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God Shows Up at Downton Abbey
Image: Giles Keyte / PBS
God Shows Up at Downton Abbey

Note: No spoilers for the season finale, but we figured the rest of season 3 is fair game for discussion.

In the third season finale of Downton Abbey, which airs Sunday night on PBS, series creator Julian Fellowes puts the cap on perhaps the most uneven—but definitely the most spiritual—season yet of his colossal hit. He's more than made good on his (somewhat unofficial) declaration that faith would enter the show's multiple storylines.

On the surface, there is a great deal more discussion of mere religion this year. It's driven at first by the presence of Tom Branson, the Crawleys' ex-chauffeur and new son-in-law, who is both Irish and Catholic. After being exiled for revolutionary activities in his homeland, he informs his new, culturally Anglican family that his soon-to-be born child will be christened Catholic. Meanwhile, the poor vicar is back, and he even has some lines, though in speaking them he turns out to be as much of a sop as he appeared to be when cowering before the dowager countess in Season 2—and a petulantly religious sop at that: the worst kind. There's been some debate about whether the relative agnosticism of the household is historically accurate (yes it is, say some; no, a reawakening called the Oxford Movement would have touched the place by the 1920s, say others).

Unsurprisingly, given his skill as a writer and his evident love for these characters, Fellowes proves himself largely unconcerned with such matters. To a serial novelist like him, merely religious questions are academic; it's the matters of the heart that interest him, and perhaps the spiritual matters of the heart most of all.

Is there a difference? Fellowes seems to pose the question. He finds his way further up and further in during episode 5 through Lady Sybil, Branson's wife and the youngest daughter of Lord Grantham. As Sybil is preparing to give birth, the doctors begin to argue, the women grow tense, the men withdraw, and the servants mill about downstairs under the gathering storm.

Sybil's sister, Mary, tries to comfort her, and Sybil tells her she's just realized that because of Tom's exile, the child will have to be christened at Downton.

"Blimey," Mary says.

"I wanted the whole thing done in Dublin," Sybil says. "Out of sight, out of mind. But we can't wait forever. We can't not christen the poor thing."

"You don't have to do this," Mary tells her. "It's your baby, too."

"I don't mind," Sybil says. "I mean, I do believe in God. But all the rest of it: vicars, feast days, deadly sins—I don't care about all that. I don't know if a vicar knows any more about God than I do. And I love Tom, so very very much."

The superb actress who portrays Sybil, Jessica Brown Findlay, gives her character a deliberate and even preternatural clarity in delivering these lines, and it's as she does this that we begin to understand that Sybil will not survive the birth. We're less than five minutes into the episode.

Sybil has instinctively connected her fledgling but powerful sense of God as something, or someone, who supersedes the trappings of religion with the deep love she has for her husband. And these are the waters that British novelists Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene spent so much time and blood mapping out.

"He can no longer have God for his father who has not the church for his mother," Cyprian of Carthage said. Fair enough—and yet it seems clear to Sybil, and to us viewers as well, that the church on offer in the world of Downton, as Fellowes has conceived it, is not a viable option for a living faith. This may be a convenience for a writer working in television these days; but it seems silly to quibble about, especially given what follows.

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God Shows Up at Downton Abbey