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Downton Abbey: Season 3, Episode 4: Carry on, as we all should

This week's post needs little introduction... Amie Simon guides us through Downton Abbey's season 3, episode 4, in which more than one thing happened... but does anything else matter?

Over the seasons, Downton has brought us many tears, but never as many as this episode. I hope everyone had a box of tissues and a shoulder to lean on while watching.

We open on Sybil in bed being examined by Dr. Clarkson with a sleepy and anxious family around her. The doctor starts to explain that early labor pains are the body’s way of getting ready, but Cora shushes him because Lord Grantham doesn’t want to hear the “medical details” – in other words, Robert is squeamish about talk involving lady parts. CHECK!

Downstairs, the staff discusses Sybil and her impending delivery, and when new kitchen maid Ivy speaks up saying it’ll be nice to have a baby in the house, Daisy cuts her off when a “DO AS YOU’RE TOLD.”

Ivy = the new Daisy. Daisy = the new Mrs. Patmore, but even harsher. Even O’Brien looks confused by—if not a little proud off—Daisy’s newfound bitchiness.

While Lady Cora has breakfast, she and Robert discuss the arrival of a new doctor to deliver Sybil’s baby: Sir Phillip Tapsel. Robert feels it’s important since Clarkson misdiagnosed Matthew’s condition and missed how severe Lavinia’s illness was, but Cora doesn’t exactly agree. There is some SERIOUS foreshadowing in this scene!

O’Brien encounters a troubled James, who confesses to her that Carson has asked him to wind the clocks, and he hasn’t got a clue how to do that. So, naturally, she points him in the direction of Thomas, who’s “very knowledgeable” about clocks. Wait a minute … what’s O’Brien up to? Why is she pushing James towards Thomas? Are her bangs jealous of his swoopy coif?

A bed-ridden Sybil complains about all things pregnant to Mary, and then asks her point blank if she’s putting off having one of her own. Lady Mary looks confused by this question. Of course she’s not waiting! Well that clears that up. Or does it?

Thomas wastes no time hugging up to James while “helping” him, even going so far as to place his hand on top of James’ to help wind the clock. WHOA, there, Thomas. Getting a little ahead of ourselves, aren’t we? But we all know it’s only a matter of time before this escalates.

Anna finally gets into the prison to see Bates, and the two of them determine that they can prove he didn’t kill Vera because Mrs. Bartlett saw Vera making the poisoned pastry while Bates was on the train back to Downton. Also, the police tested everything in the pantry, so they know the pasty was the only thing tainted. HUZZAH! Bates could be free soon—I mean, if they can figure out how to prove it. (Side note: the best part of this scene was seeing Anna lose it and curse Vera. Such language!)

Isobel decides to take a HUGE risk and ask Ethel to come and work in Crawley House (alongside Mrs. Bird. That will totally work out fine, right?), but Ethel warns her that she’s asking for way more trouble than she realizes with her offer. After all, Ethel’s a ruined woman, twice over. A baby out of wedlock AND prostitution?!?! It’s almost inconceivable that she’s still alive.

At the prison, Craig and Durant notice Bates has been looking a little too happy lately, and vow to find out why so they can wipe the smile off his face as payback for getting them both into trouble. How does no one else at the prison ever see these two scheming? They’re right out in the open, for chrissakes.

Matthew tries to broach the subject of Robert’s money issues with Mary by walking her around the farms surrounding Downton and talking a lot about “investments” and “the middle class”. Silly Matthew! As if Mary wants to listen to you talk about things that are so mundane.

Sir Phillip arrives for dinner and starts spouting off about his childbirth expertise, inadvertently making a remark that causes Lord Grantham to do a spit take, some serious eye rolls from Carson, and a bemused smirk from the Dowager Countess. He confirms that Lady Sybil shouldn’t have any complications, and brushes off Lady Cora’s suggestion that they bring Dr. Clarkson back when the contractions start.

After dinner, Matthew approaches Sir Phillip with a very delicate question about … fertility. Resulting in one of the only things this entire episode that made me laugh. It was SO awkward! The good doctor assured Matthew that a few months of trying without results is nothing to be concerned about. And that “anxiousness” is the enemy of pregnancy. Oh, 1920. You’re doing it wrong.

Anna finally gets Lord Grantham’s attention and asks for his help in getting the news about what they’ve discovered to a lawyer for Bates. Robert commends Anna for persevering in finding the truth, and promises to enlist his lawyer’s help right away.

A shocking letter arrives from a respected paper editor for Edith, asking her to write a weekly column about the problems faced by a modern woman! GO, Edith! Matthew thinks the news is well done, but of course Robert has to squash it with a “He’s just paying for your name and your title.” Matthew objects, but poor Edith:

“Don’t bother Matthew, I’m always a failure in this family”, she exclaims. Indeed. Nice job, Lord Grantham. Way to make your own daughter feel worse than she already does. No wonder she’s always so bitter.

Back at Crawley House, Mrs. Bird confesses to Isobel that hiring Ethel will cause her departure, as she can’t work with a fallen woman. I’m sure Mrs. Bird thought this move would call Isobel’s bluff, but instead she bids Bird farewell and offers her some severance and some good luck. Backfire!

Things are heating up in the kitchen between Ivy, Alfred, and James. Queue jealous Daisy’s entrance. The younger staff at Downton has all the makings of a great Shakespearean romantic comedy: Daisy in love with Alfred, Alfred in love with Ivy, Ivy in love with James, James in love with … well, I guess we don’t know yet, but it’s certainly not anyone present.

Mary and Edith approach Branson to see how Sybil’s doing, with the Dowager Countess camped out in Downton for good until the new arrival appears. Sir Phillip uses his expert skills to assure them it won’t be long now, and when Cora announces she’d better call Dr. Clarkson, a little battle ensues between her, Philip, and Robert. MORE FORESHADOWING.

Daisy continues her rampage in the kitchen, bossing around Ivy for absolutely no good reason, so Alfred tries to smooth things over by first ruining something Daisy left out, and then teaching Ivy how to fix it, just in time for Daisy and Mrs. Patmore to see her doing it. Sneaky! (Alfred obviously takes after his aunt.)

Everyone anxiously awaits news of the starting contractions, and Matthew brings up Edith’s journalism career, which doesn’t get much of a reaction from anyone except the Dowager Countess. Thus, Edith gets overshadowed by her other sisters yet again.

An alarmed Dr. Clarkson arrives and tries to alert the family to Sybil’s condition; he’s concerned about more than a few things. Unfortunately, Sir Phillip shuts it down, and with Robert’s backup, everyone ignores Clarkson, scoffing at Clarkson’s suggestion that Sybil may have the beginnings of toxemia and life-threatening eclampsia.

Meanwhile, Ethel is making a mess in Isobel’s kitchen and burning practically everything meant for dinner. But despite looking a little disappointed, Isobel graciously lets it slide instead of firing her. She pretty much has to hang in there at this point, since she’s decided to champion Ethel, regardless of her own reputation. 

Branson talks to a sweaty, red-faced Sybil about taking a job with his brother in Liverpool as a chauffer, but Sybil is not having it. Is during labor really the best time to bring this up, man? Can’t you wait until your baby is born?

Speaking of the labor, things suddenly aren’t looking so good. Sybil is rambling on about stars and being “on duty” while contorting in pain, with Sir Phillip is still insisting that everything’s totally normal. Lady Cora busts in and demands Dr. Clarkson run a test to rule out his own diagnosis.

In the midst of the madness, Molesley delivers an important letter to Mr. Carson from Mrs. Bird, explaining the situation at Crawley House with Ethel.

Thrillingly, we actually get to hear Carson say “prostitute” while discussing it with Molesley and Mrs. Hughes, and even though Hughes tries to stand up for Ethel, Carson insists that no respectable woman can now be seen at Isobel’s house. But they all agree to let it lie … for now.

After running his tests, Dr. Clarkson informs the family that he truly believes Sybil is suffering from eclampsia, but Sir Phillip still insists Clarkson is WRONG, especially when Clarkson suggests Sybil go to the “public hospital” and be exposed to all kinds of “common” germs and diseases.

Sir Phillip says he can bring baby and mother through the birth by doing things the natural way, while Clarkson recommends taking Sybil to the hospital immediately to perform a C-section, which would reduce the risk of seizures caused by eclampsia. Seething with superiority, Phillip says sending Sybil to the hospital now would be like “murder,” so Branson caves and lets Sir Phillip do it his way.

Shortly after, Mary runs downstairs to deliver the news: Sybil and her new baby daughter are both doing just fine. Hooray! Everybody beams with happiness … except Clarkson who is still worried.

Thomas is continuing his pursuit of James under O’Brien’s watchful eye when Carson arrives with good news about the delivery. Even Thomas looks pleased, and gives James a compliment while putting his hand on his arm—a gesture that puzzles James. Ever the opportunist, O’Brien asks him if anything is wrong, and continues to encourage James to suck up to Thomas since he’s so close to his Lordship. She even lets it slip that she hopes James isn’t implying Thomas might do anything “unseemly.”

But then, oh no! Sybil does indeed have eclampsia! The whole house wakes up to Sybil crying in pain and convulsing—which brings us to the hardest thing I’ve ever had to watch on Downton Abbey: Sybil’s suffering, the family panicking, the doctors shaking their heads, and eventually, the death of the Crawley’s youngest daughter with everyone watching it play out.


As the family tries to process what happened, Carson tells the staff, and both Daisy and Thomas break down. I don’t know about you, but seeing tough-as-nails Thomas disintegrate into sobs was more than I could handle. I used up two boxes of tissues, no joke. Anna even gave him a comforting squeeze.

And as if that weren’t ENOUGH already, we then get to see Cora talking to her dead daughter and promising to look after Tom and the baby. Mary tries to lure her away, but Lady Grantham prefers to be alone—with one parting wish: for Mary to tell Lord Grantham to sleep in another room. UT-OH.

And then as if THAT weren’t way past enough, we have to see Tom (Tom! Can I hug you? Repeatedly?!?!), Edith, and Mary tearfully say goodbye to Sybil’s body, and the two remaining girls make a pact to love each other “as sisters should.”

Amidst all the sadness, the lawyer arrives to speak with Anna and sort out what can be done to further investigate releasing Bates. Matthew snags a word with the lawyer after, and gets caught by Mary while trying to discuss the financial ruin Downton is in. Mary then throws a tantrum about her father not being there, and hammers in the point that her sister just died. Watch out Matthew! The daggers coming out of her eyes toward you look deadly.

The lawyer then goes to visit Bates, promising to do what he can to get a statement out of the unwilling Mrs. Bartlett, and Craig and Durrant watch on, plotting their revenge.

The Dowager Countess arrives at Downton to grieve with the family, and Cora makes her displeasure with Robert known by saying something about apologizing to Dr. Clarkson for ignoring his advice, and then kicks Robert while he’s down by laying the blame at his feet. Ouch.

The episode ends with Branson holding his new baby daughter while looking tearfully out the window.

Aw, geez, Julian Fellowes. Did you have to go there? I don’t even have a witty way to wrap this one up; I’m so devastated about poor, poor Sybil. I’m not sure I can get over this one.

How about you?


Highlights from this tough, tough episode 4!

Best line from Dowager Countess:

“When may she expect an offer to appear on the London stage?” (Re: News about Edith’s offer to write a weekly column.)

Most scandalous moment:

Isobel giving Mrs. Bird her walking papers in order to let Ethel have a respectable job. The nerve!

Most romantic scene:

Anna and Bates realizing together that they have a way to release him from prison! No kissing, but plenty of tears and longing looks.

Most devastating betrayal:

Lord Grantham brushing aside the opinion of Dr. Clarkson and listening to stupid Sir Phillip. Augh! ROBERT.

Most ridiculous bit of soapy melodrama:

Cora tearfully saying she has to write a letter to Dr. Clarkson IMMEDIATELY to apologize for ignoring his advice and causing Sybil to die. Over-the-top much?


Click here to read Tara Austen Weaver's post about eclampsia.


Additionally, PBS has provided the following contact information for those seeking more information about eclampsia, pre-eclampsia and HELLP syndrome, which are truly life-threatening conditions that are still major threats to maternal and infant health today:

Toll Free: 800-665-9341

Phone: 321-421-6957


There are 12 comments

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Well, it was quite a night. I never saw it coming. Julian sure did give us a wonderful lesson on Classism in this episode. Thank you, sir! I wonder how long Cora is going to grieve this death? I know that one never gets over the death of a child, no matter how old the child is. And, the baby is well and alive reminding the entire family of their loss of Sybil.

I wish that the Bates sub-story could be wound up. It is just a bit tad long and it is getting tiresome.

How long is Cora going to grieve? In some way, forever, as you say. So, I'm more interested in how long she will be angry with Robert. Forever, too, I hope! He gets worse with every episode.

such a sad episode. It's not like this show has that many nice characters on it to kill off the nicest. I agree with the other poster, couldn't they have had her and Tom move to Ireland to raise the baby and come back for visits, like characters have done on tv shows forever. It seems to me Robert is getting more annoying in each show this season. He always seemed like a nice guy before but now he and Granny are getting impossible in their snottiness. (of course that includes the still horrible Lady Mary. Why didn't they kill her off, or O'Brian? Because Lady Mary is so pretty all are bewitched by her, but she is still a b). First they ruin poor Edith's wedding, mainly due to their snottiness, lots of people marry people older or younger than them. Then they are snots to Cora's Jewish mom, oh no, no anti semitism there! NOT!! We want more of your money, but we hate you because you are rich and Jewish, but hurry up and give us more please because we are stupid and too snooty to actually make a living in the world. Then this episode. So sad. Beautifully acted by Elizabeth McGoven, better take Mary off the Emmy list and put on her mom again and her sister.

OMG, this episode nearly killed me! When Lady Grantham sat there with her dead daughter and said "I want to stay with my baby" I couldn't prevent the tears from flowing, and I sobbed so hard because that is exactly how I feel about my now teenaged son, like he is still my baby, and I couldn't bear it if he died! I am sure most of the women watching who were mothers couldn't keep from sobbing at that scene, either. So painful and so real. I had an emergency c-section, BTW, and my son was born 2 months early, but I didn't die of eclampsia or have preeclampsia to deal with, thank God. And my son got the best of care, and thrived/grew for two months in the NICU, and came home a robust and healthy baby. I cannot imagine how hard it must have been back in the 20s to have a baby without any of the modern medicine we now take for granted.

If ''Sybil' didn't want to be in the show anymore,couldn't she & Tom go to America like everyone else needing to exit a British series ? I'm still in shock.
Agree on the Bates post, it's getting tiresome . That couple needs a break!

Hey! You should have told Julian Fellows earlier! Sending them off to America would have been much better. Made sense too, since they can't return to Ireland.

Don't know that Sybil didn't want to be in the show anymore. Don't know why Fellows x'd her out. I'd have been happier if it had been Lady Mary!

Sybil's death is awful and the shocked staff just tore me up....too much like the real thing.

It was so overwhelming! I'm still processing it all. I hope episode 5 is a bit lighter (I mean, how could it not be?).

Fellowes definitely shook the fans up, that's for sure. Lavinia and William were sad for sure, but Sybil's death felt so much more real and shocking.

Downtown Series 3, Episode 4 : What Really Happened

Lord Grantham brings in a high-end doctor, Sir Philip Tapsell, to deliver Sybil's baby. This guy wants the family's normal doctor out of the picture entirely, not even just to be present. Lord Grantham agrees to this, but Cora disagrees, saying she's already told Dr. Clarkson she'll let him know when things start happening, and that it would be rude to exclude him. So he's there too. While Sybil is in labor she starts having problems, and Dr. Clarkson becomes convinced she's in serious danger. A terrible disagreement follows. Dr. Clarkson urges them to move Sybil to the hospital, and Sir Philip insists there is no problem. Lord Grantham takes Sir Philip's side, but Cora and the girls are not so sure. Sir Philip's point of view prevails, and Sybil stays there. She goes on to deliver a healthy baby and appears to be fine. But then, she dies. From the problem Dr. Clarkson was afraid was happening.

Lord Grantham is portrayed as needing to keep Sir Philip's approval no matter what. He refuses to even entertain another opinion. But what we've seen of him over two seasons conflicts with this. He's not this insecure, he's not this "we're all important men deciding these things," he's not this big of a snob. Okay, maybe he is, almost! But not with these stakes -- when his most lovable daughter's life could be at risk.
Why does he look for another doctor in the first place? Wasn't Dr. Clarkson the one who was to have brought Cora's new baby into the world? He's an experienced doctor: he's the Crawley family's physician, he runs Downton's local hospital, and he was the doctor in charge of the hospital in wartime. And also -- how does it even occur to the hyper-squeamish Grantham to think about bringing in another doctor?
If Sybil had to die in childbirth, it would have been the main focus. It would not have been accompanied, and even upstaged, by a dreadful and unbelievable cconflict that also destroys Lord Grantham's character.

But she didn't die.
Okay, in the world outside the story, Jessica Brown Findlay did not renew her contract. So something needed to happen. But there are many alternatives to Sybil dying, and all of them leave the door open for her to come back, briefly or permanently, or at the least, to remain in the story. Some of them are:
Sybil "You're my ticket out of here" Branson does not just make that one comment about her life in Ireland, "I'm known as Mrs. Branson." She commits herself completely to her new life. She gets involved, whether politically or socially. Maybe she works part-time as a nurse.; maybe she visits political prisoners; maybe she even goes to prison herself.
Or Sybil meets W. B. Yeats, begins learning Gaelic, and joins the Abbey Theatre. She is the toast of Dublin. She comes to Downton infrequently if at all, but in one episode Yeats himself pops in for a visit.

Melodramatic, Amie? Really? I think it was actually classy, though yes a bit harsh, of her to make it known to the good doctor that his professional advice should have been listened to. And "some truth", Robert? Really? Your doctor and wife were BEGGING you to take her to the and Dr. Phillip Snivel-bum wouldn't hear it.

@Justin - melodramatic not in the act of her apologizing to Clarkson, but in the act of her wavering voice announcing it to everybody in the room while throwing eye daggers at Robert, just to make the point that it was entirely his fault!

Do I blame Lord Grantham for Sybil's death? Somewhat for sure, but he did have a good point at the beginning of the episode: Clarkson misdiagnosed both Matthew and Lavinia. Tapsel is the one who irritated me the most during the whole episode, stubbornly insisting that Sybil was going through a normal childbirth, when clearly her behavior and appearance indicated she wasn't.

Tim Piggot-Smith played the pompous, self assured doctor just perfectly - and all I could think of was Ronald Merrick, the police officer in Jewel In the Crown, my all time favorite Masterpiece Theatre event. He's a little bulkier now is all.