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Downton Abbey Recap: A Heartbreaking Episode of Staggering Loss

Downton Abbey Season 3 - Sundays, January 6 - February 17, 2013 on MASTERPIECE on PBS - Part 4

Normally these Downton Abbey recaps are peppered with jokes and a generous helping of wry asides about the Dowager Countess’s wry asides. Under other circumstances, this week’s would be, too. If things had turned out differently, this installment would be dominated by a dissertation on the latest developments in the unceasingly dull Mr. Bates Murder Mystery (update: the pie did it!); lots of wink-wink, nudge-nudge banter about how Thomas’s relationship with Hot Jimmy the Footman has made “winding the clocks” my new favorite sexual euphemism; an analysis of Edith’s new role as the founder of the 1920s-British-high-society-old-media version of Jezebel; a discussion of how completely irritating it is that Isobel hired Ethel only after it was too late for Ethel to keep her kid; and the revelation that, apparently, if anyone utters the word "cervix" within a 30-mile radius of Lord Grantham, he will instantly combust with discomfort, transforming into nothing but a tidy pile of dust wearing a white bow tie.

But things are different. This is neither the time nor the recap to go into much detail about all of that because, and it pains me to write this: Lady Sybil is dead. (Read her obit here.) She lost her life after bringing a new one into the world, leaving behind a brokenhearted husband who’s suddenly a single father to a motherless baby girl, as well as a family — both upstairs and downstairs at Downton — utterly wracked with grief. It was horribly, horribly sad, and unquestionably the most wrenching plot development in the entire series thus far.

“We’ve seen some troubles, you and I,” the Dowager Countess said to Carson as she entered the Crawley house of mourning. “Nothing is worse than this.” As usual, she was right.

Any attempt not to cry while watching Sybil’s death scene — one in which eclamptic seizures forced the life out of her body while Tom and Lady Cora pleaded through sobs for that life to stay put — proved futile for most, even those who already had witnessed this moment weeks or months before it aired on PBS. If you managed to remain dry-eyed, I can only conclude that it’s because you are a stone-cold robot who lacks tear ducts as well as the capacity to feel empathy for individuals both real and fictional. As for me, well, I kept my emotions in admirable check. In preparation for what I knew would be a rough episode, I bought twelve boxes of tissues. I only used up six.

The loss of Lady Sybil hurt, and hurt badly, because she was so damn young. Because she had such a generous heart. Because she got to be a mother for the first time for only a few hours before everything ended for her. Because that tiny girl — as ever, no boys for the Crawley family — will never be comforted by a loving hug from her mom. But it particularly stung from a narrative perspective because of the maddening roller coaster ride that led up to it.

Unsatisfied with Dr. Clarkson’s prior misdiagnosis of Matthew’s spinal injury and the severity of Lavinia’s illness, Lord Grantham insisted that Sir Philip Tapsell should deliver the baby. After all, he’s a well-known obstetrician who has delivered other very wealthy babies and, therefore, surely would prove more reliable than country bumpkin Clarkson. But between Sybil’s early labor pains and Ivy’s foreshadowing comment about how it might be better to give birth in the city where they “have all the modern inventions” (read: medical equipment and tons of electric toasters), it was clear that the final moments of this pregnancy would not go smoothly.

Clarkson ultimately (and rightly) concluded that Sybil was toxaemic and at risk of eclampsia. He recommended that she immediately go to a hospital and deliver the baby via C-section. Sir Philip disagreed and said all of Sybil’s headaches and ankle swelling and general confusion was totally normal pregnancy stuff. Lord Grantham sided with Sir Philip because, you know, he has a Sir in his name. (This is the same sort of misguided thinking, by the way, that leads people to call Elton John or Ian McKellen when they think they may be having a heart attack.) A confused Tom essentially did what Lord Grantham said, which meant the baby would be delivered at home. And she was. And everything seemed fine.

That was the worst part: everything seemed fine. Once that child was born healthy and Sybil survived, even those who had already seen this episode may have heard a persuasive voice in their head saying: Hey, maybe she won’t die this time. But the seizures came in the wee hours and when they arrived, all the white men with their medical degrees could do was stand there with no access to magnesium sulfate or any other medical means to stop Sybil from shutting down. It was infuriating with a capital I.

But even more infuriating than the doctors’ lack of capacity to provide care was Lord Grantham’s behavior during this episode. Holy God, does anyone else want to punch this guy in the mouth right now? I mean, he can’t even bear to hear the words “womb” or “urine,” but he has the audacity to decide that a C-section isn’t safe for his daughter? He acted with total arrogance and flagrant stupidity, as he has all season long, what with his train debacles and his constant dismissal of Edith’s feelings and his refusal to take financial advice from men whose names start with M (Matthew, Murray). To his credit, as he told the Dowager Countess toward the end of the episode, Robert knows he’s largely to blame for Sybil’s death. But that doesn’t excuse it. At this point, his name should be legally changed to Lord Asshat, Earl of Dum-dum Judgment Calls.

Lady Cora has been remarkably patient with that man, but this time — now that his poor decision-making skills have taken away one of their daughters — she appears to have reached her limit. Even though the grief is still fresh and harsh, it’s hard to imagine their marriage fully recovering from this.

Sybil’s death also puts added pressure on another marriage: the one between Mary and Matthew. There’s already a serious rift between them because of Matthew’s desire to take charge of managing Downton’s affairs, a desire that makes total sense since Lord Asshat obviously shouldn’t be managing anything. But now they may feel even greater pressure to move forward with starting their own family, whether that’s physically possible or not.

Contrary to my assertions in last week’s recap, Lady Mary does indeed want children. But as noted by Matthew in a conversation with Sir Philip, hubby may not be capable of making that happen due to his war injury. (Uh, Matthew? I’m no doctor, but I think you should have your sperm tested, if only because that pretentious wanker told you not to.) A joyous announcement from the newlyweds — in addition to the total frenaissance that’s clearly already happening between Mary and Edith — would really buck up the spirits of everyone at Downton. But it’s unclear whether such an announcement will ever be made.

For now, spirits remain as low as they’ve ever been. The cries of that baby — oh God, didn’t it just split your heart in pieces when that child wailed right after Sybil died? — are reminders of what’s lost. Even the Dowager Countess, shrouded in the attire of grief, has to stop, brace herself, and wheeze out a jagged sob before she can face what’s ahead.

But ultimately, in a poignant image that maybe become the one that ultimately defines this series, we see that grand old woman right herself. And she does what she always does, even when confronted with a darker day than she ever dared to imagine: She soldiers on.

Photo: Joss Barratt/Carnival Films