(Not So) Quick Thoughts: A Wrenching Turn in Downton Abbey, Season 3

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This post contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Season 3 of Downton Abbey, through Episode 4 (of the U.S. broadcast)/Episode 5 (of the U.K. broadcast).

Up until last night, I thought something was lacking in Season 3 of Downton Abbey.

I couldn’t quite pinpoint it, but somehow, I was less enthusiastic about what was happening.  The story introduced conflicts that were solved by the next episode, if not within the episode itself.  New characters seemed to melt into the background, though if they were interesting like Martha, they disappeared far too soon.  The Big Wedding happened, but we didn’t see it.  Edith was yet again the unluckiest Crawley sister.  Bates was stuck in jail.

And then this episode arrived.  Now last week’s convoluted plot involving Tom and Sybil makes sense: Julian Fellowes needed an excuse to get them back to Downton so that we could bear witness to this week’s events.

The Most Gut-Wrenching Scene in Downton History

Lady Sybil died.

Unfortunately, I had run across a spoiler about this (while reading an article about Michelle Dockery’s miniseries, Restless, of all things), so I was prepared for it to happen.  While watching the scene, I couldn’t help being slightly annoyed that the spoiler had prevented me from being completely in the moment – because what a moment on the show that was.

From what I hear, the Screen Actors Guild awarded the Downton Abbey cast the award for best ensemble in a drama series literally right as Sybil’s death scene was airing on the east coast.  If the cast hadn’t won this year, I would vehemently argue that they would deserve the award next year for that scene alone.

Even though I knew what was going to happen, I wasn’t prepared for those faces: Tom’s, Mary’s, Cora’s, Edith’s, Robert’s, Matthew’s, and the doctors’.  In the moments after Sybil stops moving, as Tom and Cora continue to plead, they’re all we see.  And then the baby gives a wail, reminding all of us that someone else will be just as impacted as these characters – if not more so – by what transpired.

The Characters Try to Make Sense of It

But I think the events that happened afterward were even worse.  The stunned looks on the servants’ faces when Carson tells them the news.  Mrs. Hughes comforting Daisy.  Thomas breaking down in front of Anna.   As Mrs. Hughes says, “The sweetest spirit under this roof is gone.”

There was Cora’s final scene with Sybil.  Cora, not even taking her eyes off her youngest daughter as Mary comes to talk to her.  Cora, promising Sybil that they’ll take care of Branson and the baby.

Then there was Mary and Edith’s sort-of truce by Sybil’s body.  Mary and Edith have had their differences, but they’ve always been there for Sybil.  Driving in the night to stop her from eloping.  Attending the wedding in Dublin when the rest of the family was too stubborn to go.  It almost seems as though they can get past their differences for Sybil’s sake, for the sake of the sister who could see the good in both of them.  “She was the only person living who thought you and I were such nice people,” says Mary.

And whatever you think about Maggie Smith winning award after award for this show, she deserves all the awards next year for her scene walking away from Carson alone.

Looking Forward

The episode ended with Branson holding the baby, looking out of one of Downton’s many windows.  What the future holds for him and for the rest of the characters is uncertain.  But one thing’s for sure: Downton Abbey got its heart back last night.  If only it hadn’t been so heartbreaking at the same time.

For anyone who hasn’t seen it: PBS has a short video with some cast members’ thoughts on the events of the episode, which I’ve embedded below.

What did you think of last night’s Downton Abbey?

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6 thoughts on “(Not So) Quick Thoughts: A Wrenching Turn in Downton Abbey, Season 3

  1. What a fantastic summary of Sybil’s death and how it impacted the house. As you said, the looks on the characters’ faces were just heartbreaking, and then to hear the sound of the baby crying! Such an emotional scene.

    Downton Abbey shined in this episode in both the writing and the acting. It restored my faith in the series, which I thought was getting too bogged down in little “nothing” subplots that at times were borderline ridiculous. This episode cut right to the heart, and it packed an emotional punch I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.

    • Thank you! I had taken a brief look at your recap before seeing this comment (I’ll drop by to respond to some of the other points you brought up), and I was going to say it’s funny that we both mentioned that this was a return to top form for the series. Let’s hope it keeps up this improvement. Critics have said Season 3 is generally better than Season 2, but so far, only this episode has made me believe them.

        • Allen Leech said in the PBS chat today that his favorites parts of shoot haven’t aired yet here, so that gives me a bit of hope. And the dynamic between Mary and Matthew can really only become more interesting than where it is now. We shall see.

  2. Reading your post, I agree that this season seems to have been lacking something. Sybil’s death definitely put the wheels in motion for a more interesting finish to the season.

    • The season definitely needed a jolt – and this episode provided it. But I imagine that a lot of us as viewers would preferred if it the show didn’t have to go to such an extreme place to make the story interesting again. Thanks for reading!

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