Home Featured TV Shows All TV Shows Movie Reviews Book Reviews Articles Frequently Asked Questions About Us

Downton Abbey: Season Three, Episode Five

Matthew: “We men are always helpless when a baby’s in the picture.”

Time continues to crawl along. We discovered that Sybil was pregnant at Christmas last year and the baby is born in this episode, so I place it about another month since Sybil and Tom came to Downton, or July 1920. While I contend that the show is still struggling to find its place a bit this season, this episode certainly changed the game for everyone, both upstairs and down. It was also an episode that centered very much on the women in this world and how they affect those around them.

O’Brien is going to do whatever she can to make sure that Alfred advances, that Jimmy is firmly put in his place and that Thomas is punished for going against Alfred. Poor Jimmy, oblivious to all these undercurrents, is trying to adjust to his new job as footman while becoming increasingly uncomfortable with Thomas’ less than subtle advances. We have seen that O’Brien has a softer side to her, but this latest machination of hers borders on the cruel.

Isobel’s life work is to help those less fortunate than she, and this week she takes that drive to another level. By offering Ethel a job, Isobel is providing an unbelievable opportunity for this young woman to get her life back on track. Ethel warns Isobel that this choice will not be easy, but we have never seen Isobel back down from a fight and she doesn’t here. When Mrs. Bird plays what she believes is her trump card, telling Isobel she must resign because she cannot be tarnished with the likes of Ethel, Isobel calls her bluff and Mrs. Bird is out of a job. The fact that Ethel can’t even make a cup of tea properly just drives home the point; Isobel is putting up with a lot to help her.

Anna’s sole concern recently has been to secure her husband’s release from prison and it looks as though it might finally happen. Because Mrs. Bartlett saw Vera baking the pastry the night she died, there is now proof that Bates is innocent. Vera committed suicide and made it look like murder so that Bates would hang. I find it difficult to believe this. Vera was a grasping woman who was only looking out for herself. At the time of her death, she had loads of money (both from Bates and from Richard) and the idea that she was so angry at her ex-husband that she would kill herself seems a bit of a stretch. Not to mention the fact that neither the police nor Mr. Murray talked to Mrs. Bartlett at the time of Vera’s death. But, we move on and hope for the best, except for the fact that Bates’ enemies in prison seem ready to thwart the plan. It is time for this story to wrap up, one way or the other.

Daisy is an interesting example of the role of a woman in this world. As someone who has been where Ivy is, I would hope that Daisy would be sympathetic and willing to help the girl settle in. But, what really matters in this world is getting a man and the man on whom Daisy has a crush is more interested in the woman with the lower status. As a result, Daisy is nasty and snappish with Ivy, forgetting what it felt like when Mrs. Patmore treated her the same way. Now that Daisy has grown up and is an assistant cook, Mrs. Patmore’s role is less of a boss and more of a mother. The conversation she has with Daisy about Ivy and the boys is good advice. The older woman can see what is going on in a way that Daisy cannot and she is able to put it into terms that Daisy can understand.

Edith has been offered the opportunity to write a weekly column, a success that should surely be celebrated within the family. Yet, Robert is incapable of seeing his daughter’s success and snidely insinuates that what the paper is paying for is Edith’s name and her title -- two things that he, as her father, has bestowed on her. He couches his attitude in terms of protecting his daughter, yet really he is protecting the old way of life. A way of life that is no longer relevant and Matthew is right, Edith must find something to do.

Mary is lost. Her job is to provide an heir and continue the dynasty; yet, she is struggling to get pregnant. As a result, she is taking her frustration out on the person closest to her who is also concerned about the lack of a baby. Matthew and Murray both understand that the estate has to change quickly or it will be gone; Mary chooses to be insulted that the two men would discuss this without Robert. Like Edith, Mary needs to find something to focus on other than herself and her lack of a pregnancy.

The most heartbreaking example of the role of women in this episode is, of course, Sybil. From the beginning, she was the one who was different, who was going to go out into the world and change it. She did with Gwen; she did when she defied everyone around her to become a nurse; and, she certainly did when she married the man she loved. While she was defiant and headstrong, she was also kind and genuinely cared about the others around her. Which is why the scene in the library is so frustrating to watch. Instead of being able to make her own decisions and to do what she thinks is best, Sybil is forced to concede to the wishes of the men around her with fatal and tragic results.

It is obvious throughout that something is terribly wrong with Sybil. Everyone sees it except for Robert, whose squeamishness borders on the absurd. He stands by Sir Philip simply because the latter is a knight of the realm and has delivered royal babies. The women and Matthew plead with him to listen to Clarkson, but Robert is so sure he is right that he doesn’t even want to consult Tom. The arrogance of that is breathtaking, but even that pales to Sir Philip telling Robert to take command.

Sybil’s death is horrible to watch. To not only see such a bright light go out, but to witness the reactions of those who love her the most is beyond sad. The looks of grief and shock on her family is matched by the looks of the servants as they all get the news downstairs. One by one, we get everyone’s reactions to the death, each of which just made me cry harder. In honor of this lovely character, I have listed them all below.

But the two reactions that affected me the most were women. Lady Violet, who has a spine of steel and nerves of iron, is devastated by the death. The shot of her walking away from camera into the library is beautifully filmed. We watch this strong woman, leaning heavily on her cane, sobbing. No one should survive a grandchild. The other is Cora, who having spent her married life ensuring her husband worries about nothing, snaps. Who can fault her? Lady Violet is right; when tragedy strikes we all look for someone or something to blame. Cora blames Robert and he is blaming himself. We can only hope that this tragedy takes this man out of himself and that he can be more compassionate and less arrogant moving forward.

The most affecting shot, however, is the one on which the episode ends. Tom, holding his daughter, is looking out the window of this enormous house where he no longer belongs. The metaphor is not lost on any of us and it took me several minutes to stop crying.

Bits and Bobs:

— The hierarchy of downstairs never ceases to amaze me. A valet would never wind the clocks; a first footman would.

— Eclampsia was and still is a very real risk of pregnancy, especially in first pregnancies. Luckily for us, doctors now know what to watch for and it is often caught early. Even today, however, it is potentially life-threatening and taken very seriously.

— The “percentage method” was an extremely complex formula for developing a substitute for breast milk. It has long since gone out of favor.

Well Said:

Matthew: “Middle classes have their virtues.”

Edith: “I’m always a failure in this family.”

Lady Violet: “If there is one thing that I am quite indifferent to, it is Sir Philip Tapsell’s feelings.”

Carson: “But I don’t want the maids going into that house on any pretext whatsoever. Is that clear?”
Molesley: “Quite clear, Mr. Carson.”
Carson: “Or the footmen!”

Lady Violet: “A woman of my age can face reality far better than most men.”

Mrs. Patmore: “Daisy, there is nothing wrong with one-sided loving. You should know that if anyone does.”

Carson: “And, of course there’s Branson. What will we do about him now?”
Mrs. Hughes: “We will show him that we are kind people, Mr. Carson. That’s what.”

Lady Sybil Crawley Branson: A Tribute:

Ethel: “Lady Sybil was always kind to me.”
Isobel: “Yes, she’s a very dear girl.”

Jimmy: “Do you like Lady Sybil?”
Thomas: “I do. We worked together in the hospital during the war, so I know her better than all of them, really. She’s a lovely person.”

Thomas: “I don’t know why I’m crying, really. She wouldn’t have noticed if I’d died.”
Anna: “You don’t mean that.”
Thomas: “No. No, I don’t. In my life, I can you tell you, not many have been kind to me. She was one of the few.”

Mrs. Hughes: “The sweetest spirit under this roof is gone.”

Carson: “I knew her all her life, you see. I’ve known her since she was born.”

Cora: “Because you are my baby, you know. And, you always will be. Always. My beauty and my baby.”

Mary: “She was the only person living who always thought you and I were such nice people.”
Edith: “Oh Mary. Do you think we might get along a little better in the future?”
Mary: “I doubt it. But, since this is the last time we three will all be together in this life, let’s love each other now as sisters should.”

Mrs. Patmore: “She wasn’t much more than a baby herself, poor love. And I think how I taught her to cook. She couldn’t boil an egg when she came downstairs, yet she was so eager.”

Bates: “I can’t stop thinking about Lady Sybil, a lovely young woman at the height of her happiness. If I had any beliefs, that would shake them.”

Lady Violet: “Oh, Carson… We’ve seen some troubles you and I. Nothing worse than this.”
Carson: “Nothing could be worse than this, m’lady.”

ChrisB is a freelance writer who spends more time than she ought in front of a television screen or with a book in her hand.


  1. This show, at its core, is about class structure, and never was that more apparent to me than in this episode. Robert let his daughter die because he believed a doctor of higher rank was smarter and better educated than a doctor who was not. It's certainly true that Sybil could have died anyway, and I understand why Violet would choose to believe that, and would tell her son that. But I also completely understood why this was the one thing that pushed Cora over the edge and made her lash out at Robert.

    Because this show is also about the status of women. Cora, Sybil's mother, expressed her wishes repeatedly about which doctor's opinion she believed, and Robert just bulldozed over her as if her opinion didn't matter. Because to him, it didn't.

    I think I was okay until Thomas, of all people, was crying. And then I lost it.

    I feel bad for poor Jimmy, who has become a pawn in the O'Brien/Thomas war and doesn't even realize it. And I've completely lost interest in Bates' unjust imprisonment. I honestly think it might have been more interesting if Bates were guilty. Oh, well.

    Terrific review, Chris.

  2. Billie, I started crying when Thomas did too. Up to that point I was busy observing Sybil's impending death (a friend who had a baby recently picked up on the pre-ecclampsia - I noticed the narrative devices that might as well have put her in a red shirt!). And actually relieved when it happened because it had been so obviously signposted! But heartless Thomas crying set me off. I loved that moment with Mary and Edith and Sybil's body too, that felt very real.

    I still think Bates dunnit. He's an evil genius.

  3. Like Billie and Juliette I really lost it when Thomas started crying as well! That single moment raised him immensly in my opinion and was almost enough to forgive two seasons of being an •#•#.

    I think this episode is one of the ones that affected me most of the entire series. To bring back Sybil from Ireland just for this?! And to live through everyone's pain! Poor Branson...

    And yeah, Robert was a pig-headed idiot here, way more than usual! :o(

    I was so relieved Sybill got to have a few minutes of happiness there with her daughter and husband! *sob*

    Great review Chris!

  4. I can't say I was ever fond of the Sybil-Branson story, because it was so unrealistic - in real life the family probably would never have accepted the middle-class Matthew, let alone a working-class chauffeur. But Sybil's death is done so well.

    Robert is getting more dislikeable by the day IMO, but he's right about one thing - the newspaper wouldn't have offered Edith the writing gig if she'd been the downstairs parlourmaid. Sorry, Edith!


  5. No. Not Sybil. I was not prepared for this.

    It was Cora who really got to me. The library scene was hard for me to watch, because I have been in a similar situation. Cora's desperation to be heard and to save her child was painful. I was screaming... "Why don't they ask SYBIL what she wants to do?" and "if nothing else, trust her MOTHER". Then, watching Cora say goodbye...and Mary and Edith..and Thomas...ug.

    Exceptional review, and I agree with everything you have said, but all I can think about is Sybil :(

  6. I will say this...couldn't Isobel have thought to hire Ethel BEFORE she gave up her son?

  7. Like everyone else, Thomas's grief was the one that got me. It honestly makes me wonder how long Fellowes had been planning to kill Sybil. Out of everyone in the house, Sybil was the one who had the most interactions with the downstairs staff. Thomas worked with her, Mrs. Padmore taught her to cook, not to mention she married the chauffeur! Has he been plotting this for years in a Whedonesque way?

    Elisabeth McGovern's performance this episode was wonderful. I'm not her biggest fan, but she was amazing saying goodbye to Sybil.

    ChrisB--I have a different view on the Mary/Matthew/Murray thing. I think Mary was more upset not because they weren't involving Robert, but because Sybil had JUST died. It seemed really inappropriate to me (and I certainly don't have the Crawleys' sense of propriety).

  8. I agree about Matthew, Sunbunny. I meant to mention that. Talking about business the morning after Sybil died was disgusting.

    And yes, killing Sybil was very Whedonesque!

  9. Edith: “Oh Mary. Do you think we might get along a little better in the future?”
    Mary: “I doubt it.

    I've decided that Mary is a young Violet. She can always be expected to say exactly what she really thinks and is often unkind (although in a very articulate way).

    This ep more than made up for last week's "oh no they're out of ideas" waste of an hour.

  10. I loved this episode even though it hurt so much to see Sybil die. I found it to be realistic in portraying class tensions has been mentioned and in portraying gender issues. This was probably a common occurrence for women who died in child birth at the time. I wonder how many of them and their mothers were victims of being silenced by male doctors, husbands, and/or fathers. The reactions of everyone to her death were also amazing!

    I feel for Cora more than anyone except possibly Branson and the baby. As a mother, I can't even imagine what kind of relationship would be left between my husband and me if his actions resulted in the death of my daughter in this way.

    I was very surprised by the death simply because I never thought this show could be so Whedonesque. It impressed me that they decided to go there.

    Yes, the whole Bates storyline is awful. I get tense when it is on the screen. Please make it stop!

  11. I sobbed my way through the last few minutes of this episode, which is never a reaction I expect from Downton Abbey, so that was a pleasant (wet) surprise.

    I may be the only person who doesn't hate the Bates storyline. I like Bates, and I think Vera's actions (if she did orchestrate this all) are in keeping with her manipulative character. She's the kind of person who is never content--she'd gotten his money, what else could she take? His life, either by forcing him to hang for murder or by forcing him to live in prison.

    Having said that, I hope Bates gets out soon, because I much prefer a happy Bates/Anna story than a sad one.

    I didn't find Matthew's actions too awful until I read your timeline, Chris. He's had all the months of Sybil's pregnancy to speak to the solicitor, and he chooses that terrible morning? That is tacky.

  12. Dustin said...
    When a main character is in jeopardy on a TV show, my wife and I always like to joke "Oh no, I'm so worried that they'll kill someone who is in the opening credits," so with that in mind, as Sybil's pregnancy drama was unfolding I was only half paying attention and expecting everything to turn out all right in the end. Then the ton of bricks hit me as I realized that they were killing her off and I started to tear up and cry.
    It was also quite interesting to watch the doctors just stand there unable to do anything, unlike in a hospital today.
    Sybil, William, Lavinia - seems like all of the really nice characters are being killed off Whedon style. Daisy better keep being nasty to the new kitchen girl, it may be her only hope to survive next season. ;-)

  13. Great review. “My beauty, my baby” is one of the most heart wrenching lines in all 6 series. I’m a mother of daughters, Elizabeth McGovern is a mother of daughters. That scene really hits home.


We love comments! We moderate because of spam and trolls, but don't let that stop you! It’s never too late to comment on an old show, but please don’t spoil future episodes for newbies.