Lady Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) bid her final farewell in Downton Abbey: A New Era, and bringing the Dowager Countess back for the sequel was the smart move for the film, for Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery), and for the Downton Abbey story. In the 2019 Downton Abbey film, Violet confessed to Mary her secret that she was deathly ill. While many viewers felt that the last sight of Lady Violet happily watching from the sidelines as her family danced at the royal ball was a perfect way to say goodbye, Downton Abbey: A New Era brilliantly gave the Dowager Countess a proper ending that crystallized her importance to the Crawley family and to Downton Abbey.
In Downton Abbey: A New Era, Violet’s “mysterious past” and why she was willed a villa in the South of France was the launching pad for the film’s main story. While Violet couldn’t travel, Robert, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), led a contingent of the family to the Riviera to uncover his mother’s secret. Meanwhile, Mary ran Downton Abbey as it hosted a movie production and its difficult company of actors. Throughout Downton Abbey: A New Era, Lady Violet’s history was the spoke that kept the movie’s wheel turning, and it led to Robert’s traumatic suspicion that his mother may have had an affair that led to his birth, which meant his life as the Earl of Grantham was a fraud. However, Violet put her son’s fears to rest that he is, indeed, his father’s son. Robert’s story led to some of the most emotional moments in the Earl of Grantham’s history, especially when he also feared his wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), was dying of cancer. Violet and Cora have always been at odds but the Dowager Countess finally gave her daughter-in-law her due, which was appreciated.
As evident throughout Downton Abbey: The New Era, giving Maggie Smith’s Lady Violet one last film in which she has all the funniest quips and to say her final goodbyes to her family (and castmates) was so much better than if Violet had simply died in between films and was absent in the sequel. In A New Era, Violet was able to have touching moments with the most important people in her life. Isobel (Penelope Wilton) was her “sparring partner” throughout Downton Abbey but they grew into the closest of friends. Violet and Isobel each understood how important they were to each other and the dying dame trusted Isobel with ensuring her memory is properly kept alive for their grandchildren. Violet was also happy that her grudge against Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) was over and Maud was back in the family. Further, the Dowager Countess had an extraordinary moment with Tom Branson (Allen Leech) touching on how they’ve become friends after a difficult beginning. And Maggie Smith was given a tearjerker death scene so that Lady Violet passed away peacefully in bed surrounded by her family.
In Downton Abbey: A New Era, Julian Fellowes also ingeniously crafted Lady Mary’s story to parallel her grandmama’s. Just as Violet had a possible fling with a man she found incredibly attractive in the 1860s, Mary was similarly tempted by her attraction to director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy) while her husband, Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode), was away. Yet Mary stayed true and “nothing happened,” just as nothing happened between Violet and her French Marquis. The Dowager Countess passing away finally passes the torch of the matriarch of Downton Abbey to Lady Mary, which was set up in the previous Downton Abbey film and touched upon in Mary and Violet’s scenes together in the sequel. By the end of A New Era, Mary has finally “become” her grandmother and is fully minted as “the captain of the ship.”
It’s Lady Violet’s death that gives the title Downton Abbey: A New Era its meaning because the loss of the Dowager Countess is what finally brings forth a new era. The Crawleys enter the “modern world” of the 1930s and soon, it’s their grandchildren who will carry on the family legacy. Downton Abbey: A New Era is actually a celebration of Lady Violet’s life and how much she will always mean to the Crawley family. Hence the beautiful and poignant final shot of Downton Abbey: A New Era after the Dowager Countess’ solemn funeral procession when, nine months later, Tom and Lucy Branson (Tuppence Middleton) bring their new baby home and is welcomed to the Crawley family while the portrait of Lady Violet lovingly looks on from the mantle.