'Downton Abbey' Postmortem: EP Talks Departures and What to Expect From Season 6

"The show has always been about the end of this era, so we are seeing the decline of this family and great stately homes of this kind," Gareth Neame tells THR.
Nick Briggs

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the season five finale of Downton Abbey.]

With the U.S. broadcast of the fifth season of the beloved British import Downton Abbey now complete, the curtain is ready to be thrown back by one of the only people with a significant say in the fate of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants who isn't creator/sole screenwriter Julian Fellowes: executive producer Gareth Neame.

The Emmy-winning Naeme — who first pitched the notion of chronicling a declining English manor during the transition from the Edwardian era into the modern age to Fellowes — joined The Hollywood Reporter to look back at a season packed with family intrigue (Mary finally picked a suitor, then didn't, then found an intriguing new candidate), unexpected romances (the Dowager had a spicy past, while Isobel's future looked tormented), lingering consequences (Edith laid greater claim to her illegitimate daughter Marigold, while Anna and Bates continued to pay for the sins of Mr. Green), new family members (Rose got married), poignant departures (Branson and Sybbie left for America, while Isis went to doggie heaven); surprise unions (Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes, together at last!) and the continued, inevitable move forward from an increasingly bygone time.

See More THR Goes on the Set of 'Downton Abbey' Season 5

What was the initial plan heading into this season? Did it evolve over the course of the season at all into something a little different — or maybe even better — than you expected?

We start off with a game plan and, of course, some things you map out very early on and other things evolve as you’re developing the scripts. I think it was probably midway through that we felt very strongly that we wanted to have Carson ask Mrs. Hughes to marry him by the very end of this season. It really felt like the right time to move that story on. So some things like that happen as you go along the process and other things you have a strong idea right from the onset.

And we wanted the season to have this idea about secrets. So Mary has a secret: she’s gone on this trip with Tony, and Violet finds out about it and is very judgmental and critical. But then of course, very quickly we discover that Violet has her own past and she had a love affair. Therefore, Violet is much more like Mary than she is different to her. And we, the audience, are much more like these characters from 90 years ago than we are different from them. I think audiences automatically think this is a very, very different time, different rules of engagement and everything. But in fact, the characters are so like us. They’re just trying to get along with their lives and do as well as they can and be happy just like us.

Along with this theme of secrets, there was a theme of romance in the September of various characters’ years – Violet, Isobel, Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes all had romantic storylines. What was the conversation about this theme before you went into production, and how did you feel about the way everything carried through?

Well, that was an idea right from the beginning, and it's certainly something Julian wanted to write. And I think it’s to his enormous credit as a writer that he has written such positive stories for Violet and Isobel that there are romances for people in the September of their lives – It’s just so positive! The idea that you’re capable of emotional or romantic feelings for somebody at that age. Or even as an 80-year-old woman, once upon a time had an enormous love affair, and that man comes back into her life even after all those years and effectively still says "I’ve always loved you." And this is incredibly positive stuff that isn’t really covered anywhere else on television – and given that so many of the audiences for television are older people, I think it’s really positive.

Read More A Day at 'Downton Abbey,' Exclusive Look at Season 5

While the execution was engrossing, I was somewhat surprised at the storyline with Anna and Bates and the mystery surrounding the death of her assailant was continued over into this season – the show certainly arrived at a place last season where it might have concluded, plot-wise. Was there a lot of discussion about that? Was that already in the planning stages from the outset, or did it seem like "Hey, that’s a good idea – let's keep exploring this storyline?

Well, I think what we didn’t want to do, because it would have been quite flippant to introduce this rape story in Season Four just for shock factor, and within a couple of episodes, they’re over it and been moved on. I don’t feel that would have been right. Anna’s rape has left a very, very huge mark on their lives. Mr. Green, is a very dark, complex character that we learn more about, and their lives have really been changed forever by this event. And so, the shamble of all of that continues, not just in Season Four, but it continues over into Season Five as well.

Throughout the season we kept getting the sense that Branson was going to leave Downton Abbey, but with enough of a question mark that I think people wondered about if that was actually going to happen, all the way up to the end. Tell me about that storytelling choice.

He has been stuck in this no man’s land since Sybil died. The show is about two tribes, and he fits in neither of these, and he finds that a very, very difficult position to occupy comfortably. And he feels that the only way to resolve that is to remove himself from this world. And I think the draw of America, the 1920s – an awful lot of people he would have known from Ireland would have moved to America, and he feels that perhaps that some way he can find solace and create a positive future for himself. And that is certainly something he’s talked about for a long time. So it’s important that he explores that, and that we don’t just have him talk about it – he actually goes to do something about it.

As far as looking forward, can we expect that Branson will be absent for at least a good long, if perhaps not permanently, from the show?

Well, you’ll have to wait and see on that. But he’s certainly left. So that remains to be seen.

What was the surprise of the season for you, as it unfolded? Was there a part of it that said "Oh, that worked out even better than I originally thought." Was there a surprise for you in there anywhere?

Yeah. I think what we were just talking about, the Violet and Isobel relationship, I think were very, very satisfying. And I love the way we’ve shown these children growing up. So that rather than just being little blobs, they do feel like they have a presence in the fifth season, and to me, it really makes it feel like a family now. When we came into the first season, we had three young daughters. And now, all of them have had children. They’ve all been married, or almost married. And pets die, and children are born. It’s evolved over a 12-year period, and that’s why I think the show becomes more compelling the more you watch it. The more the years go by, the more you feel you, as an audience member, have spent a portion of your own life with them.

The characters have become so rich and so fully developed over four seasons. Does that make coming up with storylines relatively easy? Or is there some struggle?

I think we have a very large ensemble, probably bigger than any other TV show, and so there are lots of opportunities. However, you are limited in the show by what can reasonably happen in a family environment. There are only so many things that happen to a family. We’re very much about that precinct. We have to stay within that precinct, so there are certain limitations, but with that said, I’m sure you would agree, there are episodes that are absolutely crammed full of narrative. And the stories are quite fast-paced, and we don’t take a lot of scenes to tell a story. So there’s a huge abundance of narrative in each episode.

Read more 'Downton Abbey' Creator Julian Fellowes Talks Stretching Out Stories in Season 5

Have you started having the long-view conversations as to where you think the end point might happen and when and how you’re going to start moving in that direction? Or is it still feeling pretty much like completely fertile ground that you’re going to explore and think about the endgame later?

We see the whole thing as a beginning, a middle, and end. But we just don’t quite know where that end will be. We judge all these things – just as we decide when we want characters to get married or die or whatever, we'll continue to judge these things.

What can you say as far as a tease toward what may lie ahead? As far as the thematic element or the starting points?

The show has always been about the end of this era, so we are seeing the decline of this family and great stately homes of this kind. That world came to an end, and we're seeing that. And what I would like to do, by the time we get to the end of the show, whenever that may be, the audiences will look at Downton and will realize that they're connected to that world. By that, I mean, that Branson is your grandfather, or that Daisy is your grandmother – that we were all connected to those people. Okay, it's 90s years ago, but the history is much deeper than that. And most people are very close to us in our age, and very like us, so they're struggling to get used to using a telephone and a radio and all these kind of things. We're struggling with the little Apple product we get and we learn about. And they, like us, are totally living through a technological age. It's just that the technology they're struggling with, we take for granted. And in fact, many cases, we've long ago, left that technology behind and we're just dealing with a different kind of technology, but essentially, it's exactly the same problem: when a refrigerator is brought in to the kitchen, Mrs. Patmore thinks that somebody's going to lose their job. Just like people today, they're threatened by it. In so many ways, these characters are much more like us than they are different to us. And that's what I'd love people to get from it.

Is there a particular character or element from the world of Downton Abbey that you've developed a special affinity for?

I love all my children, and I'm very fickle because it depends which scene we're working on. I decide my characters are Carson or Mrs. Hughes, but then I love the comedy of the show, so very often it's Mosley or Mr. Spratt and Miss Denker, who arrived in this season. But I guess who I always keep coming back to, the real heart and soul of the show, is Mary. There's something wonderfully complex about her, that she can be so central a figure, and yet so flawed a personality. I'm very intrigued by the way people have been fascinated by her, given that she can be so unlikable and so rude and so arrogant and snobbish and cold. And yet, something about her presence seems to cut through all of that and people find so fascinating.

What did you think of the season? Sound off in the comments section below. 

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