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'Downton Abbey' Cast Talks Season 4, Mourning Matthew and the Series' Future

A quintet of the British drama's leading ladies appears at the TCA to screen new footage, promise character evolution and talk moving forward: "As far as we know, we're all doing series five next year."

Michelle Dockery
Photography by Nick Briggs, courtesy of Carnival Films
"Downton Abbey"

Notorious for keeping mum on details until the eve of a new season, much of the cast of Downton Abbey and executive producer Gareth Neame spoke with loose lips during Tuesday's PBS fete for the Masterpiece Classic drama.

In addition to premiering a slew of clips and the fourth season's first trailer, Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, Phyllis Logan, Joanne Froggatt and Sophie McShera all addressed where the coming episodes find them. And Neame firmed up when exactly that is: The premiere picks up several months after the death of Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) in Sept. 1921.

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"Both the audience and the characters have experienced some passage of time," said Neame, noting that the fourth season takes place between February 1922 and spring 1923. "There's been time to mourn."

Time to mourn, but not enough time to fully recover. Dockery, still wearing all black as Mary Crawley in the few scenes shared with the Television Critics Association crowd, said it was a long road -- but one that left her pleasantly surprised.

"My first reaction was, 'Oh, crap,'" Dockery said of hearing the news of Stevens' elected departure from the series and the resulting death of her onscreen husband. "Initially I was concerned, but now I'm not. It's a very different [season] from what it could've been.... She's slowly, over the course of the series, coming back to life. It's important for her to move on."

That will include multiple love interests -- most notably Lord Gillingham, a longtime friend of the Crowleys, played by Tom Cullen. And while Mary might remain the focus of the show, Neame teased that her sister Edith (Carmichael) will see the most movement in the fourth season.

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"It is really a very different season for Edith this year," he said. "It's a very active story."

Carmichael seemed more interested in the influence her character's frequent trips to London have had on her wardrobe.  

"Whenever they got me dressed in the first season, they always said, 'You look lovely,'" said Carmichael, adopting a sympathetic tone for her put-upon middle child alter ego. "She's gone on a real journey -- and since she's going to London more, [costume designer] Caroline [McCall] has gone to town with Edith."

Speaking to the series' future, more specifically Stevens and Jessica Brown Findlay's decisions not to renew their contracts, Dockery voiced her interest in keeping the series going for the immediate time being.

"As far as we know, we're all doing series five next year," she said. "Beyond that, it's in the hands of [creator] Julian Fellowes and our producers. If other actors start leaving, it would be a worry, but it's been fine so far."

The end of the series, whenever it comes, does not bode well for the landed gentry of Downton. Echoing previous statements from himself and Fellowes, Neame reminded the audience about the first description of the house in the series' first script: "It's described as a wonderful house, a stately home in this beautiful park land. It looks as though it will stand a thousand years. It won't."

But all is not grim. Neame added that an end to Downton Abbey was not on the immediate horizon.

"The show is so popular around the world now.... It's beloved," said Neame. "The fourth season is extremely good health, and my mind is already in the fifth season. I will say we're not going to World War II, but that's 18 years away. We want to make the show. When we feel it's had its time, hopefully we'll know before you guys. But it's not anytime soon."