As always, a reminder: This is a review of the fifth episode of Downton Abbey‘s third season. It will air on PBS in the new year, and if you haven’t seen it I’m urging you not to read. This review contains major spoilers and, in my opinion, watching the episode won’t be the same if you’ve read about it in advance.
In a word? Sob. There have been few hours of television as heartbreaking as this. I’ve written many times about Sybil being my favorite character on Downton Abbey, and I was absolutely heartbroken to watch this episode, in which she dies, progress. It’s the mark of an excellent television show, of course, that it would stir up such strong emotions. Of course Sybil is a fictional character, but great books, films, and television make you care about the people in them. This one hurt.
What Downton did well with Sybil, and what Jessica Brown Findlay always portrayed so well, was her disposition. She was known for being sweet and kind to all. But it never felt sappy, disingenuous, or unrealistic. She wasn’t a girl who saw the world through rose-colored glasses. She was a girl who saw the best in everyone because she wanted to, and who wanted to be the best person. I loved her story of becoming a nurse, her interest in women’s rights, and her relationship with Tom. She was a contrast to her sisters, never sarcastic or petty.
I spent so much of last episode being angry at Tom, but they faked us out. He came through and showed his true colors in telling Mary that nothing was more important to him than Sybil. And the poor man is now all alone with his daughter. Cora pledged to Sybil “We’ll take care of them. We’ll take care of them both.” But the Crawleys aren’t Tom’s family, and Downton isn’t his home. What will he do now? My heart breaks for him.
The way it all happened was gut-wrenching, and I think has permanently divided Cora and Robert. The disagreement over the doctors to begin with, the arguing over the severity of Sybil’s condition. Robert was right when he told the Dowager Countess that there was truth to Cora’s words. He believed so strongly in the word of a doctor they didn’t know that it led to Sybil’s death. Dr. Clarkson wanted to take Sybil to the hospital very early on, and Cora agreed. Robert and the other doctor were too stuck in the traditional way of delivering noble babies at home to even consider the idea that Sybil would be better off in a public hospital getting an operation. And I feel sad for Robert, because no one really could have known, and that’s a terrible guilt to live with.
So many fantastic moments came out of Sybil’s death. Cora and Tom’s heartbreak was painful to watch. The reactions of the staff, especially Thomas, really conveyed how special Sybil was. Carson worships the “upstairs” people, but most of the staff don’t feel the same way. They all knew Sybil was different. The way Maggie Smith simply walked into the house, like taking every step caused more heartbreak, was perfect. And, of course, there was this moment:
Mary: “She was the only person living who always thought you and I were such nice people.”
Edith: “Oh, Mary. Do you think we might get along a little better in the future?
Mary: “Probably not.”
Poor Edith looked as though she’d been slapped. God, I really hate Mary sometimes. Why couldn’t she just say “Well, we certainly should try. For Sybil.” But no. Of course not.
The other plot line, with Anna moving forward in her effort to clear Bates’ name, was overshadowed completely for me. I’ve been waiting for that storyline to pick up, but in this episode I was just too upset about Sybil to really care about Bates, even though I do.
I binge-watched seasons one and two of Downton Abbey last year, and now I can’t believe I have to wait seven days before seeing the next episode. I might watch this whole season over again in January, when my mother and grandmother watch it on PBS. It’s so good, I need to be able to discuss it with them with the details fresh in my mind.