I was late to the game in becoming a fan of Downton Abbey. Quite honestly, the premise just sounded dumb to me. Based on my superficial understanding of the show, I had no desire to watch a show about an aristocratic family and the people bound by their hereditary fate to be deemed their inferiors. Then we received a DVD of the first two seasons as a Christmas gift and gave it a try. Of course, like millions of other people, we became obsessed fans.
While there are many things I like about the show, the gem and star for me is clearly Maggie Smith's character, Dowager Countess. She calls it like she sees it. She's not concerned with how she is perceived, she just speaks her truth. And of course she's ironic and witty as hell. She obviously represents a past way of life that is coming to an end. And, while she can cling to propriety at times and hold to a status-based selfishness that she feels is her birthright and her classism is often raging, her observations about the changes aren't so much laced with bitterness or snideness but rather a bit of wistfulness wrapped in a dispassionate clarity as she captures the shifts happening around her and her struggle at times to adjust and accept them. Certainly she has her flaws. One of those, I'd say, is her inability on occasion to turn the same glare and sharp analysis on her own behavior and beliefs that she brings to others, but based on occasional changes in her behavior, it seems that some of that same analysis actually does occur beyond view as she takes in other people's viewpoints without wanting to give them credit for having the capacity to influence her behavior.
As much as I love her specific character, what I really love is the type she represents - the wise old woman, beholden to noone, advisor to all. In needing nothing from anyone she is not bound by expectations or the need to please; she is not so stubborn or tone-deaf to those around her (as when she arranges to have the vote for a flower show changed after the unfairness of the rigged vote in her favor is pointed out to her), but she modifies her views not to appease others or gain favor - as evidenced by her work usually occurring behind the scenes and without seeking recognition - but because she has evolved to a new truth.
At first my response in watching the show was, "Damn, I want to be the Dowager Countess when I grow up." But as I thought about it, it's more that I'd like to bring the great elements of her character into how I conduct myself now. It's easy to say that the place she takes up is a place that women can only arrive at after they are beyond objectification or desire. I would agree that there is something about age that gives people the ability to give the finger to expectations of propriety and call it like they see it. (And I actually think the wise old man role is not so dissimilar, so in many ways this is an age-based analysis rather than a gender-specific one.) But accepting age as a requirment places the ability to achieve this kind of freedom beyond our control, beholden to the passage of time to free us. In reality, I think it's about us each freeing ourselves from those expectations - from the desire and need for approval, from trying to craft a controlled identity or fulfill someone else's expectations.
I don't find the Dowager Countess unkind or mean-spirited. Rather I appreciate her ability to do away with niceties that blur the truth and simply call it like she sees it. She's able to poke and prod, to point out the weaknesses in others thinking and actions and do it in a way filled with humor, wit and power. While she certainly has faults, she is who she is unapologetically and her ability to speak her truth seems like a good goal to aim towards.