Warning: Spoilers from the season 6 premiere of Downton Abbey lie ahead!
The Crawley family and their staff are back with the sixth and final season of Downton Abbey — and, per usual, they’re bringing the drama.
Notably, nearby neighbors had to sell up, showing the risk Downton faces; Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) discussed the expectations of their marriage; and Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Bates (Brendan Coyle) were finally cleared in the murder of Mr. Green.
Here, executive producer Gareth Neame discusses those and other major moments from the first episode of season 6, which aired Sunday night. Read on for more on the Julian Fellowes drama…
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This episode addresses the changing place of estates like Downton with the selling up of a nearby house and subsequent auction. Will we see the end of Downton this season, or just the end of Downton as we know it?
GARETH NEAME: Well that you’ll have to wait and see, but certainly we put that auction story in there so that Robert [Hugh Bonneville] and Cora [Elizabeth McGovern] would absolutely see first hand the risk that is facing them. This is somebody they’ve known, Robert’s known all his life — this chap who lives a few miles away and he’s lost everything. It’s a very stark reminder to Robert that the stakes are very serious.
Daisy (Sophie McShera) confronted the new owner of that nearby estate, because her father-in-law, Mr. Mason (Paul Copley), faced an eviction there, and that was very shocking.
Talk about burning your bridges. That was professional suicide, pretty serious. And you’ve seen in the episode that it hasn’t gone away as an issue. It continues for a few more episodes, the fallout from that.
In other shocking news, a woman named Rita Bevan (Nichola Burley) attempted to blackmail Mary (Michelle Dockery) for her steamy getaway with Tony (Tom Cullen). Mary says this isn’t the first time she’s been blackmailed, so is there the potential for something like this to pop up again?
I don’t think we would want to be blackmailed left, right, and center. We’d probably do the story and that would be it, but you’ll have to see how that all pans out.
Downton is, in many ways, about female independence, and this episode, in particular, really shows Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Mary coming into their own, with Edith running her newspaper and considering a life in London and Mary pursuing her interest in running the estate. Are we going to see them become more and more autonomous?
The show has always placed female characters at the center — they’ve always been the driving force. The men haven’t always known that, but the women really have been secretly running everything. I think the show is very positive in its portrayal of women, particularly old women. The love stories that we’ve given Isobel [Penelope Wilton] and Violet [Maggie Smith], you never see anything like that on television. It is a show very much about women characters. Edith is probably going on the biggest trajectory of any of the characters on the show. She’s ended up not where she thought she was going to be at all. Love has dealt her some pretty tough cards, but she’s just had to dust herself down and get on with it. She’s now ending up as a businesswoman.
Similar to the love stories of Isobel and Violet, the coupling of Mrs. Hughes and Carson is also unlike much of what appears on TV today, and this episode really focuses on that with their discussion of marital expectations. How did you realize their romance? It was a slow burn, but it feels really right now that it’s happening.
When we conceived the show, we had no idea that Carson and Mrs. Hughes would end up being married. That’s as much got to do with the chemistry between Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan. They’ve got a lot of intimate scenes together because they are each the head of the male and female staff. They confide in each other, they’re both the same age, and they’re both single. It’s almost like we discovered this at the same time as the audience. We all discovered together that they work well and we like them together and we got them closer. When she had the health scare in the second season, he was clearly so pleased when he discovered she was not ill.
It just moved further and further, and we finally got them together. Mrs. Hughes is now having doubts because she has to face up to the realities of getting into an intimate, personal relationship with somebody and they’re both well into their sixties. The scenes that she plays with Mrs. Patmore [Lesley Nicol] when Mrs. Patmore has to be the go between with Carson, there’s three or four scenes and they are so well written and so beautifully acted — particularly some of the scenes where Mrs. Patmore has to go and speak to Carson and can’t bring herself around to talking about it. It’s acting at the highest quality and it is laugh out loud funny, but it’s also very honest and heartfelt all at the same time. I think that storyline, the way it’s written and the way it’s acted, defines an awful lot about what Downton means.
As for Anna and Bates, they’re cleared of their legal troubles as a woman confessed to pushing Mr. Green to his death. The pair have been through so much together, but now they’ve finally found some resolution, so where do they go from here?
They are a relationship right at the heart of the show. Anna is the most beloved character, probably in the whole series, certainly the most positive and joyful and warmhearted character in the show. She’s fallen in love with this man who’s quite opposite to her. He’s melancholic and introverted and he’s got a disability, but nonetheless they have this total bond and they’ve then gone through six years of one terrible roadblock after another in their lives and happiness. They just have to keep navigating around all these things. The sort of things they’ve had to go through would destroy a lot of marriages, but they’ve got stronger and stronger and stayed there for each other. What you’ve now started to see is that very slowly in this last season the endless roadblocks will start to go and we will start to see their lives come right.
On a lighter note, there was Violet’s playful prodding at Denker (Sue Johnston) upon discovering that she revealed that there could be staff layoffs even after she was told to keep quiet. What is the importance of comedy in Downton?
It is a drama, but comedy is massive throughout it. It’s almost 50 percent comedy. It’s certainly 40 percent comedy, and that is very unusual in drama or in television. We tend to do half-hour comedies and one-hour dramas, and the dramas don’t have many laughs and the comedies don’t have much story. What we have is the funniest gag writer [Fellowes] who creates comedy of manners, comedy of the situations that the characters find themselves in combined with drama.
He endlessly finds scenes that are funny where you can have a gag and they’re very touching and moving and he combines all these things so effortlessly. Fortunately all the cast really have that ability to play drama and comedy together. People always talk about Violet, and Maggie Smith obviously has all the best lines and steals every scene that she’s in, however, Hugh Bonneville is a great comedy actor as well as a drama actor [and] so is Jim Carter. Think about Molesley [Kevin Doyle], Denker, and Spratt [Jeremy Swift]. We deal with the bad things with a laugh, we make jokes sometimes, and that is what life is about.