It looks Downton Abbey can survive without Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) after all!
The period drama's season-four premiere shattered ratings records on Sunday night, attracting 10.2 million viewers, making it the highest-rated drama premiere in PBS' history. Even more impressive? That number is a 22 percent increase from the season-three premiere, which brought in 7.3 million viewers.
"As this captivating drama continues, our audiences have been eagerly awaiting this new season to see what's next for these beloved characters," PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger said in a statement. "I'm so pleased that millions of viewers have returned to Downton Abbey on their local PBS stations for what has become a post-holiday tradition."
Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton said, "I'm delighted to see that the Crawley family's intrigue continues to beguile our viewers. Julian Fellowes has written every word of all four seasons of Downton, and I toss him a huge bouquet on behalf of his American fans."
The season-four premiere was the period drama's first episode without leading man Dan Stevens, whose character Matthew Crawley tragically died in the season-three finale. Fans mourned the character, with some even threatening to no longer watch the show.
But when we chatted with the Downton Abbey cast, star Rob James-Collier, who plays the polarizing Thomas, said he wasn't concerned about viewers boycotting the series after Matthew's death.
"Not really, I think it's very flattering because people have invested so much into the show and Dan's character that the reaction is what you want," he explained. "You want to provoke an emotional response, you want people to care. You should be more worried if people don't respond and don't care. The fact that they did shows that we're doing something right."
For his part, creator Julian Fellowes stressed to E! News that it was Stevens' choice to exit the series.
"I think it was hard are for [viewers] to understand that it was Dan's choice to go," he said. "In America, you have much longer contracts, it seemed to them that the production team had just decided you know [makes throat slitting motion] but in fact, he had just gotten to the end of his three-year contract and he wanted to go on and do different stuff and do different things and good luck to him. We just had to make it work. Some of the letters I got made your hair stand on ends!"
As for what's ahead, Fellowes said Matthew's death has actually inspired storylines, especially for Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). "I do think that Mary's grief, which is one of the main arcs of series four, does work," he spilled. "I think this show does it very well. You have this theme of her coming back to life."
Did you watch the season four premiere of Downton Abbey? What did you think? Sound off in the comments!