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

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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.

We didn’t see a whole lot of the Dowager Countess this week, but she packed enough pith and wisdom into the moments when she did appear that we wouldn’t dream of complaining. The only one to keep a level head last Sunday, when Edith was left at the altar, she’s ready with another maddeningly sensible dose of tough love when her granddaughter pays her a visit. “You must keep busy,” Violet tells Edith. “You’re a woman with a brain and reasonable ability. Stop whining and find something to do.”

Of course, the Dowager Countess isn’t exactly thrilled about what Edith does with her advice. Learning at dinner that Downton’s middle child has written a letter to the newspaper in favor of women’s suffrage, she’s downright taken aback. “What do you mean you wrote to a newspaper? No lady writes to a newspaper!” she sputters.

But Violet has bigger, more incendiary fish to fry than Edith. Seated next to the Archbishop of York at a dinner in his honor — because, as Robert puts it, “she’ll know how to handle him” — she’s got plenty of questions about how the war affected the church. Well, she does until she picks up on the whispers about Tom’s sudden and mysterious arrival. “Something to look forward to,” she says, sarcastically, upon hearing that he’ll tell them what he’s doing there as soon as their guest leaves.

When the time finally comes, the Dowager Countess has a more measured response to Tom’s news about an Anglo-Irish noble family being chased from their castle just before it was set on fire. “That house was hideous,” she points out.

Still, she’s none to pleased to find out, upon Robert’s return from a trip to London to plead Tom’s case, that he had more to do with the arson plot than he’d told any of the Crawleys — even Sybil. But Tom is careful to clarify that he never supported “personal violence,” to which Violet dryly responds, “Oh, so at least we can sleep in our beds.”

The Dowager Countess ends the episode in much the same way as she began it, doling out advice to the younger generation. This time, it’s Matthew who stops by with a quandary. He’s worried that Downton is being mismanaged and wants to know how he can go about fixing Robert’s mistakes without “putting anyone’s nose out of joint.” Violet tells him that’s he must do what needs to be done, but warns that however he chooses to address the issue, “a great many noses will be out of joint.”

Last night’s Dowager Countess words of wisdom: “No family is ever what it seems to the outside.”