Downton Abbey had a disappointing fourth season. While its 12 Emmy nominations—including one for Outstanding Drama Series and one for Michelle Dockery for Outstanding Lead Actress—suggest otherwise, many complained of lackluster storylines that fell flat compared to previous seasons.
Looking ahead to the show’s fifth season, however, Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary), Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates), Allen Leech (Tom Branson), Gareth Neame (executive producer, Downton Abbey), and Rebecca Eaton (executive producer, Masterpiece) spoke at the Television Critics Association, addressing season-four criticism and what fans can look forward to in season five.
Neame spoke to the validity of the show’s criticism, saying that he respects the process, but ultimately couldn’t base the show on someone else’s words. In fact, he felt quite contrary to the critical opinion.
“I actually think [season four] is one of the strongest seasons we’ve ever had,” Neame said, largely because it was much more rooted in Downton, whereas season two, for instance, was ingrained in World War I, taking characters in and out of the estate.
Neame, however, added that the show requires constant assessment. There’s always room for growth.
Now, for a game of catch up. When we last saw this particular group of characters: A widowed Mary was still not ready to move on, putting Lord Gillingham and/or Charles Blake on hold; Edith decided to keep her baby close by, leaving the child in the care of Mr. Drew and his wife, against Aunt Rosamund’s advice; Anna was struggling but managing to move forward with her husband, Mr. Bates, after the violent assault she suffered; Tom was settling into the Downtown lifestyle, albeit a little snafu with Sarah Bunting. Presumably, season five will see a continuation of these storylines.
Specifically, Dockery expects Mary to be much more lively, becoming stronger and stronger in the wake of her husband’s death. ”I see season five as the new Mary,” Dockery said. “She’s got her bite back, as we saw in season one.” With Edith standing up to Aunt Rosamund and Anna overcoming her devastating struggle, it seems Mary might not be the only female character to take charge.
More generally: “As the series has progressed, the stories have become more personal,” Leech said. The cast echoed. (My guess: It will only get more personal from here.)
Plus, Froggatt promised drama, love, comedy, and most notably, new stories in season five, which she says she’s very proud of—always a good sign. Also, expect a few new characters. What will be missed, according to Neame, are guest appearances from the Americans, Shirley MacLaine and Paul Giamatti, though they could return for future seasons.
Further details were sparse, in large part because the season has yet to even air in Britain. But the show’s timeline will pick up about six months after where the finale’s Christmas special left off.
The panelists were slightly more forthcoming about what went on behind the scenes. “It did occur to us to find out if we were keeping our actors,” Neame said, a reaction to Dan Stevens’ sudden departure from the show in season three. “We’ve all come to a comfortable arrangement that is mutually beneficial.”
Allen poked fun at the inquisitive reporter: “You were expecting the Downton Abbey red wedding, weren’t you?” While that seems highly unlikely, this is British high society—drama will certainly ensue.
Downton Abbey returns to PBS on January 4, 2015.
This post has been updated to reflect that season two of Downton Abbey was ingrained in World War I. EW regrets the error.