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.
Tragedy may have overshadowed wit in this week’s episode, but it (coupled with Edith’s brutal abandonment at the altar) further proves that the Dowager Countess is often Downton’s wisest and most realistic voice.
“I hate to get news secondhand,” she tells the family when the birth of Sybil’s baby approaches, announcing that she’ll be at the estate every night until her great-grandchild is born. While she waits, she’s happy to continue picking on Edith, whose letter to the newspaper has earned her the offer of a regular column. “And when may she expect an offer to appear on the London stage?” Violet wants to know.
But, soon enough, it becomes clear that this is no time for joking. As Sybil lurches ever closer to her delivery, her health begins to fail, and the family calls in both Sir Philip Tapsell and Dr. Clarkson, with Robert placing his full trust in his fellow aristocrat, nothing that the doctor had made major mistakes in treating both Matthew and Lavinia. When Sir Philip doubts the precariousness of Sybil’s situation, claiming that her symptoms are normal for a young woman about to give birth, the Crawleys are divided over whether to follow Dr. Clarkson’s advice and get her to a hospital or keep her at Downton on the nobleman’s insistence. At this crucial moment, it’s the Dowager Countess who’s the most vocal supporter of the doctor’s plan, Sir Philip’s pride be damned. “If there’s one thing I’m quite indifferent to, it’s Sir Philip Tapsell’s feelings,” she says.
Later, when the doctor approaches the family with concerns about Sybil’s urine, Robert tries to hush him up, pointing to his mother’s delicate sensibilities. “A woman of my age can face reality far better than most men,” Violet replies, in a dry foreshadowing of what will happen as a result of Robert and Sir Philip getting their way, rather than the Dowager Countess, Tom, and the doctor.
It isn’t until the baby is born and Violet has returned home to sleep that Sybil, thought to be recovering in the aftermath of her delivery, is overcome by seizures and the family must stand by helpless as she succumbs. The next time we see the Dowager Countess, she’s clad all in black, and more somber than we’ve ever seen her. “We’ve seen some troubles, you and I,” she tells Carson. “Nothing worse than this.” But despite her sadness, it’s Violet whose usually sharp tongue finds the comforting words to console the Crawleys: “All we can do now is cherish her memory.”
Last night’s Dowager Countess words of wisdom: “My dear, when tragedies strike, we try to find someone to blame. And in the absence of a suitable candidate, we usually blame ourselves. You are not to blame. No one is to blame.”