Heartbreak! 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.)
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.
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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.
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.
TVLINE | 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?”
TVLINE | 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 wrong, 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…