'Downton Abbey' exec producer on why [Spoiler!] had to die

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Image Credit: Nick Wall/PBS

WARNING: CONTAINS DOWNTON ABBEY SPOILERS.

When EW spoke to Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes earlier this year, he advised viewers tuning into season 3 of the upstairs-downstairs drama to “have a box of kleenex” ready.

We needed more than one for that finale. After three seasons of watching Matthew (Dan Stevens) find his place, both at Downton and alongside the love of his life, Mary (Michelle Dockery)—he met his demise on last night’s episode in a devastating car accident that took place shortly after he saw his newborn son for the first time.

Though some fans knew the end was near for the beloved Downton heir— rumors that Stevens had opted not to renew his contract were confirmed after the season three finale aired in the UK on Christmas Day — others, who managed to stay spoiler-free were completely shocked.

Entertainment Weekly spoke to Downton exec Gareth Neame to find out why Matthew had to be killed off, how Mary will move on, and where the series goes from here.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you find out that Dan Stevens was leaving Downton?
GARETH NEAME: Well, we had a quite a lot of notice that he wasn’t going to re-up with the show. Whereas all the rest of the cast [renewed their contracts], he didn’t. So we had a lot of notice and a long time to plan the exit.

Now in the U.S. actors are usually contracted to do six seasons of a TV show, so how does that work in the U.K.?
NEAME: British actors come from a tradition where what they want to do a variety of work, so we just have got this tradition that our shows don’t tend to usually run for six or seven years. We don’t tie [the actors] in. The other thing is, American shows would only run for seven years if it was hugely successful and at that point, obviously, actors can be very highly paid. We don’t do it that way. There isn’t the big financial reward for being in a show for years in the same way. So all-in-all, we tend to have a different tradition which is why we hire actors for three years and then seek to make a new deal. In this case we weren’t able to retain Dan. But actually already I can say, as we’ve started production this week on the fourth season, that the exit of a character in a show like Downton is actually a very positive thing because it’s how you keep story momentum going and make changes.

You said that going into the fourth season and now shooting the first week, you can see that it’s almost a good thing — that you have all this new material to work with. But looking back, when you first found out that Stevens was leaving, what was your reaction?
NEAME: Well we certainly didn’t want Dan to [leave], we very much would have liked Dan to have stayed and persuaded him to stay, the same that we did with every other member of the cast.

In the finale, obviously, Matthew dies in a car accident right after seeing his newborn son. Did it have to be that tragic?
NEAME: I think we weren’t really faced with an alternative storyline, because I think audiences would not have accepted Mary and Matthew becoming estranged. It was too big a journey that the audience had been on with this relationship. The idea that he would go off on the journey and she wouldn’t go with him, or the idea that he would leave her or she would leave him, I think that would have been so disappointing and unbelievable to an audience. The only course open to us was that the character had to die.

Why not let Matthew and Mary walk off into the sunset together?
NEAME: Because she’s the heart of the show and I wouldn’t have wanted to let them both disappear.

If Stevens hadn’t left, what would Matthew and Mary’s future have looked like? Would they still have had a child in season three?
NEAME: Well, I don’t really want to speculate about that because we’ve laid down the history of Downton. That’s part of the mythology and what’s happened has happened. We know that the spirit of Matthew continues. His child is there. The future is secure. But we don’t know what form that future is going to take.

Did you consider killing off Matthew earlier, or did you want to save it for the finale?
NEAME: No, we wanted to have him as long as we could have him.

A lot of U.K. viewers said that their Christmas [the season 3 finale of Downton aired on Christmas Day in the U.K. as a special episode] was ruined because of Matthew’s death. Luckily, we didn’t have to go through that in the U.S. But have you been dealing with a lot of irate fans?
NEAME: There’s no doubt about it, there was a huge amount of shock and that was a pretty punchy thing to see on Christmas night because, of course, people do watch this show feeling like it’s an extension of their own family. But people have come to expect big shocks and surprises in this show, and big twists and turns, and it’s an emotional rollercoaster. I think the time to really worry was if this had happened and nobody had responded.

Of course Matthew’s death wasn’t the only one this season—Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) also died very tragically. Why did you decide to kill off her character? Was that also a contract issue?
NEAME: Yes, it was also a similar thing. Jessica wanted to move on and we felt that we could really motivate a very strong storyline for her exit that way.

Did you consider any other exit for her, especially since you knew you were going to kill off Matthew?
NEAME: Actually, I think we knew that we were exiting Sybil first. It worked that way around.

So if you had known that you were exiting Dan Stevens at the same time as you knew about Jessica, would you have changed Sybil’s storyline?
NEAME: Again, it’s not something I want to speculate on because I feel that we’ve laid down the mythology. It’s part of the history of this show and I really don’t want to speculate what an alternative might have been because it is what it is now. The only way around these things is that British producers would have to hire British actors who would accept being hired on a six-year basis and I don’t believe that that model, because it’s not really part of our culture, will [work].

Sybil’s death was really powerful. As much as people reacted to Matthew, I saw people really react to Sybil’s death as well.
NEAME: I think obviously in the structure of the storytelling, the Matthew death is done as a complete sudden twist in the last 30 seconds of the show, so you have no sense of bereavement in that episode. You just have shock. Whereas the Sybil episode, the whole way toward it, there’s a sort of hint that things aren’t going well, so when it happens, you suddenly think, “Oh my God, it’s happening.” And it happens about three-quarters of the way through the episode so you still have, in the final act, all that sense of bereavement. I think that’s such an emotionally satisfying episode because you have all of the worry that something’s going to go wrong then you have this tragic death of her dying in front of all of her family and then you have just the emptiness and bereavement and you have it all in a single episode. Whereas, with Matthew’s death, of course, Mary doesn’t even know about it by the end of the program. So you’re going to see the bereavement she feels when you come back in the new season.

I was going to ask you about that. I know you just started production, so is there going to be a time jump or are we going to pick up right after the death?
NEAME: I don’t want to say too much. But clearly, as I said, the last image that everyone’s been left with is, “What’s gonna happen to this Mary?” and so that’s obviously going to be the spine of the next season, how she rebuilds her life.

I understand the show has put out a casting call for a boyfriend for Lady Mary who’s described as “handsome man” with a “great personality.” Can you tell me a little bit more about him?
NEAME: I’m not going to speculate on any upcoming characters other than, as I said, next year very much the spine of it is Mary rebuilding her life. Inevitably that means she’s got to, at some point, [find a] new man. She’s an eligible young widow. So we shall see.

Viewers really believed that Matthew and Mary had this epic, everlasting love. Do you think they’ll be able to accept a new man in Mary’s life?
NEAME: I think people love these characters and people love Mary. I mean people like strength, they like complexity. She’s not a character you see a great deal, I don’t think, in film or television. She’s quite complex, she’s not easy to get to know. We’ve sort of warmed with her, haven’t we, as we’ve watched her these three years? We all know that people can have relationships at different stages of their lives. In 1912, when this show started, we saw a young woman, Mary, meeting Matthew and forming a youthful relationship and now we’re 10 years later, so we’re going to see an older, widowed Mary presumably looking at some point to form a second relationship, which I think will have a more mature quality.

You mentioned that Mary is the heart of the show, but in a way Matthew was also one of the main drivers behind Downton. So, who will take that role going forward? Will it be Mary? Or Branson (Allen Leech)?
NEAME: I think Mary is the heart of the show more than Matthew, actually. I’m not saying for a minute that people don’t love that relationship, they did. But I think that Mary is the brain and the heart at the middle of this show and I think there’s nothing more powerful than to wonder and speculate at what will happen to her next. It will not be a straightforward journey at all for her, but I know we’ll enjoy watching it unfold.

Moving on to Branson. Can you give any hints about what’s ahead for him?
NEAME: I mean obviously, he is in a similar situation [as Mary] really. We know he’s a widow and he has a young child. Again, he has huge dilemmas to face.

Some fans threw around the idea of Mary and Branson getting together.
NEAME: I read that.

Is that just too out of the left field?
NEAME: Who knows?

In season 3, we also met Rose and she has a personality that’s strikingly different than anyone else’s on Downton. Is that the point of her character?
NEAME: I think so. We’re entering a more modern age, the post-war into the 1920s and all things that came from that, a slightly freer world and women having more freedom.

How much of season 4 will be Rose-centric?
NEAME: Well, she’s an established character now, so she’s a part of the ensemble.

In the U.S., we have this thing called the “cousin Oliver” effect, which is basically when a new, young character is introduced to liven things up or appeal to a younger audience. Fans sometimes have a hard time embracing that character. How do you plan to overcome that with Rose? Are you worried about that at all since she is so different than the types of characters we’re used to seeing on Downton?
NEAME: I don’t really worry about that at all. This is an ensemble show that has a soapy quality to the storytelling and writing. We’ve got about 23 main cast members [and] a big part of the energy of the show is new characters coming in and old characters exiting. If you always had the same people and there was never any change, you’d miss out on one of the main ways that you keep these things fresh.

Speaking of some of the other characters, Anna and Bates were in such a great place when we last saw them. They finally found a sense of peace. Can we expect things to stay that way for them for a while or is trouble looming yet again?
NEAME: That is for you to look forward to.

What about Mr. Carson and Ms. Hughes? Have you ever considered having them fall in love? Because sometimes it seems like the show is heading there.
NEAME: Well I think they sort of are in a marriage. Aren’t they? A sort of non-sexual, non-romantic marriage. I think that’s rather a nice quality in the whole thing.

More generally, what are some of the overall themes of season 4 that we can look forward to?
NEAME: We’re months and months away from the show coming back, so it’s too early to make any sort of comments about the new season other than to repeat myself, really. You’ve been left with that very strong hook and I think there’s a sense from that [last] shot that Mary is going to be taking us through [the next season]. The destiny of Mary and her child is a big spine of the new season. You will still have the 20-25 characters, with all of their lives sort of intertwined. You’re going to have have the usual mixture of big dose of romance in there, you’re going to have laugh-out-loud comedy, and you’re going to have highs and lows of strong drama. And you’re going to have all of those three moments thrown together, which is at the root of the success of the show.

PBS is possibly considering airing the fourth season in the U.S. at the same time as it airs in the U.K. Do you have any update on that? What do you think about that?
NEAME: Well, I think it’s been a very interesting test case in terms of spoilers. It’s a British show but it’s so successful in America and of course it is actually, technically speaking, a U.S.-U.K. co-production. But for a show that is this big in both countries, and the audience size is pretty similar across both countries, and it is completely—there are addicts of this show—the idea that in this day and age people have to wait four months before watching a show that has aired in another part of the world is clearly unrealistic. I think this is one of the first really big test cases that just shows this doesn’t work. Now all of that said, this is not a complaint about PBS and their programming, because they have very, very tough competition and by airing in January, as you may have observed from the ratings… in terms of just regular Sunday night viewing, I think the only network show that beats us is The Good Wife. Now that means PBS is massively punching above its weight to beat all the networks and if you were to go in September like it does in England, then you probably would have much stiffer competition against the networks. So I think they’re being sensible and pragmatic in their programming.

I have to say, I was impressed with how you kept Matthew’s death under wraps in the U.K. I remember seeing the rumors like, “Oh, he’s going to come back for an episode in season four.” I feel like no one was really expecting it to end that way. It must have been difficult to keep it a secret.
NEAME: It was very, very difficult but we managed to keep both—I mean Sybil’s death was completely kept under wraps, absolutely nobody had any idea—[a secret]. I am amazed that we managed to do that.

Do you have a message for viewers who are wondering whether they should keep tuning in if there’s no Matthew and Mary?
NEAME: I can guarantee that the structure of the show is the same. It’s these 20 to 25 really beloved characters with their intertwined stories and a mixture of drama, comedy and warm romance. And I can tell you that, so far, the early scripts for the new season are as brilliant as they’ve always been.

For more from our interview with Neame—including why recasting Matthew wasn’t an option—pick up the next issue of Entertainment Weekly.

Follow @NuzhatNaoreen on Twitter.

Read More:
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‘Downton Abbey': Dan Stevens’ fate confirmed

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