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'Downton Abbey' producer breaks down the season finale's biggest surprises

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Nick Briggs/PBS

SPOILER WARNING

Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes are engaged. Mary might have a new, handsome suitor in the form of Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode). And both Anna and Bates are free (for now). The season five finale of Downton Abbey was positively brimming with moments that made us gasp, cry, laugh, or do some very confusing combination of the three. 

To get a behind-the-scenes take on everything that went down, we got on the phone with executive producer Gareth Neame, who also teased a little of what’s to come next year.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s jump right to the big one. When was it decided that Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes would get engaged?

GARETH NEAME: We were pretty certain that we wanted to get them engaged by the end of this season. We felt that was the right timing. There was a bit of flirtation between the two of them at the end of season four, but nothing really came of that. Probably about midway through the scripting process for season five, we really though this is where we’d want to go to by the end.

We’ve known them for so long at this point. Was it a difficult decision for the writers to make?

It wasn’t a difficult decision to make because as we work with them and the actors, Jim [Carter] and Phyllis [Logan], we’ve seen this kind of marriage take shape anyway. They are like a couple, and it started to become inevitable in our minds that they’d eventually come together. Having decided that we wanted to do that, it’s about trying to pick your moments. It felt right. I think if we hadn’t done it now, it probably would have gone on a bit too long and become stale. We wanted to move it onto the next stage.

The finale also introduced a potential love interest for Mary. What was the thinking behind bringing in Henry Talbot?

We like this idea that Mary has now been single for a while, and she’s had enough time to grieve her marriage and to honor her late husband, but to know that she will marry again one day. She just has no idea who. That’s why she’s had all of these different suitors that she’s considered, but she hasn’t done anything about it. I’m also interested in how her first marriage to Matthew was relatively straightforward, and when you get married a second time, whether because of divorce or bereavement, it’s much more complicated. A mature marriage in your 30s compared to a first relationship in your 20s, there’s a lot more at stake, and I think that’s interesting.

What made Matt Goode the right man for the job?

We really like Matthew, and we’ve been interested in him being on the show for a while. We liked the idea of what it would be like if he met Michelle’s character. We thought it worked well.

Are there are concrete plans for what his role will be in the future?

As to what happens next year and into the future, you’ll have to wait and see.

And Edith met someone, as well. What can you tell me about Mr. Pelham?

To be honest, where Mary has had some quite interesting suitors, this guy that Edith’s met is not the most exciting character in the world. He’s not going to set the world on fire, so we’ll have to see if anything comes of that.

The finale also moved Anna and Bates’ story forward. Was there ever concern about continuing the Mr. Green storyline from season four?

I think it would have been very flippant if we’d had that rape storyline in season four and then a few episodes later, it’s all forgotten and you’re off to the next storyline. That has cast a very dark shadow across both of them, and it’s obviously led to a whole lot of complication. Mr. Green was a very complicated, dark individual, and the ramifications of all of that are still haunting them. They’re going to continue giving us story fuel with more episodes to come.

The episode also hints that we won’t see much of Tom and Rose going forward. How will that affect the show’s dynamic?

We’ve had at least two very high-profile deaths in this family, and maybe, as we’ve spanned 12 years or so no, that’s not unrealistic. Across 12 years, a family will have deaths and marriages and births. That’s what life is all about. As for a show, what this is about is that we have to maintain the core constituents of the family, but having people leave and having new people arrive is very much what keeps the whole thing energized. People want to see fresh faces. They want the sadness of seeing people they love go. They like the tears of joy and sadness in this show. Comings and goings are very much an important part of that.

What do you think was the main goal of season five?

There are a lot of answers to that, but the one that I’ll mention is that we’ve always tried to show in this series that the characters from this long time ago are much more like you and me than they are different. They’ve got the same goals and objectives. They might drive different cars and might not have cell phones or computers or all of the things that matter to us, but the essential directions that they’re in in their lives are very similar. They’re struggling with technology in their own way. They’re baffled by the modern age and a bit scared by it, but people are more alike than they are different. You see that in the relationship between Violet and Mary. Violet begins the season by chastising Mary about her sexual and romantic conduct. Very quickly, we discover Violet has no right to give such advice because she had a massive love affair in her own right. Those two women — one aged 30 and one aged 80 — are very alike.

The era moves closer to an end with each season. Is there a plan for how the show will ultimately conclude?

In the same way we judged the timing of when Hughes and Carson get engaged, we have to judge when the timing is right to call all of it. That’s all part of the storytelling. Whether that’s not or in two, three, four years, the point is that the journey across all of these seasons will be about how a great way of life, this great house, and this great family, when we eventually end the show, will be a shadow of what it was.

Where are you in production for the sixth season?

We’ve been shooting for a few days now, so we’re well underway on production for the next season. And I’m now about to reveal to you the plotlines of all nine episodes.

All right! Let’s do it.

That was a joke.

Damn it!