March 4, 2013 at 9:14 AM ET
"Downton Abbey's" O'Brien has had a major role in the period drama, both upstairs with the Crawley family and downstairs with the servants. From causing Lady Cora's miscarriage to nearly getting valet Thomas sacked and thrown in jail, the maid played by Siobhan Finneran has often been at the center of the action, and that's what makes Friday's news of the actress' exit that much more surprising.
But Gareth Neame, one of the show's executive producers, said the decision for the maid to move on and not appear in the upcoming fourth season wasn't made by the producers or writers.
"The entire decision was Siobhan’s," he told us. "Her initial contract came to an end and she didn’t want to renew her contract. We certainly would all be very happy to have her back in the show."
Masterpiece on Friday said that the door was open for O'Brien's return, but Neame said he doesn't know if Finneran will come back to the drama. "The story line makes that all possible," he added.
The season three finale suggested that O'Brien may have been thinking of leaving Downton, especially after valet Bates whispered the phrase "her ladyship's soap" in her ear to get her to back off from destroying Thomas' life.
Neame, who is also the managing director of Carnival Films (the production company that makes the show), said that without O'Brien's plotting downstairs, the former valet-turned-underbutler might step up when the show returns.
"They had a bit of a falling out in the last season!" he said, referring to the maid's devious plans against her former friend. "So maybe Thomas will get a little more control back this time and start to run things his way downstairs."
Though Finneran's exit (as well as those of Dan Stevens' Matthew Crawley and Jessica Brown Findlay's Lady Sybil) will shake up the cast and the story lines a bit for season four, Neame said that losing characters isn't a bad thing for "Downton Abbey."
"The thing about these exits is they are really what keep the whole thing alive," he told us. "We like to see this core in the 20 to 25 characters in the way they all interrelate. But it is ... the going of established characters and the bringing in of new characters that keeps the whole thing very much alive."
On Saturday, Carnival Films announced six of the new characters that are joining the show in season four.
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