‘Downton Abbey’ Season 3, Episode 1: The Dowager Countess Recap

Now in its third season, Downton Abbey is more divisive than ever. Once almost universally acclaimed, the British period drama that follows the aristocratic Crawley family and their many servants faced accusations last year of descending into soap opera-style sensationalism. Although we don’t mind a juicy soap opera here at Flavorwire — and have, in fact, been known to defend Downton Abbey against its snobbier critics — this season we hope to unite the various factions by limiting our recaps to the one character everyone can still agree to love: Violet Crawley, that feisty, elitist grandma played by the one and only Dame Maggie Smith. Each week, we’ll recount the Dowager Countess of Grantham’s adventures. They may often be tangential to the main storyline, but they’ll always be among the most important Downton moments to us.

Last night’s two-hour season premiere provided the Dowager Countess with two of her best targets yet: Branson — erm, that is, Tom — and Martha Levinson. While Lady Sybil’s ex-chauffeur/radical Irish journalist husband was good for some cheap class-based shots, Countess Cora’s rich, willful, and non-traditional American mother (played with delightful brassiness by Shirley MacLaine), Martha Levinson, proved to be the perfect foil for Violet’s smug conservatism.

The Dowager Countess kicked off this week’s episode with a surprise: Unlike her stuffy son, she was more than willing to welcome Sybil and Branson to Downton. In fact, as we learned later, she was the one who wrote to invite them. “Family must never be a topic of conversation,” Violet explained to her younger relatives, assuring them that if Branson made a scene, he’d have to answer to her.

As always, she held court at various dinners, asking problematically tall new footman Alfred whether he was walking on stilts. The Dowager Countess also had some amusingly harsh words for Martha in advance of her arrival:

Violet: When I’m with her, I’m reminded of the virtues of the English.
Matthew: Isn’t she American?
Violet: Exactly.

Of course, Tom’s advancement from the downstairs to upstairs attracted much of her attention. “Tomorrow, let’s ask the servants to come up and dine with us. It’ll make things easier,” was her facetious suggestion to defuse the tension. And at one point she quipped, “He’s still dressed as the man from the Prudential,” in response to his lack of proper dinner attire. In the end, though, Violet wasn’t any meaner to Tom than she is to any of her other relatives. “You weren’t the first drunk in that dining room, I assure you,” she told him after an unfortunate incident in which a stuck-up former suitor of Sybil’s spiked his drink, causing him to make a scene at the table. He is, after all, family now — and for all her snobbery, the Dowager Countess values nothing over family loyalty.

Violet wasn’t quite so playful in her condemnation of Martha, who presented a clear and long-standing threat to her authority. “I’m afraid the war has made old women of us both,” was Martha’s greeting to the Dowager Countess. But Violet was having none of that: “I wouldn’t say that,” she replied, “but then I always stay out of the sun.” She later described Cora’s mother as “like a homing pigeon. She finds our underbelly every time.”

Unfortunately, the news that Cora’s inheritance had been lost and Downton was in dire economic straits forced the Dowager Countess to join Lady Mary in playing nice with Mrs. Levinson in an attempt to raise some more money from the wealthy American and save the estate. Aside from a stray comment about the terribleness of America, she held her tongue — until it came out that Martha’s money was so tied up, she couldn’t help Downton if she wanted to. And then the real Dowager Countess, visibly hurt by the mention of her late husband, returned to pick at Martha’s euphemism for her husband’s death: “Lord Grantham wasn’t ‘taken.’ He died.”

Last night’s top 3 Dowager Countess words of wisdom:

3. “No guest should be admitted without the date of the departure settled.”
2. “Forgive? Perhaps. Forget? Never.”
1. “Nothing succeeds like excess.”