In last night’s Downton Abbey, Sybil, the youngest daughter of the Crawley aristocratic family, died after childbirth from eclampsia. The scene was brutal, not least because the character, played excellently by Jessica Brown Findlay, was the sweet and innocent member of a house filled with often unlikable characters. But it went beyond that, to a relentless reminder of how death is the most different thing of all in nature.
With the family gathered around her bedside, Sybil is wracked by delirium and seizures, as the doctors stand helplessly aside. The family is physically holding on to her, willing her to live, and in those moments she is still one of them, literally in this world. Her husband, Tom, and mother, Cora, cannot let go, but suddenly Mary, her eldest sister, rears back in horror. The cut that follows is shocking in its abruptness and haunting in its finality. Sybil dies, not peacefully, but in agony, and at the moment of her death, Mary’s revulsion reveals that Sybil has undergone the final change that forever separates her from what she was just a few moments ago.
We see fictional death all the time in movies and television, on video games and in novels. We argue whether we are becoming desensitized to it, perhaps leading to greater violence in society. Last night, Downton Abbey brought back the essential horror of death, and even without mentioning religion once, flooded the minds of many viewers with thoughts of the impermanence of life, its grace, and the deepest hopes for a higher comfort to explain the unfathomable.