These have been dark days for the Crawleys and their household staff at "Downton Abbey." (And for heaven's sake don't read any further if you don't want the events of Season 3 of this PBS "Masterpiece" series spoiled for you.)
After the popular period drama returned this year with the arrival of Cora's mother, Martha Levinson (played by Shirley MacLaine), and her outspoken ways, the family lost Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), who died after giving birth, and confronted deep prejudices when they learned Thomas (Rob James-Collier) was gay.
Then, in the closing moments of Sunday's season finale -- broadcast in Britain as a Christmas special -- after Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) celebrated the birth of their first child, Matthew was killed in a car accident.
These developments are all the handiwork of Julian Fellowes, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter who created and writes "Downton Abbey." But some were twists that he chose, and others were made necessary by circumstances beyond his control. In these excerpts from a recent conversation, Fellowes spoke by phone from his home in London about a season of comings and goings at Downton and how he is thinking about his own exit from the show. (The full conversation is at nytimes.com/artsbeat.)
Q: Was it your decision to dispense with Sybil and Matthew in the same season?
A: No. In America it's quite standard for an actor to sign, at the beginning of a series, for five or seven years. The maximum any British agent will allow you to have over an actor is three years. And Jessica and Dan wanted to go.
I don't blame them at all. I can remember when I was a young actor, and I just had this feeling it was time to go to London. I was doing repertory theater in the country, and I resigned halfway through the season and got a job in a West End show with Hayley Mills. I reminded myself of that when Jessica and Dan said they wanted to go. I thought, "Well, you can't be that snippy because on a scaled-down version, that's exactly what you did."
Q: Did you try to persuade these actors to stay on?
A: We wanted them to stay and said, "Would you just do two or three episodes? And then you're living in America or in Dublin." But they both wanted a clean break. When an actor playing a servant wants to leave, there isn't really a problem. With members of the family, once they're not prepared to come back for any episodes at all, then it means death. Because how believable would it be that Matthew never wanted to see the baby, never wanted to see his wife? So we didn't have any option really. I was as sorry as everyone else.
Q: Once you'd made your peace with their departures, how did you decide to handle them narratively?
A: With Jessica it seemed right to give her a whole episode that was about her death. With Dan I had hoped that we would have one episode of this fourth season that I'm writing now, so we could have ended the Christmas episode on a happy note -- the baby, everything lovely. And then kill him in the first episode of the next series. But he didn't want that. I didn't want his death to dominate the Christmas special, so that's why we killed him at the very, very end. In a way I think it works quite well because we begin Series 4 six months later. We don't have to do funerals. That's all in the past by then.
Q: Another story line from this season dealt with the household learning that Thomas is gay. Had you decided that about him from the time you created the character?
A: He was always going to be gay. I don't know about in America, but here there are so many people under 40 who were hardly aware of the fact that it was actually illegal until the 1960s. Perfectly normal men and women were risking prison by making a pass at someone. I think it's useful to remind people that many things that they take for granted, are, in terms of our history, comparatively new. But I also felt it was believable that someone living under that pressure would be quite snippy and ungenerous and untrusting. But once you understood what he was up against, you'd forgive quite a lot of that. I like to write characters where you change your mind without them becoming different people.
Q: This season in particular it felt as if American viewers were much more aware that "Downton" was showing first in Britain and were having plot details spoiled months in advance. You may not be able to control this, but would you like the series be shown simultaneously in both regions?
A: I would love them to be simultaneous. And my own feeling is that the thinking behind different screenings belongs to a different era. The Internet has shrunk the world. We're the two English-speaking countries that enjoy each other's entertainment, it seems to me, as much as any linked countries in the world. I would vastly prefer that we all saw it together.
Q: You're also writing a new period drama for NBC called "The Gilded Age."
A: I'm not yet. I'm going to, when "Downton" finishes. But there are many hurdles that have to be cleared. You have to write the pilot, they have to decide they're going to make it, they have to decide whether they want to pick it up. But if it goes, I would not be able to write all of "Downton" and all of that series at the same time. I would hope that by the time all the hurdles have been cleared, the timing makes it so I can then concentrate on the new series. And if "Downton" goes on -- of course that's not my decision -- then it would be with other writers. Perhaps with me supervising, but with other writers.
Q: Could you imagine "Downton" continuing without you?
A: I think it would be funny. But in life you no sooner say "Oh, I'd never do such and such" than you find yourself strapped into a chair doing it. The only thing is, I know I would not be able to write 11 hours of "Downton" and 10 hours of "The Gilded Age" side by side.
Q: Wouldn't you prefer to end the series on your own terms?
A: I'd prefer to do everything on my terms. My own belief is that these things have a life. And one of the tricks is to recognize when it's time to come to an end. But we haven't made a decision. Some things go on for 20 years, but I just don't see "Downton" being one of them.
Q: Can you say yet what the themes of this new season will be?
A: I'm not giving anything away by saying that one of the main themes is the rebuilding of Mary, that Mary has to rebuild her life in a society which is changing. We would see women's roles in the '20s as being very much behind women today. But it was a big advance on what it had been 30 years before. And that's all explored in the show.
By DAVE ITZKOFF
The New York Times