Pop Culture

Free Bates ... again? 'Downton Abbey' stars offer 5 hints for season 5

Alberto E. Rodriguez / Today
"Downton Abbey" stars, from left, Allen Leech, Laura Carmichael, Michelle Dockery and Joanne Froggatt tease the upcoming season at the 2014 Summer TCA Tour on Tuesday.

Although no one would ever accuse the circumspect “Downton Abbey” stars of oversharing, they dropped some healthy tidbits about the hit period drama’s fifth season at the Television Critics Association press tour Tuesday.

For starters, when the series returns, we’ll see our favorite aristocrats and their loyal servants six months after the Christmas special.

American viewers have to wait until January for “Downton’s” premiere, but cast members Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary), Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates), Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith) and Allen Leech (Tom Branson), alongside executive producer Gareth Neame, offered the first substantial preview of what’s to come.

Spoiler alert!
While Neame would tease only that season five offers “really substantial twists and turns,” Leech leaked a major plot point: “The unicorn farm no one expects,” the Irish actor deadpanned. 

Surviving season 5
Don’t expect Carson to be announcing the arrival of the Grim Reaper this season — all of the major characters should survive through the next Christmas special. Referring to creator Julian Fellowes’ decision to kill off Matthew Crawley when Dan Stevens decided not to renew his contract after season three, Neame confirmed that this time, there were no surprises with the cast members’ contracts.  

“It did occur to us to find out if we could keep our actors before (plotting this season),” he said with a laugh, before confirming, “We’ve all come to comfortable arrangement that is mutually beneficial.”

“You’re all expecting the ‘Downton Abbey’ Red Wedding, aren’t you?” Leech wisecracked again, referring to infamous “Game of Thrones” massacre in which several major characters were murdered.

But Leech, who expected to get his “firing papers” after Tom Branson’s initial three-episode arc, is prepared for the worst. “In no way did I expect I would still be there” after the death of Tom’s wife, Sybil, he said. Then, with a wink to his “Downton” brother-in-law’s tragic end, he added, “To be honest, I’m expecting to meet a truck in a narrow lane.”

Mary’s got her groove back
Mary has shed not only her widow’s weeds but the heavy burden of her grief that immobilized her for much of season four. “This (season) she is quite impulsive,” Dockery said. “She’s embracing her life, she’s through the grief now. I see kind of season five for Mary as the “new Mary” — she’s got a bit of bite back she had in (season) one.”

Mary will continue to enjoy the attention of both Lord Gillingham and Charles Blake, and she’ll become even closer to Tom Branson. But don’t get any ideas, “Brary” shippers (“I’ve just christened them that,” cackled Leech): Branson and Mary are each “looking for love” — “but not with each other,” Leech said, twice for emphasis.

Free Bates ... again?
Mr. and Mrs. Bates have a rocky road ahead of them, especially with Bates being suspected of yet another murder — this time, the valet who raped his wife. (Neame addressed critics and called the rape storyline "completely valid.") 

When a reporter referred to Bates as a “murderer,” Froggatt pretended to be indignant.

“How dare you!” she exclaimed. But although Anna defends her husband, Froggatt acknowledged, “In her heart of hearts, she has this doubt, it just doesn’t leave her. It’s something that sort of haunts her in season five, it’s this niggle, that there are so many coincidences. It’s this added anxiety on top of everything else she’s going through that she feels compelled — she sort of can’t leave it alone. I guess it will unravel.”

(Maybe it’s time for Bates to stop polishing Grantham’s shoes and start sharpening the shiv!)

Good fortune finally favors Edith
Just kidding! Poor Edith. Her lover, Michael Gregson, is still MIA, and she’s tortured by the knowledge that her daughter is being raised by another couple, the Downton tenants who have agreed to adopt the “orphan.” Although she secretly steals visits with the young girl, few know the truth.

“Mary doesn’t know Edith has a daughter,” Dockery said. So Edith certainly won’t get any sympathy from her unknowing sister.

“Mary’s mean to Edith especially in this season,” Dockery said. “Me and Laura love it when they’re mean to each other, it’s more fun to do. ... We rejoice when Julian writes anything where they’re vicious to each other.”

Watch the sisterly bickering ensue when "Downton Abbey" returns for season 5 on Jan. 4 on PBS.