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.
3. The servants are just as affected by Matthew’s death as the family upstairs.
4. The death of Matthew Crawley and the departure of Dan Stevens actually create more opportunities in terms of story.
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.
6. Season 4 of Downton Abbey will bring about more unexpected change. (Uh oh.)
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).
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.
10. Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Mary haven’t mended any bridges, despite all that’s happened.
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.'”
13. Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Bates (Brendan Coyle) have found happiness. For now.
14. That situation may or may not involve the addition of yet another baby to the grounds of Downton Abbey.
15. Tom Branson still hasn’t quite found his place in the household.
16. Rumors that Branson and baby Sybil’s new nanny would be embarking on a love affair are utterly false.
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.”