Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary.
When "Downton Abbey's" fourth season begins, six months after the tragic death of Matthew Crawley, the household isolated by grief is just starting to rejoin society again.
But almost as soon as the Crawleys reopen their doors to visitors, potential suitors for Lady Mary come rushing in.
"She has more than one love interest," Michelle Dockery confirmed at the Television Critics Association press tour Tuesday.
Some of the first to cross the threshold are Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden) and Lord Anthony Gillingham, played by Welsh actor Tom Cullen.
"He is an old family friend (Mary's) known since the girls were children," Dockery said of the latter.
She'll also be wooed by another familiar face: Evelyn Napier (Brendan Patricks), who memorably introduced Mary to her doomed first lover, Turkish diplomat Mr. Pamuk, in season one.
"Mary's suitors are really brave — I'm pretty sure Richard Carlisle (Iain Glenn) is somewhere dead and we don't know," Dockery joked about the heiress's doomed beaus.
"They're like praying mantises," added producer Gareth Neame. "They get to do it once and then she kills them!"
But it's Mary herself the family — and their faithful servants — are trying to resuscitate in "Downton's" fourth-season premiere.
"She is broken and bruised, and it is our job to wrap her up and keep her safe from the world," her father says in a brand-new preview screened for critics.
"No, Robert — it is our job to bring her back into the world," argues his wife, Cora.
And that includes socializing with eligible bachelors.
Understandably, Dockery told TODAY.com, "it's difficult for her to move on and even see men in that way. She adored Matthew, and she was completely in love with him, and she really thought that was it. So to then have to play that game again of meeting someone — it's difficult for her certainly.
"And I feel it should be, because the audience have invested so much in that relationship between Mary and Matthew — and of course Matthew is a character everyone adored. Everyone loved (actor) Dan Stevens, and I don't think it would be appropriate for her to move on quickly."
But even though the birth of their son, George, means the family has a male heir, Mary "still needs to find a husband," Dockery told TODAY.com. "At that time, and within the aristocracy and the world she lives in, it's important for her to meet someone else. It's very frowned upon to be a woman without a husband."
"Eventually that will have to come," she hinted. "She has been so many ups and downs — just when I thought she was happy and she had it all, everything was shattered at the end of (season) three. (This season), it's almost like a new chapter for her."
And that includes partnering with Branson — at the unlikely suggestion of the Dowager Countess — to run the Downton estate.
"She steps up, and she becomes part of that process with Branson and Robert," Dockery told TODAY.com. "There's still a kind of slight battle between her father and her. He kind of doesn't really want her to get involved, but actually she does want to get stuck in — and actually do what Matthew would've been very proud of her doing."
But don't count her sister's widower among Mary's ardent admirers.
"We're aware there are suspicions about Tom and Mary's relationship, but they are very much friends — he is her brother-in-law," Dockery insisted. In addition to managing the estate together, "They become close because of what they've both been through. Romantically, I don't think it's going anywhere. I hope not."
"Downton Abbey" isn't going anywhere either: "As far as we know, we're all doing (season) five next year," Dockery said, and Naeme confirmed that they are already plotting the next season — and beyond.
"I think the show has a lot further to go," he said, adding that as long as the fan fervor continues, "we want to keep making it."
"Downton Abbey" returns to the U.S. airwaves Jan. 5, 2014, on PBS.
First published August 7 2013, 6:01 AM