To those among you who resisted the “Who died at Downton?” spoilers, we’re wiping the tears from our eyes long enough to tell you that Downton Abbey will never be the same. If you haven’t yet watched the January 27 episode, you best move along to something — anything — else.
There is no way to sugarcoat this news: Lady Sybil Crawley (Jessica Brown Findlay) is dead, and nothing is right with the world.
Lovely Lady Sybil — who wore scandalous harem pants, fought for women’s rights, helped housemaid Gwen get a job as a secretary, worked as a wartime nurse, married for love, and wanted nothing more than her independence — dies shortly after giving birth. Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) is spot-on when she says, “The sweetest spirit under this roof is gone.”
As we open, Sybil is in the early stages of labor. The family doctor, Dr. Clarkson (David Robb), is on hand, but Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) has also hired doctor-to-the-rich-and-richer Sir Philip Tapsell to handle the actual delivery. Everyone is worried, but in a standard, floor-pacing kind of way. Even the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) is there, explaining, “I hate to get news second hand.”
Dr. Clarkson starts to fear that Sybil may be in danger of eclampsia, but Sir Philip essentially tells him to shut up. “I warn you, Doctor, if you wish to remain, you must be silent.” Dr. Clarkson is adamant, and eventually Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) sides with him. He wants to get Sybil to a hospital for an emergency C-section, but Sir Philip won’t budge, and Lord Grantham only trusts his fancy doctor. So Sybil stays put.
But good news: It’s a girl, and everyone’s fine! The exhausted Sybil only wants to sleep, and everyone — both upstairs and down — finally goes to bed.
Later that night, Mary (Michelle Dockery) bursts into her parents’ room in a panic: “It’s Sybil.” It is eclampsia. Sybil starts to convulse, and there is nothing either of the doctors can do. Sybil can’t breathe, and as Tom (Allen Leech) begs her to wake up, she dies.
If you are ever in need of a good cry, just watch Lady Grantham sit and talk to Sybil, as Mary tries to get her mother to sleep. “Not just yet,” she says. “This my chance to say goodbye to my baby. Because you are my baby, you know. You always will be, always. My beauty, my baby.”
Or you could watch the staff after Carson (Jim Carter) delivers the news downstairs. It’s one thing to see Anna (Joanne Froggatt) weep, it’s quite another to see Thomas (Rob James-Collier) sob for Sybil, and Carson’s unflappable stoicism falter. “I knew her all her life, you see,” he tells Mrs. Hughes. “I’ve known her since she was born.”
Upstairs, Mary, joined by Edith (Laura Carmichael), says goodbye to her baby sister, in her own acerbic, Lady Mary way. “She was only person living who always thought you and I were such nice people.”
After Sybil’s body has been taken away, Lady Grantham announces that she’ll write Dr. Clarkson a letter of apology, lamenting, “[I]f we’d listened to him, Sybil might still be alive. But Sir Philip and your father knew better and now she’s dead.” The Dowager Countess, using her powerful way with words for good, reassures her son that he is not to blame. “Our darling Sybil has died during childbirth, like too many women before her. And all we can do now is cherish her memory, and her child.” This may be so, but we can see Lady Grantham’s point in all this. Sybil is dead; it’s hard to not feel blame-y.
Of course, there are other things happening at Downton, some of them good, but forgive us for having a hard time focusing.
Edith has been asked to write a weekly newspaper column; Matthew (Dan Stevens) wants to overhaul the management of the Downton estate; and Isobel (Penelope Wilton) has hired reformed prostitute (and one-time Downton maid) Ethel (Amy Nuttall) to work in her house. Carson is scandalized, and it turns out Ethel is a terrible cook, so we can only guess that this is going to be smooth sailing.
Meanwhile, Anna has finally found evidence that could get Bates (Brendan Coyle) out of jail, but it involves getting the testimony of a woman who hates him — and Bates’s prison enemies are already plotting to stop it. Everyone have your “Free Bates!” t-shirts ready next Sunday, just in case.
As usual, O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) is up to no good, encouraging Thomas’s feelings for Jimmy (Ed Speleers) and convincing Jimmy that those affections will be good for his career.
Finally, before she dies, Sybil tells Mary that she wants her baby to be christened a Catholic because it’s important to Tom. Lord Grantham is just going to love that.
But all of that is for next Sunday’s Masterpiece. For now, farewell, Lady Sybil. As we pan out on a heartbroken Tom, holding your baby girl in an upstairs window, we miss you already.