Downton Abbey Review: Mourning Sickness

By MaryAnn Sleasman

Jan 28, 2013

Downton Abbey S03E05: “Episode 5” (or S03E04/“Episode 4,” according to PBS)

Sorry guys, can’t talk right now, I'm busy crying my eyes out. The mascara’s running and there’s a snot bubble and I’m just really unfortunate-looking at the moment. It’s all Julian Fellowes’ fault, too. Classism, sexism, and ego collided on Downton Abbey tonight to send “the sweetest soul” under its roof to that big suffragist rally in the sky and I’m not okay with it. Nope. Not okay with it at all.

It was time for Sybil’s bun to leave the oven and Robert, after breaking Edith’s heart (again) by implying that the editor who offered her a job cared more about her title than her intelligence, called in fancy Sir. Philip, baby doctor to the stars, to take over in lowly Dr. Clarkson’s place. His initial reasoning was solid enough: Clarkson misdiagnosed Matthew’s spinal injuries after the Great War and didn’t catch Lavinia’s flu symptoms in time to prevent her death. He was a fine enough country doctor, but Robert didn’t want to take any risks concerning his daughter. Okay. Cool. That’s fair. I guess.

The fairness melted away, however, when Sybil began to show signs of complications that Clarkson picked up on and Philip dismissed. Her fleeting lucidity and swollen ankles all pointed to eclampsia. Sir Philip’s response? “Maybe she just has thick ankles.” Robert sided with Philip because he was the one with “Sir” in front of his name and talking about girl parts was too icky for his gentlemanly self to manage. It was especially telling that none of the women present shied away from the less savory details of childbirth, and none of them, including the one actually giving birth, were asked for their opinion until it was too late. By the time Tom reached out to Cora for advice and she enthusiastically supported taking Sybil to the hospital, the damage had been done.

Downton Abbey touches on patriarchy a lot—Cora’s fortune automatically became Robert’s upon their marriage, Mary is only slated to become the next Countess of Grantham because of her union with Matthew, and throughout Sybil’s terrifying delivery of the wee baby Branson, the men around her were the ones who ultimately determined her fate. However, Sybil was in the unique position to be screwed over by not just one, but two -isms. The general idea back in the day—and that sure, in some circles, continues today—was that upon marriage, a woman left her father’s care and entered her husband’s, because we all know women are incapable of taking care of themselves. That traditional model was overridden in Sybil’s case by class. We can’t know for sure whether Tom would have made a better call if he'd been consulted first, but given his willingness to reach out to Cora, we can assume that he would have at least been more open to listening to the opinions of those other than Sir Philip.

Tom was only allowed to enter the debate when everyone else overruled Robert’s iron grip on the decision-making, and Robert was clearly unhappy about it, arguing that he had hired Sir Philip to care for Sybil and he was the “master” of the house. Being “master of the house” meant he had the final say regarding Sybil’s treatment, even though Clarkson couldn’t even mention testing her pee without making the man gag. His ego had been simmering all night, but it began to boil over when Tom was brought into the fold, with Violet dryly remarking that “the decision will be made by the chauffeur.” So not helping matters, Dowager.

A small, but healthy baby girl was delivered and it looked like danger had been averted, but that was just Mr. Fellowes waiting for us all to relax before he finally pulled the trigger. He’s a cruel one, to be sure.

So here we are, firmly in the mourning period. There’s a baby with no mom and the only couple we have left to squee over is Matthew and Mary and they’ve been a giant snooze all season—when they haven’t been arguing over everything. Cora and Robert are fighting now, though I think their disagreement is more than justified. Meanwhile, O’Brien and Thomas are still fighting, Daisy still hates the new girl, and Bates is still in prison. There’s a shiny new baby at Downton, but hardly anyone feels like celebrating. Even Thomas’s usual gruffness and the Dowager Countess’s dependable wit have been humbled by the loss of Sybil. Thomas remarked, “In my life, not many people have been kind to me. She was one of the few.” Of her late sister, to her other sister, Lady Mary said, “She was the only person living who thought you and I were such nice people.”

Downton is a colder and emptier place with Sybil gone, and that final scene of Tom standing in the window, alone with his baby, was the visualization of the sentiment everyone hinted at. The great old houses like Downton are large and grand monuments to esteemed (and let's face it, not always so esteemed) families, but they’re made out of glass and stone—materials that, by their very nature, are cold and inanimate. The warmth and fondness that the Crawleys have for their estate is tied to something deeper than the house. Without the lives that thrive within it, a house is just a bunch of walls, and walls can be very isolating and very lonely.

What do you think the future holds for the Crawley/Branson family sans Sybil? Is there any hope for Cora and Robert to reconcile?


– Dowager Countess Sass of the Night: “A woman of my age can face reality far better than most men.” Clearly.

– I think I kept it together pretty well until the Dowager Countess lost her composure. I mean, if she can’t maintain herself, how can I be expected to?

– Sybil wanted Baby Branson to be Catholic because Tom really cared about it and she didn’t. I’m sure Robert will be thrilled. Just last week he was telling us about how much he hates those pesky, traitorous Catholics.

– Shameless leering at the wardrobe time: Everybody had such lovely frocks for Babywatch 1920!

– Ugh. O’Brien. There are boundaries. You’re crossing them. This prank war isn’t fun anymore.

– Ethel Parks, Ex Ho: Isobel hired Ethel to help out Mrs. Bird. Mrs. Bird quit because eew prostitute cooties. Unfortunately, Ethel is a sucky cook who can’t even get tea right.

– The Adventures of Detective Anna, Super Sleuth: Bates and Anna put the pieces together and realized that Vera poisoned herself to frame Bates and Mrs. Bartlett knew it. They began the process of getting Bartlett to fess up. Does that mean it’s #FREEBATES time soon? I’m getting really sick of typing that hashtag every week.

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  • BrbaraCoelho1 Nov 02, 2013

    This may be one of the worst deaths I've ever seen in a TV show. The way they all had to stand by helplesly while she died was horrible. I hate this show (not really, but right now I do)

  • SaraLarsson1 Jan 30, 2013

    Watching this episode when it aired in the UK was one of the worst TV-experiences of my life, seriously.. I've never cried as much as I did that night. I just wanted DA to be over after that, everything seemed so dark, depressing and low.

  • rasa_radz Jan 29, 2013

    I teared up a little just reading this, even though I watched the episode weeks ago. I remember thinking I'm not going to cry, because I knew the death was coming and had time to prepare myself, but once I saw the horrified/scared/panicked faces of Thomas and Cora as Sybil was about to die, I just started weeping.
    Also, I think it's interesting how Robert reacts to medical issues, especially related to reproduction/birth, as compared to Matthew and Tom. Remember, he made that same grossed out face when Cora started going into details about her pregnancy in season 1. I think it's yet another difference in generations, clinging to the traditional as opposed to the more modern, when child birth and sex in general become less of a taboo, though even today a strong feeling of shame/embarrassment over sexual matters persists.

  • frilia Jan 29, 2013

    I'm so sad & furious that I'm not watching it anymore although I've been devoted from day-1 and got co-workers to watch...just when they let Sybil die!? I'm upset, my co-workers are upset. It's just too much.

  • annySauv Jan 29, 2013

    well since Season 3 got a tad supernatural with the dead Lavinia's message to Anna and Daisy via the Ouija Board perhaps they can go all out with the Haunting of Downton and have Jessica Brown Findlay return for 2 or 3 episodes as Lady Sybil's ghost .

  • annySauv Jan 30, 2013

    whoops, I see my mistake up there, the Ouija Board scene wasn't in season 3 nor was it in season 2, it was in the 2011 Christmas special which was a stand-alone episode .

  • frilia Jan 29, 2013

    A "Sybil" ghost...I was thinking the SAME thing! Because there's no one else to REALLY like after that.

  • Akyriel Jan 29, 2013

    I was initially confused. I had thought when Cora said she would have taken Sybil to the hospital hours ago, that is what they rushed to do, but then next moment the baby was born in the house?

    I liked Sybil, mostly cause she was the cute one, but she seemed to be more off screen than on and had the weakest storyline that may have become deeper with her husband's action involving Ireland. Did anyone think the actress herself was pregnant in real life? She almost seemed so or it was good makeup and wardrobe.

    Anyone know if Shirley MacLaine comes back? It would seem really odd, and disappointing, if she is not there for her daughter. More so, if there is no mention of her again during this. It's too bad they had her go back home instead of a possible trip around Europe to visit a place or two where she could then bounce back to be there thus continuing MacLaine's appearance this season that I felt to be a bit cut off.

  • katikool Jan 28, 2013

    I couldn't watch this episode again, but it's still fresh in my mind :(
    Rest in peace, sweet Sybil. Your death made me cry more than that time Charlie died on Lost. Remember that time Sybil wore pants to dinner?? And 'member that time she was a suffragette??? Remember that time she decided to learn how to cook? And she didn't even know how to boil water?? And 'member when she became a nurse during the Great War? Sybil, you were the best sister by far. Downton Abbey is so much less without you.

    After I mopped up all my snot and tears, I also thought this episode was a very timely and brutal lesson on "THIS is what happens when men make women's healthcare decisions for them." It originally aired smack in the middle of the US election when too many Republicans couldn't keep their feet out of their mouths regarding women and choice. Yeah, it's a British show. But the timing was perfect.

  • esterv Jan 28, 2013

    Since I live in Europe, we have already seen the whole season but I wont spoil anything. But omg why did they let Sybill die! I was hoping all the way to the end of the episode that she would suddenly come alive! She was my favorite character of them all.

  • graindesable Jan 28, 2013

    I don't know why Sybill had to die : did the actress want to quit the show ? That, I can accept. If Fellowes made Sybill die just to revive a show that has been dead or comatose for two years, then I think it was a bad idea. Sybill wasn't my favorite character, Edith is (which says a lot about my life but nevermind!), but she was one of the most interesting ones. Now, we only have Edith and her editor (played by Charles Edwards) to play with ; all the others are boring !
    PS: I thought Violet's voice cracking was the most saddest part of this episode : to see that strong woman so weak made me cry even more...

  • Pawtley Jan 28, 2013

    Thomas's reaction was the one that caused me to let loose; despite his temper tantrum last season, he always seemed excellent at keeping everything together, and hidden, as he really has no choice. And I agree with you, O'Brien has got to STOP. Is she also hoping Jimmy is the collateral damage here? Since he is really Alfred's obstacle in the hierarchy, I think.

    Two other things: why is poor "middle-class" Isobel always depicted so annoyingly, even when she's trying to help? And anyone else find formerly near-sighted Patmore hilarious with her seeing all the pining that Daisy misses?

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