When Downton Abbey returns with its fourth season, it’s February 1922 and six months will have passed since the death of heir Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) — who perished after driving off the road shortly after the birth of his son, George — and the Crawley household is still in a state of mourning. But, fortunately, the mourning period won’t last all season, for life must go on for Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and the other members of her well-heeled aristocratic clan.
“Series 4 brings in humor, drama, grief, romance, backbiting between characters, and underhand happenings,” series star Joanne Froggatt — who plays lady’s maid Anna Bates — told BuzzFeed. “It’s got everything in there.”
Season 4 will also have to reassure the audience after the shocking deaths of not one, but two beloved characters, which came on the heels of the horrors of World War I and the Spanish flu in the second season. The show’s executive producer Gareth Neame said Season 4 contained the “spirit of rebirth,” both for the Crawleys and for the Julian Fellowes-created British period drama itself. “Clearly, there’s a change of direction,” said Neame, speaking to BuzzFeed earlier this week. “In Mary’s life particularly, because she is so much a central figure in the show and Mary and Matthew were so central. When we rejoin the show, several months have passed, just as several months have passed in real life for the audience.”
So what lies ahead in the fourth season of Downton Abbey? BuzzFeed spoke with Neame as well as cast members Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, Joanne Froggatt, and Phyllis Logan to glean some secrets about what will happen in the halls of Downton.
1. When Season 4 begins, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is in a fragile state.
“Since Matthew’s death, Mary is really in such a living death at this point,” Neame told BuzzFeed. “She has completely given up on life and one of the central thrusts of the new season is really the rebirth of Mary and the way that her family and all the staff encourage her to turn back to life and find a new reason to carry on… As a beautiful, highly eligible young widow and mother of a baby son, there is a huge amount of potential of new stories for her.”
It’s a sentiment that’s echoed by many cast members as well. “At the start of Series 4, Mary is in a place of trapped grief,” Froggatt said. “She can’t bring herself back into the present. She’s just very closed off in her own pain. And so Anna is walking a bit of a tightrope with Mary to start off, because she sees that but, for the sake of her son George, she needs to come back into the present and start interacting with her child and not closing herself off from the world. She has to start to move forward in a way. It’s very difficult for Anna because she can only really hint at that to Lady Mary; she’s still within the constraints of being her servant and not allowed to overstep the mark.”
Dockery herself sees Matthew’s death as regressing Mary in many ways. “She’s reverted to that very cold exterior that she had in Series 1 and she says at one point that she’s not sure who she’s most in mourning for: Matthew, or the person that she was when she was with him,” Dockery told BuzzFeed. “That saddens her even more because she’s lost who she was; he brought out that sensitive, vulnerable side to her, the much more caring and loving side, and now it’s shattered. She had everything at the end of Series 3: she finally got her man, she gave birth to a son, perfectly wrapped up the legacy of the Granthams, and then she didn’t even realize that… her life had been turned upside down.”
2. Motherhood does not suit Lady Mary.
“She finds it difficult to relate, to spend any time with the baby because he reminds her of Matthew,” said Dockery. “She’s not the most maternal of women. She was never going to be a cooey mum, singing him bedtime nursery rhymes.”
3. The servants are just as affected by Matthew’s death as the family upstairs.
“Mr. Carson’s concerned because he’s rather fond of Mary as we all know, unlike Mrs. Hughes, who’s not and doesn’t mind telling him very often, much to his chagrin,” said Phyllis Logan. “It’s affected him quite badly and he hates, obviously, seeing her in such grief.”
4. The death of Matthew Crawley and the departure of Dan Stevens actually create more opportunities in terms of story.
In fact, rather than see the romantic tension between characters deflate, Matthew’s death allows for a new strain of romantic intrigue and possibility to be introduced to Downton Abbey. “Julian is a great writer of romantic love and that’s what we had with Mary and Matthew,” said Neame. “That ‘will they, won’t they’ was completely electrifying for audiences in over 200 countries around the world. We all know this from romantic drama that when the couple get together, things change, and we’re not really a show about sexual love particularly. It’s not really what it’s about. As a married couple, the jeopardy and the challenges are different. While we didn’t want to lose Dan Stevens from the show — we would have been delighted if he’d wanted to stay — the moment we knew he had made that decision that he wanted to move on, it actually gave us a whole world of new story-telling opportunities which are much more in keeping with the actual tone of the show.”
Dockery agreed. “Initially, I was worried,” she told BuzzFeed. “I was sad that he was going, but that’s exactly what it’s done: It was literally like a blank page for Julian, the fourth series… It kickstarted the show into slightly new territory, much bigger territory.”
5. Likewise, given that Downton is now going into its fourth series and producers are thinking about a fifth, it’s essential for the longevity of the show to shake up the foundations a little bit.
“It absolutely is,” said Neame. “That’s why the loss of some of these characters is absolutely a positive thing. You want to keep the core stability… but you definitely want to lose some people [and] bring some new people in every year. That is a real part of the appeal for audiences of this. It doesn’t stand still. It’s always moving and while the loss of Sybil and Matthew can be very traumatic for the audience it is also, ironically, what makes the show feel very alive. If we came back and it was all the same characters again doing the same things, I query whether audiences would find it as dynamic from a narrative point of view as they clearly do.”
6. Season 4 of Downton Abbey will bring about more unexpected change. (Uh oh.)
Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of Masterpiece (which airs Downton Abbey in the U.S.) indicated that, while sweeping transformation seemed to overtake the show in Season 3, viewers haven’t seen anything yet. “We talked about last season being a big season of change but I think this season is even more, because everybody changes,” Eaton told BuzzFeed. “Big things happen to a lot of people. There is appropriate respectful healing time in the series and then there’s life. Life goes on and then big things start happening.” Will those be good things or bad things, though? “Julian always says that it’s hard to write happiness… People didn’t see Matthew’s death coming and I don’t think they saw Sybil’s coming either. And there are a few [more] things that they’re not going to see coming.”
7. Romance is in the cards for Lady Mary. Eventually. Maybe.
“[Mary] is back to the dilemma again of finding a husband like she was in Series 1,” Dockery said. “They are being thrown in her direction by Cora, because she has to remarry. She doesn’t have a choice, really. Or maybe she does. I like to think that she ends up like Elizabeth, that she had one love and maybe she never, ever loves again. That would be cool, wouldn’t it?” So, the Virgin Countess of Grantham? “The Virgin Mary,” said Dockery, with a huge grin.
Still, it’s more than likely that Mary will succumb to one of her suitors. “A lot of the characters — Branson, Robert, Cora, Anna — they’re all trying to wean her out of this depression that she’s in, because she probably hasn’t left the house since it happened. It’s very much like a spell has been cast over Downton for that first episode and it only really begins to thaw in spring when Mary comes out of mourning, which takes a while. For the audience, everyone has invested so much in that character of Matthew and everyone loved Dan. It wouldn’t be right to for everyone to be happy and to have moved on.”
8. Viewers should not read too much into that photo of Lady Mary and Tom Branson (Allen Leech).
“It was hilarious,” said Dockery about the rabid speculation surrounding that photo. “It was so inappropriate that they would get together, but I love that the fans speculate as much as we do about where it’s going. I just think it would be a bit weird; it’s my sister’s husband!”
9. Downton may have an heir in the form of baby George, Mary and Matthew’s son, but that doesn’t mean that the estate’s legal situation is in order.
“In one sense, [the birth of George] does secure the future, so that is solid,” said Neame. “But this family always has a number of legal roadblocks and issues and there are always obstacles in this show that keep coming up again. That isn’t about to end any time soon.”
10. Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Mary haven’t mended any bridges, despite all that’s happened.
Don’t expect this to change any time soon. “The way I see Edith and Mary is that they love one another but they don’t always like each other and they both harbor a bitterness of what they did to one another in Series 1,” said Dockery. “Anthony Strallan snubbing her as a result of Mary meddling and her telling the British Embassy about the diplomat… Mary’s just that older sister. She can just be a bit mean. She’s just mean to Edith and it’s not fair a lot of the time.”
Carmichael believes that the two are somehow too similar to ever get along. “They are so oddly similar in that sisterly way. They are both stubborn and think they are right and know exactly what the other one is thinking and call them on it when they are being self-interested and have an ability to publicly humiliate the other in a room by saying, ‘She actually means this.’ I think that won’t change,” she said. “Michelle and I — who get on so well — are longing for the day they can give each other a hug and mean it… It starts from this position of Mary being so very beautiful and having so many options and Edith having less… They are not modern women in the way that we’ll sit down and talk about our feelings and how Mary feels about the death of her husband. This is 1920s Britain in the upper classes, so it’s a kind of sewn up pain. As much as they want to sit down and say, ‘I loved him too and he was like a brother to me,’ that’s not going to happen.”
11. Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards)’s mad wife Lizzie is less Bertha Rochester and more Sylvia Plath.
Last season, Edith was jilted at the altar by Sir Anthony Strallan (Robert Bathurst) and Matthew encouraged Edith to pursue her path as a writer, which put her on a collision course with the editor of The Sketch, Michael Gregson… who happens to be married and has a mad wife locked away somewhere.
“Edith meets this sexy editor who thinks that she does have a voice that’s interesting, and they have a kind of banter and a spark between them that lights up,” Carmichael said. “After Strallan, I was keen for it not to seem that she was looking for another boyfriend…. David Evans — the director who started the Gregson storyline and opens Series 4 — was really keen to create this man who has this sad story of working very hard, and being very lonely, and who has this wife is estranged and apart from him. The thing which he said which I thought was so cool was that it was a kind of Sylvia Plath/Ted Hughes madness as opposed to a Jane Eyre madness, because my initial image on the reading of it was ‘woman in the attic.’ David was like, ‘No. Let’s think about this story and these two fiery writers again in London, and actually what constitutes lunacy in those days could be a woman with a brain on her.’”
12. Laura Carmichael wants Lady Edith to wind up with… Ryan Gosling?
Asked by The Telegraph about Edith’s ideal love interest, Carmichael named Ryan Gosling. “Oh man. It’s so bad. I just give that answer everywhere when people say ‘Who do you want to see Edith with?’ Ryan Gosling,” she told BuzzFeed. “I think he should come in as an American. As a film star. As a ’20s film star! He can come in and do some Ryan Gosling smoking that he does so well. I just saw The Place Beyond the Pines and I loved it. He does some very cool smoking in there. I probably shouldn’t say that. Yes, he can just come in and take his shirt off, that’s fine. We’ll figure out where that can happen.”
13. Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Bates (Brendan Coyle) have found happiness. For now.
“I can confidently say yes,” Froggatt told BuzzFeed. “At the end of Series 3, we see them embark on this new period of happiness. They’re together, he’s free, they have time to be husband and wife and be in love and enjoy that. They certainly start off Series 4 in a very happy place. As with all things Downton, there are some trials and tribulations along the way in Season 4, as there are for all of the characters… There’s a bit of drama for Anna as yet… It’s not so much that Anna has a quest, but she has a situation that she has to deal with later in the series.”
14. That situation may or may not involve the addition of yet another baby to the grounds of Downton Abbey.
“A Bates baby,” Froggatt said. “Who can know? It’s more than my life is worth to give it away. We’ll have to wait and see.”
15. Tom Branson still hasn’t quite found his place in the household.
The unexpected death of Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), after giving birth to her daughter, left fans reeling almost as much as her widowed husband, Tom Branson. “It’s one thing to become a surrogate member of a family because of a love affair or a marriage and obviously, it was not a straightforward marriage,” Neame said. “It was all done against the family’s wishes and it involved elopement… and now he suddenly finds himself almost trapped, like he’s been marooned or shipwrecked at Downton with these people he feels nothing in common with… Some of his politics are mellowing, because of everything that he and Crawleys have been through… He’s slowly, gradually, found that he does see them as part of his family, although he’s always going to be torn about the fact that he never really fits in. He never sees these people quite as his own. He has developed a bond with them now.”
16. Rumors that Branson and baby Sybil’s new nanny would be embarking on a love affair are utterly false.
“When you see the actress, I doubt it,” said Neame. So she’s not another Edna (MyAnna Buring), the housemaid who made a pass at Branson last season? “No… We haven’t made any comments about any new characters so people are putting two and two together and coming up with six.”
The cast was tight-lipped about just what the nanny’s role will be. “There is a storyline with the new nanny, strangely,” said Logan, “which I can’t say anything too much about.” What could it be?
17. Miss O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) won’t be returning this year, but that doesn’t mean that the servants’ hall is a model of civility.
The acid-tongued lady’s maid won’t be igniting any new schemes in Season 4 with Finneran departing Downton Abbey after last year’s Christmas Special. So is there a new villain ready to step into her shoes? “The dynamic changes, obviously, with O’Brien leaving,” Froggatt said, “but it changes a few times with different problems between certain characters and different characters forming bonds as well. It doesn’t settle for quite a long time.”
18. Look for wild child Lady Rose (Lily James) and Anna to form a bond.
Lady Rose MacClare, introduced at the tail end of the third season of Downton, is still living with the Crawleys when we rejoin the family in Season 4. “They’ve got a really nice relationship, because Rose taught Anna to reel, to dance, in the Christmas Special,” said Froggatt. “That was cute; from that they do have a certain bond and then Rose asks Anna to accompany her to a thé dansant — a tea dance… Anna really likes Rose; she feels for her that she’s a young 18 or 19-year-old living at Downton and for the past six months the house has been in mourning. She wants to be in London; she wants to be doing things, seeing friends, and having a life, and she’s a bit bored at Downton sometimes. Anna takes pity on her and accompanies her on an afternoon out.”
And Rose’s presence in the Crawley household has other benefits, in terms of storytelling, said Neame. “It brings a much younger character into the mix because of course we are several years on from the first season in story terms,” he said. “Mary and Edith are not girls now. One married, was widowed, and has a child. The other one has tried to get married and it hasn’t happened. They are both mature adult women and it’s about injecting a much younger spirit into the show, particularly in the era that we’re coming into now. We’re coming well into the 1920s and all those changes of modernity: music, dancing, more leisure time, and all of those things that we’ll move onto like suffragism, the emancipation of women, and the growing role of women in society. She’s the young member of the aristocratic family that can take us into all of those stories and she’s also a wild child, so she’s moving at a different rhythm to the other characters.”
19. While it’s been widely reported that Gary Carr’s musician Jack Ross will be Downton Abbey’s first black character, look for an entire jazz band to turn up at Downton and for the show to tackle the racial tensions that emerge.
“It has got to be touched upon in a certain way because it would have been an issue that people noted at the time,” said Froggatt. “But it’s not forced upon the audience in any way. These characters are having a new experience of a black person coming to Downton and that’s something they’ve not experienced before… Also, with the fact that a jazz band comes to Downton as well; this is really modern.”
Carmichael agreed. “It’s just a very interesting dynamic within the story, how the attitudes were and how the characters, in their own ways, respond to it. I’m always very keen that we don’t brush over the nasties and whenever there is an opportunity for Edith to blank a servant, I love that,” she said. “I don’t want to shy away from any of that.”
20. Given the loss of Matthew’s vision for the future, Robert (Hugh Bonneville) is floundering.
“The direction that he thought that his life and family and estate were going in has all changed,” said Neame. “There is now an heir and the heir is the baby. But the baby isn’t going to be able to fulfill a meaningful function for decades, so he’s going to have a bit of a wrestle, to be honest. He accepted that Matthew was taking a lead role in the management of things, but I think he may well now want to feel that he wants to take some control back. In a way, he’s slightly conflicted by the fact that Mary and her son have a future role in Downton. He might want to keep control himself.”
Of course, the Dowager Countess may have other plans: in a scene from the upcoming season, Violet (Maggie Smith) appears to be pushing Mary and Branson towards working together to secure the future stability of the estate. “[Mary] gets her hands a bit dirtier this year when it comes to the running of Downton,” Dockery said. “She becomes much more involved in the estate. That’s a bit of a clue.” So, any chance that Lady Mary will be jumping on Edith’s old tractor? “I wish,” said Dockery. “She just gets a bit more into it all. It’s funny because in Series 1, she said, ‘The thought of 50 years of my life spent at Downton, I couldn’t think of anything worse,’ and now there’s nothing else she wants, really: to make sure everything is in place and ready for the baby.”
21. There is a truce of sorts between Thomas (Rob James-Collier) and the Bateses.
“Now Thomas is the under-butler, he’s out of Anna and Bates’ hair a little bit because he’s got this new role,” Froggatt said. “But he’s still there, doing a few little digs every now and again.” So no chance that Thomas becomes Anna’s gay BFF? “That would be really good,” she said, laughing. “It’s a shame. Now that Miss O’Brien’s gone, maybe there’s room.”
The Bateses may have used O’Brien’s dark secret about that bar of soap from Season 1 to prevent Thomas from being arrested last year, but that doesn’t mean, however, that Thomas will be keeping mum about that incident for much longer, if an advance clip shown to critics earlier this week is any indication.
22. Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle) may be out of a job after Matthew’s death, but not for long.
Matthew’s death “ripples through the house,” according to Carmichael. “Molesley was his valet. That’s his job gone. So what’s going to happen to Molesley?” If an upcoming scene from Season 4 can be relied upon, well-meaning if grievously clumsy valet Alfred Molesley will find a new employer in the household of the Dowager Countess. Whether he can avoid spilling on Violet at dinner is another matter altogether.
23. Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) are not getting together, thank you very much.
In fact, there are no plans for a new romance for Mrs. Hughes, who hasn’t seen much in the way of suitors since a Season 1 storyline that had her former lover, Joe Burns, return to her life. “Any candidates, do you think?” asked Logan. “I think I can safely say that, without giving too much away, there’s not. Everybody keeps saying, ‘Why don’t Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson get together?’ It’s such an obvious choice, really. They’re very fond of one another, you can tell that, and they have a great, deep respect for one another, although they drive each other crazy from time to time. But nothing would cross their minds [about romance].”
24. Isobel (Penelope Wilton) gets a storyline this season.
“Penelope Wilton has a great storyline this year,” said Dockery, “obviously, because her character has lost a son.” Am I the only one hoping that she and Dr. Clarkson (David Robb) end up getting together?
25. We find out what’s in that crenellated tower at the very center of Downton Abbey.
For those of you wondering why we haven’t yet seen just what’s in that part of Downton, Neame promised that all will be revealed. “Funnily enough, when you look at the next episode, almost the first shot — in fact, I think it is the first shot — it reveals what’s in there.”