Downton Abbey, Season 3

A Depressing Defeat for the Forces of Social Progress
Talking television.
Jan. 28 2013 2:03 PM

Downton Abbey, Season 3

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The Crawleys learn the real price of renouncing privilege.

Jessica Brown-Findlay as Lady Sybil in Series 2 of Downton Abbey.
During World War I, Lady Sybil wore the same uniform and did the same work as all the other nurses

Photo courtesy of Carnival Film & Television Limited, copyright 2011 for Masterpiece

Killing off a character is the TV equivalent of serving fugu at a dinner party: It’s exciting at the time, but it’s probably a bad idea in the long run.

Lady Sybil Crawley was not only Downton Abbey’s kindest, most open-minded character. On a show that purports to chronicle the social forces transforming a Yorkshire village in the early 20th century, she was also the only person who did more than just talk about change. During World War I, she ignored her family’s objections and worked as a nurse—toiling the same hours and providing the same care as everyone else who wore the uniform. (Her sister Edith made herself popular with recuperating officers by writing letters and picking out books for them to read, but her contribution to the war effort was more ornamental than Sybil’s hard graft.)

Before the war, Sybil had attended political rallies, and after it she didn’t just shout slogans (or write letters to the editor); she renounced her own privilege and married a man who had once been a servant in her family home—a Catholic and an Irish nationalist to boot. They sailed off to Dublin, where they lived as Mr. and Mrs. Tom and Sybil Branson, with no domestic help and very little income. She was the least compromised, most principled person in the Crawleys’ orbit—and ultimately that killed her.

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Because while Sybil could make a modern marriage with Tom—one in which they loved, respected, and listened to one another—she couldn’t make her father overcome his own habits of privilege. That led Lord Grantham to ignore Tom’s pleas and Dr. Clarkson’s advice that they move Sybil to the hospital. Lord Grantham’s allegiance is to socially elevated men like Sir Philip Tapsell—chaps who socialize with earls and dukes and who dress for dinner without a quarrel—rather than to the village doctor or the former chauffeur. In the end, it all came down to money: “Tom has not hired Sir Philip,” Lord Grantham told his family. “He is not master here.”

And so the master sided with Sir Philip, who didn’t hesitate to make an impossible promise to the assembled crew, while Dr. Clarkson was honest enough to admit that he couldn’t guarantee a safe delivery for Sybil, even if they decamped to the hospital. (Perhaps he would have done so if his record as a diagnostician weren’t already hopelessly tainted by his declaration last season that Matthew would forever be incapable of movement below the waist.) Sadly, as we all now know, Sir Philip may be the aristocracy’s favorite ob-gyn, but he’s a terrible doctor, far too sure of himself and his status to listen to the warnings of a village physician, much less to pay attention to the symptoms of a mere patient.

Sybil’s death has stirred up the plot, driving a wedge between Cora and Robert, and opening up lots of questions about how and where Sybil and Tom’s daughter will be raised. But it’s also a depressing defeat for the possibility of social progress. Sybil died a painful death at age 24, after her father the earl overruled her commoner husband and sided with a doctor with a knighthood. On Downton Abbey, tradition always triumphs, but this loss is particularly painful.

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section.