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.
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.
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?)