Monday, January 28, 2013

I still can't get over what happened last night

SPOILER ALERT: Contains plot details from last night’s DOWNTON ABBEY

This isn’t so much a post about DOWNTON ABBEY as it is about our attachment to fictional characters. And why drama and storytelling is so powerful.

I’m a fan of DOWNTON ABBEY. It’s rollicking good soap opera fun. Everyone is so mannered and foppish, and Maggie Smith is so droll and amusing. I never felt a strong connection to the show. It’s not like I can identify with the second footman or Lady Mary. Or dress like the Earl of Grantham. As I watch the show I do find myself wondering how they heat the place or why Elizabeth McGovern has only one expression?

There are a lot of storylines and some are more interesting than others. (Get Mr. Bates out of prison already and allow Edith even one moment of happiness please.)

But I was unprepared for what happened Sunday night. And even more unprepared for my reaction. They killed the youngest daughter, Sybil. And I cried. A fictional character on a mini series and I was sobbing. Sybil was the sweetest of the three grown daughters, but in a way that kind of made her the least interesting. They had to give her a revolutionary husband to spice things up. But in many ways she was the soul of the family, the pure heart and moral compass.

From a dramatic standpoint this plot twist makes sense. The repercussions will set off conflicts and complications that may drive the series for the rest of its run.

But I hate it!

Give me a less dramatic show but keep Sybil. I don’t care if storylines are hard to come by. Mr. Bates can rot in prison for all I care. What if suddenly there’s this mystery cure and Sybil… yeah yeah, I know.

These are all completely irrational reactions. But that’s what happens when you really have an emotional investment in characters. And as a writer, to me that’s the highest goal. I’m primarily a comedy writer so yes, I want to make the audience to laugh, but even more important, I want the audience to care. I want to touch them emotionally.

I think back to the death of Henry Blake on MASH. An entire nation was stunned and devastated. No beloved series regular had ever been killed before – especially on a sitcom. It caused quite an uproar, but producers Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart stood by their decision. People die in wars. People you know. People you love. Gene and Larry received thousands of angry letters and they personally answered each and every one.

What’s Julian Fellowes’ email address?

Killing a main character can be a big risk. You can alienate your audience. And you lose the value that character contributed to the show. The actress who played Sybil -- Jessica Brown-Findlay – brought a sensitivity and humanity to her role that was a refreshing change from the conniving and posturing of most everyone else.

I’ll be interested to see where the series goes from here and how they cope with such a tragic turn of events and … oh hell! I’m still just wrecked. How could they kill Sybil? I loved Sybil. I didn’t know it until they killed her but I did! It’s not fair!

And I love that a television show made me feel this way.


Anonymous said...

Um, I've seen the rest of the series, and trust me, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

CRL said...


I couldn't believe it when they killed Arch-Duke Ferdinand.....

johnachziger said...

I had the same reaction when they killed Kate on NCIS years ago. Still can't bring myself to like Ziva.

Ane said...

Buy more tissues, there's more to come.

Anne Mackle said...

If you think that's bad wait until you see Tge last episode it is devastating.

Matt said...

Interestingly I've been thinking about this alot today.

For reasons, I have been watching the Harry Potter films for the first time. I finished 6 yesterday and felt nothing when *spoiler* Dumbledore dies.
However I have also been rewatching Newsradio (having not seen it all the first time) from the beginning and just got to Episode 1 of Series 5, the one after Phil Hartmans death. This got to me.
Was it better writing that caused this? I don't think it was in this case. I think it was the acting, if the cast are able to convey emotion and you feel it that affects me.
In Newsradio they didn't need to act. However the children didn't appear to feel really upset.
But then maybe it was the location it was filmed on. Closed studio compared to outdoors and expansive.
Who knows.

I said in this case it wasn't the writing, reason being I know it can be. At the end of the anime Cowboy Bebop I was upset, part writing part music.

I will lastly say this, I think comedy shows are the ones that can make people cry/upset the most. Reason being, one moment you're laughing and normally from no where you get hit with something you don't expect.
To also get laughs during this time is something I respect and admire comedy writers for.

Tracy Austin said...

I have much more respect for a show that can kill off a main character...unless, of course,if it is because they want off. Walking Dead is doing it...sometimes, you never see it coming. Kudos to a show that can make me feel. (also have seen all of of the greatest shows ever of its kind)

Alan Light said...

Lady Sybil had to be written out of the show because the actress,
Jessica Brown Findlay, wanted to leave to pursue opportunities in Hollywood. The writer, Julian Fellows, didn't have to kill her off, of course, but it was powerful and I can see why he did it. How do you keep Tom Branson on the show if Sybil lives but leaves?

Also, I had started hearing comments from my friends that the show introduces problems (i.e. financial) that happily solve themselves. We'd sort of gotten too used to that, and Sybil's death shook up that expectation big time.

I've seen that episode five times now (four on the British DVD, which was released last November, once last night) and I've cried each time. I can see how masterfully it was written, acted and edited. You have concern "will she be o.k.?" but of course expect that she will, because Downton problems are just bumps in the plot, and end happily. And it looks as though she is fine after the childbirth. The show switches to Thomas' crush on the new guy, James, to get you off your guard even further. Then, bam, something's wrong, Sybil dies. Shock.

I've seen the rest of this season's episodes as well, and I think this third season is the best yet. The only story line that annoys me is Bates. I don't care about him, leave him in prison.

You'll enjoy the rest of the episodes, and the season ends with a bang.

olucy said...

Why even bother having a Spoiler Alert if you're going to have a headline that says "I still can't get over what happened last night" and a picture of the actress. Do you really think your savvy readers--some who may have not seen the ep yet--aren't going to put 2 and 2 together?

BDodd said...

I was being so incredibly careful not to have this new season of Dowton spoiled for me, frantically un-following anybody on Twitter with even the slightest of British accents who may have possibly already seen it.

So imagine my shock and grief last month when (insert expletive here) TWITTER, being ever so helpful--suggested I might also like to follow..... "Sybil's Ghost."

(insert expletive back)

Scooter Schechtman said...

I still haven't gotten over the fictional death of fictional character Sonia Peters in "Coronation Street." Get out of the car, Sonia! Why?! Why?!

Tudor Queen said...

I loved Sibyl for all the reasons you gave, and also (shallow alert!) because Jessica Brown-Findlay is so incredibly beautiful. I was stunned and yes, emotionally wrecked by her death, as if it was someone I knew.

Kudos to Julian Fellowes, who I now hate a little

Johnny Walker said...

Ha! I love it when shows do this, too. I cried many times during my discovery of Buffy/Angel, as well as watching Battlestar Galactica.

Good drama is relatable, no matter if it involves Yorkshire aristocrats, people in outer space, or vampires.

Makes me want to watch the show! (Although it's a little disheartening to hear that the death may have been done for practical reasons rather than dramatic -- hum!)

Mac said...

That's cool, but right now Ken, we need you to go and see "Movie 43" and report back with one of your always-funnier-than-the-movie reviews. Judging from what I hear, you might also be weeping at this one, as you beg for it to stop.

Carol said...

This is why, when someone who doesn't know any better, rolls their eyes at Doctor Who, and thinks it's only a 'cheesy sci-fi' show, I will point them in the direction of the episode Father's Day, from the first series of 'New Who'.

Because, along with the cheesy wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey of the plot, the story with Rose and her father is so touching and sad, I defy anyone not to tear up just a little. The writing of this show is almost always exceptional. When it isn't it's merely excellent. (In my opinion)

And if that doesn't work, I will force that hypothetical person to watch any of Stephen Moffat's episodes from the Russel Davis years, because they are, in addition to being as scary as heck, tear-jerkers, every one.

MikeBo said...

I still believe that "Law and Order-LA" moved into the cancellation column when they killed off the detective. Up to then there had been some positive changes that made me think the show would succeed after all. After that, the plot line got lamer and lamer.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Matt: a complicating factor in the case of Newsradio was that the actor himself had died, and the cast's grief was genuine, being as much for their friend and fellow actor as it was for their fellow character.


Susannahfronhungary said...

My two cents: often when an actor wants out, I think it's better to just kill them off. At least that way there's a good explanation as to why their family and friends can't see them anymore. I hate it when some characters have been best friends for years and together in every episode, then one of them leaves and is never heard from again. You'd think they'd stop by every once in a while, or at least call. You know, keep in touch. How weird would it be if Downton ran for another 10 years and the whole family got together for holidays or birthdays or whatever, and Sybil was never there? Or if she was just mentioned, but never on screen? As sad as it is when a beloved character dies, at least you know why they're never there anymore.

Dorothy said...

Ken, I am right there with you!! I don't know how to go back next Sunday. But I do want Mr. Bates out of jail so the lovely Anna can be happy. xoxo, Dor

The Earl of Venice said...

Oh come on Ken, admit it: you're devastated because they killed off the *hot* sister.

Powerhouse Salter said...

I wish I'd been among the MASH viewers stunned and devastated by the death of Henry Blake. I still hold a grudge against the pinhead editors of People magazine who ruined the surprise via a caption in a cover article about McClean Stevenson bailing on MASH to star in his own sitcom.

By the way, is it true that Henry Blake was killed to make sure Stevenson could never return to the series?

John said...

They did kill off a sitcom character in the 1950s -- Danny Thomas axed his wife, Margaret, when Jean Hagen (Lena Lamont from "Singing in the Rain") opted to leave the show in 1956. But unlike MASH or last night's show, the death wasn't done within a story -- they just came back for Season 4 and Jean was gone, to be replaced by Marjorie Lord as Danny's new romantic interest towards the end of S/4 and then wife when the show moved from ABC to CBS for Season 5.

Len said...

The interesting note about this is that I had not heard any previous leaks about this plot turn. A few weeks ago, somebody who has already walked Season 3 slipped and mentioned what happens in the last episode which will be equally as dire. But there were enough news reports about that particular actor leaving. As for the gal playing Sybil, there was no such advance.

Barbara C. said...

Well, I just finished last night's Downton, and not only was it heartbreaking but it was just so hard to watch Sybil's end. It was just so "violent". I loved the interaction between Mary and Edith, though.

Matt, part of the Dumbledore problem in the HP movies is when they chose to replace the late Richard Harris with Michael Gambon. While he's a great actor, he was just not the right choice for Dumbledore. Dumbledore completely lost his whimsy and likeability.

XJill said...

I saw the series when it was airing in the UK so my grief is months old but Sybil was always my favorite character and having her die is still the worst, I don't care about the stuff that happens that everyone else (commenters) is hinting at. I do like that it sets up great stuff with Branson and the family with Baby Sybil but still...DAMMIT!

Also just the way the scene happened with everyone there and having to watch it - aaaagh!!!

YEKIMI said...

Knew it was gonna happen soon as the two doctor's were fighting over the best way to treat her. Told a friend, she'll have the kid, pronouncements that everything turned out all right, 10 minutes later they'll come in and she'll either be dying or they'll find her dead. Worst....telegraphed moment....ever!

Sharon J said...

Sybil's death was one of the most harrowing death scenes I've ever seen on television. Kudos to all the actors. I had been spoiled about it (and other future events), but for once that foreknowledge did not lessen the power of the moment.

Barbara C, I disagree re Michael Gambon vs. Richard Harris as Dumbledore. I was largely disappointed with RH in the first two movies. I found his performance perfunctory and lifeless. Also, Dumbledore began to lose his 'whimsy' in the third book, so I felt that the way MG portrayed him had more depth and resonance for me. Just my opinion!

Pamela Atherton said...

The Brits have no problem killing off main characters. Watch MI-5 (Spooks) EVERYone ends up getting killed off.

And I appreciate that. Because it's more realistic and creates unusual dynamics.

And it's not always the American "feel-good" ending to every story.

Chris Muir said...

Personally, I love how British TV is completely willing to kill off major characters. The show "Spooks" (aka MI-5) is a good example. They went through so many main characters that they must have used chalk for the names on the dressing room doors. It makes things seem more real to me.

Chris Muir said...

Pamela, we were typing more or less the same message at more or less the same time!

Mac said...

I was astonished when they knocked off Mags Bennet in Justified. Not because she was remotely likable, but she was a hugely charismatic character who drove a very strong plot strand. I thought that's either massive confidence in the forthcoming series or a huge mistake. From what I've read the new series is holding up extremely well.

15-Seconds said...

In the final episode, Lord Bob Newhart wakes up in bed next to Sybil and they discover it was all just a dream.

gottacook said...

Nothing will ever have an impact like the death of Henry Blake (which I saw first-run, without forewarning, in spring 1975, and it floored me) because it changed the nature of what was until then primarily a comedy with a laugh track.

Michael said...

As a Downton Abbey fan, I had wandered into information and knew there would be a death and who, but not how, and it was powerfully done. Also, notice that the only two characters who REALLY as she died were the Irish husband and the American mother, and that the servants who reacted most were the one who might have been considered the lowliest and the outcast. The class breakdown was interesting (I know the others looked shocked and all that, but if you think about how it was presented ....). I'll just add, Carson pretty much maintained the stiff upper lip, and Carson is my favorite.

Now, as a kid, I cried when Henry Blake died, but not now, possibly because I preferred Colonel Potter (that doesn't seem very nice of me). I cry every time I see the MASH episode with the tonteen (as the cast did), and the one about BJ's wedding anniversary, when the Korean boy plays "an harmonica." But every Christmas Eve at 10:50 p.m. or so, I put on "It's a Wonderful Life" and when Jimmy Stewart loses it, I start to, and when his brother toasts him, I'm gone. I'm welling up as I type about it.

All superbly acted. All superbly written and directed.

DBenson said...

On "Frasier," did the original Eddie make it through the whole run or was a ringer brought in at some point? Sure I would have remembered if they wrote him out.

I recall a few shows where beloved pets died or were killed off, but the pets in question had never been seen before. A bit like girls who were about to marry one of the Cartwrights on "Bonanza."

Kerri said...

Thank you! No one at work watches this show and I needed an outlet. It was killing me. This did the trick.

An (is my actual name) said...

You seem to be doing quite well, all things considered. 25 years on, and I still can't discuss Diane leaving Cheers.

Breadbaker said...

Wait? Diane left Cheers? Where was the "(spoiler alert)"??????

Seriously, one of the best plot twists I've ever encountered is at the end of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, just totally unexpected and untelegraphed. I've read the book about three times and seen the movie countless times and it never loses its freshness. I've been "spoiled" since the first time I read it, but it doesn't change (Dumbledore's death, on the other hand, was pretty heavily telegraphed from the first chapter of Half-Blood Prince).

Storm said...

My poor husband doesn't watch DA, and hadn't been asleep very long when he heard a Klingon Death Howl from the living room. Half asleep, in just his shorts, no glasses, comes running out to find out what's wrong, and all I can give him is a weepy hiccupy "they-- killed-- Lady-- Syyyyyybill! WHY?! WHYYYY?! She had such a good heart, she was the kindest soul, WHY????" He heaved a great sigh, said "Oh jeez, it's just TV, woman" and went back to bed. I'm glad to know I wasn't alone in my sorrow. That was some out of the blue heartbreak bullshit the way ONLY British TV can serve it.

When I first met my dear friend, science fiction legend George Clayton Johnson, I told him that I'd always wanted to meet him so I could thank him for his "Twilight Zone" episode, "Nothing in the Dark" (the one with a very young and gorgeous Robert Redford as Mister Death). I told him that I saw it as a child, right after my great-grandmother passed away, and that more than anything that anyone had tried to do or say to comfort me, that episode helped me understand death, and that she was somewhere that there was no more pain. Tears welled in his eyes, he took my face in his hands, kissed me on the cheek, and said "No, thank YOU so much, my dear. There is no greater honour or comfort to a writer than to know that something you've written has touched someone's heart and affected their life for the better." I just love that sweet, crazy old hippie to bits.

@Matt: I still refuse to watch the last "Cowboy Bebop" when it comes on; I stop with the episode right before it, with Faye leaving to find herself and Edward reuniting with her weirdo father (and Ein's li'l face as he makes his choice, to go with Ed or stay with the guys). That way, Jet and Spike are still off having adventures together, and Ein and the girls will come back someday.

Cheers, thanks a lot,


basura said...

Buck the Dog's death of Married with Children was a regular having an episode about his demise

McAlvie said...

Yeah, that was a heartbreaker. Mind you, I was more broken up about William. But I figured either Sybil or Branson was going to get bumped off, anyway. Why else did they marry and move to Ireland? Clearly it was paving the way for one or both characters to be phased out. Actually, both Branson and Sybil were wearing thin for me. He was so anti-establishment he didn't want to dress to be in Mary's wedding - proving what? And Sybil was so darned earnest all the time. In a way, she was the character who has evolved the least.

But I feel for Lord Grantham, I really do. First he loses his heir, then an unborn son, then his money, now his youngest daughter. Geeze.

chuckcd said...

I had that problem with "Game Of Thrones" (book and show). All the characters that I liked or had an emotional investment in were killed off.

I stopped reading after the first 2 novels.

gottacook said...

With regard to what YEKIMI wrote above: I wonder how the impact of Sybil's death might have differed, had the doctors agreed that everything would be OK and that there was no danger of eclampsia.

The best thing about the death scene itself was the editing. So efficient and succinct.

Did anyone here see the (pre)eclampsia death episode during ER's first season, "Love's Labor Lost"? It was the same thing but in a hospital and at 10 times the length. Not that it didn't have an impact, even though the characters were strangers to the audience (Bradley Whitford was the bereaved widower and new father, although I'd never heard of him at the time).

RCP said...

"And I love that a television show made me feel this way."

Me too. Becoming emotionally attached to a character makes it a pleasure to watch them - the price to pay is that it hurts like hell when they die or leave. Despite its foreshadowing, Sybil's death took me by surprise and earned some tears - it was riveting television.

I still avoid watching Diana Rigg's final episode on The Avengers - though she didn't die, just seeing her drive off is too much for this faint heart.

Ms Fan said...

I totally agree. I cried like a baby and went to sleep with a box of kleenex clutched to my chest.

I'm crushed that Sybil died, but can't wait to tune in again next Sunday. It is one of the highlights of my week.

After Sundays episode, I received text messages from 3 different friends proclaiming their dismay and heartbreak. Unusual for me as I'm usually asleep before nine! We chatted via text for the next several minutes trying to process our sadness.

What great TV!

Cyn said...

We, too, were stunned and cried when Sybil died. but I have to say that her death scene, with the entire family in the room, was some of the finest acting I've ever seen on TV--which, of course, made it all even more heartbreaking. Coincidentally, Sybil died on the very night "Downton Abbey" won the SAG award for ensemble acting. Now we know why.

Bob Claster said...

I was completely unmoved, because I thought it telegraphed. When the good guy family doctor is pushed aside for the arrogant big city doctor, it was obvious what was going to happen. Feh!

D. McEwan said...

I wish I'd been totally unprepared, but several of my FB friends on the east coast (One of them my editor on My Lush Life) felt it necessary to post spoilers as soon as it finished airing on the east coast TWO FULL HOURS BEFORE IT EVEN BEGAN AIRING ON THE WEST COAST!

I spent Sunday evening watching the SAG Awards and then writing my blog review of it. Took all night, as it usually does. There was a lot on that night I wanted to see, including a Hitchcock movie on TCM that I had not seen before, and fresh Hitchcock experiences are rare these days. My DVR could not handle all of them so, knowing that Downton Abbey airs several times during the week on several PBS stations, I put it off until later in the week, and only just watched it an hour ago. But I watched it knowing what was going to happen before it did thanks to thoughtless blabbermouths.

By the time I checked this blog the next morning to see if you'd done the SAG Awards, your headline, which combined with the photo at the columns top constituted a more-than-sufficient spoiler before my eyes got as far as your Spoiler Alert, it was already thorougly spoilt many hours before. (Even so, I waited until after I'd seen it to read this column.)

There's no "Spoiler Alerts" when you scroll down your Facebook feed and see "Juilian Fellowes, how could you?" before you have any chance to not see it, and of course, can not unsee it.

So I did not cry. I might have, if I'd been allowed to watch it in ignorance, but no, the east coast blabbermouths felt it necessary to post it before it aired on the west coast. There's really no excuse for that.

The worst spoilers I ever encountered came the night that The Empire Strikes Back opened. I had to work until 1 AM at The Comedy Store that night, so I couldn't go to the first show, at Midnight at The Egyptian Theater. But when we got off work, several of us went to see the 2:30 AM showing (Which, I assure you, was packed.)

So, we're standing outside the theater in line at 2 AM and the first show lets out. The folks come out, exhilarated and happy. Then three assholes from that audience ran up and down the line of us waiting to get in shouting "Luke's father is Darth Vader!" and giggling, over and over and over, making sure that they had spoiled the big plot twist for everyone who was so undedicated (or had lives or jobs) as to wait to see the second performance. I think if I had those guys in my clutches even now, 33 years later, I'd still kill them.

And I so agree that the Bates-in-Prison plotline is a total drag on the proceedings.

D. McEwan said...


I must admit that watching the new season of Dallas knowing that sweet, crazy, funny Larry Hagman has died and that therefore they will be killing off master-villain JR Ewing, I'm going to be a wreck. I kept tearing up everytime JR came on camera in the premiere, so I know I will be a total wreck when JR dies. Now JR Ewing is about as far from Sybil Granthum as you can get except for the rich part, a total dastard whose crimes are beyond numbering. But we've been watching him for over 30 years, and loving to hate him, and hating to love him, and finally, just loving him, in part because he's really loveable old Larry Hagman.

But it is different in his case and Phil Hartman's when you know the character has died because the wonderful person playing him has died. (And in Hartman's case, shockingly via a vile murder by a wretched woman he should never have married.) The death is real even though the character is not.

But I'm glad I saw the Henry Blake's death epsiode the night it was first broadcast, with truly no warning. I assure you, I was a complete basket case, and I didn't even really like that character that much. Gary Burghoff's grief just killed me.

Tallulah Morehead said...

Whenever I see a movie in which I die, I cry like a baby and wail like a banshee. Other character's deaths, not so much. Though, when I see a prohibition-set movie where some evil governement agent takes an axe to a barrell of booze, I wail, keen, and lament like the Trojan Women.

Greg Ehrbar said...

I agree about Diana Rigg's departure being hard to watch. The entire episode was filled with quick cuts of her that made the viewers' sense of loss even greater -- and it was a very difficult start for Linda Thorson as Tara King, whom I have grown to appreciate more in later years. Ra-boom-de-ay.

Didn't know about Sybil's death, but now I'm worried about how my son will take it. If it's as horrendous as described, he may be stricken, the way he was when the cowboy died (temporarily) in "The Indian in the Cupboard." He, along with the rest of family, have become very fond of the Downton folks.

I wasn't misty-eyed last year when Lane Price died on Mad Men, but I was in a terribly dark place, because of what a tragedy his life had become and how it seemed that he might have come out of it. Very tough TV to watch -- and very Hitchcockian touch of humor to break the tension.

If any of you haven't watched the original Upstairs, Downstairs, it's definitely worth seeing. This was the Downton Abbey of its day; not as lavish and intricately edited, but still filled with great actors and superb writing.