Darker Days at 'Downton Abbey'

So, that was the big terrible Downton Abbey event that those in the U.K., and those Stateside who pirated the show early, have been gasping about for a few months.

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So, that was the big terrible Downton Abbey event that those in the U.K., and those Stateside who pirated the show early, have been gasping about for a few months. Some of us watching last night may have already been spoiled — damn you, Wikipedia! — but it probably came as quite a shock to most. It's arguably the biggest thing to happen on the show so far, so let's take a moment to issue a big SPOILER ALERT to anyone still not caught-up. OK. Everyone still reading who wants to be? Great, let's talk about it.

Poor Lady Sybil. The youngest of the Crawley daughters (now a Branson) was ready to give birth, though it wasn't the happy, excited scene we usually see in stories like these set in modern days. No, nearly a hundred years ago giving birth was a dicier prospect, even with the wealth and access of a family like Sybil's. So there was a lot of dark tension in the air, as the Crawley family doctor, Clarkson, became concerned about Sybil's progress, but was met with skepticism by the fancy nobleman doctor, Sir Philip, whom Lord Grantham had brought in from London. Robert, perhaps distrustful of Clarkson after he wrongly assessed that Matthew would never walk again and failed to properly treat the doomed Lavinia, wanted the best care he could get for his daughter, but alas his faith was ultimately misplaced. After a mean fake-out that had mother and child (a girl) healthy and happy post-labor, Sybil began suffering seizures associated with eclampsia, just as Clarkson had feared she would. And then, rather quickly, she, well, died. Yup. In a wrenching, genuinely frightening scene, Sybil's family looked on helplessly as she seized, Branson and Cora in particular pleading with her to stay with them. Elizabeth McGovern, often off-puttingly stiff and affected, did some of her best work in these moments, as did Allen Leech. A terrible scene, but oddly one of the show's technical highlights.

So why now, why Sybil? Well I suppose one of the reasons could be that actress Jessica Brown Findlay has become something of a hot property, with big film projects coming up and likely more in the offing. Can't be shackled to some TV series if you want to become a big movie star! She might be this show's George Clooney. Let's hope she's not its David Caruso. In terms of the world of the show, Sybil's death somewhat usefully highlights several things about the time period. There of course were those strange scenes of Lord Grantham and the doctors discussing her fate, without consulting her husband until it was far too late. Robert's stubbornness once again highlighted the rigid social strictures of the day, with value placed on propriety and upstandingness rather than practicality. He didn't even want to hear the word "urine" — as if he'd rather politeness reign over procedure. And, of course, Sybil's unfortunate fate was that of many mothers of the day, with medical knowledge of the time such that even Clarkson's proposed C-section could have been a death sentence for both mother and child. It's a grim reality to be sure, but I suppose one has to respect Downton for not shying away from such harsh truths.

Still, what an overall bummer this season has been, eh? And this the awful climax. It seems like almost every character has reason to be miserable right now. Aside from the Sybil tragedy, of course, Mary and Matthew's new marriage is already floundering, Edith was left at the altar, Robert has lost control of his estate, it seems that Thomas is being set-up for some (somewhat undeserved) comeuppance related to handsome young Jimmy, and though Anna thinks she's found the key to Bates's freedom, dark forces are gathering at the prison that could ruin her plans. Downton has never been as airy or upbeat as its whiff of soapiness and wild cult success might suggest, but this third season has been particularly punishing. It's not that something like Sybil's death feels inorganic to the story exactly, it's just that I miss some of the gauzier thwarted romance and social intrigue of the first season. Anna and Bates's courtship, Mary and the Turk, Thomas's denied advances. It all felt plenty vital and exciting, so do we really need all this added doom and gloom to keep the dramatic tension afloat? And now we've got to deal with everyone being depressed about Sybil for a while, when really what I want to watch is Edith starting her journalism career, Thomas stealing a kiss or two, Daisy figuring out her romantic issues, and Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson talking sweetly to each other some more. I'm sure we'll get all of that, but there will be an awfully dark pall cast over it.

Ah well. We'll just have to wait it out and see what rays of sunshine we can spot. Despite its gloominess, this has still been an engaging season, far more so than a lot of the scattershot, downright hokey stretches of the one previous. I'm not too keen on watching everyone in the house be in mourning for the next couple of weeks, but I'm curious enough about other subplots that I remain hungry for the next episode. There's no indication that things are going to wind up in good stead for much of anyone by season's end, but there's still some small reason to hope. It's always darkest before the dawn, right? Even in cloudy old England.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.