“Downton Abbey” recap: Tragedy strikes

A major character dies, and for what?

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"Downton Abbey" recap: Tragedy strikes (Credit: Masterpiece/Carnival Film & Television Limited)

Sometimes, when I feel like staring into the abyss, I think about what it is that I like about TV so much. It’s lucky for me that TV shows have gotten so good in the past decade or so, because it offers me cover. Shows like “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad” and “30 Rock” are, in their own distinct ways, ambitious and meaty. And while they are not always art, they are always cleverly structured, deeply thought-out entertainments. These types of series have helped elevate TV and the discussion around it into the super-vibrant, cultural touchstone that it is today, which is wonderful and convenient because it makes intellectually acceptable the truth that I would have happily watched thousands of hours of much, much worse.

When I started to really watch TV, I loved “Saved By the Bell” and “Full House” and “90210” and “Dawson’s Creek” and “Buffy.” I can now write lots of sound, well-reasoned sentences about these programs’ respective merits (or lack of merits), but that’s ret-conning my younger self because what I loved about those shows at the time would be best expressed by thoughtlets like “Brenda and Dylan ahhhh!!!!” “How rude! Hahaha,””Angel swoooon,” but even less coherent and with more excited sound effects. I watched for the plot, for the story, for what happened next to these, incidentally, fake people. I don’t watch nearly as blithely as I used to, but for me the deep, fundamental pleasure of watching TV remains the same. It’s just the simple, sweet, silly act of caring way too much about people that don’t really exist.

One of the ways I know that this over-investment in TV characters still undergirds all my over-thinking about TV is exactly because of my endless patience for shows like “Downton Abbey.” It’s a shadow of its first-season self, it keeps trying to cram the most boring storyline about a wrongfully accused man ever down my throat (this week’s big reveal: the suicidal pastry dough!), and here I am, still eager to know what happens next, however melodramatic or silly or dull or half-as-good-as-it-used-to-be that happens to be.

One of the other ways I know my over-investment in TV characters undergirds all my over-thinking about TV is because I still go out of my mind when shows, especially romantic ones like “Downton,” kill a major character. I care about what happens to these people, and that means I don’t want them to die. Every single time it happens — see the millions of grisly deaths on “Grey’s Anatomy” or when “ER” killed Lucy or when “Thirtysomething” killed Gary — I end up thinking irrational thoughts like, “How dare you TV show! This is not why I watch you! I do not watch you so nice people will DIE,” as if the perpetual health and happiness of all the fictitious people on a TV program is a) really important or b) something the creators of that show owe me.

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To put it in slightly more grown-up terms, there are shows in which violence and death are inevitable parts of the show’s purview — series about drug dealers in Baltimore or methlords in Albuquerque, for example. And there are shows like “Mad Men” that try to be realistic about the world and about the bad things that happen in it, and so death also belongs in them, if less often and less violently. And then there are frothy, escapist fantasies in which the worst things that usually happen are a snafu in the prison postal system, a jilted bride, temporary war-time paralysis or, in the most extreme cases, an influenza epidemic that only kills non-essential characters. And in such a show, when a major death arrives, it often feels like a cheap narrative trick, a stunt to make me feel, to make me cry and to imbue the series with a temporary seriousness — a seriousness that is totally anathema to the light, romantic, look-at-the-costumes reasons for which I’m watching it in the first place.

When David Simon says Wallace from “The Wire” has to die because Wallace would die because Wallace lives in a world of systematic brutality and violence and winnowing of options, I am like, “Ouch, that hurts, but I see what you mean, and I know you take Wallace even more seriously than I do, so [sob] OK.” When Julian Fellowes says Sybil from “Downton” has to die, I am like, “No, really, I think she could have gone back to Ireland with Branson and her baby if you guys had contract issues to resolve? And if she did have to die, because it’s not really fair to the actor who plays Branson to fire him just because Sybil wants to leave, don’t you think spending five minutes at her bedside while every single person she loves watches her seize to death is sort of over the top and manipulative? I know I’m crying about it, but sometimes I cry when I’m angry, and I think maybe this is some bullshit, and you are just using Sybil as a prop?”

That, up-talk included, is basically what I thought and felt about this episode of “Downton.” Sybil’s death is sad, but mostly it feels empty. Poor Tom. I guess there’s even more incentive for Sybil’s family to completely tame him now. Poor new baby. All the actors got to do some good, teary work — the scene where the downstairs staff learned about Sybil’s death was particularly moving, especially in comparison to the brutal histrionics of the scene before — and next week they’ll get to do something else. Here’s hoping it has nothing to do with death.

Willa Paskin
Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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