Monday, May 20, 2024

Thomas Barrow and Representation in Downton Abbey

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Running from 2010 to 2015, Downton Abbey has left its mark on period dramas. It was beautiful, most of the time well-written, well-acted,  and starred Maggie Smith in one the best grandmother roles on TV. It had a plethora of strong and varied female characters, and pretty much everything else you could want out of a television program. If we only take this into account it will make for quite a compelling show already. But, in my view one of the main good points of Downton Abbey was the treatment of the staff. The story was about Downton Abbey and all its inhabitants, including the ones living downstairs.

Julian Fellowes broke the tradition of considering that the story of the masters was more important and that the staff was there as little more than comic relief. Anna, Bates, Carson, Daisy, Jimmy, O’Brien, and William are all different people with different ways of seeing life and all possess different ambitions. Some of them are good people, some of them aren’t, but their lives are as important as those of Mary or Edith.

Of course even among the staff, fans had their favorite. One of them was Thomas Barrow.

The fact that Rob James-Collier can rock a bowler hat is a miracle itself.

Starting the show as a footman and ending it as an under-butler, he wasn’t exactly the best person in term of morality. He antagonized the majority of the other characters, and even blackmailed some of them. Frankly, Thomas was a bit of black-ship designed to create trouble. Oh, and he is gay.

At first glance having one of the main antagonists of a show being the most prominent LGBTQ character might look bad. Yet I would argue the opposite. Thomas is a character allowed to exist outside of stereotypes.

Thomas Barrow isn’t as much an antagonist, as he is a man driven by ambition

I mean, yes, Thomas is an antagonist, but not in the “big bad guy wants to make everyone unhappy because of reason” kind of way. No, he is an antagonist because he antagonizes other character. And he antagonizes them for one reason: ambition.

The two first characters he actually antagonizes are William, the other footman, and Bates, the valet of the earl. The latter was employed for a job Thomas wanted, the former shares the same job as him. Both men are a problem for his career. And it is for that reason he decides to make their life miserable. And it is because of what he does to them that the rest of the staff turns against him.

But every time he directly antagonizes someone it is because he perceives them has a threat to his ambition. Or it is for petty revenge and because he feels he isn’t considered enough. Because Thomas is proud and doesn’t stand what he considers disrespect.

The rivalry and mutual hatred between him and Bates, that the cast has mocked as one of the main tropes of the show with Edith loosing her fiancés, came from Thomas’ original antagonization of Bates. Bates answered by being smarter than Thomas and showing all the contempt he has for him. Feeling insulted by it Thomas increased his antagonization. Leading to that nice old married couple relationship:


Thomas is a proud man, in a very interesting way. You might have noticed that I like a certain type of character: characters that are very proud of themselves and yet don’t like themselves at all. It is a very odd combination. Pride and dislike of oneself, but in truth it is a perfectly understandable one. When you don’t like yourselves because of the way you are is rejected by society, and you believe that your value is somehow decided by society, you are your harshest critic. And you can’t bear that someone does the job for you, on something you don’t consider a default. So your pride is actually a defense mechanism to make your life bearable.

It doesn’t mean that Thomas is without fault. It means that most of his position as an ‘antagonist’ comes from the fact that he is insecure about his position in the world. And that comes from his sexuality.

Thomas’s sexuality and its framing

The first time we learn that Thomas is gay is in the third episode of the season one. When he discusses it with Mr. Pamuk. So his sexuality isn’t something that was retroactively assigned to the character. Thomas was created gay. But that’s not the only interesting thing with this early revelation. The first time we are introduced to Thomas’s sexuality he is blackmailed with it. Pamuk uses it against him to get to Mary’s chamber.

Mr Pamuk, you are a magistral dickhead.

Since the first instance in which we are made aware of his sexuality it is used against him or he is suffering because of it. I don’t know a lot about homosexuality in England in the 1920’s. I know that it was illegal up until 1967, and it was punishable by imprisonment. But I also know that it was easier, even ‘accepted’ as long as it was behind close doors, when you were rich and powerful. But it is not the case of Thomas, so I would say that it seems coherent that his sexuality creates more problems than anything else.

I understand that seeing a gay man suffering because of his sexuality is not the best representation we can hope for, but bare with me for a moment. I will be the first to say that the fact that Thomas ends up single and has zero romantic relationships during the show is a problem. Still, I think the importance of the representation given by Thomas is elsewhere.

First, it is not always that a period drama acknowledges that homosexuality was a thing and not just a secondary thought in their show. It is also important to note that Thomas isn’t framed for the titillation of the viewer (contrary to some other show). And finally Thomas is allowed to exist as a character outside of his sexuality.

He has several arcs directly linked to it: the one with Jimmy, his attempt to find a cure etc… None of those arcs are pleasant, or escapist. But all of them ends up re-enforcing the fact that being gay doesn’t make him a bad person and he shouldn’t try to change himself. Every time he wins friends and the trust of someone new. Sure it would have been better to have at least one arc linked to his homosexuality that isn’t about suffering. But still the lesson is the good one to give.

In addition to that he has a lot of arcs that aren’t linked to his homosexuality. Reminding us that being gay is important to his character but it is not the only thing about him. He is a character in his own right. He has quality, he has defaults, he is not always a good person but he is brave and faithful in friendship.

Parenthesis, a man good with children

Another thing that I think is important is that Thomas is portrayed as being good with children. He is the one who first thinks that they might be something wrong with how the nanny takes care of Sybbie. Yes it was also a petty revenge against her since she had been rude to him. But he was right. And that is all that matters at the end.

More importantly there is his relation with ‘master’ George. We all had our hearts melting when that sort of things happened in season 6:

I mean this is really cute.

But it is not only important because it is cute (even if cute things are very important). But Thomas and George relationship is starting to resemble the one Mary and Carson have. And Mary, who knows that Thomas is gay, actually doesn’t discourage it. She sort of encourages it. Having a gay man, who isn’t biologically linked to the child, taking an interest in a boy’s education being framed positively is great. And not very common. Especially when other characters in universe are okay with it proving that they learned from Thomas’ struggles too.

There is also the fact that he is appreciated by children, people without prejudice. It makes its little effect on the viewers.

A man at peace with himself

Finally one of the good things that Downton Abbey did with Thomas’ character is to bring him peace by the end of the show. For a good part of the show he is restless. He doesn’t know where he is supposed to fit in world or even if he can. He doesn’t know if he will even be accepted somewhere. And yet the creator of the show decided to have him stayed at Downton.

He will stay there as the next butler, replacing Carson and helping him finish his career. He has friends there now. He is accepted, and that even if everyone knows that he is gay. He has developed friendship with new members of the staff, going as far as to help them without expecting something in return.

Thomas Barrow ends the show at peace with himself. He is content with who he is and for a gay man who has tried at some point to run away from his sexuality it is extremely important. It would have been better, it is true, if the creators could have find a way to give him a love life. But I know I will never be completely satisfied by what a TV-show gives me. So I will have to settle for well-written character that are from minority. And Thomas Barrow is one of them. I just hope that Downton Abbey the movie will still do him justice.

All images courtesy of ITV.

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