Eye on Emmy: Downton Abbey EP Gareth Neame on Fast Pacing, Spoiler Problems and Season 4

Gareth Neame Downton Abbey SpoilersHeartbreak! Death! Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess squaring off with Shirley MacLaine! The third season of Downton Abbey was not short on drama.

The commotion even extended off-screen when one major character’s fate became the talk of the Internet months before the episode aired stateside. But the PBS show also managed to surprise on the tube with its fast pacing and healthy doses of romance, a fact that could land it a second Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series. (It won for Outstanding Miniseries or Made for Television Movie in its first season before switching categories.)

RELATED | Emmys 2013: The Drama Series Race in Review, Including Our 6 Dream Nominees

Below, executive producer Gareth Neame addresses how he handles the challenges of spoilers, why Matthew and Mary got hitched so quickly and when Downton will close its doors. The EP also previews what Season 4 has in store for Mary, Branson, Edith and the rest of the residents of TV’s most famous home.

TVLINE | There were a lot tumultuous times for the characters last season. Did you see it as going deeper and darker into Downton Abbey?
Clearly, there were a couple of very, very massive deaths and bereavement. But I still think we had huge doses of romance, which people love in this show, and the laugh-out-loud comedy that is very unusual to have in a drama; but comedy’s a big part of what we do, as well.

TVLINE | Because of the time difference between when the episodes air in the UK and the states, some of the big moments got spoiled. Was that challenging?
Yes. It’s terribly challenging. When you think about it, Downton is one of the most global dramas in television. It’s huge all around the world, and it’s particularly huge in the UK and the US, the two biggest English-language territories in the world. It’s, frankly, completely unrealistic to have a three-month delay between the broadcast in the UK and the broadcast in the US. I hasten to add, I don’t blame PBS for that because, partly, it was the cycle of when we were originally making the show and how it fit into their scheduling needs. It also does very well for them in that slot in January. The last episode of Downton this last season beat all the networks. That may not have been as possible in September [because] it’s such a competitive time of year. It’s an unfortunate thing of the way the show came together, compared to something like the broadcast of the present season of Game of Thrones, which is on Sunday night on HBO, and the very next day, it’s on Sky in the UK. So there’s no time for spoilers to come out. In this day and age, given that we are watching shows from all over the world — particularly between the UK and the US — that’s really the ideal way to schedule.

RELATED | PBS Sets Downton Abbey Season 4 Premiere Date

TVLINE | If you had to select one or two episodes from the past season for Emmy voters to watch, which ones stand out for you?
Episode 1 was very strong, and the final episode is very strong. Sybil’s death episode, which is Episode 4 in the US version. And I also really like the episode after Sybil’s death. It’s a bereavement episode, and particularly, it’s an episode about Robert and Cora and how they blame each other for their daughter’s death and how, by the end of the episode, what they’ve managed to do is find an accommodation that allows them to bereave together. I found that just very beautifully acted and very moving.

Gareth Neame Downton Abbey SpoilersTVLINE | Matthew and Mary got married right off the bat in the season premiere. What was the decision behind that?
This whole issue of longevity that we have with TV shows, which is, “Right, this works. Let’s spread it out as thin as we possibly can and keep it going because we’ve got audiences, and it makes money.” OK, that’s a fair enough attitude. You can take that approach. The other approach you can have is, how we keep this thing as popular as we do is that we keep hitting you with big moments. We don’t see this as being a show that’s going to be around in 10 years. We’ve got a lot of story to get through, and that’s a big part of its popularity, the pace of it all. Because we don’t abuse the audience by saying, “Now you’re going to have to wait another five weeks until the wedding comes along.” In almost every episode, we try and do quite a big set piece, whether it’s a wedding or a particularly enjoyable party or a death or a cricket match or going up to the Highlands on holiday. We move the story very quickly. A typical story-of-the-week in a normal show might take six scenes to play out the narrative of that story. We tend to throw away every other scene, so we might play out a story in just three scenes. So you just have a beginning, middle, and end to that story, and it makes it very fast paced. There’s no hot air sitting there. It’s very tightly cut.

TVLINE | Do you see an end in sight to the show?
I’m not sure what its lifespan will be, but it won’t be 10 years. In the short term, I’m sure it’s going to be around for a few more years, but I don’t think it will be a show that will last that long. I want it to be a show that people enjoy when they’re watching it now, and then, in 10 years’ time, they still look back on it incredibly fondly and remember it. I don’t want people to get bored of it and then go, “Oh, the last season wasn’t really quite as good.”

TVLINE | What year in history do you imagine it will end on?
I don’t think it will leave the 1920s. Because the actors will really start to get out of continuity with the ages of the characters. … Some people say, “Oh, are you going to go up to the outbreak of the second World War?” I don’t think we’re going to do anything like that…. You probably wouldn’t be able to have Violet’s zingers still. “This Mr. Hitler, who is he?”

RELATED | Downton Abbey Season 4 Spoilers — The Bitch Is Back?

Gareth Neame Downton Abbey SpoilersTVLINE | Talk to me about watching Maggie Smith and Shirley MacLaine acting together.
I was on the set one day, and Jim Carter, who plays Carson, walked past me. He just said, “That’s Shirley with Maggie.” This is a TV show, and you’ve got these two much-loved, much-respected, very senior actresses. Everyone loved the experience. I know Shirley loved doing it, and she’ll be back in Season 4. Maggie and Shirley got along very well.

TVLINE | With Matthew’s death, you’ve opened up a world of romance again. Is love the main focus for Mary and the show next season?
I don’t think it is. It’s important to say that audiences are not going to want to see Lady Mary get back in the saddle by the first commercial break of the next episode and just find a new guy. People wouldn’t want that at all. People were really invested in that relationship. But audiences won’t mind new guys hitting on her, as long as she doesn’t just say, “OK, let’s go for it.” She’s got to feel that Matthew was her husband, and there’ll never be anyone else. So I would say the emphasis is really about her rebuilding her life. It’s not just about romance. But that said, there are plenty of avenues and outlets for romance in the fourth season because romance has always been at the center of the show.

TVLINE | Speaking of love, is poor Edith ever going to get some happiness?
Well, she seems to be pretty serious about this guy, right? It’s a bit complicated with him. I can tell you she’s got some great storylines ahead in Season 4. When we talked about the character, Julian Fellowes had a very strong sense that she would be the unlucky daughter. You’ve probably got some friends or family who the sun is always shining on. Everything seems to go fine. And there are other people for whom things just constantly go Gareth Neame Downton Abbey Spoilerswrong, some stream of bad luck. That’s a little bit how it is with Edith. She’s one for whom things will just never be straightforward.

TVLINE | How will Branson be moving on as a single father?
He becomes a bigger and bigger character within the dynamic of the show. He is almost Robert’s right-hand man now. So he has a lot to do in the new season.

TVLINE | Would you consider him stepping into that leading man role where Matthew used to be?
I don’t think in a direct way like that, but he definitely is one of the leads. Things work out with him, both professionally and personally. We will want to see him show an interest in a new partner at some point. I don’t know when, but…

Comments are monitored, so don’t go off topic, don’t frakkin’ curse and don’t bore us with how much your coworker’s sister-in-law makes per hour. Talk smart about TV!

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  1. Belle says:

    I am selfish I hate waiting until January to watch DA! I tried so hard to steer clear of spoilers last fall, but it was impossible…this show is so big I wish they’d somehow put it on simultaneously in the UK and US. If they’d start it the last Sunday in August Downton’s season would almost be over before most of the US shows even begin…seems like our shows start later and later each year anyway (some in October even); just a thought! No matter what I will be watching :)

  2. jMac says:

    Let’s remember when we say “DA got spoiled”, TV Line was one of the main avenues that spoiled it.

    • lyn says:

      OK, but if people don’t want spoilers, don’t go to sites that provide them. How easy is that?

      • Simon Jester says:

        It’s not realistic to avoid ALL sites that discuss TV to avoid news on just one show. If you click on an article about a show and *then* get spoiled, that’s on you… but sites like TVLine should do their bit and not put spoilers in the headlines or on the home page.

      • tripoli says:

        That’s a ridiculous argument. The spoilers were everywhere, including sites that aren’t dedicated to TV. As Simon Jester said, sites like TVLine could show a little more respect to the visitirs of the site and not have major spoilers on the main page.

    • Leigh says:

      Yeah, I managed to avoid the big 3rd season spoilers re: Matthew until TV Line’s Tweet about Dan Stevens leaving the show, which just was so very *not* bueno. Please be more careful next season, TV Line…..

  3. Lyn says:

    A little worried about what they’ll do so that Edith still can fill role of the “unlucky” daughter … considering that Mary’s husband was killed as she was in the hospital with their new baby, and Sybil is dead!

    • lyn says:

      But Sybil and Mary have at least known love. Edith seems doomed to never know love, unless Canadian patrick comes back. Then he’d be the heir rather than Mary’s baby.

      • Lila says:

        Isn’t Edith in love with her editor?

      • scooby says:

        “Canadian Patrick” was just some opportunistic friend of the real Patrick who tried to steal his life. He’d never be the heir. Edith wanted him to be legitimate but it was only because it could bring the man she loved back to life–a man who, incidentally, was meant to marry Mary anyway. Even if he did come back as the heir, the expectation wouldn’t be that he’d hook up with Edith. He and Mary were essentially betrothed as kids and this isn’t the time when it was okay to bail on obligations of that kind, esp. if it meant Mary was a single mother of a non-heir to Downton. As heir to Downton, I bet the real Patrick would’ve either gone for Mary or for some other woman because he’s got the estate and title. He may not’ve even felt the same way Edith felt about him. She would still be unlucky.

        • lyn says:

          Did you forget about the hand gesture that alarmed Lord Grantham? Patrick left because he couldn’t prove who he was. This is a soap, an outstanding one, but still a soap. If Patrick came back with proof and married Edith, it would set Mary right on her posterior.

    • Leigh says:

      I’d love for it to be Edith that winds up being the only married (living) daughter in the end. Oh, irony…..

    • LeeAnn says:

      I am pretty sick of Fellowes making Edith his punching bag. The only reason bad things happened to Mary and Sybil is because actors left the show. He punishes Edith because he hates her for not being Mary, basically. A shame because I think she deserves happiness more. Mary is kind of a selfish cow.

      • lyn says:

        And what is Edith? Edith risked the entire family’s reputation by writing to the Turkish ambassador to get even with Mary. She sucked face with the married farmer. She gets what she deserves.

        • HP says:

          Actually Edith’s family & Mary are to blame for everything. Mary slept with Pamuk. If she didn’t Edith wouldn’t have to write. Edith’s family has long mistreated Edith. Even Cora & Robert said, “We never seem to talk about Edith.” We’re never told why Edith is so mistreated. All we’re given is that she’s the less beautiful one. But I guess in your estimation if Edith is the less beautiful one she deserves to be mistreated. And that’s a sad commentary on society. As for her sucking face with the married farmer he gave her the attention and love her family clearly hasn’t given her. Excusable or not that’s why she did it. Also didn’t Robert suck face with a maid? You may not like Edith but there are a lot of Edith fans that aren’t sure they want to watch a show where she gets the short end of the stick all the time. We all know this is the Mary show as the producers have told us endlessly. Well eventually Mary fans is all they’ll have watching the show.

        • Monica4185 says:

          Yes Edith risked Mary’s reputation but nothing came of it, did it? Mary got marry properly, to a proper gentlemen. So what Edith wanted achieve with the letter to the Turkish ambassador, didn’t happen therefore is moot for Edith to continue to be punish for something that in end didn’t cause much damage.

          • lyn says:

            It illustrates Edith’s self-centered adjustable ethics. Just because the fallout wasn’t worse doesn’t excuse her. Kissing the married farmer shows that nothing matters except herself. Same with the letter, only she matters and devil take the hindmost.

      • Monica4185 says:

        I don’t think Fellowes hates Edith. I do think Fellowes is trying to illustrated with Edith how in families like the Crawleys, there is often someone who never achives what they want no matter how hard they try. Edith tries really hard to achive what is expected of women of her time but fails either because she goes about it the wrong way (i.e. the farmer) or because her family don’t support her enough because of their prejudices (ie Sir Anthony Strallan). I however don’t think she should fail all the time, once in a while she should get something nice.

        • Tinemi says:

          I also don’t think Fellowes hates Edith. As I see it, he’s giving her a different path in life, not the one of the married sister that complies with society (like Mary) or the rebel without a cause (like Sibil). She’s becoming the independent one, the feminist one. In the end I hope she lives in her own house, as a famous writer (remember that famous female writers started in the 1920s-1930s), with a lover (or a string of lovers).

  4. Dave says:

    Personally, I download the episodes pretty much the minute they’re done airing in the UK so the delay has never been an issue for me … but the point made here is completely valid. Airing Downton during the regular TV season would definitely hurt its North American numbers. (Different ballpark but you just need to look at the example of TNT shifting Dallas from a summer series to a mid-season series and its 75% drop in viewers.)

  5. I have to admit I was extremely upset with how cheaply they killed off my favorite character I shall not be following the series any further. For me the last season was thee last season for me. It is fast paced, a bit too fast paced if you ask me. They go through characters like water and kill of very interesting characters who are very complex. Quite frankly I am sorry to say I have lost any interest in the series and its a damn shame it was getting on quite well. I don’t want to invent my time in a series that seems to make decisions poorly. I mean really did he have to die like that? There were far more interesting ways to do it, seemed so cheap.

    • mia says:

      They decided to leave, so your hate should be directed towards the actors not the producers/writers. I can understand their decision for Matthew to die like that; they were slighted by the actor’s decision to leave and so reacted in kind.

  6. Monica4185 says:

    So basically Edith will still be the punching bag of the show. I’m all for her having a hard time getting what she want but eventually getting what she wants or some of what she wants. Its very annoying when in a show there a character that is constantly getting the short end of the stick without winning at least once.

  7. StupidPeopleShutUp says:

    Yeah, don’t watch the show because Dan Stevens was miserable, phoned it in for a season and they had no choice but to kill him off when he refused to stay. And don’t watch the show because they chose to have another actor who wanted out die in childbirth, like tens of thousands of women did in the 1920’s. Because writing compelling television drama is all about rainbows and kittens and indenturing actors to contracts they would rather be done with and supercelebrity they weren’t looking for or desirous of. Oh, and what YOU want. That makes sense.

    • FFS says:

      Wow, why are you so bitter about someone else decision to stop watching a show because they just don’t like it anymore, whatever the reason? Why do you care so much?
      Aeschylus Shepherd explained their reason, and it’s not just about the deaths, they don’t like the pace and how some things were written. Perfectly understandable.

  8. kevin says:

    That’s just the nature of television over there, actors come & actors go. I mean, just look up Shameless UK. By the time it ended I’m not sure there was a Gallagher on it other than Frank, and I’m pretty sure he was basically a guest star.

  9. LeeAnn says:

    I actually hated how Robert and Cora marriage was so quickly patched up after Sybil died. I hated that Violet interfered like that. It was unrealistic to say the least; couples often divorce when a child dies. And why would Robert blame Cora? He was the one in the wrong, not her.

    • Stella says:

      I SO agree with you. I hated the quick resolution of Cora and Robert fight, and I hated the involvement of Violet, and the lie behind it.

      • Brit TV fan says:

        Violet did what Violet does. It wasn’t out of character any more than pressuring that minister to marry Daisy and William. That’s what she does. She loves her son and loves Downton Abbey. She’ll do anything she can to see it work. And the “lie behind it” was a “white lie” at that point, wasn’t it?

    • Brit TV fan says:

      Remember Violet saying to Matthew “Divorce is not an option….”? No, it wasn’t, to people of their class in their era. Don’t put our 20th/21st century mores and folkways into this series.

      P.S. This is not a show from Hollywood. Actors and studios aren’t *stars* sucking up every dollar they can like do in the U.S.

  10. Robin says:

    I was more shocked by Sybil’s death than Matthews, and probably more upset about it really. I loved Sybil and Tom! :( I hate that she died…I don’t think I really want to see Tom (or Mary) moving on soon.

  11. Kate says:

    I watched the season 3 trailer on YouTube and the next suggested video was called “Sybil’s Death Scene”. I’d love if it was shown earlier in the US!

  12. mia says:

    I’d love for Edith to have something wonderful happen to her, for life to finally go her way. He’s right when he talks about people who just have bad luck, but come on, give the viewers who are like that some hope :P

  13. Kirstylou says:

    I’m from the UK and if you don’t have Sky you’re pretty much screwed for 7 months till new seasons of shows come on TV. So for America to wait a couple of months… No biggie.

    • Yoho says:

      I don’t think is fair because you COULD have access to it if I’m reading this properly. There is no legitimate way to watch Downton Abbey in the US without a gaping 3 month window for spoilers

  14. Rebeccat Lai says:

    “You probably wouldn’t be able to have Violet’s zingers still. “This Mr. Hitler, who is he?””Hmm …No ……Hahahaha ……

  15. Stella says:

    ” I don’t want people to get bored of it and then go, “Oh, the last season wasn’t really quite as good.” ”

    This could be already be said about season 3.

  16. Stella says:

    I remember to have read here many news about a new man in Mary’s life (I’m sure it was early January, very insensitive), then after a while “Mary’s rebound love” had a name (Anthony Gillingham). I was very put off of the show when I read something like that happening so soon. Not only for Mary, but so soon for the audience. It seemed to cheap Mary and Matthew’s relationship, which has been really convincing as a depiction of true love and soulmates, the “love of your life” thing. Now, after months, I see they are saying completely different things about these “suitors lining up”. Too bad they have been tactless about it at the beginning of the year.

  17. Drew says:

    Mary could always become the zinger- deliverer. If she was just done with it all and didn’t care about her image, I could see her becoming dryly sarcastic. But that would take a long time to evolve… still, it would be an interesting way to highlight the passage of time and generations if Violet eventually passed on and Mary essentially turned into a version of her grandmother.

    I would never expect to actually see this on the show, but it would be an interesting fate for her.

  18. Isis'Cat says:

    Amazing how ‘personally’ some people take a fictional show. Though, in truth, that is probably part and parcel of why DA is so popular. But still, Matthew was ‘killed off’ – not in a fit of pique by the producer/writers, but because the actor simply wished to leave the show and did not want to commit to even occasional guest appearances that would have allowed for a more gradual leave taking. Very little wiggle room there. Same with Sybil.

    As for the Robert & Cora reconciliation, like Neame, I found it moving and beautifully acted. There was nothing ‘un realistic’ about Violet’s interference. She is very much the interfering type. She interfered between Matthew and Mary..(“Are you sure you can’t love her again..?” ) She may not show it in the way of most mothers, but she clearly loves her son a it pained her very much to see him so unhappy. It is true that some people get divorced after the death of a child, but many more do not. Fellowes’ Robert and Cora love each other…they just needed some time and a way to find their way back to each other. And even more to the point, they NEEDED each other to truly grieve Sybil. Cora was using her anger at Robert as a shield against her own grief and Robert’s guilt was keeping him from truly and openly grieving as well. Robert WAS wrong in his decision on which doctor to trust. But given Dr. Clarkson’s track record at Downton..which includes but is not limited to, the death of Lavinia and mis diagnosing Matthew..and not even telling Matthew and the others that a ‘specialist’ DID think Matthew had a chance to walk again….well, Robert’s lack of faith in Clarkson at a crucial moment is at least understandable. As Robert himself said of Cora’s anger and accusations..’there is some justice there.’ ‘Some’ being the operable word. Clarkson, in the end, did not lie. He told the truth about what was the most likely scenario in the circumstances had they moved Sybil. They already knew what HAD happened. He was only giving them a version…an honest version…of what very likely would have happened, even if different decisions had been taken. And in doing so he..and Violet .. opened a door so that 2 people who clearly love and depend on each other could walk back to each other. That’s good writing and that’s wonderful acting.

    All the characters on DA are very well crafted, but as Fellowes said in an interview very early on, Robert and Cora are his ‘tent poles.’ They provide the cover and the structure for everything else. And their relationship, as it has been presented, and especially as it has been enacted by Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern on DA, is one of the shows abiding strengths. (She’s very good…he’s freakin’ sensationally good.)

    • lyn says:

      I wish that instead of killing Matthew [you could tell Stevens was bored], they’d have given him injuries [went through the windshield]. Then brought in Cary Elwes as a slightly different looking Matthew. Soaps recast characters all the time. The audience would have adjusted. It’s not like Dan Stevens’ performance was iconic.

      • Isis'Cat says:

        Really? I think that would’ve stunk up the joint with too big a serving of cheese. Sure, DA is a soap…but it is an especially well crafted soap. IMO either the ‘reconstructed Matthew’ or any kind of ‘it was all a dream’ maneuver would have been deep sea shark jumping. And justly seen as such.

        Steven’s leaving may have actually done everyone, (except his fans), a favor. Because now they get to take Mary on an entirely different path. Giving her a chance to mature more fully as a character – not just as she is reflected in someone else’s eyes. I guess we will see what TPTB do with this ‘opportunity.’

  19. jan says:

    I think what people forget is that even tho we see it happen every week, to the charactors, it’s taking years.Remember when (maybe the second season) Mr. Bates told Anna that he couldn’t believe he had been working there for two years. It had only been two or three times that he was even on the show.
    I think that’s part of the problem…it appears that the actors are moving on so quickly, but for them its months or years