What did you think, “Downton” fans?

First thing’s first — hoorah, cast of “Downton Abbey”!  You took home the ensemble award at the SAGs this past weekend!  Woo-hoo!  (And who knew Mrs. Hughes could look so glam?)  I was so happy for you.

I had to watch your win the next day, sadly.  Because we live in a cruel universe, I had to choose between watching your own show and seeing the SAGs live.  Since the Better Half is much less of an awards show fan than me (though we enjoy watching them together), “Downton” won out.  Rest assured, however, the Oscars will be viewed live.  (And on that note, yay Jennifer Lawrence’s now being my favorite to take home the statuette!)

All of that is to say that we watched this week’s episode as it aired around the country, and something has been niggling at me since.  Now, of course, comes the MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT.  I will be discussing a HUGE PLOT POINT FROM THIS PAST SUNDAY’S EPISODE AND YOU SHOULD TOTALLY STOP NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT BECAUSE YOU WILL COME AFTER ME WITH A HATCHET IF I RUIN IT FOR YOU.

Still here?  Splendid.

OK, so how much does it suck that Lady Sibyl is dead but her hothead pill of a husband is still on this side of the grass?  While I did find her a wee bit on the earnest side and have found pretty much any Branson-related story arc tedious and annoying, she was still one of my favorite characters.  The Better Half and I were aghast and distraught and all the things that Julian Fellowes clearly wanted us to be.  That said, as heartbreaking as it was, it did allow for the entire surviving cast to do some really great work.  Maggie Smith’s character got to be something other than amusingly acerbic, and Elizabeth McGovern was the best she’s been for the show’s entire run.

But something niggled just the same, and I don’t know if my reaction is too informed by my experience as a doctor in 2013.  I found the whole “dueling physicians” bit ham-handed, and obviously in service to this entire season’s major theme — “Lord Grantham is more of a tool than you thought.”  Season one he was as noble in spirit as his estate was sprawling, which raised hackles in some quarters (as has been previous discussed hereabouts by my beloved co-blogger).  Thus far this season he has lost his wife’s entire fortune through incredibly stupid investing (which every other character who mentions it never fails to call stupid), been revealed to manage his estate ineptly, and now contributed to the death of his youngest daughter because he didn’t want to disagree with and thus offend the snooty upper-crust obstetrician he’d called in to attend to her.

And I’m sorry, but I don’t buy that last bit.  Frankly, I had a hard time believing that any physician as smart as that pompous ass doctor was meant to be would fail to recognize that Lady Sibyl’s mental status was clearly abnormal, or that she was experiencing preeclampsia.  But I’ve known enough medical providers who’ve made mistakes through arrogance, so I can meet the writers halfway on that.  What I really have a hard time believing is that he would ignore the concerns of pretty much everyone but Dr. Fancypants and make a transparently class-based decision that costs his daughter her life.

I found it literally unbelievable.

The one complaint I have with “Downton,” and I know I’m not alone in this, is that it tends toward the preposterously convenient in some of its plot twists.  Miraculous recoveries!  Sad but timely demises!  Much less sad and even more timely inheritances!  While poor Lady Sibyl’s convulsive demise was a surprise (at least before the episode began; I knew she was a goner as soon as she mentioned that she had a headache), the events that surrounded it seem calculated to march us where the writers want us to go.  I don’t think it’s a big stretch to guess that when the big showdown between Lord Grantham and Matthew comes over managing the estate, we’re clearly supposed to be rooting for the latter by that point.  Subtlety is not the show’s strong suit.

But again, maybe my being a doctor is throwing me off as a viewer.  To me, the writers may as well have painted “OMIGOD LADY SIBYL HAS PREECLAMPSIA!” in bright red letters right on the facade of the building, and from then on the episode smacked of the Obvious.  So what do you, gentle readers, think?  Do you think Lord Grantham is such a tool to ignore his wife’s unmistakable distress?  Do you think the same character who practically performed Lasik surgery on Mrs. Patmore himself during season one would be just an elitist dick at heart?  Am I wrong?

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. So due to life getting in the way we had not seen the first three episodes when we discovered we had free time this past Sunday and could watch Downton Abbey. Dilemma can’t watch four with out seeing the others first so thank goddess for the internet we streamed episodes 1-3 in a marathon session and when we were done episode 4 was on line so….Monday morning came waaaay too early.

    I agree that you just knew she was a goner. I also think it is obvious that this is going to make Branson all that much more annoying because now he has yet ANOTHER reason (albeit a valid one) to hate the class system

    • As a possibly too cranky person*, I find that Downton Abbey’s entire defense of the class system makes it unbearable to watch. And often the show does seem like Fellows is just trying to defend his position as a seat-holding member of the House of Lords. It constantly baffles me that many liberals seem to fall for the show hook, line, and sinker.

      There is a whole cottage industry devoted to this issue on the web. My favorites are Simon Scharma reminding us that the past is not pretty.** And one from the LA Review of Books that argued that we relate to and like Downton Abbey because we have recreated the problems of the Edwardian Era without realizing it.

      *As evidenced between people telling me that my political views are somewhat cranky-left and also sometimes acknowledging that they are deeply thought out at least.

      **Really, the past is not pretty for the most part. Only a few people really wore those renaissance fashions that one sees all the time at ren faires. Most people would not be in the elite (as also is common at Ren Faires). We should remember the past as it was for the good and the bad. Rose-colored tints and high-lighting the good and beautiful is dangerous.

        • I do enjoy a good Dowageress Crab.

          Okay that really wasn’t funny.

          • well, if they had to sell the estate to turn of the century physical culture enthusiasts, it’d be downton flabby.

            or to hackneys – downton cabby

            an eccentric rich animal lover? downton tabby.

            or to a charitable league dedicated to fighting leprosy? downton scabby.

            thank you i’ll be here all night.

  2. I agree with you. I see people saying he’s now evil incarnate, and I just think, no, he’s not real. The writers wrote a completely implausible course of action for his character. Though i have to say that the result portrait of the kind of grief he must feel is bracing enough as a dramatic product to maybe be worth the implausibility. It’s not worth the loss of the Sybil character, though. But that was not the writers’ decision.

  3. I thought writers are waaaaaay overdoing their response to the criticism that he was infallible the first season. My husband and I call this hyper-reaction-to-criticism-which-leads-to-worse-television pulling a Columbus Day. Because if you remember the Columbus Day episode of the Sopranos, I am deeply sorry.

    For what it’s worth, as a non-doctor but pregnancy repeat offender, I was getting pre-e shouts a mile away.

    Okay. I now care about Mrs. Hughes, Matthew, Mary, Edith only. And Elizabeth McGovern, whose name I now forget. I am indifferent to Matthew’s mom and Ethel, Bates and Anna (both of whom I liked first season), Daisy and various paramour issues. Carson. And I actively can’t stand the characters of Branson and Thomas and Mrs. O’Brien. Not as in, I don’t like them as people. I don’t like them as characters.

    There are shows I want to be better than they are. This is one of them.

    • I still like Anna enough to care about her, but I’m ready for Bates to get shanked if I never have to see another boring, dreary scene of the two of them trying to get him released.

      Isobel Crawley Saves Fallen Woman through her Great Good Intentions is a snooze-fest of epic proportions. Isobel Crawley is Forced to Live with the Unintended Consequences of her Great Good Intentions is something I’m enjoying thoroughly. As Slate put it, “Nobody portrays curdling liberal guilt like Penelope Wilton.”

  4. protip – if your spouse is upset about a tv show that you don’t care for it is not a good idea to say “this will cheer you up, check out my new dance” and start spasming about asking her to join you in “doing the downton”. it is insensitive and they will not find it funny in the slightest.

    • I am lucky in this way. The Better Half is much more drawn to television dramas than I am, so he gets sucked into shows more frequently than I do. However, they fall into two categories:

      1) Shows I don’t really care for, but can admit are done well. This includes “Revenge” and “Scandal,” for example. Don’t watch them, don’t care. But can catch a few minutes without objection.

      2) Shows that he enjoys despite their awfulness. The quintessential example of this was “Charmed,” which was bad beyond the bounds of human endurance. But the Better Half is perfectly aware of how awful they are, and thus has a relatively high tolerance for my loudly pointing out the various things wrong with them (which, in the case of “Charmed,” were legion in every episode). So we each get to enjoy ourselves with favorite pastimes, his being watching Low Entertainments and mine being Complaining.

      • our issue is that my workstation is 3 feet from the tv. i don’t really watch tv, at least when it’s broadcast, and she has her own separate office so she’s not stuck listening to my activities. but i was locked in last sunday on a project so i had no choice but to do the dew. in her defense she doesn’t watch a lot of tv – it’s kind of a waste beyond tiny terror’s weekend movie(s) or the day’s episode of elmo’s adventures on craigslist.

        melodrama being what it is, these things seem to be obviously telegraphed – any time a big thing happens in the middle of the runtime, some monocle dropping action is coming on. i know that being surprised/blindsided by events is part of the fun for her, but its charm escapes me. it seems overly calculated to me in this case (my bet with her is that next season they explain the lousy money issue with lord fancypants either having a love child somewhere or a whole separate family), but pbs has found a winning formula to be sure.

  5. Branson’s problem is predictable, kemo sabe. It’s offensive, but there’s really no way for it not to be given the way the show is framed.

    Regarding his Lordship…

    What I really have a hard time believing is that he would ignore the concerns of pretty much everyone but Dr. Fancypants and make a transparently class-based decision that costs his daughter her life.

    They’ve had a very hard time establishing the baseline for this character. He’s willing to step outside the bound of class-stratified propriety sometimes, but not others, and there’s no real substantive there yet to explain his motivation… well, other than the, “it would be advantageous for the plot for this thing to happen, so we’ll have Lord Grantham act this way this week.” It’s all well and good for the guy to have troubles with the liberalization of his world and all, but their portrayal of him doesn’t really tell us where he’s game for change and where he isn’t in a consistentish sort of way.

    Lady Mary is a bigger asspain in this regard because she had the potential after the first season to really blossom into a character and instead she’s sort of become this dramatic foil between Matthew and her father and this “the good of the estate” plotline. Which really should be an utterly bogus plotline, because it’s already been established as rock solid that Lord Grantham will marry to save the estate, and he’ll then impoverish his daughters rather than break up the estate, because the estate is the thing to which he holds his obligation. If the guy puts the estate that highly, he should have already been listening to Murbles for years about management of the estate.

    He’s already blown propriety out of the water and direct individual family loyalty out of the water for the estate.

    I think the writers have completely forgotten that in service to what you pointed out in the OP: “… a bit ham-handed, and obviously in service to this entire season’s major theme — “Lord Grantham is more of a tool than you thought.”

    • Good breakdown. They should have gotten a less likable actor for the part – they’d have less trouble doing what they need to with the character. They even could have written him as having wed late and cast the Carson actor. That actor (I should get the name but I’m just not going to) moves smoothly from really off-putting to slightly redeemable, which I think is just what you need for what they’re actually trying to do with the character. In fact, it hadn’t even occurred to me that this was the problem until you pointed out that they’re having trouble with the character. They had to go off the deep end last week to break down the audience’s sympathy to Lord Grantham based on the actor’s portrayal of (in my view) a truly loving father, though one, as you point out, making all the wrong decisions for his daughters.

      OTOH, maybe that tension is what they’re going for – well-meaning and likable aristocrat unable to make the right human decisions because of the imperatives of the social structure. Still, I think Hugh Bonneville’s excess, syrupy likability drowns any crisp delivery of that portrait.

  6. I’m struggling with the time of things.

    Lady Sybil was pregnant last season, before the big wedding. Which is in the summer, followed a month-long honeymoon (Remember the chatter about how hot it was there this time of year?), a second non-wedding, and the escape from Ireland. This baby seems to have been in the oven for an extended period of time, and it doesn’t surprise me that Lady Sybil died under those extenuating circumstances; I might have, too, medical judgement to the contrary.

    My favorite character is Lady Edith; and I wish we’d see more of her. She’s got some Ugly Duckling moment coming, I so hope. My personal dream is that she’ll set a course for a real-life woman’s page writer, one Patience Gray, author of one of my most treasured cookbooks, Like Honey from a Weed, and run off to live in sin with a sculptor, travelling from quarry to quarry, chasing marble around the Mediterranean basin.

    The show channelled Shirley on and then off the set rather quickly; all that build-up about the sparks didn’t really catch much fire.

    And what’s up with Mosley? Why does he always look like a meth head?

  7. [Ed: Just so nobody’s nose gets put out of joint, I’m going to stick a SPOILER alert here for the episode that aired February 3 — RS]

    Russell, just watched this weeks episode and I have a question. Did Dr. Clarkson lie to the Crawleys or did he find from further research that the odds were severely against Sybil surviving? What was the mortality rate of preeclampsia at that time if a Cesarean was performed? And can I say how cool it is that I know an expert to ask this question of

    • That’s a difficult question to answer authoritatively, Anne. I’m sure there must be morbidity and mortality data about pregnancy-related death rates from early in the last century, but I don’t know where I might find them. Further, I don’t know how reliably they would have been collected and reported, so it would be hard to know how much stock to put in whatever numbers one might find.

      So with that said, the best I can give is a hunch. And my hunch is that Dr. Clarkson is stretching the truth, but not lying outright. On the one hand, an emergency C-section was Sibyl’s only chance at survival, and she was showing blatant signs of preeclampsia. She absolutely should have had one, and it was totally wrong for the other doctor and her father to have prevented it. However, she still might have died. In the absence of modern interventions to treat the illness, delivering the baby was the only treatment, and she still progressed to eclampsia despite having delivered naturally. She might have done even with a C-section, and that’s saying nothing of the blood loss and risk of infection from the emergency surgery, both of which would have also been quite likely to kill her.

      So she might well still have died, but Clarkson was totally right the first time around to have strongly advocated for an emergency C-section. I am actually kind of unhappy with how things played out last night. On the one hand, it’s nice to see Cora and Robert reconciled. But not only has the rift between the two finally given Elizabeth McGovern something to do with her character, she was exactly right when she called him out from her bed about the reasons he sided with the titled doctor. Nothing that Clarkson said mitigated his own terrible basis for making the decisions he did, and she was (and would have remained) justified in her anger.

      • I thought he lied, but with the slight cover that the c-section would have needed to be done earlier to have much chance of saving Sybil’s life; that at full term and with preeclampsia already developed, there was still grave threat and also the possible complications of surgery.

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