Oh, No. Sybil.

Moments after Lady Sybil Branson, nee Crawley, a main character on “Downton Abbey”, died in childbirth on Sunday night, January 27, 2013, that three word message, “Oh, no. Sybil”, appeared on the Facebook page of someone I follow.  Within minutes, dozens of comments appeared below it, almost all of us jumping in without questioning at all what “Oh, no. Sybil” might mean.  We knew.

Downton Sybil Dying

On Facebook and on Twitter, the bywords were “Heartbreaking”, “No!!!”, and “Why???”  Nobody who watches Downton wanted to believe that Sybil, the good sister, was dead.

And nobody who watched it felt any queasiness about mourning the death of a TV character.

Who can forget Col Henry Blake’s death on Mash in 1975?  It was HUGE in the real world.

Or “Coach” Ernie Pantuso on “Cheers”?  We were a mess over that one, even though we knew it was coming.   Nicholas Colasanto, the actor who played Coach, died in real life and the tribute to Coach in the script was as much for Colasanto as it was for his character.

Or Mrs. Landingham, the president’s secretary on “The West Wing”?  Shock and anger.  Then grief. (They wrote her out without her initial knowledge or permission.  A dumb move.  She was great.  Kathryn Joosten went on to play Mrs. McCluskey in “Desperate Housewives”, another wickedly brilliant character who dies, but sadly it was Joosten’s decision to leave, knowing she was in her own last days.)

Downton Abbey, like  Upstairs Downstairs, its kissing cousin before it, is Masterpiece’s  version of an upper crust soap opera.  (Note:  PBS has dropped the “Theatre” from “Masterpiece” for whatever reason.  What could be more theatrical than “Masterpiece”?  When did this happen?  And why am I just now noticing?  Update:  It happened in 2008.  Who knew?)

When I was back being the mommy-in-charge my 3 o’clock pep-me-up was an hour with the folks at Port Charles, where “General Hospital” took place.  Strange things happened there, with the Quartermaines providing the eccentric upper crust.  After awhile not much happened at the hospital, but mention Luke and Laura and everybody knows their names.  (An early story line has a drunken Luke raping the vulnerable Laura–a horrific bit of theater the writers couldn’t write away by giving us all amnesia, but all was apparently forgotten or forgiven by the time their lavish splash of a wedding took place.  (The most-watched episode in all of Soapdom, it’s said.)  Elizabeth Taylor visited Port Charles once, and Demi Moore got her start there.  It was loads of fun.

Then it was Dallas and Dynasty, and later came Upstairs Downstairs, The Forsyte Saga, and Brideshead Revisited.  So we’ve been conditioned to expect the best of times and the worst of times from these serialized tales.

Sybil’s death is so Little Women, with Sybil being Beth, the golden child and the youngest, the one who brought joy to a family that came to wake up each morning already anticipating life’s travails. Except that Sybil was in reality more like “Jo”, the free spirit, the feminist, the break-out who was set to change everything.  Where Jo the poor girl marries the rich man, Sybil the rich girl marries the chauffeur.  And an Irishman, at that.  It was deliciously wonderful for a time.  They were in love, those two, and about to have a baby.  An English-Irish baby.  And then someone (probably the same someone who thought to drop “Theatre” from the “Masterpiece” title for no apparent reason) must have thought we were enjoying this way too much and decided to kill off the one Crawley we can relate to.

It didn’t get past most of us females, either, that the needless death of Sybil, the budding feminist, can be traced to two arrogant, foolish males who took it upon themselves to decide what was best for this woman in labor–something neither of them knew anything about.

Sybil’s husband Tom is already threatening to make trouble by having their child baptized Catholic.  It should be every so slightly interesting but without Sybil, I don’t much care, one way or the other.

The one saving thought is that, in the company of some truly fine actors, Maggie Smith will still be around to play Violet, the Dowager Countess.

Downton Maggie Smith mourning

That woman needs only to lift an eyebrow to show the rest of those troopers what great acting looks like.  She doesn’t need to speak a word.  There is a scene after Sybil dies where Maggie the Dowager grandmother enters Downton Abbey and walks alone across the foyer to the drawing room, where the rest of the family has gathered to mourn.  The scene lasts no more than 30 seconds and her back is turned to us throughout, but her grief is palpable.  She takes my breath away.

The 30 saddest television deaths.  (“Coach” isn’t among them.  Any others they missed?)

About constantcommoner

Ramona Grigg. Freelancer, blogger, essayist, photographer, dreamer. Island dweller. Yooper.
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10 Responses to Oh, No. Sybil.

  1. Great analysis of the way Sybil’s and other tv deaths affect us. When Jimmy Smits died on NYPD Blues, I was in anguish. Sybill’s death unleased a lot of grief for me. It was just the “poke” I needed to re-mourn several huge losses in my life. I think great literature (and sometimes tv and film gets it right) can be cathartic.


  2. Cynthia, I forgot about Smits on NYPD. It’s a testament to some fine performances when we can immerse ourselves so thoroughly in them we mourn when they’re no longer a part of us. You’re right about literature, of course, but there are movies that I have to work myself up in order to watch again. “The Color Purple” is one of them for me. So is “The Grapes of Wrath”. “Tender Mercies” is another one. And “Gandhi”. (I could probably list at least a dozen more if I thought about it.)

    And I’m trying like heck to make myself go see “Les Miz”.


  3. Donal says:

    I understand Ms Findlay wanted to leave the show. I knew it was coming because I read a spoiler somewhere, but it wasn’t hard to see it coming. I also heard that Maggie Smith almost didn’t sign up for Season Three, but I hope they don’t have to bump her off, too. Meanwhile I’ll just daydream about having Ethel cook for me.


    • trkingmomoe says:

      I am real curious about Daisy’s story line in season 4. She is my favorite and they drop a hint or two later in the season where it might develop. I like the way they write several story lines and climax them through the season.


      • Daisy is an interesting character. First just shy and then passive-aggressive and now maybe dangerously jealous. I like watching the reveal of the characters as they change over time. Who are they, really? I guess that’s why we watch, huh?

        I read that Julian Fellowes writes every episode himself, which makes him God of the Abbey. Whatever happens happens because he makes it happen. That’s a heavy burden. I hope he knows what he’s doing.


  4. Donal, thanks for visiting! Looks like Maggie/Violet is in for at least Season 4: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/15/maggie-smith-downton-abbey-season-4_n_2479364.html
    Ethel? Cook? Dream on.


  5. trkingmomoe says:

    Welcome aboard. I enjoyed your walk down memory lane. I was given a copy of season 3 as a Christmas present. Then a couple of weeks ago I was given a copy of the Christmas special that was the final for season 3. I am still watching it every Sunday night even though I have watched it twice already. There is more sadness to come.


    • Thanks, good pal! I came to Downton late and have had to catch up, so much of it is confusing to me. But I’m hooked!

      I don’t quite get that Christmas Special. So Matthew is dead a year later but still here for the rest of a season? Help!


      • trkingmomoe says:

        I didn’t mean to confuse you. In order for BBC shows to be shown here in this country they have to be reformatted for our system. Downton was shown in the fall. Season 2and 3 had it’s season’s end with a Christmas special. This year’s was shown on Dec. 26. The DVD’s I was given as a gift was on Christmas Eve. Last Aug my son asked for his birthday a subscription to a streaming feed service out of Europe so he could watch foot ball all fall on the computer. We don’t have cable. It was inexpensive. My son and grandson didn’t tell me it offered other broadcasts too. They must of figured that all out when they were down loading sports at night on the computer to watch. They knew I liked certain BBC shows and made DVDs to surprise me. They told me this kind of service was started because Europe would not let Hough Lou operate in Europe. You can get buy season 1 and 2 from PBS. My local library bought copies to lend. You might want to check out your library. Season 4 will be next fall.


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