By Maureen Lee Lenker
September 22, 2019 at 02:47 PM EDT

Warning: This post contains spoilers from the Downton Abbey movie. Read at your own risk.

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It’s hard to imagine Downton Abbey without Violet (Maggie Smith). The Dowager Countess has been with the series from the beginning, bringing Smith’s acting bonafides to Violet’s bon mots for a perfect combination of biting wit, zinging one-liners, and just the right amount of heart under that disapproving exterior.

Downton Abbey the movie is no exception, with Violet in exceptional form throughout. But the ending brought a bittersweet close to her story on the big screen. At a royal party, Violet pulls Mary (Michelle Dockery) aside to tell her some sad news — she “may not have long to live.” Understandably, Mary is stricken to hear the news, but in her characteristic stiff upper lip fashion, Violet uses the moment to pass the baton of Downton’s legacy to her eldest granddaughter. “You are the future of Downton,” she reassures Mary. “I’m leaving the family and the place that I treasure in talented hands.”

Cue the waterworks.

Jaap Buitendijk/Focus Features

But how did this scene come about? Smith was the last to sign on to the project, having resisted the notion of her character’s endurance when so much time had passed in the world of the characters (it’s 15 years from the first season to the film). She repeatedly said she wasn’t interested in continuing, and in an interview with the British Film Institute, even suggested a potential film should open with her character’s funeral.

Was it Julian Fellowes compromise at Smith’s request? He’s maddeningly mum on anything to do with the scene, but producer Gareth Neame says this onscreen passing of the Downton torch was actually his idea. “It was my decision because I thought it’s taken us awhile to persuade Maggie to do the film and I wanted to demonstrate we wouldn’t ask her again,” he laughs. “But more to the point, it was about having a very tender scene between her and the Mary character and the idea of the baton being passed from the one matriarch to the next matriarch, from one generation to the next. The idea that they’re all just really tenants in the property and it is their duty to pass on, [and] the next generation to take over after them.”

However, Neame also stresses that they never actually considered killing off the character within the course of the film, regardless of any suggestions Smith might have publicly professed. “We’ve got a nice, tender, and bittersweet moment,” he reflects. “It’s very bad news, but the connection these two women have with each other, the similarities between them, the idea that Mary, as Violet says, Mary will be the old lady telling everyone what to do in the future. It’s sad, but there’s also something uplifting because it’s about the love within the family. It’s still a happy ending to the film although it’s really not news we want to hear. If the character actually died, that would’ve just been very, very sad and not really very Downton.

In a film where the most pressing stakes are frequently who will shine the silver most adequately for the King and Queen, it’s a deeply emotional moment — one that will touch audiences that have spent years enjoying the unique bond between Violet and Mary. And it was no different for the actors involved. “When we’ve seen audiences watch the scene, the whole theater goes completely silent and they hang on every word,” Neame details. “I know Michelle found it a very emotional thing to work on and it certainly delivered.”

Neame says he never spoke to Smith about her feelings on the scene, but that he was aware that it was an extremely “moving” day of work for Dockery who rose to fame via Downton Abbey and found a similar kindred spirit and mentor in Maggie Smith over their years on the series. “She has a great relationship with Maggie and they like working together,” he says.

Downton Abbey the place may now be solidly in Lady Mary’s more than assured hands, but what does this mean for Downton Abbey the franchise? With a $31 million opening weekend at the box office, it seems hard to imagine we won’t get a sequel. Will it be one sans Violet, our beloved Dowager Countess? Her prognosis at the film’s end seems to suggest as much.

But perhaps not — as Neame teases, “The doctors have got things wrong before on Downton.

Downton Abbey is now playing in theaters.

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