Last season's cliffhanger of "Downton Abbey" left people around the world shocked, angry and eager for the next installment.
Season 4 finally returns Sunday, Jan. 5, on PBS (check local listings). It picks up six months after Matthew ( Dan Stevens) was killed in a car crash, immediately after his wife, Lady Mary ( Michelle Dockery), gave birth to their son, George.
Mary is bereft in a way that only those utterly in love can be heartbroken. Wan, thin and brittle, she has little interest in her baby and none in anything else as she floats about in exquisite black dresses.
"She is now a widow and a mom," Dockery tells Zap2it. "There have been so many parts of her character I have played over the three years. She started out as a spoiled young aristocrat. The incident with the young Turkish aristocrat quite wobbled Mary.
"She became flawed and a little more humbled," Dockery continues, referring to the Turkish diplomat dying in her bed. "In the second series, Matthew was bringing out her softness. There has been such a palette of things to play.
"In the third, she was happily married and becoming more domesticated, planning for a future," Dockery continues. "Now it's a whole other journey this series. I have enjoyed Series 4. It's about recovery for her. It's six months on, and she is still wearing black and refuses to come out of mourning."
Without divulging spoilers, it's fair to say Lady Mary is a bit much in her grief. As the season progresses, men fairly trip over her. She may have grown listless and pale but remains gorgeous and captivating, and she has her choice of suitors.
"Downton Abbey," a genuine global phenomenon, continues to enchant as it reveals the mannered world of an estate in the English countryside between the world wars.
"I was surprised when it became so popular because I thought it was so quintessentially English," Hugh Bonneville, who plays Lord Grantham, says.
PBS' most popular show ever devotes as much of its plot to the servants as it does to the gentry.
Tom Branson, played by Allen Leech, is the only character who has been both. He was a chauffeur who married Lady Sybil, who died after giving birth to their daughter. Branson has never been comfortable among the rich, but now manages Downton and is considered family.
"There is a hierarchy within the house, but there is no hierarchy in how the story is told," Leech says.
"There are no token characters in this show," says Lesley Nicol, who plays Mrs. Patmore, the cook.
Many of the actors say they're delighted how their characters evolved. Phyllis Logan and Sophie McShera -- who play Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, and Daisy, formerly the scullery maid and now assistant cook -- joke as they consider the changes in their characters.
"Mrs. Hughes has become a bit more interfering in other people's business," Logan says. "She is a bit more hands-on when it may be better to be hands-off."
As for the kitchen maid's changes?
"Not her dress, that's for sure," Logan says.
"She's just a bit jealous," McShera adds of her character this season. "She needs to get a hold of her bitterness and jealousy."
As terribly shocking as the final scene of Season 3 was, arguably no one in the Crawley family has suffered more than Lady Edith ( Laura Carmichael).
"It's been such a great journey to watch the hard knocks she's had and the misery," Carmichael says of her character, who was jilted at the altar.
"She's living in London, where there is light and color," Carmichael says. "She is in love with Michael Gregson ( Charles Edwards), and he's the dream. The writing is so great and so fits with the character. She is bookish, a loner, observer, writer."
"In many ways, she would have been very happy, the most traditional of the three," Carmichael says. "Sybil was the rebel. Mary was beautiful and haughty. [Edith] desired the same life as her grandmother."
This season, let's just say Lady Edith retains an unfortunate familiarity with wretchedness.
Creator Julian Fellowes says people ask him to grant Lady Edith happiness. He promises nothing. A stickler for historical accuracy, Fellowes' exacting writing demands every costume, each piece of furniture be period appropriate.
"As soon as you pop on the outfit and you are in the fixtures, it does something to you," says Rob James-Collier, who plays Thomas, the under-butler.
Those fixtures are under scrutiny on a global level, showrunner Gareth Neame says.
"I am not really a proud kind of person," he says. "I am excited to make a show that has hundreds of millions of people watching; it is what you dream of. There is a level of interest in the show, a level of scrutiny that is different."
"The fourth season was very well received in England, and I hope it will be here as well," Neame says in New York.
The series has been renewed, and while audiences here watch Season 4, production begins in February on Season 5.
Though Fellowes says he knows the era in which the show will end, he can't reveal it.
"We are chugging the family sedately through the '20s," he says. "We are not going to end up in London in [the time of] the Beatles."
Photo/Video credit: PBS