Downton Abbey capped off its third-season finale on Feb. 17 with a death that left fans reeling. Just moments after meeting his newborn son and giving his wife, Mary (Michelle Dockery), a long, heartfelt kiss, the much-loved heir to Downton, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), perished in a terrible car accident. Though some viewers knew the exit was imminent — Stevens’ departure was confirmed shortly after the season 3 finale aired in the U.K. on Christmas Day — those who managed to steer clear of spoilers and reports that the actor had opted not to return for season 4 were completely caught off guard. EW talked to Downton exec producer and co-creator Gareth Neame to find out why it was necessary to kill off Matthew (couldn’t they have just shipped him off to the U.S. for the remainder of the series?!), how Mary will cope with his death, and how the drama will move forward without one of its pivotal leads.
Did Matthew’s exit have to be that tragic?
We weren’t really faced with an alternative story line, 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 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 the audience. The only course open to us was that the character had to die.
Why not just let Matthew and Mary walk off into the sunset together?
Because she’s the heart of the show, and I wouldn’t have wanted to let them both disappear.
Did you ever consider recasting Matthew?
I don’t think that sort of thing would work in a modern environment. I think people used to do things like that historically, but nothing could be more artificial than suddenly a different actor pops up.
Did you talk to Dan about why he decided to leave? In one previous interview, he seemed to hint that some of the story lines — like his paralysis being cured — might have affected his decision.
Well, if that is the case, I think that’s disappointing. But I think it was more to do with the fact that he got a huge amount of attention in doing this role and he felt this was his time to strike out into something else. Fortunately, most of the cast has taken a different view. [They see the benefits] of staying with a show that is a huge worldwide phenomenon.
I know you just started production on next season. Is there going to be a time jump or are we going to pick up right after the death?
It’s so far in advance, so I don’t want to say too much about that. But clearly the last [”thought”] that everyone’s been left with is ”What’s gonna happen to [Mary]?” and so that’s obviously going to be the spine of the next season, how Mary rebuilds her life.
In season 3, Mary mentioned many times that Matthew was the only one who saw her for who she really was. Are we going to get a colder Mary now?
Clearly we know she’s been a cold, quite haughty sort of forthright young woman. And Matthew, yes, Matthew found her. So it remains to be seen how his tragic and untimely loss [will affect her]. Is she going to retreat back into herself? Or is he going to have left a permanent mark? That’s all to be revealed.
I understand the show has put out a casting call for a boyfriend for Lady Mary who’s described as a ”handsome man” with a ”great personality.” Can you tell me a little bit more about him?
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.
Do you have a message for viewers who are wondering whether they should keep tuning in if there’s no Matthew and Mary?
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.