This story contains spoilers for Downton Abbey: A New Era
Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, has clearly been preparing for Maggie Smith’s departure from the series for quite some time. Smith has portrayed the dowager countess, Violet Crawley, a character who has become best known for her devastating zingers and obsession with maintaining tradition at Downton. Even in early episodes, Violet would fret over the legacy she was leaving behind.
Fellowes heavily intimated that Smith might depart the series when he inserted a storyline in the first Downton Abbey movie, released in 2019, in which Violet receives some bad news from a doctor. “I had some medical tests a few weeks ago, and I went up to London to hear the results. And I may not have long to live,” she tells her granddaughter Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) in the first film. “It won’t be too quick, but of course, you can never get a London doctor to be precise.”
It was an odd conversation to write into the end of the film: The dowager does not pass away or even look ill in the movie. Perhaps Fellowes was hedging his bets in case Smith did not agree to return for the sequel. Luckily for fans, Violet does appear in Downton Abbey: A New Era. But as the film reveals, her days are numbered.
Throughout A New Era, characters repeatedly discuss the imminent demise of the dowager countess. Early in the film, Violet finds out that she inherited a villa in the South of France from an old paramour, but the man’s widow is contesting the inheritance. (It wouldn’t be Downton Abbey without someone contesting an inheritance.) Still, Violet would like to keep the villa and gift it to Sybbie, the child of Tom Branson and the now-dead Sybil Crawley. Unlike her cousins, Sybbie stands to inherit no house upon her father’s death.
Violet is too fragile to travel, so half the family—Robert (Hugh Bonneville), Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), Edith (Laura Carmichael), Tom (Alan Leech), and a few others—decide to visit the mysterious man’s widow and son in France. Meanwhile, Lady Mary and the dowager countess host a film crew making a Hollywood feature at Downton. Though Robert and Cora worry that the dowager countess may die while they’re traveling, Mary says she plans to write immediately with any news.
The rest of the film is occupied by a few minor plots involving the many, many characters that have come to define Downton Abbey. Tom marries Lucy (Tuppence Middleton), the secret daughter of a cousin named Maude Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton). By the end of the movie, the two have a baby. The film crew at Downton has to pivot from a silent film to a talkie, and Lady Mary lends her voice to the movie. The film’s director (Hugh Dancey) falls in love with Mary because every handsome man falls in love with Mary, but she rejects his flirtations because she’s still married to an irksomely absent Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode, who did not return for the film). Elsewhere, movie star Guy Dexter (Dominic West) takes a shine to Downton butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier). And while the two strangely never share an intimate moment in the film, towards the end of the movie, Guy invites Thomas to travel with him as a romantic partner in the guise of a “dresser.” Thomas accepts.
Two of the film’s biggest dramatic turns end up being fake-outs. Cora believes she has cancer but learns by the end of the film that she is just sick with anemia. Robert thinks that he may be the illegitimate son of the mysterious Frenchman who left his mother the villa, but Violet dispels that notion from her deathbed. She shows the family letters between the two love birds to prove that nothing physical ever happened.
It turns out that Violet Crawley, despite her conservative views and preoccupation with maintaining old-world values at Downton, had quite a wild youth. As a young woman she nearly ran away with a Russian prince and later had a dalliance with the aforementioned Frenchman. Though she frets in the hours before she dies that she will be remembered as some sort of scarlet woman, Violet no doubt will be remembered for her barbs and her wit.
When Violet finally does die, she is surrounded by family. For her funeral, Mary dons her grandmother’s brooch. Though technically Robert is now the head of the family, Mary was most similar to her grandmother: They both could be cruel and fearsome but also smart and brave. She seems set to take over her grandmother’s role as the de facto head of the house. In the film’s final scene, Tom and Lucy visit Downton with their new baby, and Violet watches the family gather from a portrait above the mantle.