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Downton Abbey: Season 3 - Episode 5 reviewed

Downton Abbey, Season 3

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

WE’VE been on the cusp of tragedy before in Downton Abbey but never quite like this.

Where the Crawley family and their servants managed to emerge from the First World War unscathed (barring one predictable demise), the main characters have mostly triumphed over the various obstacles placed in their path by Julian Fellowes’ script.

It’s what made Sunday’s fifth episode so surprising. Few could have predicted that Jessica Brown Findlay’s Lady Sybil would die. Indeed, credit to the show’s creators, this was a well kept secret.

The manner in which she departed the show was memorable too. Where Fellowes’ period drama has been accused of being ridiculous throughout its second series, and appeared to have gone a little soft, here it demonstrated a harsh realism and complexity of emotion that has, of late, sorely been missing.

Sybil’s death from Eclampsia was avoidable. Dr. Clarkson (played with just the right amount of frustration and desperation by series regular David Robb) had predicted it, having noticed some early signs.

But such was Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville)‘s blind faith in renowned doctor Sir Philip that the advice was ignored until it was too late. And boy will there now be repercussions.

Sybil’s final moments were excruciating. Having made it through labour and childbirth itself (in a double bluff by Fellowes), all appeared to be going well for mother and baby.

Yet in the middle of the night, Sybil succumbed to Eclampsia to the painful despair of every family member surrounding her. And this top-notch cast finally got to earn their spurs.

Among the standouts were Elizabeth McGovern’s Cora, whose pain as a mother was plain for all to see. The moment as she said farewell to her dead daughter was truly heartbreaking, but crucially not over-played.

Rob James-Collier, as Thomas, was good, too, showing a rare moment of humanity and sensitivity as he broke down in tears under the sympathetic gaze of Anna.

And let’s not forget Allen Leech’s Tom, Sybil’s husband, who conveyed the turmoil and anguish of his situation with aplomb. The final scene of him standing at a window holding his baby was genuinely haunting.

Bonneville deserves some credit too. Having hitherto been the father figure a nation loved to love, he has fallen from grace in spectacular fashion this season. His blind ignorance of Dr Clarkson’s warnings was effectively played, thereby setting the scene for the marital turmoil that will now surely follow – and coming in the wake of his mis-management of Downton’s financial affairs.

Maggie Smith even got in on the acting, dishing out sage-like advice in the build-up to the tragedy and then being afforded a rare moment of weakness, as she threatened to collapse, the morning after it. It was great to see a more sensitive side to this formidable character’s make-up.

There were other plots bubbling away beneath the surface of this episode, such as Bates’ ongoing problems in prison (he’s being set up for a fall yet again), and Isobel Crawley’s decision to take in Ethel as her house-maid (the comedy relief), but all played second fiddle to the main drama upstairs.

And the repercussions look set to cut deep, particularly in Cora’s attitude towards Robert, whose actions she clearly blames.

Episode five of this third season of Downton was where the series finally came of age and delivered the intensity of drama (and emotion) that it has been threatening since the end of Season 1. It has elevated the show from the dramatic doldrums and future episodes should be a real treat once more, albeit laced with tragedy.

Jessica Brown Findlay, for her part, will be sorely missed. She radiated beauty and the energy of youth during her time on the show, which made her surprise departure all the more shattering.

Read our verdict on Episode 3