Downton Abbey Executive Producer Gareth Neame Unpacks the Major Stories of Season Four

Photo: Nick Briggs/Carnival Films

In the end, the family went on another lavish outing, this time to London for Rose’s presentation as eligible bachelorette, and the fourth season of Downton Abbey wrapped up on a semi-hopeful to happy note for all. Mary declared open season on her love life, Bates escaped murder charges (this time!), and even Daisy finally rid herself of Ivy. But there’s still plenty to discuss following Sunday’s season-ending Christmas special. We continue to be bothered by Ms. O’Brien’s hasty exit, for starters. And what were the origins of the rape story anyway? Has series creator Julian Fellowes decided Edith’s streak of unbelievably bad luck is over now that she’s become a mother? Vulture put these questions and more to executive producer Gareth Neame. First up: that unexpected final moment on the beach …

In the U.K., critics who received screeners were warned not to reveal the Christmas special’s final moment in which Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes are on the beach together. Why single that one out as particularly spoilery?
It was such a lovely moment, we didn’t want to spoil it for people. What did it make you think of?

I didn’t read romance into it, but maybe I should have?
I think there’s a little tease in there. People like that couple so much. They’re always asking, “Are they going to get married?” Well, they sort of are a marriage. But yeah, it’s a little tease. I’ve heard it brought a little tear to the eye seeing them at the end of all that, relying on each other. It was a nice moment.

News broke at the end of season three that Siobhan Finneran, who played Ms. O’Brien, would not be continuing on to a fourth season. O’Brien was written off with a lot less fanfare than Dan Stevens and Jessica Brown-Findlay, escaping the house in the opening scene of this season.
Siobhan moved on from the show and the difference is that she played a servant. You can only leave a family by divorce or dying, but you can leave a job by walking out or handing in your notice or being fired. We don’t want everyone to die. When we’ve let go of other servant characters, it’s usually because they’ve done something wrong and been fired, or they’ve gotten a better offer. This was something different.

But Finneran wasn’t in O’Brien’s final episode at all. We just see the character’s figure leaving in the middle of the night. Did she not give enough notice to be included in a more substantial way?
No, we knew she was going for awhile, but we wanted to do her exit in a slightly different way. We wanted to have it as a little hook on the beginning of the fourth season. We knew she was leaving for a perfectly good length of time.

You told TV Guide Magazine that you were prepared for some backlash to the storyline involving Anna’s rape. Did you and series creator Julian Fellowes discuss those concerns when that story turned up in the script?
No, it was my idea for a story in the first place.

Where did the idea come from?
We always brainstorm what direction we’re going to take each of the characters in. We sit there with photographs of each of them as a way of jogging our memories about what we can do with people. We do this for several weeks, and in one of our brainstorming meetings at ITV, I brought it up as a story idea and they thought it was interesting. Julian thought about it, worked out who the perpetrator would be, the outcome of it, all of that. We knew it would have a big impact because Anna is so beloved. You’re doing something heinous to a character who is the most unblemished of all the characters. She’s the warm, moral soul of the show. You do something like this, and you’ll get a strong reaction. But we’re looking for strong reactions.

We often have big, explosive moments like this one in every season. You’re always looking for very big obstacles. Anna and Bates in particular have been hit by a lot of obstacles, but very often they’re about Bates. This was a storyline centered on Anna, kind of a mirror-image of what we did before with “Is Bates a murderer, or isn’t he? Is he going to jail? Is he going to be hanged?” I thought it was going to be quite powerful. It certainly whipped up the newspapers in the UK. They smelt a good story and so they ran with it managed to create a frenzy that certainly led to a number of complaints being made to the broadcaster, none of which were substantiated. They were all sort of whipped up, and not on the night of broadcast or even the next day. They came several days later when people had read about it in the newspaper and decided to complain. It didn’t do us any harm. Our ratings have been so strong. And as people followed that storyline, and saw the way the story has been portrayed by Jo Froggatt, and saw the way Bates and Anna come back together, the feeling was it was a very sensitively handled portrayal of something that was a risk to vulnerable women in service. There was a danger of sexual exploitation and crime, and certainly something that would have happened.

Bates got pretty scary toward the end of the season. Of course he should avenge his wife, but there were shots of him that were particularly creepy. Our recapper calls him John “I want to murder” Bates. Was that intentional? His involvement in the death of the former Mrs. Bates was a lot more ambiguous … until now.
I think we’ve always known he’s a melancholic character with a brooding disposition in the same way Anna is a positive personality. I think if you put him in a position where the worst possible thing has happened to his wife and he’s feeling guilty that he wasn’t able to protect her, it puts him in an absolute desperate strait. And we’ve also always known he’s been a bit on the edge. We’ve seen him be quite violent when he was in jail. So we know he can be tough and dangerous if his temper brews up. He’s got an angry side. He’s quite scary, I agree.

Another of this season’s major stories revolved around Edith deciding to get an abortion and then choosing to keep her baby not only alive but close by. She’s in another miserable situation, but it seems to end on a hopeful note this time.
That was an idea that Julian had right from the outset. It’s absolutely one of my favorite stories we’ve ever done on the show. The whole idea of putting an aristocratic young woman from that way of life in this position where she is pregnant and doesn’t know if the father of the child is dead or alive is a great one. She feels a natural affinity a mother would have for the child but with all of the social mores that tell her she can’t bring the child up. And then she sort of chooses to do that anyway. I think it’s a fascinating set of circumstances to put into the mix and a really active story for Edith that moves her on from what we had in the first couple of years where it was just one bad piece of luck after another. This is a monumental piece of bad luck, of course, but it’s also rather positive because it is about her having a child and how she deals with it. It makes her active in her own story.

When did you realize the character needed that change?
Julian’s always been of the opinion that some people have continuous good luck and other people seem to live lives of bad luck. He’s always had this idea of Edith as someone whose bad luck just continues. But as we see the show go on, I think it could change a bit.

When it comes to Mary’s suitors, Charles Blake looks like the clear frontrunner having gotten Mary to help hydrate some pigs in the mud. Do you have a favorite between the two?
You’ll have to wait and see.

I’m asking who you prefer — not who will win.
[Laughs.] Listen, what we say is she hasn’t decided.  I can’t ever choose favorites. I love them in different ways. But it’s good to know you prefer Charles Blake.

Hard not to. Lord Gillingham is just standing around pining for her.
Blake did have that great scene with her. When Julian wrote it, I said to him, “You really have broken new ground in terms of romantic comedy. I’ve never seen a love scene in a pig sty.” It was nice seeing her huge smile, wasn’t it?

It was a big deal when Downton introduced its first black character, Jack Ross, this season. His romance with Rose appears to be over, ending his arc, but are there any plans to continue to diversify in season five?
You have to wait and see. We’re not depicting London or a big city. We’re depicting rural life in the north of England in the 1920s. Jim Carter, who plays Carson, pointed out that when he was growing up in Yorkshire, which is the same county, in the 1950s, there were not any black people. So it’s not a multicultural time. We can’t suddenly start populating the show with people from all sorts of ethnicities. It wouldn’t be correct.

Were Rose’s feelings for Gary genuine? Or was it really all about pissing off her mom?
I think she was sincere but she’s immature and flighty and rebellious, too. She met this person who’s different in so many ways, and she’s attracted to that. But she’s capricious.

There were a lot of loose ends in the Christmas special. Gregson’s still missing, Baxter’s secret is still a secret, Bates might (again?) be a murderer …
Well, we knew season four wasn’t the end of the show, and so there are a lot of loose ends that will be revealed as we go on. We were never going to tie everything up.

Right, but I mean even seemingly smaller plots. Whatever Thomas has on Baxter has been a season-long mystery.
I don’t think it seems any more of a question mark on the future than it’s been. At the end of the previous season, you’ve got Mary with a newborn baby and Matthew dead in the street. In the end of the first season, we were going to war. I think this season’s finale was the same style.

You and Julian are developing another period drama, The Gilded Age, for NBC, and Julian has said he won’t start that until Downton is finished. Assuming NBC won’t want to wait five more years for their show, how do you guys talk about when to end Downton? Is it a constant source of debate?
It is, but you’ve got a very unusual set of circumstances here. We make eleven episodes of Downton every year, and Julian writes all of it. It’s a huge amount of writing for one person to do. There’s no way he can do that and work on another show at the same time. NBC of course would like to have Gilded Age but everyone accepts that Downton is still a massive success. We’re all part of the same company, too. My company is owned by NBC Universal, and as a group we all know Downton is a very important property for the whole company. We don’t want to jump out of it too early. We are working on a great big hit show, and one doesn’t want to stop working on a great big hit show until you’re ready.

What would be the signs of that?
We just have to judge it. That’s our job. I think we called crucial things like deciding when Matthew and Mary should finally get engaged. That was the right time for that. We have to get out right before people realize they want us to get out. We quit while we’re ahead, while people still love the show, and while we’ve still got stories to tell. I still don’t know when that will be yet.

Downton Abbey Executive Producer Talks Season 4