Bullet Points – Downton Abbey 03:04

It’s hard to do my usual quippy retorts about this episode. Not that there weren’t things that we could make fun of (O’Brien’s machinations, Edith’s new little gig, Isobel’s surprising new staff choice, the dueling doctors, and more) but this is one of the few times that Downton Abbey has managed to pull out a truly shocking moment. Mind you, I’ve seen all of the episodes of Series 3, so I know what’s coming (and if you have too, please keep the commentary spoiler free!), but this was one of the truly jaw dropping moments in the show’s history. And because of it, it forced all of the actors to bring their A game, thus making this one of the best episodes in the show’s history.

What am I talking about, gentle readers? Well, read on. But you might want to fetch the newspapers, the doctors, and the solicitors. And a proper cup of tea. You’re going to need it…

Before we go any further, if you haven’t seen the episode, watch it first before reading this. I’m deadly serious about this. The only way the shocks work on this show is if they are seen with fresh eyes and allowed to be truly shocking. 

  • But let’s start first with Edith, who has been offered a column to write in the paper. Of course Lord Grantham and the Dowager C(o)untess (the o is optional people, and that’s the way Violet likes it!) have to rain on Jan Brady Edith’s parade. Matthew’s encouragement notwithstanding  it’s nice to see Edith’s bitterness turning into a “Look At All The Fucks I Give” resilience that will give her the strength to keep going and do whatever the hell she wants.
  • Meanwhile Bates and Anna may have found the loophole to get him out of prison. But first, Bates has to have another “chat” with Craig, the inmate trying to set him up, and the crooked prison guard. This doesn’t look like it will end well.
  • In other news, Isobel has decided to hire Ethel on to help Mrs. Bird. which causes Mrs. Bird to leave since she refuses to work with a “fallen woman.” And of course word gets back to Carson. Once again, Mrs. Hughes encourages him to have something resembling common sense; after all, it’s “Our Ethel.” That said, the scene where Isobel tries to choke down Ethel’s bad tea is hilarious and a reflection of one of the great theme’s of this show: stubbornness.

And here’s where I break to expand upon on that point: one of the biggest themes of Downton Abbey over the entire series as a whole is its look at how people become stubborn and set in their ways and beliefs; which leads to various results good and bad. Anna’s stubbornness has lead to marriage to a man that she often has to slap sense into. Isobel’s form of it sees her taking up worthwhile causes, but enforcing her middle-class morals and standards on situations where they often don’t apply or take into account the very people she’s trying to help. Matthew’s stubborn streak is all about pride; he will save this family by his own resources and nothing else. Mary’s version of the Crawley Curse is that she is like her grandmother; she will do everything in her power to save the estate and is pissed that everyone around her isn’t taking this as seriously as she is. And both Robert and Carson’s stubbornness is born of a simple thing; neither man can see that the world is changing underneath them and they are unable to see it, or worse, adapt with it.

Okay, back to the bullet points…

  • Speaking of stubbornness, Matthew is convinced that Robert is running Downton into the ground (to the point of actually having a clandestine meeting with Robert’s solicitor who agrees with Matthew’s fears). Mary, however, thinks that it is rude to have such a meeting behind her father’s back (and, even though it was unsaid, you just know she’s having a hard time swallowing such news from a middle class man – the solicitor that is, but it could apply to Matthew as well) and her father just cares more about people than money. 
  • But one thing Rober does care about, more than anything else, is his pride. That’s why he brought in Sir Philip Tapsell (“he’s birthed many lords and royal highnesses”) to deliver Sybil’s baby, in spite of the fact that Doctor Clarkson gave birth to all the Crawley sisters. Even though all of the women in the family think that Clarkson should do it, and that they should listen to his advice about moving Sybil, but Tapsell and Robert won’t hear of it.
  • “The decision lies with the chauffeur!”  Begging your pardon, Ma’am, but he is your son in law!
  • And then, the good news! It’s a girl!!

  • And then… the shocking death of poor Sybil, thanks to a clusterfuck of egos, shortsightedness, stubbornness  and pride.  Not only did we have that touching moment of Tom and Sybil relieved at the birth of their daughter, but then to see it happen so shockingly fast was a truly stunning moment (as in, I was stunned by what I had just saw). And it was truly shocking. Over the course of the series, the death toll has been limited to either servants, wrong fiancés, or Persians. The Crawley have managed to avoid most of the heartache (and death!) that hit England after World War I. So to see Sybil taken out so quickly was a true shock. Major kudos to all the actors for nailing the scene.
  • Side note: If you want to know what Sybil died of, here’s the article on it. Mind you, in the 1920s, even if they had gotten Sybil to the hospital in time, it would have meant a caesarian, which was a dicey proposition back then.
  • Meanwhile, everyone responds to the horror of Sybil’s sudden demise. Thomas’s breakdown (“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.”) was surprising (a) coming from him, and (b) in light of his falling into O’Brien’s trap of trying to put Thomas in a compromising position with Jimmy. Also touching was Carson stating that he knew Sybil all her life (which, as the senior member of the household staff, he would), as well the Dowager Countess’s line to Carson, “We’ve seen some troubles, you and I. Nothing worse than this.”
  • (Side Note: As much as she tried to get everyone’s favorite valet in trouble, tonight proved there is something more evil than O’Brien’s Bangs!)
  • And you would think that this horrifying moment would bring the remaining sisters together. “Oh, Mary. Do you think we can get along now?” “I doubt it.”
  • But that’s nothing as CORA. IS. PISSED. All I need to say is one line – “Please send our apologies to Doctor Clarkson. If we’d listened to him, Sybil might be alive. But Sir Phillip and your father knew better, and now she’s dead.”  Okay, one more line. “Could you ask your father to sleep in the dressing room tonight?” Elizabeth McGovern was on fire in this episode and her mixture of anger, regret, and resentment was a sight to behold as she was taking nobody’s bullshit, up to and including her mother-in-law’s.
  • And speaking of that mother-in-law, all it takes for Maggie Smith to give a master’s class in acting on how to convey a character’s grief is a cane, a veiled hat, and a slightly painful limp. A simple moment rendered perfectly that showed the toll Violet has taken to keep this house going.

Photo Credits: PBS.org

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