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Tragedy struck Downton with the shocking death of Lady Sybil. Sybil was the daughter with the most well rounded character of the three. Always the peacemaker, Sybil’s presence was clearly missed in this episode and coming episodes. Despite Sybil’s unfortunate departure Downton Abbey made it clear that this show was still about waning faith in the power of Old Britain aristocracy in this season’s strongest episode.
The curious decision of Lord Robert to bring in Sir Phillip from the city, a doctor who specializes in baby deliveries, should have been the first hint that all would not end well. While Dr. Clarkson’s muddled track record is well documented (Robert lists the mistakes Clarkson has made) it is still very odd that Robert was so ardent in his support of Sir Phillip, especially when Sybil began to show serious symptoms of eclampsia. The constant bickering between Sir Phillip, Dr. Clarkson, and Robert was reminiscent of a schoolyard squabble with Robert and Sir Phillip not even willing to consider Dr. Clarkson’s recommendations.
The original fake out was employed to perfection as a lone Sybil scream stopped the debate between Robert and Cora/Mr. Clarkson whether to perform a Caeasarian section (in hopes of working around the eclampsia) dead in its tracks. When it seemed Mr. Clarkson’s prognosis was correct it turned out merely to be Sybil entering the birthing process. All seemed well after it was announced Sybil had given birth to a healthy baby girl, with all remaining qualms quelled once everyone piled into her room to look at the baby and talk to Sybil. Oddly, however, Sybil made sure to tell Cora, her mom, to make sure she would take care of Tom and her newborn. Clearly some foreshadowing for what was to come but is it possible Sybil somehow knew all was not well or was it just her fatigued body and mind repeating what her and Tom had discussed earlier?
Sybil writing on her deathbed from seizures was an image that will not be soon erased. However, instead of trying to help Sybil somehow it seemed as though Robert, Sir Phillip, and Dr. Clarkson were more interested in placing blame and saying, “I told you so” than anything else. Even though Dr. Clarkson declared that there was nothing anyone could do once the seizures began both his and Sir Phillip’s nonchalance to the whole situation seemed off. One would think the doctor would at least try to soothe Sybil despite the infantile medical knowledge available to them. Seeing the reaction to Sybil’s death from the wait staff was very poignant. It was almost as if their reactions were more heartfelt than those of the Granthams. And it was very nice to see that Thomas is in fact a real human capable of sorrow and grief as well, humanizing his usual detestable character was a very smart decision. Also coming from the aftermath of Sybil’s death was Mary’s declaration to try and reconcile her and Edith’s difference and, more importantly, Cora placing the blame for Sybil’s death on Robert for trusting Sir Phillip and not Dr. Clarkson.
Sybil’s death also helped to reinforce the main theme that runs throughout the entire series, the slow and continuous weakening of the old British aristocracy. Robert, more than any other character (although Mary is hot on his heels), has always been the prime representative of the traditional methods and roles of the aristocracy. Downton Abbey has always been about the gradual fall of Robert and those like him and season three has further pushed this mindset’s decline. It was made clear in this week’s episode that blind faith in the aristocracy’s ability to do what is right for the people of lesser class is no longer an option. Robert’s continued ardency in his support of Sir Phillip and his medical judgment was Robert clinging to the last shreds of his once infallible supreme power. The waning trust in his abilities was further perpetuated by his mismanagement of the estate and his investment gone awry from earlier this season.
The main theme is very prevalent in the season’s remaining main storyline as well. Matthew’s concern with how the estate has been run seems to be the focal point for the remaining episodes in the season. Much to Mary’s Chagrin, Matthew knows that he must wrest the power to manage the estate from Robert. Matthew even made sure to hammer the point home that his middle class sensibilities will make Downton profitable again, which is an attack at Robert’s background and capabilities. What remains to be seen, and Mary even questions it, is whether Matthew will be able to maintain the level of humane thinking for the estate tenants that her father has as Matthew tries to make Downton profitable. Matthew’s very poor taste, although an example of his pragmatism and middle class sensibilities, to meet with the lawyer about running the estate the day after Sybil had died seems to hint at an upcoming battle for Matthew’s soul being waged between capitalistic shrewdness and empathetic magnanimity.
Some of the lesser plots progressed as well although they were completely overshadowed by Sybil’s death. Daisy continued to be cold and harsh towards Ivy, the new kitchen aid, because Alfred is interested in Ivy. Mrs. Patmore tried to calm Daisy’s bossiness by advising her that her meanness towards Ivy would not make Alfred like her anymore while also revealing that Ivy is more inclined the Jimmy’s (the new footman’s) affections than Alfred’s.
Mrs. Crawley’s reclamation of Ethel forged on this week as well. Mrs. Crawley decided to hire Ethel as a housemaid, which forced her cook to quit because of Ethel’s prostitute past, which in turn meant Ethel was promoted to cook. And Ethel’s cooking skills are substandard at best. O’Brien’s plan to force Thomas’s sexual preferences into the open by advising Jimmy to seek Thomas’s advice is going nicely. The Bates case could break open if Mrs. Bartlett gives her truthful confession about seeing pastry dough under Vera’s fingernails.