Stiffen your lip and refill your brandy snifter: News broke over the weekend that Dame Maggie Smith, the only person involved with Downton Abbey who actually has a royal title, is planning on leaving the estate after filming the in-production third season. At first this decision seems shocking — although shocking is par for the course with a show in which surviving the Titanic turns you Canadian, engagements can last the length of a World War and the crippled can leap up out of their wheelchairs in time for snooker and cigars in the parlor. But is it really so strange? Dame Maggie is nearly 80 and used to plying her trade on the boards or in prestige one-offs. The installation of electric lights in the kitchen nearly gave the Dowager Countess a fatal case of the vapors, so imagine her reaction when she discovered that she was starring in a glorified soap opera.
Of course, she’s not the only one slow to figure out what was going on. It’s been equally hard been for colonial viewers weaned on Masterpiece Theater and accustomed to intellectually curtsying to anything with an Eton accent to accept Downton Abbey for what it is: a pleasure-delaying, shark-jumping, Turk-dumping sudsy serial. It’s so ... common! But as Jarvis Cocker or the former Lonnie Lynn could tell you, being common pays. Particularly for ITV, the privately owned British network behind the series, and even fusty old PBS, which is thrilled to be having its Marilyn Hagerty moment and enjoying an embrace from the hip blogosphere.
So make no mistake: Downton will continue finding new and inventive ways to keep Bates and Anna apart (cholera outbreak? Missy Elliott–inspired trashbag suits?) for many seasons to come. Dame Maggie’s presence will be missed, but the scrim of gentility she provided was rendered unnecessary sometime around when Lavinia’s ghost posthumously blessed Mary and Matthew’s inevitable union. Times are changing, both on the show and in the increasingly commercial world of British television. So, really, it’s for the best that the Dowager Countess go out in a way befitting her quippy majesty. Here’s hoping it involves a sharp one-liner and a tasteful wound suffered from an even sharper thorn on one of her overrated rose bushes. Or, even better, a deliciously fatal confrontation with the show’s new old blood and the D-C’s transatlantic rival, Shirley MacLaine. I can see it now: a well-appointed drawing room, tea freshly poured, and the two of them slowly, inexorably judging one another to death.