There are many things to enjoy about the hit series Downton Abbey. There’s the atmosphere, the costumes, and of course, the sumptuous surroundings of the manor house itself. Undoubtedly, however, one of the series’ key appeals is the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley, portrayed by the incomparable Maggie Smith.
Even when she only appears for a few moments in a given installment, she manages to command the attention of the audience, and so it is worth taking a look at her best episodes, as ranked by the users at the Internet Movie Database.
10 Episode 6.7 (2015) – 8.6
Given that this was in the final season of the series, it makes sense that it would rank high on the list, and it actually sees the Dowager taking on a more active role than usual for her.
In particular, the episode sees her coping with the fact that her daughter-in-law Cora is gradually taking over her role. More importantly, it also sees her contending with a woman whose friendliness toward Isobel may not be quite all that they appear. As she always does, in this episode Maggie Smith shows why the Dowager remains one of her best roles.
9 Episode 5.8 (2014) – 8.7
There were many great romances during Downton’s run, and the one between Violet and the Russian Prince Kuragin is one of the better ones. In this episode, he asks her to run away with him and Violet, in typical fashion, turns him down.
It’s an especially notable decision on her part because it’s clear that she is at least tempted to do so. It’s also a reminder that, though she might be growing older, the Dowager still does have feelings and a heart.
8 Episode 6.3 (2015) – 8.7
One of the enduring themes in Downton Abbey is the advent of modernity and the inevitability of change, both generationally and socially. This is especially stressful for Violet in this episode, as her daughter-in-law Cora tries to become a more prominent part of the hospital.
In less capable hands, Violet would just have appeared as a cranky old woman utterly resistant to change, but thanks to Smith’s talent, the show allows Violet to emerge as a woman truly trying to make sense of a world leaving her increasingly behind.
7 Episode 2.8 (2011) – 8.8
If there’s one character in Downton who gets the lion’s share of snappy lines, it would be the Lady Violet. In fact, she has many great quotes to her credit.
Even though she doesn’t have a particularly active role to play in this one, it does contain some of her best lines, in particular when she remarks that Branson is a very good driver. Given that the marriage between her granddaughter and the driver is one of the most notable happenings, it’s a particularly dry remark for the Dowager Countess to make.
6 Episode 1.7 (2010) – 8.9
The relationship between Mary and Matthew is one of the most compelling in Downton Abbey, especially since it takes them both so long to finally decide to become a couple.
For her part, Lady Violet quickly takes the pragmatic approach that their marriage would solve all of the family’s problems, particularly when it comes to the inheritance. What’s especially notable about the Dowager’s role in this episode, however, is that she finally finds herself in agreement with Cora, something that almost never happens.
5 Episode 3.5 (2012) – 9
There are many things to love about this episode, and though it focuses on some difficult things, there’s no question that the Dowager shines. In particular, the episode allows her the chance to talk about relationships, as she makes clear in her conversation with her son, Robert.
It’s one of those moments where she lets the audience, and the other characters, see behind the rather brittle mask that she almost always has on, to see that her marriage might not have been as happy and fulfilling as she would have liked.
4 A Moorland Holiday (2015) – 9.0
The sparring between Violet and Isobel is one of the series’ most enduring feuds, and it allows both Penelope Wilton and Maggie Smith to show off their acting chops. However, this episode marks some significant changes in their dynamic, since the Dowager actually admits that she almost ran off with Prince Kurigan.
However, this episode also sees her reunite the Russian man with his wife, and it shows that, though she clearly cares a lot about him, she simply cannot bring herself to leave her life behind, even as she wants him to be happy.
3 Christmas At Downton Abbey (2011) – 9.1
The Christmas specials were always some of the best episodes of Downton, and this one was no exception. The Dowager mostly hovers at the edge of the narrative, but she does have two important moments.
First, she invites Sir Anthony to the shoot, showing that she has her granddaughter Edith’s romantic well-being at heart. What’s more, she utters a brief piece of French poetry that expresses her sadness at the quick passing of time and her own encroaching old age.
2 Episode 6.8 (2015) – 9.1
As the series reaches its conclusion, many of the characters have to contend with the past and with the promise of their future. This is especially true of Mary, who hasn’t decided whether she wants to marry again.
However, the Dowager, in the way that only she can, ultimately prevails on her to let her heart heal and to move on, noting that she believes in love. It’s a remarkable moment, and it shows that the redoubtable older woman still has a softer, more sympathetic side to her personality.
1 Christmas Special (2015) – 9.3
Given that this is the series finale, it makes sense that it would rank highly in the overall Downton Abbey episode rankings, as well as for the Dowager in particular.
Most importantly, the venerable lady gets the actual last words in the series proper, as she responds to Isobel’s remark that they are going into the future by noting that they don’t really have much of a choice in the matter. It’s a perfect distillation of many of the key themes that have percolated beneath the series’ surface from the beginning.