Downton has raised the stakes with Series 3. Mrs. Hughes had a cancer scare, Lord Grantham almost lost the estate, and Bates is in danger of being shanked at every turn. But they’re all close calls, near incidents.
Episode 4 should have ended with Lady Sybil and Tom Branson cuddling their baby girl, with Cora praising her youngest daughter for a job well done, with Lord Grantham feeling like he made the right choice for the first time in a long time.
Lady Sybil’s untimely death on this week’s episode of Downton Abbey had those of us stateside clamoring for the tissues. As Series 3 of our favorite BBC import is only just being made available in full this week, the tearjerker was a complete shock for Downton’s loyal PBS Masterpiece viewers. But, I have to ask, was killing off Lady Sybil really the best choice?
Carson the Butler called Sybil “the sweetest spirit under (Downton’s) roof”. Lady Sybil brought a certain sense of compassion and reality that Downton otherwise lacks. While Sybil wasn’t my favorite Downton daughter (I’m partial to Mary’s glares and uppity remarks, myself), she kept the Crawley family in touch with the modern world. She was the one to propel storylines like those seen during the war, when she became a nurse to wounded soldiers. She helped a housemaid become a secretary. She, more than Downton’s other characters, fought against the caste system by going so far as to love and marry the house’s chauffeur. But, most importantly, Lady Sybil was able to be kind and generous in a manner which was neither arrogant nor annoying – a manner which Cousin Isobel has yet to adopt. Will Isobel and her charm school for barely reformed prostitutes be our only humanitarian efforts past the grounds of Downton now that Lady Sybil has passed? That seems like a fate worse than being force-fed Ethel’s kidney soufflé.
And then there’s Sybil’s husband, Tom Branson. As the first two episodes of this series have shown, Branson has an Irish temper mixed with distaste for the rich that make him quite an outcast amongst the Crawleys. Will we be able to stomach Branson’s dining room rants without Sybil’s patient justifications? And what will become of his and Lady Sybil’s newborn daughter, now that Branson can’t return to Ireland (and most likely won’t be asked to stay at Downton)?
The irony in Lady Sybil’s death is that she may have been the only Downton-er, upstairs or down, to really live. She worked as a nurse during the war, she married for love despite her family’s demands, and she was the first of the daughters to become a mother. She even wore pants, for crying out loud! Sybil’s life makes the others’ look petty and bored, regardless of how many Ottoman attachés Lady Mary kills in bed or how hard Lady Edith might fight (with her pen) alongside her sister suffragettes.
Therein, however, lies my biggest issue with Lady Sybil’s death: Downton Abbey is a place for people with good hearts. It’s what I love most about the show – they’re all so good. Even Thomas, the villain since Series 1, cried at the news of Sybil’s death. These are good people, true people. The show has hit us over the well-coiffed head with that message since the first episode. It’s why we trust that Anna will rescue Bates from prison, how we knew Matthew would walk again. It’s why we were practically begging for the show’s only other notable death – Lavinia Swire had to get out of the way so Matthew and Mary could just be together already!
No, Lady Sybil didn’t have to die. But my love for Downton Abbey surely hasn’t died with her. So what will become of Downton now that the one with the biggest heart is gone?
Lauren A – Senior Reviewer