Fangirl Fridays – The Pensive Pirate and the Dowager Countess

Dame Maggie Smith as the
Dowager Countess, Downton Abbey
I want to gush about two of my very favorite characters on TV today and the actors who bring them to life each week, during far too few weeks of the year:


The Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey

Captain James Flint of Black Sails

At first glance, these characters might not appear to have much in common. They are far removed in time and location, and hmmmm, perhaps deceptively more similar in temperament than might at first be apparent. Yet they are closely bound by blood, because they are played by the incomparable Dame Maggie Smith and her younger son, Toby Stephens.

Toby Stephens as
Captain James Flint, Black Sails
I am smitten with their spot-on portrayals of the (hilariously) snooty British aristocrat and the swashbuckling pirate. They fully inhabit their roles with an aura of gravitas and great personal flair. Their characters entice me with mysterious depths I yearn to plumb. They lead fearlessly, protect nobly, defend ruthlessly as appropriate for their different stations and “occupations”. They embrace their chosen role in life passionately — be it esteemed family matriarch or fearsome rebellious renegade. They breathe life into what could easily become caricature, transform brief glimpses of inner thoughts into sublime revelations, seduce us with a vast treasure trove of hard-earned wit, wisdom, and sly strategy, tantalize with brief glimpses into the genesis of their vibrant personalities.

And that, saucy readers, is why I keep coming back for more. Each week reveals new layers and intriguing nuances for their characters. Maggie Smith could recite her grocery list and I’d pay to hear it (though I prefer her snappy zingers!). Stephens transfixes with smoldering intensity.

These shows have just ended their current season, and I’m at a loss as to how I’ll survive the months ahead without new episodes. So I need to indulge in a little fangirling before I can let go and move on. Whether you are already fans of these characters or not, I hope you will join me after the jump.

Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham

Maggie Smith, Othello, 1965
Dame Margaret Natalie Smith Cross, better known as Maggie Smith, is an international treasure, absolutely beloved and revered by theater, film, and television viewers worldwide. And so is the character she plays on Downton Abbey, the Dowager Countess.

No one delivers a one-liner better than the Dowager Countess. Or a double take. She gives wicked side eye and could trademark imperious condescension. She – perhaps better than anyone else on the planet – exudes long-suffering impatience with the general incompetence, stupidity, and lack of refinement in those around her, never stingy with her biting commentary and strong opinion. You’d be wise to avoid her line of fire, but when the shit hits the fan, her direct, no-nonsense approach is exactly what you want on your side. She does not suffer fools lightly – or silently, to my great delight. And she is rarely at a loss for words.

Usually it’s her fans who are speechless from laughter

Despite her rapier wit and rigid sense of entitlement, a surprisingly soft heart beats behind her seemingly impregnable fortress of manners and manor. She might not be very hands-on with the unwashed masses, but she has been quick to disparage those of her class who fail to show compassion and honor their aristocratic duty to look after their local citizens. From a safe and respectable distance, of course.

When her son wore black tie
to a white tie event
In Season 4, I was surprised by the way she defused and dispatched Lady Edith’s predicament. I realized that she might not have led such a sheltered life after all. Recent revelations shed light into a surprisingly colorful past and exuberance of spirit, which deepens her mystique. The fact that she might not be the paragon of impeccable behavior she pretends to is a likely source of her character’s strength and fortitude. For someone who so often expresses indignation at the slightest lapse in formalities, I’ve realized she’s a lot more impervious to shock than she lets on.

One reason I love the Dowager Countess is that her age, wealth, and title give her license to tell it like she sees it. She gives voice to an inner monologue I’d sometimes love to but never dare. She calls a spade a spade and pokes fun at — or verbally eviscerates — people who pretend to be what they’re not. She lambastes outmoded conventions, sometimes indirectly through her inability to recognize or rise above them.

Though her verbal delivery is unparalleled, look at the myriad other ways she communicates: a rolling of the eyes, lifting of the brow, pursing of the lips (another trademarkable skill from her repertoire), a shrug, a turn, an inaudible gasp. IMPECCABLY timed. The subtle nuances speak all the words she’s not saying. We know exactly what’s going on in that very interesting mind of hers, even if it sails right over the heads of everyone around her. Maggie Smith’s celebrated ability to “turn the tiniest role into the most memorable corner of a movie” (a quote I stole from this fabulous 2000 interview) propels a “little old lady”, who might easily be relegated to dark corners, to the status of “force to be reckoned with”, front and center, and my favorite character.

A master of physical expression

Most fans think Downton Abbey has become less interesting over the years, but my chief complaint is that it has given the Dowager Countess criminally little to do but spout one-liner for laughs — to those who offend her sensibilities and, most delightfully, to her hilarious companion and foil, Isobel Crawley, played by Penelope Wilton, also grossly undervalued by the show’s writers.

Downton’s Dynamic Duo, Violet and Isobel

In season 5, I’m happy to say that these older ladies finally got to have some fun along with everyone else, and as a result the whole season was much more enjoyable to me!

Season 6 will be the final season of Downton Abbey, and I can barely contemplate the withdrawals I will go through when it’s over. Where else will I get my required dose of pretentious putdowns? Even if they continue with a movie, Maggie Smith has made it abundantly clear that she can’t keep up this pace forever, and I certainly agree that she more than deserves to relax her pace or maybe even *gasp* retire. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed that she has another terrific season and they don’t try to kill off her character. For one thing, to whom would the more spirited gals of the family go in the future for help with their sticky situations? The Countess has been there, done that, and no one is better at fixing that sort of thing. Plus, to steal a few words from a comment I recently read on Facebook, which I think speaks for many fans: if the Countess dies, we riot.

Since the Dowager Countess is so popular, tributes to her wit and wisdom abound on the interwebs. You can appreciate many of her fine qualities without ever having watched a single episode of the show. Here are a few of my favorites.
“In my day a Lady was incapable of feeling physical attraction, until she had been instructed to do so by her Mama.”
“No, she isn’t [allowed to have opinions], until she is married. And then her husband will tell her what her opinions are.”
Violet: “I’m so looking forward to seeing your mother again. When I’m with her, I’m reminded of the virtues of the English.”
Matthew: “But isn’t she American?”
Violet: “Exactly.”

Captain James Flint (formerly Lieutenant James McGraw)

Toby Stephens and Maggie Smith, early 1970s
Toby Stephens descends from British theatrical royalty. His mother is arguably the most gifted English-speaking actress in the world, and his father was the late Sir Robert Stephens, another renowned British thespian. Stephens was also raised by his stepfather Beverley Cross, successful playwright and offspring of another British theatrical family. Surrounded by so much phenomenal talent, how could he help but gravitate to the stage? His older brother, Christopher Larkin, is also an actor. This is a powerfully talented family and perhaps a dynasty in the making.

Stephens was new to me when I started watching Black Sails, though book friends quickly pointed out his turn as Mr. Rochester (BBC’s Jane Eyre, 2006) and my husband knew him as Bond villain Gustav Graves (Die Another Day, 2002). He tends to stay out of the Hollywood spotlight by choice, and many Americans aren’t familiar with him. Yet he most definitely inherited a double dose of charisma from his famous parents, and once you see him in a role you won’t forget him.

In Black Sails, Stephens plays Captain James Flint, the ruthless treasure-stealing pirate of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale Treasure Island. Black Sails is a prequel, set about 20 years earlier, which explores a more refined, educated man with intentions far nobler than one would expect from a notorious pirate. He rules the seas around Nassau, Bahamas during a time when the British have lost control and are desperate to regain it. I won’t say any more about where he came from and what he’s trying to accomplish, because that would spoil the fun of finding out for yourself.

Sometimes rivals, sometimes allies:
infamous Captains Vane and Flint

One look in his eyes and I was mesmerized – he embodies the essence of still waters run deep. He personifies dark and brooding, the weighty burden of leadership under difficult circumstances. He has earned begrudging respect for invincible cunning and brute strength, and doesn’t waste time polishing his image and schmoozing. In his cutthroat world, there’s no one he can trust. Alliances shift like the ocean currents. He is a singular figure, ridiculously up to the challenges, but it’s very lonely at the top. He suffers from the (perhaps legitimate, perhaps arrogant) belief that he’s the only person smart enough to get the job done, or even recognize what the real job is. Too bad his men can’t appreciate that just because he isn’t taking the shortest route to riches doesn’t mean he won’t get there and bring them all with him.

I see beyond your Spanish gold and raise you
one warship and one small island country

He always has his eye on the far horizon, the grandest prize, though doesn’t trust his men’s discretion or loyalty enough to tell them exactly what’s going on, which fuels a cycle of mutinous mistrust. Which fuels more dark brooding and ominous glaring.

But...when he smiles!! It’s like the sun coming out!! The weight is lifted. The joy is palpable. We can see what might have been, what might perhaps still be, a chance at redemption and peace. (Though finding Flint’s smiles on tumblr is a bit like hunting a needle in a haystack!)

Flint’s smile: criminally underused asset in his arsenal

Flint cuts a fine figure, if I do say so myself. He’s got some of Jack Swallow’s flair, but his swagger is tempered by somber deliberation. He can be vicious, the biggest badass around (Vane is hoping not for long!), as he proves over and over. He can get down and dirty with his men, and practically save the ship single-handedly when he needs to. But he is also contemplative, far-thinking, and politically savvy, not qualities valued highly by his men. He must interrupt his plans over and over to motivate a swarm of rebellious, undisciplined, self-seeking misfits toward common goals. Good help is seriously hard to find in these waters!

Darkness and rage often simmer just below a boil around him — and within him, threatening to erupt without warning, unless you notice the slight trembling of the lips, the drawing of the brow, the sharpening of the gaze. In an interview, Stephens likened Black Sails to a western and thought Flint was the kind of role Clint Eastwood might have played once upon a time. And that’s exactly how he plays him. (Luckily, he spent some time around Eastwood when he played the younger version of Eastwood’s character in the movie Space Cowboys.)

A Fistful of Doubloons...or
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Caribbean Unit

A little foreshadowing from
Lieutenant James McGraw
To be honest, I struggled through the first season of Black Sails. The stories were hard to follow and many of the production details were just too modern looking. The ruffians appeared to get great dental care and facial products. The women belonged on magazine covers. The turquoise waters and pristine beaches looked like a DisneyWorld ride. I have since discovered that the Caribbean really is that beautiful, but probably not when despoiled by boatloads of rough and rowdy pirates!

Stephens’s performance kept me watching. Until I began to notice other standout performances, until the stories matured and grabbed me, until the show found its heart and soul. And I’m so glad persevered, because season 2 has been quite thrilling, plus has delved into Flint’s past and provided insights into this enigmatic character’s heartaches, the betrayal that fuels his anger and his dream, and his strong sense of duty, integrity, and idealism. He’s not your average pirate by a long shot.


And he does not suffer fools lightly — hmmmmmm, whom else have I said that about recently? — though he might suffer them silently, for only as long as it takes him to plot and unleash a fitting retribution. While forging full sail ahead against the raging tides of politics and greed.

All in the Family

In Stephens’s accomplished hands, Captain Flint is ferocious, smart, sexy, and completely compelling. He keeps me guessing what he’s up to, yet I trust him implicitly. I just know he’s the good guy behind all that growling and glowering, that his intentions are more noble than circumstances might imply. Deep down, he’s the stable force of reason, even if the surface tension appears ready to erupt at the slightest provocation. Wikipedia defines Treasure Island’s Captain Flint as a murdering thief who died from drinking too much rum, but that’s definitely not the Captain Flint of Black Sails — whose bluster and brawn belie a principled heart and a sober mind.

Yes, this is what passes for reason and stability on Black Sails

How does Stephens do it? Well, I think he has worked long and hard at perfecting his craft. I’m also thinking that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. He transforms what could be a one-dimensional caricature into a complex, layered antihero around whom the show’s constellation of plots and players revolve. His thespian merits stand independent of his pedigree. Yet I can’t help being a bit awestruck by his good fortune at growing up in such a talented family. And how lucky we fangirls are that he continues his esteemed family’s tradition.

Two generations of suffering fools with style

And so I tend to think of the Dowager Countess and Captain Flint as similar characters, even though they and the worlds they inhabit appear to have nothing in common. (He has even said that their shows are not each other’s “cup of tea”.) Because of their complex layering, their masterful performers, and the fact that both visit my TV screen during the same three months of the year.

Both characters play their cards close to the vest, so to speak, often eschewing dialog in favor of deliberately paced, precisely tuned inflections and mannerisms — whether the Dowager Countess’s profusion of tics (and biting commentary) or Flint’s austere minimalism (and violent rages of retribution). They stand apart from the regular people around them, by virtue of some combination of title, wisdom, ability, audacity, and charisma. In their own way, they provide a sort of anchor or bulwark amidst the raging historical tides by which they’re buffeted. Whether safeguarding tradition or fighting for a new world order, each strives to prevent the forces of chaos from running amok in a changing world. And provides hours of riveting entertainment for this appreciative fan!

Bottoms up!

Are you a fan of the Countess or the Pirate? Is there a particular quote or scene of theirs that you especially love? Or what other TV characters do you love to watch?


  1. What a surprise! I didn't know they were related. I am a fan of Maggie a Smith and Downton Abbey. I've only started watching Black Sails, I can already get your meaning about Capt Flint. Great post!

  2. Thanks, Merit! I hope you like the show. It helps me get through those last few months before Outlander and Game of Thrones start back up!


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