TV REVIEW: Downton Abbey - Episode Five

The fifth episode of Downton Abbey is both one of the most dramatic so far, and naturally therefore, one of the best. I usually try to avoid major spoilers for my reviews but be warned, there is one massive spoiler here that it would be impossible not to discuss.

The house begins preparing for the arrival of Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) and Tom's (Allen Leech) baby while Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Mary (Michelle Dockery) are still longing for the pitter-patter of tiny feet (Oncoming Tragedy Klaxon). Daisy (Sophie McShera) is taking being someone's superior a little too seriously and is yelling at the new kitchenmaid a lot while Anna (Joanne Froggatt) has discovered the evidence that could lead to a pardon for Mr Baaates (Brendan Coyle). The new footman, Jimmy (Ed Speelers) finds himself in a rather compromising situation with the amorous Thomas (Rob James-Collier) thanks to O'Brien's (Siobhan Finneran) plotting. Then as complications start with Sybil's pregnancy, Lord and Lady Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern) are forced to make a decision that could jeopardise Sybil's health and the baby. How they managed to keep this one secret is anyone's guess, but the episode was so much better for not having a clue about what was just around the corner.

The sense of foreboding was slow to creep up in this episode, most of the focus was on how happy everything was going to be once the next generation of the Downton dynasty arrived. The construction of the episode was one of its strongest points with ebbs and flows that constantly made you question the outcome, particularly once the baby had been born. Then, there was that scene between Sybil and Cora in which the daughter pleaded with the mother for her help with carrying out her husband's wishes for the child. Suddenly, the third daughter's future looked pretty certain and not in a rosy, everything's going to be all right kind of way and in one of the bravest moves the show has ever made, we saw the departure of Sybil, who was possibly one of the most beloved characters.

It's a brave plot point for two reasons; firstly, as I mentioned last week, it shakes up the well-worn path that Downton has been treading this series. We all felt safe because we always knew that everything would always be all right, because it always had been. Well that's now completely out the window and you get the feeling that, for the remaining episodes at least, anything goes. Minor characters have always been dispensable (the footman William for example) but up until now it was always safe to assume that the main characters would survive; Matthew magically recovered his ability to walk and do, erm, other things while Cora survived Spanish flu. Secondly, it's going to make the family dynamic all the more interesting. After all, who is going to defend Branson now that Sybil isn't around? I strongly suspect that the usual family loyalties are going to start shifting. And when I said I was all for seeing more of Branson, killing off his wife was not exactly what I meant but it nevertheless promises an interesting plot-line for the former chauffeur. 

The death scene itself was slow and heart-wrenching, from Branson and Cora's pleas for Sybil to stay with them to Lord Grantham's disbelief at the sudden turn of events, and the scenes that followed just added to the tragedy. I personally could no longer hold it together after the brief scene between the Dowager Countess and Carson in which the usually formidable Countess weeped openly, just for a second. Maggie Smith has always been the standout performer in Downton but this moment was so well-judged and so measured that it made an already galling episode even more so. With people group-grieving everywhere, it would have been easy for one actor to pantomime it and try and outdo the others, but each member of the cast gave a great performance in the final scenes of the episode, particularly James-Collier showing a rare moment of compassion in Thomas and Leech, as the grief-stricken husband.

It's the biggest upset we've yet had on the series and it has set up some very interesting narratives for the rest of the series. With Branson now the only link to Lord Grantham's grandchild, there's naturally going to be even more conflict. Elsewhere in the episode, there's other troubles on the horizon with Mary and Matthew most obviously with their baby struggles but also with the estate itself. Something tells me things are only going to get worse at Downton now. And let's face it, none of us would have it any other way.

- Becky

You can read Becky's review of Episode Four here.

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