he’s never seen you before except at some fancy dinner. And it makes about as much sense.
Cora doesn’t care to include Tapsell, but, being a team player (and, as we know, it’s Team Lord Grantham all the way), Robert gets his way. This is one of those moments that will haunt Cora until the day she dies, and that is not hyperbole — it may actually be her final thought as she lays on her death bed. If only she’d kicked Lord Philip and his snotty ass out of the house shortly after dinner. If only, if only.
But, initially, the debate between Clarkson and Tapsell seems like a petty argument not unlike a frat boy battle about Cheetos versus Doritos. Still, if we know what’s coming (thank you, spoilers! Not!), we see the warning signs in otherwise heartwarming scenes. “My back hurts, my ankles are swelling, and my head aches,” Sybil sighs to her sister Mary. Can you say pre-eclampsia? Somebody, help her!
I will say, though, that there is the chance (not that it makes it any better) that Sybil might not have been saved in either case. For anyone who’s really interested, there’s a good article at the National Institutes of Health website. I won’t get into it here, in case anyone has Robert’s distaste for medical details, but let’s just say the 1920s weren’t a great time to suffer pre-eclampsia, whether it was diagnosed early or not.
As we all know, Clarkson, the “middle class” doctor, insists with increasing panic that Sybil needs to be taken to the hospital as Tapsell dismisses him at every turn. “What’s needed here is a knowledge of childbirth, nothing more,” Tapsell sniffs, and that’s just fine with Robert, who cares more about pedigree than aptitude or skill. It’s at times like these that I most appreciate that Cora is a “have gun, will travel” American, as she is able to stand up to her stupid stubborn husband and insist Clarkson not only be involved, but that they listen to him when he points out that Tapsell is a friggin’ idiot and Sybil is in trouble.
Not that it matters. But it almost does.
Cora (along with the other women in the family) has convinced Robert to let Branson decide whether or not to take Sybil to the hospital (best line of the episode: the Dowager Countess insisting, “The decision lies with the chauffeur,”). He’s ready to do exactly that — and then, the baby is born. Too late. If you’re wondering, this turn of events is why I had to look up that NIH article. In the 1920s, one of the only cures for pre-eclampsia was to rush delivery (usually through a very, very risky cesarean). Once the baby came, well, the gig was up (I’m guessing the other treatment options of the era either hadn’t reached Downton or hadn’t been developed yet). There was, literally, nothing left to do but hope she survived.
But of course, we don’t know that yet. The baby’s fine, Sybil seems fine, all is well in the world. It’s simply time for Sybil to get some sleep. That is, until the convulsions start. This is possibly the most gut-wrenching scene in the history of “Downton,” and it’s terrible to watch Branson pleading for Sybil to live, not understanding what’s happening. The rest of the Grantham family appears shell-shocked, Tapsell looks utterly surprised (after all, he’s ALWAYS right), and Clarkson looks away, having the unhappiest case of “I told you so” ever. It’s horrible. It’s shocking. And, of course, incredibly sad.
Even though I knew it was coming, I still found myself surprised. In a sense, last season had so many ridiculously happy twists for the upstairs crew (Matthew is paralyzed? Not for long! Matthew is betrothed to another? Not for long! Mr. Bates is going to be hung? Not so fast!) that I was still thinking there might be a last minute save. After all, the family has been able to suffer glancing blows from world events (the advantage of having three girls is having no sons to lose in the Great War, though there are subsequently fewer men to marry those daughters).
Before she dies, Sybil begs Mary to fight her corner and prevent Branson from taking a stable job in Liverpool. He needs to battle for his country, and Mary agrees, probably thinking it won’t really be her fight to take on — after all, she’ll just be providing back-up to Sybil. But we now know that Mary’s promise to her sister is one she made to a dying woman, and I don’t think Robert will get his way on this one.
Another thing Robert can probably forget about getting ever again is affection from Cora. “But this can’t be. She’s 24 years old. This cannot be,” he says as he looks down at Sybil’s still form, as if his brain simply can’t fathom a world in which both he and Tapsell are wrong. But Cora, who is right far more often than she gets credit for being, is quick to move into the anger step of the Kubler-Ross model.
The next morning, while the Grantham’s shuffle through the drawing room in shock, Cora insists on sending word to Dr. Clarkson to apologize. “If we’d listened to him, Sybil might be alive. But Sir Phillip and your father knew better, and now she’s dead,” she says, with a sharpness we’ve never heard from her before. The Dowager Countess tries to brush aside her claims, but Robert won’t let her. “There is truth in it,” he says. For once, he’s right. When Cora says to Mary, “Could you ask your father to sleep in the dressing room tonight?” she says it lightly, but I’m guessing Robert will be sleeping there for a long, long time.
Other things happened in this episode, though Sybil’s passing vastly overshadows all of them. Still, we can expect more on these later.
Thomas has feelings, not all of them welcome
Before we completely move on from Sybil’s passing, I would be remiss not to mention how the sad news plays downstairs. Everyone liked Sybil — as Thomas tells Jimmy before the birth, “She’s a lovely person… like you.” Still, it’s a surprise when Thomas dissolves into tears after she dies. “Don’t know why I’m crying, really,” he says. “She wouldn’t have noticed if I’d died… In my life I can tell you not many have been kind to me. She was one of the few.”
Though everyone is hurting — as Carson notes in another affecting scene, “I knew her all her life, you see. I knew her since she was born” — it’s Thomas’ unexpected outburst that has perhaps the most impact. It also puts his growing interest in Jimmy in another light — yes, he may be interested in seeing what he looks like under his livery, but more than that, Thomas is craving affection. Unfortunately, he’s not going to get that from Jimmy.
When O’Brien suggests the new footman ask Thomas for pointers on how to wind the clocks, Thomas is very happy to help — and keeps his hand on Jimmy’s shoulder longer than he needs to. Later, Jimmy complains to O’Brien about Thomas being “so familiar all the time,” which O’Brien quickly dismisses, suggesting any efforts to push Thomas away will probably get him fired. I’m not entirely sure what O’Brien is up to. Is she hoping Thomas and Jimmy will be caught in a compromising position? Or does she just want Jimmy to break her former friend’s heart? Whatever the case may be, O’Brien is surely molding whatever happens next.
Anna and Mr. Bates have reason to hope
It didn’t seem like Anna’s visit to Mrs. Bartlett served any purpose — at least, not until she talks to Mr. Bates about it. He informs her that her timeline makes it clear that she made the pie well after he left. “It was revenge!” Anna squeaks with righteous indignation. “Oh, I hope she’s burning in hell.”
Mr. Bates shakes his head. “Don’t go down that road. Once you do, there’s no way off it.” The road she needs to go down, however, is to make sure someone official can get Bartlett’s story from her before she knows that it might get Bates sprung from jail.
Sounds great? Right? Well, his charming cellmate Craig is back, and he and the dirty prison guard are determined to rain on Mr. Bates’ parade, as his turning the tables on them earned Craig another year in the clink and the guard a forma reprimand. I hope this ends well, but I don’t have a good feeling about it, do you?
Matthew considers his spine
Matthew, who has frequently been spineless since arriving at Downton Abbey (unless, you know, it’s about sticking by a woman he doesn’t love or stubbornly refusing to read a letter intending to give him a buttload of money), has new reasons to think about it this week. First, he asks Tapsell if his, ahem, accident in the war might have bruised his baby-making abilities. “My dear Mister Crawley, can I point out the word that gives you away? Anxious… whatever you do, don’t feel anxious,” Tapsell reassures him, making his only logical comment for the episode. Matthew and Mary are eager to make babies, but I have to think the events of this episode cool their jets.
Moving on to Matthew’s metaphorical spine, he talks to Mary about how Downton is being mismanaged, but she’s far from sympathetic. Her father simply cares more about people than money, and kicking an old farmer off his land, for example, just isn’t the Grantham way. “I think [Robert] equates being businesslike as being mean,” Matthew says. “Or worse, being middle class, like me. Middle classes have their virtues, and husbandry is one.” This, of course, ties into Sybil’s sad storyline. Dr. Clarkson is one of those middle-class men, and yes, he knows something about, in a sense, husbandry (well, delivering babies, not animals, but you get the idea) — and more than the upper crust equivalent. I hope, though, that Matthew won’t have to suffer Clarkson’s unhappy “told you so” fate after Downton is sold for parts because of Robert’s stubbornness.
Mrs. Crawley considers her position
Speaking of stubborn, Mrs. Crawley is determined to help Ethel. And she has a lovely idea — she’ll hire her to help Mrs. Bird! “But I think it’s going to be a lot more complicated than you allow,” Ethel says nervously, knowing all too well how women who have fallen as far as she has are treated and perceived in Downton.
Mrs. Crawley, though, is unbowed. “Then we shall have to face those complications together shan’t we?
It’s hard not to take a certain satisfaction in Mrs. Crawley’s encounter with Mrs. Bird, who clearly thinks she’s going to get Ethel kicked out on her ass. “If I tolerate her, I will be tarnished by her,” she huffs. Mrs. Crawley politely (though pointedly) suggests that no one would ever think Mrs. Bird to be a prostitute, then tells her she’ll get pay in lieu of notice. It’s one of the nicest ways I’ve ever heard someone say, “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out,” honestly.
Of course, before she goes, Mrs. Bird has to write a letter to Molesley to inform him of this scandalous turn of events, and Carson (being so very proper) is ready to ring the alarm bells. It’s Mrs. Hughes who kindly reminds him that this is “our Ethel” we’re talking about, and she’s trying to turn her life around. Just for a little while, she begs him to keep this information to himself. But the fact that it comes up at all suggests that this is going to be a very big deal, and I’m not sure if Mrs. Crawley will be able to shake some modern-day sense into her relatives.
Then again, Mrs. Crawley may find she should have gone to bat for a better cook. Edith makes terrible food and, yes, terrible tea, and it’s one of the few lighter moments in this episode watching her choke down disgusting stuff, then politely suggest Ethel try something different next time.
Edith gets a column
As usual, Edith gets lost in the bigger, more dramatic stories, so I feel I should probably include her very, very tiny story arc here. Anyway, she gets an offer to write a column for the paper. Lord Grantham suggests they’re only buying her name and title and could care less about her writing, and the Dowager Countess sneers that she’ll get an offer to appear on the stage next week. Matthew tries to be encouraging, but it’s a drop in a bitter pond. “Don’t bother, Matthew. I’m always a failure in this family,” she says. I’m hoping that, following Sybil’s death, that she and Mary might become closer, though Mary isn’t entirely convinced. Still, she suggests “Let’s love each other now as sisters should,” and it’s reassuring to think that Edith, who has lost her ally in Sybil, might have discovered a new one in Mary.
In other news, Ivy likes Jimmy, Alfred likes Ivy, Daisy likes Alfred, no one likes Daisy and I’m not sure any of these crushes are going to be requited. Ah, youth.
Were you surprised by Sybil’s death? Do you think Cora will ever forgive Robert? Do you think Mr. Bates will get out of jail? And if you actually KNOW the answers to these questions, do not post spoilers!