EW Staff
January 03, 2014 AT 05:00 AM EST

It is party time at Downton Abbey, and EW is cordially invited. In the great hall at Highclere Castle, the Gothic pile whose crunchy gravel and crenellations have become the face of British TV drama, pretty much the entire Downton cast is assembled, fresh out of makeup: Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary) in a brown hairnet and Ugg boots; Lily James (Cousin Rose) in a fluffy pink bathrobe; Rob James-Collier (Thomas) with a hair clip holding back his impeccably lacquered fringe.

They are filming the key scene of the new season’s third episode, and it’s a doozy — Downton’s first big house party. For the great British estates of the 1920s, a party meant a lot more than togas and a keg. Prepare to be dazzled by several days of conspicuous consumption, dancing, men playing cards, and women in fancy frocks. Of course, no party is a party without music, and for this event Downton has a famous opera singer: Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is on set, playing Dame Nellie Melba, a real-life opera star of the early 20th century. And she is about to sing, live. Which is why many of the cast members have gathered several hours before any of them need to be there for their scenes.

“This is a real treat,” says Downton‘s creator, Julian Fellowes, to Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore) and Jim Carter (Mr. Carson), as if they didn’t already know. All three of them are grinning — some of the younger actors are taking pictures on their phones — as Dame Kiri does her warm-ups. On the director’s cue, Dame Kiri starts to sing Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro.” Beforehand, James-Collier had been goofing off, singing and skipping. Now, as Dame Kiri finishes and the room is held enrapt, he is reduced to a whispered “Epic.”

This is Downton Abbey at its most deliciously Downtonish — Downtopia in excelsis, the very model of what made us all fall in love with a well-dressed, well-heeled, sudsy-but-sincere British period drama in the first place. But the party isn’t just a chance for Downton‘s production team to shoot for some more Emmy love. It’s a jump start for the new season’s whole narrative. As the fourth season begins (Jan. 5 at 9 p.m. on PBS’ Masterpiece), Downton itself is under a pall, with Lady Mary in widow’s weeds and struggling to come to terms with the shocking death of her husband, Matthew (Dan Stevens), in a car crash. The party, says Hugh Bonneville, “is partly an effort to bring Mary back to life and give her a sense of fun and enjoyment again.” To grease the wheels, Robert (Bonneville) and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) have invited Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen) as a potential suitor. Dockery doesn’t rate his chances high. “Mary can’t move on, and I don’t think Mary will for a long time,” explains the actress. “But everyone around her is trying to bring her out of this dark spell that she’s under.”

It’s not just Mary who needs to get her mojo back. Three seasons in, Downton Abbey remains a worldwide phenomenon, with a global audience of more than 120 million. But last season’s finale left some fans rather displeased — to put it mildly. Shirley MacLaine, who will return as Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson, at the end of this season, was among them. “When Matthew died I nearly threw a chair at the television,” she admits. “I thought, ‘What is Julian Fellowes doing?’ And right after the birth [of Mary and Matthew’s son]! It took me a few days to get over it.”

Matthew’s departure left several of Downton‘s best story lines in bits, too. One of its major players was gone, along with most viewers’ favorite couple. Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) had also been mortally nixed just weeks before. For a show all about the effects of steady societal change, so many seismic ruptures felt a little, well, gauche. And the funereal mood it left behind soured Downton’s prevailing wind of plush rugs and rum doings. It makes the start of season 4 feel like we’re at a crossroads, one at which Downton Abbey finds itself facing the same question as Lady Mary — how to start over.

Julian Fellowes is every bit as lordly and buoyant as you’d hope for a man who writes every word of Downton Abbey, lives in a huge country house of his own, and is, in fact, a lord: He was made a British life peer three years ago. But even the Lord of West Stafford can get a bit peeved. Don’t, for example, suggest to him that Downton overdid the fatalities last season. “It’s so silly when people say that,” says the 64-year-old writer when we sit down in Highclere’s dining room later that day. “I find that rather irritating.” By his telling it was the departure of Dan Stevens that put him in a narrative hole. “The fact is, when you have a family at the core of a drama and you have an actor who has come to the end of their contract and does not wish to continue — and is not prepared to come back as a guest, will literally never be seen again — what else do people suggest? That we put them on a rocket to the moon? We had absolutely no option.”

Jessica Brown Findlay had also come to the end of her contract, but Fellowes says she had made it known “all along” that she wished to leave when her contract ran out. That gave him plenty of time to determine how to write her out — Sybil’s death from complications during childbirth and its aftershocks formed some of the most powerful episodes of last season. Whereas Stevens, as Fellowes tells it, didn’t give him quite the same notice. “Dan didn’t decide to go until we had got to the point where we were about to begin filming [season 3], so we already had the first five or six scripts,” says Fellowes. “And having decided to do a whole episode about Sybil dying, we thought we can’t have another whole episode about someone dying — it would be turning into Six Feet Under.”

Fellowes’ initial plan was to finish last season with Matthew and Mary bathed in halcyon light, and then bring Stevens back for one episode this season where he would die (though Fellowes won’t say how). “But he didn’t want to do that,” he says. “He felt that he wanted to make a clean break and move on to the next chapter and so on, which is fine. So we had to knock him off. Our choice was either to make the whole of the last episode about him dying or to have a whole special with everyone larking about and dancing the jig and then kill him in the last minute. That’s what we went for. I still think it was the right decision.”

Among the cast there’s solidarity with Stevens’ decision, but also a feeling that just as he has moved on, so they should too. “It’s really hard,” says Dockery. “You’ve built up a friendship with them. We really miss Dan, and the same with Jess. But I guess it’s just the nature of a drama — there has to be new, fresh characters. But Dan, particularly, he’s hard to replace for me.” At the same time, Dockery appreciates the irony that Matthew’s demise opens up some dramatic possibilities — a cooing, happy Mary is way less interesting for an actor to play than a bout of protracted torment. “There’s an opportunity for quite a rich story line for Mary now. People tend to say, ‘What is she going to do now?’ But it’s good because it keeps people’s interest. And sometimes I wonder had Dan decided to stay, where the story line would have gone with Matthew and Mary.”

We begin season 4 six months after Matthew’s death, and while Lady Mary is in a depressive slough, there are signs of life. “The moment I realized we could have a six-month gap,” says Fellowes, “I realized we could also have a disagreement about how Mary’s doing and how we should be looking after her.” Violet, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), and Branson (Allen Leech) both think it’s time for her to get on with life; Robert, stiff of collar and mind, feels she should be wrapped in cotton wool and left in her room to read sad books. “Mary herself is entirely torn,” adds Fellowes. “In one way she likes the fact that her father doesn’t want to put her under any pressure. But in another way she gradually becomes aware that people are telling her that she has got to get a move on. You could say the rebuilding of Mary is the subtitle of the fourth series.” A second suitor, Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden), will emerge in the later episodes to stoke a rivalry with Gillingham. “They both really dislike each other at first,” says Dockery of Blake. “He just assumes that Mary is this spoiled eldest child who kind of expects everything. Gillingham gives her advice, and they have an ease with one another. Whereas with Blake it’s the complete opposite.” Lady Mary’s relationships with the two other important men in her life — Lord Grantham and baby George — have their troubles as well, as she tussles with her father over control of the estate and copes with postpartum issues. “The relationship she has with George is very strained,” explains Dockery. “He reminds her of Matthew, and it’s this sort of guilt that she has because she told Matthew at the hospital to go home, to drive back and tell everyone [about George’s birth].”

But it’s not all Lady Mary — Downton contains multitudes, and there’ll be what Fellowes describes as “strong story lines” for several other fan favorites. Lady Edith’s (Laura Carmichael) as-yet-unconsummated affair with newspaper editor Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards) still hangs in the balance; the arrival of an electric mixer in the kitchen will give the heebie-jeebies to an increasingly addled Mrs. Patmore; and a dose of flaming youth, in the person of Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James), leaves the Downton fuddy-duddies aghast. “I just wanted to have some story lines that would be inappropriate with older characters,” says Fellowes. “If you suddenly had Edith running around dancing like a flapper and getting pissed, you would just think, ‘Oh for Christ’s sake, pull yourself together.’ Whereas because Rose is 18 or 19, you forgive it.”

Indeed, if the social history of the ’20s was about young people taking the wheel, then Lady Rose is driving blind, skipping off to tea dances in flapper dresses and contriving a dalliance with a black jazz singer. “She is such a tearaway,” says James, who recently completed filming the title role in Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella. “I think some people are like, ‘Oh my God, who is she, we hate her’ because she is so, like, brash, she doesn’t care about all the society conventions. But hopefully more of her colors will come out as the show goes on.” We’ll also hear mention of Cora’s brother, Harold Levinson, a playboy American businessman who’s gotten caught up in the Teapot Dome scandal during the Harding administration. He’ll appear at Downton in the season finale, in the estimable form of Paul Giamatti, alongside his onscreen mother, MacLaine. “We have a great time as the two Americans who come over and just upset everything with their vulgarity,” says MacLaine, who adds that off screen she and Giamatti delighted in teasing their British costars: “We say ‘f—‘ a lot to upset people.”

As for the downstairs crew, a devastating plotline awaits Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Bates (Brendan Coyle) even as the house party upstairs is promising lighter times. Froggatt, one of the few cast members not on set to see Dame Kiri sing, later says that Anna and Bates “start off in a really good place, happy in their cottage…. But there is another trauma in the cards.” Not another death, please? Thankfully, no — executive producer Liz Trubridge promises that no major characters will die during the fourth season. Downton Abbey has just been renewed for a fifth, though, and Fellowes is offering no lifetime guarantees. “When the Americans ask, ‘Can we be sure all of our favorite cast will be there in two years’ time?’ the answer is ‘No, you can’t.'” (It is a statement of business fact as much as the screenwriter’s prerogative — in England, unlike the States, no agent in town will give you their actor for more than a two-or three-year stint.)

So put down the pitchforks and go throw yourself a house party while the going’s good — Downton‘s current main cast is all signed up through the end of season 5. After that, it’s anyone’s guess. What Fellowes will say is that when the end is nigh, unlike with Matthew and that sharp right-hander, you’ll know what’s coming. “We haven’t made a decision as to when it stops. I suspect that if we had reached the decision that it was the last one, we would probably tell people while it was going out. I think it would be a little brutal to show it, finish it, and then say, ‘That’s your lot.’ It would allow people to come to terms with it.” After a brutal season, it’s about time Downton viewers got a little love.

Meet the New Faces
Charles Blake
(Julian Ovenden)
A government employee who evaluates how estates like Downton are coping postwar. (Answer: so-so.) He and Mary (Michelle Dockery) start out tearing strips off each other but end up wanting to tear the clothes off each other. “Blake is very dashing, and Mary falls for him,” says Dockery.

Anthony, Lord Gillingham
(Tom Cullen)
The old family friend with flawless upper-crust credentials reappears to spark a potential romance with Lady Mary. “There is something between them. He falls for her, even though he is engaged,” says Dockery. “She will have to choose between Blake and Gillingham.”

Jack Ross
(Gary Carr)
Lady Rose’s (Lily James) suitor is a — gasp — jazz singer who is — double gasp — American and — swoon, collapse — black. They meet at a club in London when Ross rescues Rose after she’s abandoned on the dance floor. Says James, “I love this story line. Rose defies convention and follows her heart.”

Phyllis Baxter
(Raquel Cassidy)
Put forward by arch-schemer Thomas (Rob James-Collier) as Lady Cora’s new maid. He begins using Baxter as a plant for mission-critical upstairs intelligence. Says James-Collier, “He’s blackmailing her — whatever she’s done in the past, he’s using it for some kind of hold over her.”

The Real Estate
Highclere Castle, owned by the current eighth earl of Carnarvon and in the family since 1679, has been the setting for Downton from the beginning. It provides the exterior and “upstairs” backdrops — the library, the drawing room, and the great hall. (The kitchen, pantries, and bedrooms are filmed at Ealing Studios in West London.) Before the Downton circus came to town, Highclere was best known for a curio: In 1922 the fifth earl and his assistant, Howard Carter, discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb. (There is still an Egyptian exhibition in the basement.) Today visitors hop on trains — London is just over an hour away — and get bused in from nearby Newbury to try to catch a glimpse of the cast in action. The castle is private property, but it sits on 1,000 acres of parkland, which is great pastoral eye candy for the show — and gives fans and paparazzi plenty of hidey-holes. Security regularly finds long-lensers in the trees and escorts them off the grounds.

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