The costumes were the black color of mourning. The outdoor light was cold and gray. The Crawley women’s pale faces were made up to look sickly, even ghostly, rather than porcelain-radiant. Even in raw visual terms, the grief over Lady Sybil’s genuinely shocking death last week seeped into every last facet of this week’s Downton Abbey, a fog that won’t lift.
Naturally, the dialogue involved nearly all the characters being remarkably, even brutally candid about how miserable they were. Tom’s matter-of-fact reply to Matthew’s offer to help out was a standout here: “My wife is dead. I’m past help.” (Ever courteous in his rejections, he’s sure to add a “But thank you” to soften the blow.) Less explicit, and thus somehow more troubling, was the Dowager Countess’s proclamation that “grief makes one so terribly tired.” When she starts saying it you expect another Dowager zinger, but nope, that’s it: sadness is exhausting, no punchline, full stop.
The most gutwrenching expressions of grief, though, were wordless. The first came when Robert’s request to be allowed to sleep next to Cora again was roundly rejected, with Cora more or less accusing Robert of killing Sybil in favor of knighthoods and fashionable addresses and “all that nonsense.” (What a beautifully dismissive thing to call the trappings of aristocracy.) Robert takes his lumps with as much good grace as he can muster, but as he retreats down the hall from the bedroom, choking back tears, he literally grunts as though he’d been punched.
In a way, he has been. Robert’s worst behavior has typically come when his powerlessness in the face of trauma, personal or political, is coupled with an emotional separation from Cora. Back in Season Two, he realized he had no part to play in the War, neither on the field nor in Downton’s converted military hospital; when (to Robert, at least) Cora failed to sufficiently empathize with how upsetting this was to him, he nearly gave into the temptation to start an upstairs-downstairs romance with a war widow working as a maid as a way of making himself feel both vital and wanted again. Now that his lord-of-the-manor routine apparently cost his daughter her life and prompted Cora to shut him out of hers, he once again tries to self-medicate by angrily inserting himself in the decisions of his daughters and sons-in-law, hoping to bully them into providing the validation of his authority he so desperately craves.
It’s no coincidence at all that Robert’s nastiness in this episode is directly tied to his resistance to change. And I mean directly: the “all that nonsense” line; Cora cuttingly dismissing his theatrical disgust over Ethel with “You’re always flabbergasted by the unconventional”; Mary pointing out, in her remarkable confrontation with her father over his behavior, that he’s upset because “The world isn’t going your way, not anymore.” In this, it brings a long-simmering element of the show to a boil.
Downton‘s never had much interest in getting all that explicit about politics. It’s a much gentler period piece than say, Mad Men, where you’d kinda have to be a sociopath or a willful idiot not to see the obvious downside of all that hyperpowered capitalist white straight masculinity. This leaves an opening for critics to accuse the show of lionizing a system that for all its etiquette and fancy dress amounted to slow-motion class warfare – with justification, since its decency-fantasy framework makes the vast majority of servants such upstanding citizens that they’d never dream of being fundamentally unhappy with their lot in life.
But Downton‘s damn near peerless at exploring the politics of relationships – the emotional horsetrading and grand-bargaining and veto-overruling that comprise the hard work of maintaining long-term, committed, basically functional relationships. It’s interested in this issue in a way that no other post-Sopranos Great Drama even comes near, with their dark secrets and constant affairs. To cite a finely observed example in this episode, the pain Robert feels from Cora’s exile is much worse than mere anger would be, since he needs her in his life like oxygen.
So by tying the personal to the political in this episode, by weaving together Robert’s resistance to societal and cultural change with his grief over Sybil and his terror at losing Cora and his resentment of the younger generation’s autonomy and on and on, the show uses one of its great strengths to shore up one of its great weaknesses. This episode more than any other puts paid to the notion that Downton is unaware and uncritical of the system’s stupidity and bigotry. (Initially I combined the two words in my brain and accidentally wrote “stupiditry”; maybe I should have kept it that way.) Robert is unequivocally shown to be a petty tyrant, from repeatedly demeaning (freshly widowered!) Tom over his religion and class background to defending Rev. Travis’s loathsome Church of England chauvinism in the face of universal ridicule from the rest of the family, to demanding that the women ditch their Ethel-served lunch with Isobel and come home with him the way an asshole dog owner would yell at a cockapoo who refused to come back inside from the yard. And it’s not just we viewers, with the benefit of decades of hindsight, who can see that Robert is wrong about Tom, wrong about Catholicism, wrong about how best to run Downton’s estate, wrong about Ethel, wrong about how he treats his wife and daughters – all the characters, including Robert himself, are made to see it as well.
Which brings us to the other big, wordless expression of grief, and the show’s final, lingering image: Robert and Cora, convinced by Dr. Clarkson that Sybil would likely have died no matter what they did, collapse into one another’s arms, sobbing, as Lady Violet leans on the mantel and looks away. About the highest compliment I can pay a work of fiction in which parents deal with the death of a child, and I say this with all sincerity, is that it reminds me of the final line of the Golden Girls episode where Sophia’s cross-dressing son dies; this did it.
So don’t let’s be churlish and small-minded and give the show guff for “letting Robert off the hook.” Yes, it seems that Clarkson was telling the truth, and the chances of saving Sybil were “infinitesimal,” so Robert’s decision not to trust Clarkson wasn’t a death sentence where none need have been passed. Nominally, this “saves” their marriage, and cuts off a potentially compelling path the show could have gone down – watching how Robert and Cora either do or don’t repair a seemingly irreparable breach. But Downton Abbey, true to its soapy roots, has repeatedly given its characters just the miracles they need: Matthew can walk again, Matthew can forgive himself and accept Reggie Swire’s money, Anna and Murray can get the testimony they need to clear Bates’s name. In that light, “Robert and Cora find out that Sybil was going to die no matter what they did” is hardly some outrageous deus ex machina. It’s just cold comfort, which is sometimes the only kind of comfort you can get.
Last week: ‘Like Too Many Women Before Her’