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.
Say what you will about Season 3 — it certainly hasn’t been our favorite — but it’s gone by awfully quickly. This week’s two-hour episode combined the British version’s penultimate installment and season finale (next week we’ll see the Christmas special), making for a rather unmemorable end to the third series. With that in mind, it’s a good thing we’re only concerning ourselves with Violet, because she’s simply never boring.
The Dowager Countess had two main projects this week: getting Ethel away from Crawley House and welcoming her great-niece, the 18-year-old Lady Rose MacClare, to Downton. She kicked off the former project during a visit to Isobel’s early in the episode, in which she explained why she hadn’t caused a fuss about Ethel when Robert lost his shit at the ladies’ lunch. “It did not seem appropriate to let the whole thing end in chaos,” said Violet, although she certainly agreed with her son that, by taking on a former prostitute as a cook, Isobel had plunged the entire family into a “miasma of scandal.”
But it would take more than just a lecture on propriety to get Isobel to come around on Ethel — so it was lucky that Edith was on her way to London this week, and needed Granny’s help convincing her father to let her write a newspaper column. It wasn’t that Violet had come around on the issue; by telling her granddaughter to find something to do with her time, the Dowager clarified, “I meant run a local charity or paint watercolors of something.” Still, she was happy to compromise her opinion if Edith would stop by the offices of a women’s magazine and sneakily place an advertisement for Ethel to find work elsewhere. Of course, Violet’s idea of helping didn’t necessarily please Edith, either. “Edith isn’t getting any younger,” she pointed out at dinner. “Perhaps she isn’t cut out for domestic life.” Riffing on the family’s bizarre introduction to Tom’s brother, she observed that it wouldn’t be so odd for Edith to become a journalist: “We have a country solicitor and a car mechanic [in the family]. It was only a matter of time.”
Isobel didn’t learn of the Dowager’s scheme until Ethel began to receive responses. She put up a bit of a fuss, and for a while it looked like the newly minted cook would stay with the Crawleys regardless of her offers — and despite Violet’s many delicious digs at Isobel. (“You’ve been reading those Communist newspapers again”; “I know how you hate facing facts”; and, her best comment of all in reference to Ethel’s situation, “What is The Scarlet Letter? It sounds most unsuitable.”) But, seeing that even sympathetic Mrs. Hughes thought it would be better for Ethel to leave, and after the Dowager went so far as to convince Mrs. Bryant that it would be OK for Ethel to visit Charlie if she took a job with a nearby family, Isobel sent the poor woman on her way.
Violet also found time this week to suggest a perfectly reasonable solution to Downton’s need for a new farm manager. “The answer to a thousand different questions is to give the job to Branson,” she said, pointing out that if he were to take over management of their property, they could leave off calling him “Tom” and go back to “Branson.” Plus, if employment kept Tom at Downton, her great-granddaughter wouldn’t have to “grow up in a garage with a gorilla.”
Much of the episode’s second hour was devoted to Rose, Downton Abbey’s first real child of the 1920s. Asked whether her — rather palpable — excitement about watching over an 18-year-old was tempered by worries she wouldn’t even understand the girl, the Dowager replied, “My husband was a great traveler, so I spent many a happy evening without ever understanding a word. The thing is to keep smiling and never look as if you disapprove.”
But it was clear from the moment of Rose’s arrival that she would be more trouble than even Violet bargained for. Raising a red flag by drinking coffee against her mum’s wishes, Rose made up a story about planning a surprise for that same mother in order to accompany Matthew and Edith to London — where they found her, one night, dancing with a married man, in a bar called the Blue Dragon that looked to the straitlaced Crawleys like a circle of hell.
Although Rose bargained with Edith not to tell Violet about the incident, the shrewd old lady overheard them whispering, upon their return a secret over which “Granny will be furious.” Of course, the Dowager did the detective work, and made sure Rose was on the next train to Scotland with boring, old Lady Agatha. “One day you’ll be older and out of our power,” Violet tells Rose, “but not yet.” Later, reflecting on the incident, she quipped, “What did she expect, carrying on with a married man, as though her home were in a tree?”
Last night’s Dowager Countess words of wisdom:
“I do think a woman’s place is eventually in the home. But I see no harm in having some fun before she gets there.”
“One forgets about parenthood — the on and on-ness of it.”