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.
Over the past three seasons, we’ve watched Violet evolve from a highly entertaining snob to a (still highly entertaining) matriarch who holds her aristocratic family together. And in the past few episodes, she’s been more crucial to Downton than ever, offering Edith tough love after she was left at the altar and using her scheming skills for good — most recently to repair Robert and Cora’s marriage.
“Grief makes one so terribly tired,” the Dowager Countess announced after Sybil’s funeral — and we knew she must still have been deep in mourning, because for once in her life she didn’t want to stay at Downton and hold court at dinner.
But Violet was back to her peculiarly pragmatic self soon enough, advising Robert that he should have a plan for what to do with Sybil’s daughter (who will also be called Sybil), or risk having Tom raise her as a Catholic. (Perish the thought!) When the topic turns to the Crawleys’ marriage, and Cora’s anger that Robert listened to Sir Phillip’s instead Dr. Clarkson’s advice about Sybil, the Dowager Countess wisely tells him, “I will not criticize a mother who mourns her daughter.” Instead, she reminds him, “Robert, people like us are never unhappily married.” She suggests the couple spend some time apart; perhaps Cora could visit “that woman” (her mother, that is) in New York.
After their conversation, Violet continues to work undercover, inviting Dr. Clarkson over to discover once and for all whether Sybil could have been saved. When he reveals that, in reality, the chance of her surviving the birth had been minimal, the Dowager tells him that he must share this knowledge with — and, in fact, exaggerate it a bit to — Lord and Lady Grantham. “The only way they can conceivably bear their grief is if they face it together,” Violet says. Dr. Clarkson asks if she wants him to lie, and she replies, “‘Lie’ is such an unmusical word.”
Never one to miss a party, now that the darkest days of mourning are over, Violet invites herself along when she overhears Isobel inviting Cora and “the girls” over to Crawley House in hopes of cheering them up with a luncheon. “Do I count as one of the girls?” she asks Isobel, peeking out from behind her chair.
In fact, the Dowager proves invaluable at the lunch, when Robert, having been tipped off by Carson, bursts in to save his family from Ethel, the poor ex-prostitute who has prepared and is serving the food. Robert is shocked when his mother allies herself with Cora, Edith, and Mary, all of whom refuse to leave Isobel’s table. “These days, servants are very hard to find,” she drawls at her son. And moreover, “It seems a pity to miss such a good pudding.”
But all is forgiven between mother and sign by the end of the episode, when Violet brings Robert and Cora together with Dr. Clarkson, and he tells them what they need to hear — that even with a Caesarian section, Sybil likely wouldn’t have made it. Lord and Lady Grantham finally embrace, crying, and once again the Dowager Countess’ good-natured manipulations have saved the Crawley family.