SPOILER ALERT: Key incidents in the episode are discussed, so if you haven't seen it, and intend to, you've been warned...
I'm afraid Downton has grown very dark indeed, making it difficult to make light of this episode.
Last week's death of Sybil Branson, youngest daughter of Lord and
Lady Crawley, reveals the deepest themes of this third season of Downton
Abbey, and the series as a whole. The episode ended with the shocking
convulsions after Sybil has birthed her bairn, the newest generation of
Crawleys. (It isn't a strictly accurate portrayal of eclampsia, which
remains a problem in pregnancy even now, ill understood and incurable,
except by monitoring and early delivery at the earliest signs).
This week's pivotal scene takes place in Cora's bedroom when,
blaming Robert for having insisted Sybil be treated as advised by the
society doctor he'd engaged, tells him it's too soon for him to
return to her bed.
And here is the clash of America vs. Aristocracy:
Dr. Tapsell was "knighted and has a fashionable practice on Harley
Street" while reliable country doctor Clarkson, who had counselled an
emergency c-section hours before the delivery, was only the
uber-reliable country doctor who had known the young woman for her
entire life. A man of lower stature but greater knowledge--in this case,
devolving to something as mundane as knowing that Sybil usually had
"You let all that nonsense weigh against saving our daughter's life.
Which is what I find so very hard to forgive," actress Elizabeth
Again and again across the series, we are confronted with Sir Robert,
the benevolent slightly buffoonish one lord to rule them all, making
decisions that, despite their impressive decisiveness, end up going
south (e.g. losing Cora's entire fortune with one bad investment, which
he was counselled against), and this episode is no exception.
He behaves insufferably over son-in-law Branson's wish to raise the
baby as a Catholic. Robert balks, and has the temerity to invite Mr.
Travis, the local Church of England vicar, round to dinner to dis
popery. This is truly shocking when we take into account that a), Tom is
heartbroken over the loss of his wife, for goodness sake, and b) that
by the moral code of the Crawleys, surely importing a guest to insult a
family member at table "simply isn't done." It demonstrates something
that, to this crew, is clearly among the worst of all faux pas: bad
When Mary confirms Sybil's intended the baby to be baptized Catholic,
Robert is "flabbergasted." Cora says, drily, "You're always
flabbergasted by the unconventional."
Robert seems blind to how inconsiderate he is being, blundering about
like an injured bull, and demonstrating his increasing unfitness to
Meantime, downstairs, a parallel story plays out with Carson the
butler, who forbids any member of the staff having dealings with Ethel,
the fallen maid, who has resurfaced as Isobel Crawley's new cook and
housekeeper. Ethel, you may recall, while working at Downton, was
seduced by an officer convalescing there during the war. Immediately
dismissed, she ended up having a child out of wedlock and was forced
into prostitution to support them. Ethel had given up her son to a
better life with the now dead officer's parents and, latterly, been
taken in by reformer Isobel, who hopes to help her overcome her
degradation. In other words, Ethel's path to ruin happened on Carson and
the Lord's watch, yet all they did was blame her for her misdeeds, and
shame and humiliate her. Another among many shocking indictments of the
social conventions of the Victorian era.
When Isobel suggests a luncheon for the Downton "girls"--"does that
include me?" warbles the Dowager Duchess--the stage is set for the
confrontation: between the men and the women, between creaky notions of
propriety and the ancient concepts of mercy, made modern in the guise of
rehabilitation. Thank God, mercy wins.
Mrs. Patmore agrees to help Ethel with a menu and cooking pointers
(Mrs. Hughes has been defying Carson's edict by helping Ethel out for
years). And when Robert storms into the luncheon, demanding his
women--Cora, the two daughters, and his mother--leave immediately, Cora
refuses. And the women stay put. "It seems a pity to miss such a good
pudding," the Dowager offers by way of explanation.
The leadership upstairs and downstairs is gradually being chiselled
away by the growing strength and enfranchisement of the women, and the
mounting irrelevancy of Victorian social conventions. That is my read on
the real message of Downton, though it be swathed in melodrama.
And the ultimate proof of this, which I realized most clearly after
watching the end of season shocker, is telegraphed by the opening
credits: they're alphabetical. Not "starring" this one and that one. In
other words, no member of this cast is to be considered above the
others. Sir Julian Fellowes demonstrates by metaphor in the very first
moments of the program, that he thinks it best to treat all his actors
Downton Abbey: social history writ small, wrapped in melodrama, and
high production values. But make no mistake, the values here are not
simply of production: they are social values, resonant and real, and so
is the historical backdrop. And that is the lesson of its exploding
popularity, what propelled it to the top of the TV drama heap worldwide,
and why we keep watching.
A version of this post originally published on The Huffington Post Canada