David Cook: Lady Diana's Downton predecessor

David Cook: Lady Diana's Downton predecessor

January 29th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Curse you, Julian Fellowes. She was the best of them all.

Not burdened by the haughty smugness or ho-hum blandness of her two older sisters, Lady Sybil Patricia Branson (nee Crawley) broke the aristocratic ranks, a woman of royalty as at home among the servants as the heirs.

She was a world-changer. A pioneer. With one marriage vow she was able to undo years of English aristocratic doctrine - Charles Darnay of "A Tale of Two Cities" comes to mind - by marrying the chauffeur, a poor Irishman no less.

It was radical, illegal love. Born of a heart that cares little about pretense, class or systems of privilege.

Sybil was an early Lady Diana; when she died on Sunday night - by far the worst moment in the third season of the PBS show "Downton Abbey" - even the servants wept.

"In my life, I can tell you, not many have ever been kind to me," said Thomas, of all people. "She was one of the few."

By most accounts, she was 24 years old when she died.

Her life really began during war.

As Downton Abbey became a home for convalescing World War I soldiers, Sybil walked with ease and force into a world few others of her birthright dared to trod. She became a nurse, as if all the injured soldiers awoke in her some predestined charity.

It was this compassionate rejection of the aristocratic distance that gave us the first real glimpse at the generous geography of her heart.

Sybil, who reminded us it is better to give than receive. That the greatest are those that serve. (Oh, and we foolishly think Lady Mary is the heroine of the family.)

Her death was shocking. Not in the way it happened - of course, early 20th- century women would die during birth - but that it happened. Even after the seizures stopped, I kept waiting for her to breathe again; like some "Dallas" J.R. Ewing-type of prank.

It would mark the third death on the show: William, the innocent servant-soldier, Bates's wicked wife and now St. Sybil.

"The sweetest spirit under this roof is gone," mourned Mrs. Hughes, probably the second-sweetest spirit under the Downton roof.

Sybil's death also reveals to us something rather disconcerting: Fellowes, the writer and creator of the show, is willing to kill off the best character there.

"How 'Downton Abbey' broke our hearts," read the TV Guide online headline.

Imagine if you were writing the script for Downton. Wouldn't you cling to Sybil, keep her safe and deeply ingrained in the plot?

Far easier to get rid of Thomas, even Edith (sorry, is that rude?), than Sybil. Heck, I'd let more-boring-by-the-day Cousin Matthew slowly fade into the distance than give up Sybil.

And don't even bring up Ethel and her kidney souffle.

"But never has 'Downton Abbey' conjured more tears than it did Sunday night," writes Meredith Blake of the L.A. Times.

Indeed. Why would Fellowes write off beloved Sybil?

To get rid of her husband, the troubling Branson? (We'd be fine aristocrats if it weren't for you meddlin' Irish). As a solution to Mary and Matthew's newlywed infertility? They, now, will gain control of the new baby? (Mary, always getting what she wants, one way or the other.)

Those are cruel plots, none of them worth sacrificing the show's best character over.

"A major character dies," writes Willa Paskin of Salon.com, "and for what?"