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‘Downton Abbey’: When Bad Things Happen to Nice Characters Who Reject Their Upbringing

'Downton Abbey': When Bad Things Happen to Nice Characters Who Reject Their Upbringing

The article below contains spoilers for episode five of the third season of “Downton Abbey.”

Even if you remained faithful to the U.S. broadcast dates for the current season of “Downton Abbey” and refrained from torrenting the episodes after they aired months ago in the U.K., chances are that dark rumblings reached you via Twitter or Facebook. Rumblings that all was not destined to be crumpets and Edwardian frocks on this season of Julian Fellowes’ hit period drama — that there would be consequences grimmer and more forbidding than being pushed to marry the conveniently handsome and noble distant relative set to inherit your family’s estate.

But no amount of carefully skirted cross-continent spoilers could leave one fully prepared for the deeply troubling death of Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) in childbirth in last night’s episode. This was a traumatic development for so many reasons — first and foremost that Sybil, only 24 and recently married to Irish former chaffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leech), was the most hope-filled, forward-looking member of the Crawley family. The youngest daughter of Lord (Hugh Bonneville) and Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), she constantly pushed against the constraints of her birth, both in pursuing political causes and in her work as a nurse during the war, with her class-leaping relationship with Tom being the ultimate rebellion, and yet one that was entirely guided by an emotional connection. Sybil was also the kindest of the Crawley girls — as Mary (Michelle Dockery) observed to Edith (Laura Carmichael) as the sisters bid a teary farewell to their sibling, “she was the only person living who always thought that you and I were such nice people.”

Sybil represented a world in which the circumstances of one’s birth didn’t necessarily dictate the life one would live — an idea that runs counter to everything Downton represents, with its traditions and responsibilities of nobility and privilege. And she didn’t simply die, in the mechanics of the show, because she turned away from what the estate represented, she died a martyr to this break from the old ways after returning to her home following her husband’s flight from Ireland.

It wasn’t enough that Sybil clashed with her father over her choice of beau and chose love over her inheritance — in the end, in the midst of a troubled labor, control was taken away from her and placed between two dueling doctors who disagreed over her condition, and who were symbolic of trust in class versus more difficult realities. Family physician Dr. Clarkson (David Robb) thought there was something wrong with Sybil, spotting signs of eclampsia in her muddled condition and urging she be brought to the hospital for immediate surgery, while Lord Grantham’s hire Sir Philip Tapsell (Tim Pigott-Smith) insisted everything was fine and that his colleague was “upsetting these people for no reason at all.”

It’s that talk of not wanting to trouble people needlessly, of Lord Grantham being reluctant to hurt the upper class doctor’s feelings, that makes the death of Sybil particularly hard to take. From a remove, neither option being offered was good — the Caesarean section being proposed would also be dangerous and painful for the woman, and there were reasons to doubt Clarkson’s diagnosis after certain medical mishaps in season two. But in the details, the decision came down to Lord Grantham’s desire to trust a doctor who came from and of a background he understood, one of lord and ladies and ensuring “a secure dynasty.” It also spoke to the man’s well demonstrated ingrained need to pretend everything is going right even as signs indicate otherwise, a combination of stiff upper lippiness and obliviousness that landed the estate in financial trouble, and that lead him turn to Tapsell rather than Clarkson because of the false certainty the former offered.

Coming as it did after the birth, after things looked safe and every felt embarrassed for getting to worked up, Sybil’s passing was notably awful in the helplessness it engendered, as she experienced a seizure that killed her, the doctors finally in agreement that there was nothing to be done to help her other than to try to weather the convulsions while her loved ones begged her to hold on.

After a lifetime of going against the path laid out for her, Sybil died due to one she had to say over, the terrible decision left to the men in her life, with the one who loved her most getting no time to make the call. It has not been a good season for Lord Grantham, between the bankruptcy, the mismanagement of the estate and his response to Edith’s relationship with Sir Anthony (Robert Bathurst), and while this development can’t be blamed on him, it does seem the latest sign that the aristocratic traditions he clings to so fiercely are hurting those around him, even the daughter who tried to leave them behind. Sybil’s dying may not be the show’s means of punishing her for leaving the Downton way of life, but it did seem a way of twisting the knife in the character of her father.

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