Downton Abbey returns to PBS on January 5, a torturous wait for those of us still wondering when the BBC and PBS will work out an agreement to air the show on the same date in both countries (not that PBS executives seem terribly concerned about piracy). But until then, here are five clues to what the upcoming season will look like, and big trends and plot points, based on footage PBS screened at the Television Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles on Tuesday, and conversations with the actresses who play some of the estate’s most important figures.
1. It’s a big year for Lady Edith: In a clip from the upcoming season, Lady Edith tells a lunch companion, “Mama used to say you could never eat anywhere public except a hotel you were staying at.” And eating out isn’t the only way Edith will be pushing her boundaries this season. “She’s still turning in some articles,” Laura Carmichael, who plays the unlucky-in-love Crawley sister told me. “We know she’s been writing about the cause of the soldiers, but it’s a kind of modern woman thing. I like to think of her as the Carrie Bradshaw of the twenties.” Will she be luckier in love with her editor, Michael Grayson, this time around? Executive producer Gareth Neame kept largely mum, but indicated “It really is a very different season for Edith this year…[a] very exciting and very active story for Edith this year.”
2. Lady Mary will be stepping up to take a more active role in Downton’s management: In another clip, the Dowager Countess suggests that Lady Mary work through some of her grief over Matthew’s death by working with Branson to learn more about the management of Downton Abbey. Neame and Michelle Dockery quashed the idea that their collaboration could lead to romance, though they acknowledged that the two young widowed characters with small children would find they had things in common. And Dockery said motherhood won’t come easy to Lady Mary. “She was never going to be a very maternal mother,” Dockery suggested. “Within that time, the aristocracy, they didn’t really see their kids very much. There’s a nanny and eventually there will be a governess looking after Baby George. So you don’t see much interaction between Lady Mary and the baby…She looks at him and she sees Matthew. It’s a slow process I think, with motherhood.”
3. The fallout between Thomas and O’Brien continues: They were on bad terms last season, and all indications are that it’s only getting worse. “It’s going to be a complex world for him going forward,” Neame said. “I’ve heard rumors that O’Brien may be heading for the hills. There’s going to be a shakeup.” How will that go down? Early footage we saw suggests that Thomas, who’s relied on O’Brien to keep his secrets for so many years, might not be above letting one of hers slip.
4. Jack Ross, Downton‘s first black character, will be part of an overall attitude of modernity: Neame, in keeping with the spoilerphobic nature of the evening, was reluctant to say much about the casting of Gary Carr to play jazz singer Jack Ross, Downton‘s first black character. But he suggested that the showrunners were responding more to history than to any sort of public pressure to diversify the show. A bit like the 60s, the 60s didn’t start in 1961, so we couldn’t go hooray, it’s 1921, let’s all shorted our skirts and go dancing,” he suggested. “It’s very early jazz, and all of these performers, as many of you probably know, did travel to Europe, primarily to Paris, but also to London…We just thought that was a really interesting departure. It’s all part of what Laura was saying about the modernization of Downton.”
5. Carson’s getting mysterious letters from someone: And Mrs. Hughes is sneaking a look after he tosses them in the wastebasket. What it portends isn’t clear. But it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll see a full-out romance between Downton‘s two most loyal caretakers this season. “I suppose middle-aged love is rather interesting for middle-aged people,” cracked Phyllis Logan, who plays Mrs. Hughes. But she suggested the pair would stick to the occasional glass of sherry together, though “not as often as I might like.”