Sybil’s death represents everything that is good and everything that is bad about the representation of women in Downton Abbey. It is a hard-hitting, gut-wrenching indictment of society’s tendency to dismiss women’s opinions and expertise, even about their own bodies.
It also continues the tendency for Sybil’s plotlines to be about anyone but Sybil herself.
Throughout this episode, and the one the follows, we see men (especially Lord Grantham) asserting that They Know Best and trying to protect women from their realities of their own biology. They flinch away from discussing medical facts in front of women, even though women are the ones who actually live them. Cora’s input, as a woman who has given birth three times, is completely dismissed. And although Sybil later becomes delusional, no one ever considers asking her what she wishes to do or filling her in on Dr Clarkson’s early concerns.
And, as a result, Sybil ends up dead. She has no chance to fight for her life, or make any decisions about her own health. She isn’t even aware that anything might be wrong until the end. She dies, in part, because women’s opinions are dismissed by men, even concerning their own bodies.
In the current political climate, this is a powerful message. Women’s health is important, and women must be listened to on these matters. They must have a say, and should not be “protected” from themselves or the facts of their own bodies.
Yet Sybil’s death also made me quite uncomfortable. In the context of the show, her death will also have a lasting impact on all the characters around her and their relationships with each other. And although this is powerful in a narrative sense, it reflects a problem I’ve had with Sybil’s character for a while: she was no longer a character in her own right. She died as she lived, as a note in someone else’s story.
In season one, Sybil was the heart of the show, the girl who saw the goodness in everybody and pushed for greater goodness in the world. She also had strong opinions of her own, and she was willing to fight for her right to express them. But since then, her character, her revolutionary ideas, have been completely absorbed by Branson’s. Due in part to some bad writing, she seemed to fall in love with him simply because he kept insisting that she should. Her political activism, her work as a nurse, all faded away, and she became an accessory to his political concerns, someone who “disappoints” him when she tries to convince him to be a little politer, a little less aggressive to her family.
In my eyes, Sybil, as a fully-fledged character in her own right, was already dead. She had been replaced by a plot tool, a tie between Branson (and his revolutionary ideas) and the traditional world of Downton, especially Lord Grantham. She was a catalyst for other characters’ struggles. She didn’t die, as Lavinia did, because the story needed her out of the way. She died because that was the best and final way she could fulfil her role of making plot happen for others.
Sybil dies because the men will not listen to women, because the titled and fashionable will not listen to their “lessers”… she dies as the pawn in the middle of a wider message, one that rocks Cora and Robert’s relationship, one that (I assume) will affect Mary and Edith’s attitude to life, and one that, once again, will be used to add complications and development to Branson’s story. Will he stay or go? How will his Catholic beliefs clash with the family? How will his revolutionary ideas be affected by her death?
Of course, all TV deaths eventually focus on the impact on other characters. It is only natural. But it also seems an inevitable and saddening end to a once vibrant, challenging character. After the end of the first season, Sybil was always a part of other characters’ plots, and never a part of her own.