If you have not yet watched the stunning latest episode of ‘Downton Abbey,’ don’t read on. If you have (or just want to find out who died) go to the next page for my review of the understandable but I think wrong-headed shocker. To paraphrase ‘South Park’:
“Oh my God, they killed …”
Sybil! You bastards!”
Poor lady Sybil, dead of eclampsia after giving birth to a healthy daughter. Her medical care turned into a tug-of-war between the eminent doctor whom Lord Grantham called in for the occasion, and the local, loyal Doctor Clarkson, whose warnings were ignored until it was too late. All high drama. But why Sybil?
In that choice, you can see the wheels turning for the future of the series. Now that Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) is gone, will her distraught husband, Tom, dare to take the Granthams only grandchild away from Downton? Killing off Sybil is a way of tethering his character to the series. And because Dan Stevens has announced that he will not return for the next season, Allen Leech, who plays Tom Branson, is positioned to replace Stevens as the series’ resident heartthrob. He’s handsome, he’s now single, and he has his own personal drama. As the family’s former chauffeur trying to take his place in the aristocratic world without losing his identity, he is sympathetic for viewers who favor either the upstairs or downstairs characters — much like Matthew when he first arrived as a middle-class lawyer. Branson has already become Matthew’s ally in trying to make the Downton estate a more modern and viable business. He’s the smart new Everyman among the aristocracy.
All that makes sense; and reportedly Findlay wanted to be free to pursue a movie career. But it’s too bad to lose Sybil as a character. She was, after all, the most forward-thinking and egalitarian of the family, and it would have been fascinating to watch her move ahead in the 1920s. Now Edith, who has dared to write a letter to the editor, has taken up the cause of emancipated women, but being Edith her trail is cluttered with doubts and self-pity and really rotten luck with men. Rather tiresome.
Sybil’s death was, of course, wrenching and enormously sad in itself, the kind of heart-tugging episode a series has to use sparingly. Edith’s death wouldn’t have been half as distressing. But there is still an England … and Tom and the baby and the Dowager and Downton. At least for now.