People who are not longtime followers of mine probably don’t know how much love I have for ITV series Downton Abbey, a period drama which ran from 2010-2015. It was, essentially, a soap opera dressed up as a serious historical drama, set between 1912 and 1925, and whilst rewatching it on Amazon Prime, I’ve been thinking about one of my favourite characters in the series, Thomas Barrow.
Throughout the series, Thomas Barrow, a man who started off as a footman and went through a series of different roles and titles, including Valet, Under-Butler and even Sergeant Major, eventually ended up replacing Downton’s Mr. Carson as Butler. The Metro described Thomas’ ending with the following:
“It looked like things were going to end badly for the Downton employee, with him bidding farewell to the Abbey and moving to a new position decidedly less interesting than his former employment. But a handy solution to both his and Carson’s predicament, Lord Grantham had the brainwave that Barrow should replace Carson. And Barrow turned out nice too. Alls well that ends well.”
There was, then, at the time of the series’ finale, a consensus that Thomas got his “happy ending” by finally rising up to the rank of butler, a role which would, seemingly, give him power, wealth and stability in the respectable household of Downton Abbey. But I found myself quite disappointed with his ending in many ways, and rewatching the series has helped me to pinpoint some reasons why:
1. The show continually makes reference to the fact that “times are changing” and that houses like Downton won’t be around for much longer.
From series one, the message is clear: times are changing. This message is repeated over and over again, in different ways; “things aren’t the same as they were before the war”, “Downton Abbey isn’t sustainable” etc etc. The message is dressed up in different ways depending on the year in which the message is being parroted in, but the show is desperate to drive home the idea that aristocratic houses which insist on the “proper” way of doings things will not be around forever. Why then, is Thomas’ promotion to the role of butler meant to be a joyous thing? How long will it be until Thomas loses his job? How long will Downton even go on for? If the final message of Downton Abbey is that history is ever-changing, and that the “old ways” are disappearing, then surely that means that Thomas is part of a history that is being left behind, as opposed to being part of something modern and optimistic? This view of Thomas’ raised status as being portrayed as a happy ending may also have something to do with the generally optimistic yet anachronistic view that Downton Abbey takes in regards to social mobility, as The Guardian‘s Polly Toynbee explains:
“There is a natural emotional wish to believe that social mobility is improving. People like rags-to-riches stories, wanting to think everyone has a fair chance to rise by merit and effort – even when it’s patently not so. Even those with little chance in life tend to blame themselves – “I should have tried harder at school” – not a social caste system that stacked the odds against them.”
The article explains the rather comforting notion we have whilst watching Downton Abbey that anyone can “rise above their station” if they work hard enough, and Thomas’ ending seems to feed straight into this ideal. We see other examples of it throughout the show, such as Branson marrying into the wealthy household, having started life in the Abbey as a chauffeur, but his ending is more certain and more stable by the series’ finale, he doesn’t have to worry about his position one day becoming non-existent, as he has no need for a position: he has wealth, and the noble acquaintances that marrying into Downton has brought him. Thomas has nothing but his position in his own ending.
2. Thomas has to stay in a house which brought him a lot of pain, and is a place where he even attempted to commit suicide.
Whilst we might think that living in a place so beautiful as Downton could be nothing but a blessing, it’s important to remember that Thomas has not had overwhelmingly good experiences there. He has been shown to have a handful of heartwarming moments, such as in season six, when he gives little George a piggyback ride:
But overall, Thomas’ story is one of pain, and we mostly see him in some kind of distress throughout the show: trying to cure himself of his homosexuality via illegal saline injections, crying over the loss of loved ones such as Sybil and Lieutenant Courtenay, and even attempting to kill himself by slitting his wrists in the bath. These are all horrific, distressing chapters in Thomas’ life, and there’s something dark about the idea that he must now stay in the place that bore his ills. Becoming butler does not take away the fact that Thomas is still “foul” (as Carson puts it), or that he has lost people in his life. Those sad memories will continue to haunt him at Downton, and he has to live his life walking through the corridors where he has cried and thought about how much he hated himself. There is a sense of a “new chapter” about Thomas’ promotion, that he might be able to start forgetting his old ways due to his newfound position, but this will not help the things that are fundamentally wrong with his mental health.
3. Thomas is not inherently evil, and his “redemption” is a complicated one.
Thomas is one of the show’s antagonists, in the sense that he is constantly plotting and scheming against the characters we are meant to hold dear to our hearts: the Crawley sisters, Anna, Carson etc. From season one, Thomas seems to have a grudge against all of them, and he is cruel and spiteful towards them all, getting on their nerves and verbally abusing them for seemingly no reason at all. He is meant to be a character we dislike, and this is done quite successfully, especially in Downton’s earlier seasons.
However as the show progresses, we realise that a lot of Thomas’ cruelty comes from the fact that he is not entirely happy with himself, something that manifests itself in more dangerous ways as the years go by. This is, of course, not an excuse for Thomas’ behaviour; his self-hatred does not excuse all of his scheming, and general cruelty, but it is hard to see him as completely “redeemed” from a fully bad character into a fully good one when we realise that he lives in a time where the entire world is against him. As well as his sexual orientation being illegal, there’s also the fact that all of his plans seem to go horribly wrong: he is conned out of money when he tries to become a black marketeer, he flirts with men who reject him, he cannot find good employment when his job is in jeopardy…Thomas just can’t seem to catch a break and moments of true happiness from him are rare. Considering this, we might see why he would be bitter towards other, more fortunate members of the household, even if those actions can’t be entirely excused. The show seems to pose the idea that Thomas has given up his “petty” cruelty and learnt his place in the world by keeping quiet and working hard, which is somewhat troubling considering that almost every other character seems to break free of the constraints placed upon them, and earn their own redemptions by speaking out, or defying convention.
4. Thomas doesn’t get a love interest, or anything akin to one.
Love and lust are two threads which run tightly through Downton’s narrative, and most of the show’s drama comes from some kind of romantic conflict or interest. Whilst Thomas is shown as having several almost-relationships (including an actual relationship with a Duke, which ends, as always, badly for Thomas), he never actually manages a true, mutual relationship with another man. You can, of course, argue that it’s all down to the criminality of homosexuality during the early twentieth century, but I don’t think this is a good enough reason for Thomas’ lack of romance, considering how anachronistic (sorry) the rest of Downton Abbey is. We see this especially in regards to things like romance, such as how little uproar there is when Rose marries the Jewish Atticus Aldridge. I will sound cruel now, I know, but I think the reason that Thomas never finds love is because of the way that LGBT+ people are still represented on television: unhappily. Yes, Thomas is homosexual because it lends the show a sense of drama and sorrow, but he’s not allowed a happy, healthy relationship with another man because television so rarely allows this. There were plenty of opportunities for this (the Duke, Edward Courtenay, Jimmy and Andy could have all turned out to be romantically interested) but each time, Thomas was turned down, or the other man left the show for one reason or another. We saw Thomas being rejected multiple times, with the same exact plotline happening each time, where Thomas befriends a heterosexual man who becomes uneasy around him, and slowly warms up to him over time. There wasn’t any real need to portray this kind of relationship multiple times, and what really pains me about it is the fact that queerness in and around the 1920’s was not something as hidden as Downton tries to pretend it to be, as Time Out explains:
“In 1916 the World newspaper described ‘painted and perfumed travesties of men openly leer[ing] at the passer-by’ in Piccadilly. ‘Certain bars and restaurants are meeting places for these creatures’, the newspaper went on, adding that it was ‘lamentable to know that their victims or accomplices are largely drawn from the ranks of the British Army.’
What the World was observing was a lively and visible ‘scene’ in London during the war, long before Old Compton Street took off as the capital’s ‘gay village’. This scene endured throughout the inter-war period.”
I do think, in a lot of ways, that Thomas’ sexuality was a rather wasted part of his character, and that his clear yearning for a relationship with another man (and the fact that he ultimately ends up alone) is another reason against the idea that he has a completely happy ending in the series finale.
Overall, I think these things all add up to the conclusion that Thomas didn’t get as much of a happy ending as the rest of Downton, or at least, as much of a happy ending as everyone thought he did. I believe he was a character cast as simply nothing more than the “gay baddie”, as Rob James-Collier put it, and that this is how the majority of people saw him, but that his character was a little more complicated and layered than most gave him credit for.
So what do you think? Did Thomas really get his happy ending? Let me know in the comments below! Also, pop any suggestions for future Downton essays down there too, or else you’ll just get me whining about how Jimmy was a wasted character, and how much I miss Sybil.