Downton Abbey, Season 2

The Dowager Countess Is Julian Fellowes’ Proxy
Talking television.
Jan. 23 2012 4:48 PM

Downton Abbey, Season 2

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Mary and the Dowager Countess have an unsatisfying heart-to-heart.

Dame Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess.
Dame Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess

Photograph courtesy Carnival Film & Television.

See our Magnum Photos gallery on the English countryside.

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

What did you chaps make of the conversation between Lady Mary and her grandmother? We haven’t talked much about Violet in our little chats—Dame Maggie Smith is so magnificent, it’s hard to know what to say beyond, “Isn’t she awesome?” and “Can you believe she said that?” The Dowager Countess is often used for comic effect—since she represents the old ways in their purest form, and, I think, acts as a proxy for Julian Fellowes’ view of the world, she tends to get the best lines.

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Mary and Violet’s chats are usually smart, tart, and great fun, but this week’s discussion of Mary’s future with Sir Richard Carlisle was rather dispiriting. When Violet suggests that Richard’s treatment of Lavinia was harsh—he got her to tattle on her uncle (more snitching!) in exchange for Carlisle settling her father’s debts—Mary defends him by saying that “he lives in a tough world.” It’s a world that Violet doesn’t want her granddaughter to join him in.

Mary sticks up for Carlisle by citing his power and his ever-increasing wealth—traits that normally appeal to Violet. But when Mary tells her grandmother about his plans to buy a country estate after the war when the market will be flooded, Violet is appalled. “You can dance on the grave of a fallen family,” she spits. Mary’s response is a perfect encapsulation of her “I didn’t make the rules, I’m just trying to be smart about how I respond to them” attitude: “They will fall, lots of them. Some won’t, but I don’t intend to be among them.”

I can’t decide: Is Mary just being realistic about what the loss of so many sons of the aristocracy will mean to country life, or is her callous attitude meant to show what a horrible influence Carlisle has already had on our favorite English rose?

Ah, fickle womanhood. One minute I’m hating on Mary for her calculating ways, and then another scene wins me over. I loved the bit at the piano as she and Lady Edith were rehearsing for the concert. “I wish we had a man,” Edith sighed, hoping for a baritone to anchor her sister’s rather thin soprano. “Amen,” responded Mary, with that one word expressing much more earthly desires.

I’m off to do some invisible mending,

June

Note: Out of consideration for viewers in the United States, please do not post Season 2 spoilers in the comments.

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