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.
America’s Downton Abbey finale (which is actually the British Christmas special) was a sort of miniature version of Season 3 as a whole — largely unexciting, with only premature death to break up the monotony. It wasn’t a big Dowager Countess episode, either, but as usual Violet was on hand at all the right moments, to add wit and wisdom to otherwise bland dialogue and exposition.
Set an entire year after the UK season finale, in September 1921 (not an especially festive time), the Christmas special finds the Crawleys and their personal servants traveling to Scotland for a visit with their relatives, Shrimpy and Susan. Mary is now very pregnant, and Tom’s the only member of the family left at Downton, fraternizing with his former coworkers below stairs and risking seduction by a pretty new maid. We got some unusual love stories, as a flirtatious new vendor takes a liking to Mrs. Patmore (or, more likely, her cooking) and Isobel gently heads off Dr. Clarkson as he’s about to propose. Even Thomas is luckier in love than he was last week, earning Jimmy’s respect (if not his affection) by taking a beating on his behalf. Chivalrous!
With Tom at home and Ethel long gone, the Dowager Countess is no longer surrounded by easy targets for ridicule, or problems that she must scheme to solve. Instead, her main preoccupation is Rose, Susan and Shrimpy’s daughter, whose wildness we come to understand as a reaction to her strict, critical mother and the eternal war between her parents.
Although Violet was the one who finally reined her in last week, in Scotland she becomes Rose’s biggest advocate. “No one can accuse me of being modern, but even I can see it’s no crime to be young,” she tells Susan. Later, talking to Cora, she confides, “I don’t think Susan handles it well.” Realizing that the schism between Rose and her mother reminds Cora of her relationship with Sybil, the Dowager consoles her daughter-in-law: “We all miss her — every single day.”
Violet really comes to Rose’s rescue before the ball, when she descends the stairs in an inoffensive-looking dress that somehow inspires her mother to call her a slut. “That’s not a word you often her among the heather,” says Granny, registering her disapproval of Susan’s outburst and taking Rose’s arm to regale her with semi-scandalous stories from the balls of her own youth. As they watch the youngsters dance, Violet observes to Cora, “It’s bad enough parenting a child when you like each other.” And, of course, she’s got a quip for when a drugged Molesley takes over the dance floor. “They do say there’s a wild man inside of all of us,” says Robert. “If only he would stay inside,” she replies.
As dancing has gotten Mary out of sorts, as Matthew feared it would, she takes a train home early — and ends up in the hospital, having her baby. It’s a boy, which means Downton has its next heir, and his mother easily survives the birth. But, since this is Downton Abbey — and because Dan Stevens, the actor who plays Matthew, decided to leave the show — Season 3 ended with the jubilant father driving too fast and getting into a bloody, fatal car wreck. It’s appropriate that it’s the Dowager, back home at the estate, who inadvertently comments on the tragedy: “We don’t always get our just deserts.”
This week’s Dowager Countess words of wisdom:
“That is the thing about nature: there’s so much of it.”