The thing about comfort food is that when someone serves you a piping hot plate of it week after week, you never suspect that one day they’re going to grab it and smash it into your face.
Downton Abbey is just a soap opera, as both its admirers and detractors will tell you; what side of that divide they come down on depends on both how they feel about the genre itself and this show’s impeccable version thereof. And while people die on soaps all the time, those deaths are typically tearjerkers, not gut-punchers. That’s certainly been the case on Downton until this point, where the major deaths – Kemal Pamuk, Vera Bates, William, Lavinia, even the Crawley heirs whose deaths on the Titanic started it all – have meant more to us in terms of how they’ve affected the survivors than the dyers themselves.
So I’ll admit it: Despite the ominous rumblings from across the pond, where this season aired months ago, I never saw this coming. Not when Dr. Clarkson mentioned his concerns about pre-eclampsia. Not when the family really started to fight about which doctor was in the right. Not when the childbirth seemingly went off without a hitch. Not when Sybil was issuing ominously final-sounding instructions about how her family should be treated. Not even when the panic-stricken family gathered in Sybil’s room, watching her scream and pound her own head and seize and convulse and gasp for breath. Surely, surely, something could be done. That’s the kind of show this is, right?
Wrong. And in proving it wrong, creator/writer/showrunner Julian Fellowes and actress Jessica Brown Findlay delivered more than just one of the most physically unbearable-to-watch death scenes this side of Breaking Bad or Deadwood – they served up the show’s most powerful broadside against its own sexist system yet.
Every woman I know who’s experienced pregnancy and childbirth has at least one jaw-dropping story of creepy or condescending or infuriating paternalism by some male medical professional or other. Well before you get into the well-documented War on Women territory of moving to convict rape victims who abort their pregnancies of felony evidence tampering, women’s physical and psychological pain during this process is too often treated like an inconvenience to be brushed aside or powered through rather than treated with all due hippocratically mandated urgency. If those needs are not taken seriously, neither is the gender that generates them.
In tonight’s episode, that paternalism becomes tragically literal. That tragedy is foreshadowed when an ebullient Lady Edith learns she’s been offered a gig as a newspaper columnist, with a carte-blanche remit that would make a 21st-century freelancer of any gender flip the eff out. (Ahem.) Without even realizing how condescending he’s being, Robert reacts as though the editor only made the offer to draught off the great Earl of Grantham’s family name. When he looks at his daughter he sees neither her talent nor her need for support, only a weaker-sex reflection of himself. And among his peer group, he’s a relatively open-minded guy! Downton Season Three’s laser-precise exploitation of Lord Robert’s weaknesses has been kind of remarkable to behold.
Enter the odiously arrogant doctor Sir Phillip, and the mistake that costs Sybil her life. Confronted with a difference in opinion among two male medical professionals – one of whom has known Sybil not just as a patient but as a person (and even a staff member, during the War) since birth and therefore reacts to her uncharacteristic appearance and behavior with alarm, the other who’d never even met her until the day before and therefore blows it off – Robert and Cora split on what should be done. Naturally, the default decision is to do what her father prefers: nothing. The delay costs them precious time, preventing them from taking the question to Sybil’s husband Tom to make the final call; by this point Sybil herself is too incoherent to make the decision herself. Father knew best, until he didn’t.
The irony is that the Crawleys are supposed to have it easy. But while Sybil and Edith both discovered that their life of mandatory leisure is a stultifying, potential-suppressing prison in many respects, a woman like Ethel, sentenced to a life of poverty and ignominy for the crime of getting knocked up by a deadbeat asshole, doesn’t even have the leisure to fall back on. Isobel’s insistence upon hiring Ethel back into service, then allowing self-righteous Mrs. Bird to quit rather than firing Ethel when presented with the senior cook’s ultimatum, is a cathartic breath of fresh air, particularly in an episode like this. But Fellowes works to tarnish even this brief triumph over conformity: We sense Isobel’s irritation that her good deed has been rewarded with terrible cooking and undrinkable tea, revealing the extent of her bourgeois benevolence. And we know that shitty as it is, Mrs. Bird’s dramatic proclamation about Ethel, “If I tolerate her, I will be tarnished by her,” is probably true, in this world. The system is kept in place by low-ranking members who cling to their few advantages over the even-lower, like a “good name,” with terrifying tenacity.
Women, of course, are not the only victims of the ironclad rules and regulations for gender and sexuality. Whatever O’Brien’s true knowledge of or feelings about Thomas’s homosexuality may be, they weren’t an obstacle to being dude’s BFF for years. Now that they’ve fallen out, though, O’Brien’s declaring open season on Thomas’s closed closet door. With the exception of Dame Maggie Smith’s irrepressible Dowager Countess, Downton‘s not known as a showcase for showy acting – this ensemble’s stock in trade is restraint, not fireworks. But the portrayal of O’Brien by actor Siobhan Finneran (who, might I add, looks like this IRL) is so restrained, so rigorously controlled and subdued, it’s become a kind of fireworks all its own. Simply put, O’Brien never smiles . . . until tonight, when she reacts to Jimmy’s hesitant suspicions of Thomas’s motives with a bone-chilling grin. That’s the beauty of restraint, isn’t it? The little things matter.
And despite Thomas being one of the show’s least sympathetic characters, this episode went out of its way to humanize him, in the face of a coming smear campaign to which he’s completely oblivious. First, it paired his somewhat transparent attempt to pick up Jimmy the Hunky Footman with his intuitive, compellingly competent, almost poetic expertise with clocks – knowledge learned at the feet of his father, no less. Then it capped his sobbing devastation over the death of Sybil, one of the only people who’ve ever shown him kindness and accepted it from him in return, with a touching rapprochement with Anna, whose husband he’d once tirelessly worked to destroy.
I loved, by the way, that Thomas and Anna pulled apart when Mrs. Hughes walked by, as if they were doing something illicit, despite the many, many reasons we know they’re up to no such thing. That’s how strict the rules against physical contact can be, and thus that’s how unexpected and welcome something as simple as Anna putting her hand on Thomas to comfort him can feel. Again, the little things matter. But in a system in which freedom is so proscribed for so many, they’re not enough.
Last week: ‘We All Live in a Harsh World’