Some love affairs aren’t meant to last. And my romance with Downton Abbey is quickly fading.
There are several aspects chipping away at my affection — from too-quickly-resolved plotlines to laborious scriptwriting. Yet the strongest irritant is Sybil’s plummet into mediocrity. Since her marriage to Tom, she has become a non-character. She’s boring, lacking the curiosity and fire she possessed in the first season. (For those that knows what happens to Sybil later this season, this is all the more infuriating.)
Similarly, Mary’s main preoccupation now that she has married Matthew is to whine and complain about all the ways he is disappointing her and her family. She was the belle of the ball — and center of major scandal — during the first season. She stolidly entered into an engagement that was a business transaction rather than romance for the sake of protecting her family. The second season quite heavily focused on the up-and-down relationship between Mary and Matthew, culminating in that long-awaited proposal and kiss at Christmas. Mary and Matthew still retain their individual selves after their marriage, and they heatedly exchange their opinions with another. Yet Mary’s role has returned, for the most part, to her petulant, spoiled state. It’s her husband who finds problems with Downton’s financial management; it is her husband that wants to make improvements. Mary disagrees with the entire notion and carries on with her personal correspondence — or whatever the hell she fills her days with.
Apparently, the message of this particular aspect of Downton — however unintentional it may be — is that newlywed wives are not interesting. The excitement is in the chase.
Compare this to Edith’s story. Edith — the sister who was the meanest, bitchiest, most unappealing sister in season one — has become the most interesting over the past two seasons. In season two, Edith learned how to drive a car, assisted with farm work, and offered sympathetic care to injured war soldiers. This season, after being left at the altar, she funnels her energy into the conversation about women’s rights. Specifically she writes a letter to a newspaper; it gets published. In next week’s episode we know that she receives an invitation to write a column for the newspaper.
This is precisely the sort of activity Sybil would have done in season one. Sybil was the passionate, political sister. She brimmed with vivacity and purpose. Sybil scandalized her family by wearing pants. She attended by-election meetings. She secretly assisted the maid Gwen to find work as a secretary. This is the young woman who requested cooking lessons from Mrs. Patmore and Daisy — an act that society frowned upon as inappropriate. (Imagine! Ladies and her servants co-mingling in the kitchen.) She became a nurse during the war. She risked her father’s disownment and her inheritance by choosing to marry the family’s chaffeur and Irishman Tom Branson. Sybil. Was. Fierce.
Sybil is now but a faint shadow of her former self. For being such a progressive feminist, she allows her husband to dictate their choices and treat her with disrespect. I know some find Tom’s zealousness dashing and romantic. To me, he is selfish, dangerously proud, and chauvinistic. It was Tom who encouraged Sybil’s politics during season one, yet he asks her to give up everything she knows and holds dear — her loyalty to Downton, her family, her personal history — for him and his cause. His expectation for Sybil to follow and obey him is no different than the rest of society in that time. For being such a revolutionary, he failed to break societal norms within his own marriage.
I understand that characters change. One could argue that Sybil’s priorities shifted when she married Tom. After all, Edith has certainly evolved over the course of three seasons. Yet whereas the writers were intentional with Edith’s progression, it feels as though Sybil was forgotten. Tom is now the exciting one, the political one. All Sybil does is plead for her husband to keep the peace with her family and for her family to accept and keep the peace with her husband.
Why couldn’t the writers have imbued her marriage with flavor and the unexpected? By having two fiercely political young people, the writers had a tremendous opportunity to showcase a vibrant, exciting marriage filled with stimulating conversation and spark. Instead they chose for Sybil to become pregnant, drift into the wings, and be replaced with more “intriguing” subplots: the introduction of the handsome footman Jimmy, the obvious attraction Thomas feels towards Jimmy, the love triangle between servants Daisy, Alfred and newcomer Ivy Stuart.
Again, the chase.
Jessica Shaw created this note for a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly:
At first I found it humorous. Now I find it sad. Just like a new season of fashion, Downton Abbey keeps cycling through its Crawley sisters and then disposing of them once her initial thrill wears off.
Photo: PBS, Masterpiece Classic