Thomas Barrow is the most complicated and tragic character on Downton Abbey, and this week’s episode proves it.
For five-plus seasons, it’s been difficult to decide whether to sympathize with Thomas, a man so sadly tortured by his sexual orientation that he actually tried to medicate away his gayness, or to embrace him as a scheming backstabber that we love to hate (or maybe just plain hate). More than any other character on the show, he has slid back-and-forth between extremes, sometimes in ways that have made his conduct feel like a narrative contrivance instead of actual human behavior. We know Thomas is bad. Most of the time, Downton Abbey suggests it’s because he’s drawn that way.
But in the mostly satisfying fourth episode of the final season, I could see some shading and humanity in Thomas Barrow that hadn’t been as noticeable before. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a lack of reason,” he confesses to Miss Baxter, alluding to his discouraging career prospects and the fact that, while subbing as head butler during Carson’s honeymoon at the Sandals all-inclusive resort in Scarborough, no one at Downton has shown him respect. He tells Baxter he envies her ability to make friends, and she says she admires him for not caring about other people’s opinions. “You’re wrong about me,” he says with a trace of shyness. “I mind what people say.”
That comment is a revelation, and so is the frank vulnerability with which Rob James-Collier delivers it. The issue with Thomas isn’t that he’s evil, or that he haphazardly alternates between being horrid and semi-caring. Thomas’s problem is that he desperately wants to be nice but does not know how. He’s so used to acting defensively and keeping up his guard — surely in part because society has conditioned him to hate himself for being gay — that he’s not fully capable of showing warmth toward others. He’s damaged, or as Baxter put it, his own worst enemy.
Now I understand why Thomas finds it necessary to out Gwen — remember good ‘ol housemaid turned secretary Gwen? — when she returns to Downton and attempts to conceal her former housemaid status. As Robert notes, Thomas calls her out to embarrass her. But he has other reasons, too:
- He resents her for successfully elevating her station in life, especially since he’s on the verge of losing his working-class job.
- It disturbs him to watch someone else keep her true identity under wraps, yet still get to bask in all that Crawley adulation, while he walks around masking his true self and still gets less respect than Rodney Dangerfield on a particularly disheartening Monday.
Thomas: He may be a dick, but his dick-ishness (sort of) makes sense!
When Mary thanks Thomas for reminding them of Gwen’s service — and, as it turns out, enabling Gwen to inform them that Sybil helped her find a more promising position — it surprises Thomas. Perhaps that moment (and the pleasure of bossing everyone around in Carson’s absence) make him happy enough to admit to Robert that he’s really enjoyed being head butler. When Robert condescendingly reminds him that he’s no Carson — people are loyal to Carson because he’s kind, Lord Grantham says, which, just for the record, is not always true — my heart aches for Thomas. Kindness does not come naturally to him because he has not often been shown kindness himself.
When Thomas tells Mr. Molesley to keep his pity because “you’ll need it more than I do,” that’s a lie. Thomas, arguably the pettiest person on Downton Abbey, may be the one who deserves our pity most. Well him … and Anna Bates … and also Lavinia, the one-time fiancée of Matthew Crawley, who realized her husband-to-be was in love with Mary right before she died of the Spanish flu. Yeesh. That whole situation was one big pity parade, wasn’t it?
I’m sorry, you guys. This recap usually has an upbeat tone and it’s suddenly turned into bleak central. Let’s turn our attention, then, to Mary. In certain ways, she’s the upstairs equivalent to Thomas — she also tries to be polite, but doesn’t really know how. All that talk of Sybil’s generosity makes Mary question her own capacity for kindness, so much so that she does the unthinkable: She actually praises Edith for having a good idea! (By the way, it’s a very good idea for Edith to hire a female co-editor.) Of course, change doesn’t happen overnight, which is why Mary immediately follows her compliment with a crack about how a monkey could do Edith’s job. Give her some credit, though. She could’ve said baboon.
So, Mary’s not a non-mean girl yet. Actually, she’s getting downright naugh-tay now that Henry Talbot has reentered the picture. That’s right, I can’t believe it took this many paragraphs to acknowledge it, but: Matthew Goode is back, and he’s as dashing as ever! You know how some characters clearly exist in film or TV shows to provide comic relief? Henry Talbot’s purpose is to provide sexy relief. Everything the guy says sounds like hot, raw seduction. He’s got a true gift for the erotically charged pause.
When Henry suggests that he and Mary should get together in London, he says, “We’ll have lunch, or a drink … Or something.”
When Mary says she doesn’t know much about cars, he responds, “That’s because you haven’t been taught about them … properly.” The word properly is not supposed to make a lady want to whip off her bedazzled headband and dirty dance to side one of Prince’s Controversy, but when Henry Talbot says the word properly, it sounds an awful lot like, “Do Me, Baby.”
He’s so good at car-related sexual innuendo that his mere presence even makes the Dowager Countess drop double entendres. “She needs more than a handsome smile,” Violet says upon seeing Mary with Henry, “and a hand on the gear shift.” You guys, I don’t think Granny’s actually referring to a gear shift.
Speaking of shifts that are not car-related: Daisy prepares to quit her job, go full Jerry Maguire, and really let Cora have it for not giving the Drewes’ farm to Mr. Mason, even though Cora technically didn’t promise to do that. Daisy shakes off the naysayers and the Patmores, psyching herself up to fight the power like she’s in a Spike Lee joint, only to find out that the Crawleys — the nicest entitled people you’ll ever meet in 1920s Snobtown — have already decided to give the farm to Mr. Mason. It’s exactly what Daisy wants, yet she looks so disappointed. She had just decided to be the kind of person who rages against machines, but it’s hard to rage against the machine when the machine is handing out parcels of land to poor people. (At least La Revolución de Daisy gave Patmore the chance to make some fantastically sarcastic remarks. “I wonder if Karl Marx might finish the liver paté,” is my favorite line of the night, followed closely by the question Isobel asks Violet as she heads to the downstairs kitchen for the first time in 20 years: “Have you got your passport?”)
As usual, the plot of Downton Abbey chugs along roughly 80 different paths, but there’s a common theme here: With only a few episodes left, many characters are deciding what kind of people they’ll be in the future. That includes Mary, and Daisy, and Tom, who’s back for good but doesn’t seem interested in running the estate anymore. It includes Miss Baxter, who decides to testify against the man who once coaxed her into a life of crime because she’s determined to become someone who speaks out instead of staying silent. (Related question: Does Sgt. Willis have other job responsibilities besides “drop by Downton to share earth-shattering news related to the judicial system?”)
It also includes Anna Bates, who is now officially pregnant, thanks to a cervix made surgically competent. She even decides to take the first step toward becoming a responsible parent: Actually telling her husband that they’re going to have a child. It includes Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes, who return home with a post-Scarborough glow and announce that even though they’re married, she’ll still be called Mrs. Hughes — which is a relief to Robert, but not so much of a relief that it cures his constant abdominal pains. (I’m telling you, he’s so going to have a medical emergency soon, probably under circumstances that finally convince Violet they need more advanced health care in the village.)
And, to return to where we started, it even includes Thomas, who isn’t happy about giving his bossy tuxedo pants back to Carson. Thomas may be his own worst enemy, but when he wears those pants, his life doesn’t seem as lacking as he once believed.