This week's installment of Downton Abbey saw the Crawley family tragically, irreversibly changed. And as difficult as it was to see that happen, from a dramatic standpoint I thought it was extraordinarily well-done and, honestly, much-needed. As gut-wrenching as it was to see the impact of such shattering grief on the family, this is something they cannot simply ignore and magically recover from with little lasting effect. This loss has the potential power to change the trajectory of character storylines and reset the future of at least one major player -- and in my opinion, as far the sustainability of the show is concerned, that is a good thing.
But before we talk about the EPIC SADNESS, let's try and get most everything else out of the way first, shall we? First of all, Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggatt) are happy as CLAMS now that he's back in the good graces of the prison powers-that-be and able to receive letters and visitors. I am not really clear about why his cellmate is BFF's with a corrupt prison guard, and why the care so much about making Bates's life miserable -- probably because I don't really care. I mean, whatevs...FREE BATES already, dangit! *wink* Anna has apparently hit on a new theory that, if they can prove and document it, may actually prove her honey's innocence. Remember earlier in the season when Anna visited Vera's own BFF, who no surprise LOATHED the very mention of Bates's name? Apparently she dropped the clue that Vera was last seen scrubbing pastry dough from her hands -- activity that took place AFTER Bates had left her to return to Downton. So, WAIT FOR IT...apparently we're supposed to believe that Vera POISONED HERSELF in order to ruin her estranged husband's life from BEYOND THE GRAVE. *sigh*
The crazy thing is, in this world Fellowes has created that actually seems reasonable in some strange way. :P So, filled with a fresh sense of purpose, Anna takes her theory back to Lord Grantham who passes it on to his lawyer who will then go see Bates himself, because DANGIT the conventions of the social hierarchy MUST BE OBSERVED!
In other downstairs-related action, Thomas (Rob James-Collier) continues to take more than a passing professional interest in Jimmy (Ed Speleers), Downton's latest footman. O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran), ever crafty, continues her long-term game to wreck Thomas for making life difficult for her nephew, Alfred. She takes note of Thomas's interest and does her best to encourage Jimmy to seek Thomas's favor, playing up the latter's influence in the household as Lord Grantham's valet. While Jimmy wants to get ahead, he quickly becomes increasingly uncomfortable with Thomas's "attentiveness." People, when this blows up I have a feeling it is going to be bad.
Daisy (Sophie McShera) seems to be letting the authority that comes with her new promotion to assistant cook go to her head, as she is determined to make new kitchen maid Ivy's (Cara Theobold) life as difficult as possible -- all because Alfred (Matt Milne) is clearly smitten with her. What she doesn't realize is that Ivy only has eyes for Jimmy, and by giving Ivy never-ending heck all she's doing is alienating Alfred by acting like a shrew. POOR DAISY. I am DYING for her to get a little romance on this show and it just kills me to see her feelings for Alfred as yet unrequited. Props to Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nichol) for trying to make Daisy aware of the problem...I love their relationship. :) (Also, I feel so bad for the downstairs actors...it takes three seasons for Daisy to get a costume change and when it comes it just involves wearing a cap?! LOL)
Down the road SCANDAL ERUPTS when Isobel (Penelope Wilton) decides to hire Ethel (Amy Nuttall) to work as a maid. While I think it is all well and good that she wants to help Ethel in this manner, how she can remain so clueless about the reaction of others to this news is BEYOND ME. When her housekeeper/cook Mrs. Bird (Christine Lohr) learns that she's supposed to work with an ex-prostitute, she gets the heck outta Dodge, but not before sending a note to her apparent BFF Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) with the scandalous news. Molesley takes the intel straight to Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), who is HORRIFIED, and honestly while the issue at hand is certainly serious, Carson's reaction is hilarious -- when he kept issuing orders that no maid, and then no footman, was to darken Mrs. Crawley's door, I cracked up. Downton is hardly immune to scandalous shenanigans, dear sir. *wink* I loved how Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) was so clearly unsettled by this development, yet tried to downplay the "scandal" at the same time. Awkward. :P
Okay, now to the difficult TRAGIC PARTS of this installment. *sobs* The arrival of Sybil's (Jessica Brown Findlay) baby is imminent, as Dr. Clarkson (David Robb) is called to Downton to assess her early labor pains (any clue how much time is supposed to have passed between this installment and the last? just wondering). Clarkson gives his super expert opinion that all is normal, only to have the air deflated from his happy prognosis by the news that Robert (Hugh Bonneville) has called in a high-end society obstetrician, Sir Philip Tapsell (Tim Pigott-Smith -- look! it's Margaret's father from North & South!). Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) is taken aback, but Robert only says what I'm convinced EVERYONE WHO HAS EVER WATCHED THIS SHOW has been thinking, i.e. that Dr. Clarkson knows NEXT TO NOTHING. While I appreciate a character on the show finally addressing that elephant in the room, bringing in a specialist smacks of insisting that an archbishop marry Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Mary (Michelle Dockery)...a touch of snobbery.
Shortly thereafter Sir Philip arrives, and everyone is enjoying a formal dinner while upstairs Sybil is left with what, one nurse? Nuts. The disconnect between Sybil's labor and the regular society functions below was jarring, to say the least. Cora has insisted that Dr. Clarkson be present to consult (under the guise of not offending him, clever woman). Clarkson is growing increasingly concerned over Sybil's swollen ankles and increasingly muddled state, suspecting eclampsia -- while I cannot fathom the the pain of labor, I'm pretty sure one isn't supposed to hallucinate. It was just MADDENING to watch the smug Sir Philip dismiss Clarkson's concerns wholesale, THE ONE FRIGGIN' TIME THE MAN IS ACTUALLY RIGHT! *headdesk*
A family can be on edge in the best birthing scenario, but outside Sybil's room the situation quickly devolves into raucous contention over Clarkson's insistence that the lives of Sybil and her child are at risk and Sir Philip's assurance that "nature just needs to run its course." Despite the fact that -- in my view at any rate -- Tom (Allen Leech) should've been the one consulted about his wife's care, he is quite understandably nearly out of his head with fear -- and the contention between the pro-Clarkson Cora and the pro-Philip Robert takes SO LONG Sybil delivers a healthy baby girl, and the danger appears to have passed.
But late in the night Mary rushes to wake her mother as Sybil is in the throes of toxic seizures -- Clarkson was right and the eclampsia has taken hold, but advanced so far as to make treatment impossible. People, this scene was gut-wrenching!! Each and every cast member acted the absolute heck out of the moment -- the overwhelming horror of watching Sybil helplessly thrash about, gripped by seizures depriving her of oxygen...it was TERRIBLE. (I've gotta say, though, even if Clarkson and Philip could do NOTHING, I cannot believe that as doctors they'd just stand around like that...yeesh!)
More than Sybil's actual passing, what killed me was seeing the aftermath play out both upstairs and down. Cora's final vigil and promises to her baby girl DID ME IN. Elizabeth McGovern has been given -- at last -- some really strong material to work with this season, adding much needed depth and passion to Cora as both a countess and, more than that, a devoted mother. Likewise the usually almost effervescent Violet (Maggie Smith), always ready with a quip or comeback, is devastated by Sybil's loss -- so much emotion conveyed in just Violet's stance and walk! Maggie Smith, you are superb. I suspect that Branson has gained in Cora an unexpectedly staunch -- and much-needed -- ally in the family, and I look forward to seeing their relationship play out. Branson has been absolutely gutted over these last two episodes, and I'm curious and hopeful that Fellowes will use him as an example, if you will, of a man's ability to transcend social mores and remake himself at the beginning of the twentieth-century.
Downstairs, the ever-faithful Carson, longest-serving staff member, is gutted as he's known Sybil since she was born -- I'm sure looking on all of the Crawley girls as the closest he'll ever come to having grandchildren of his own. I was taken aback by just how deeply Thomas felt Sybil's loss -- clearly the time they spent working in the hospital during the war was a more precious memory to him than I ever realized, its impact powerfully told by Thomas's unexpected tears. Color me shocked, people, but Thomas is actually getting layers this season. I love it. :)
Mary and Edith's (Laura Carmichael) reaction to the loss of their youngest sister was perhaps the most unintentionally hilarious moment of the episode, as Mary exclaims that OMG THE ONLY PERSON WHO THOUGHT WE WERE NICE IS DEAD!!! And Edith is apparently grief-stricken enough she wonders, she actually wonders, DO YOU THINK WE'LL BE NICE TO EACH OTHER NOW? When Mary basically says HECK NO I could've died laughing. While coping with change is a major theme this season, apparently there are some sacrosanct constants where this show is concerned that will remain unchanged. *wink* (Whoops, almost forgot to mention Edith's pre-tragedy big news -- someone wants her to write a regular NEWSPAPER COLUMN!!! You go, girl!)
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the episode for me came in the final moments, when the seemingly stoic, almost shell-shocked Cora lets loose a brief but jarring verbal tirade blaming Robert for Sybil's death. Their marriage has always been, for the most part, remarkably solid throughout the series' run, so much so that my heart quakes a bit thinking about this rift. In the show's first two seasons Cora was always the epitome of grace and class -- I don't know if the earlier arrival of her oh-so-American mother played a role in Cora's new fire, but she is fast becoming one of this season's most richly drawn and multi-faceted characters. I love that. And while I am also quite fond of Robert, the man has got to wake up and realize he stands not just in danger of losing his home but his family if he doesn't open himself to change, and soon. (Though seriously, what was with Matthew thinking the DAY the funeral home or whatever comes to take away Sybil's body is the day to discuss the sweeping reforms he'd like to see initiated at Downton with the family solicitor. As much as Mary and Robert need to wake up and realize the man has a point, that was pretty tactless. :P)