While I often find myself blogging about my feelings, I rarely blog at the height of them. Tonight will be decidedly different; for I have just finished, Downton Abbey, a series that has wasted nearly three days of my life.
(Warning: This post will contain minor spoilers concerning season 6!)
Let’s be honest. I consider myself one of the lucky ones. Enamored with the first season, I was so bored throughout the second that I discontinued my devotion to the show and eventually ceased watching all together. I simply couldn’t bring myself to care about a bunch of insufferable rich people exclaiming “Goodness!” and “Heavens!” every few minutes. With such meteoric success, the writers quit producing new content and every episode fell neatly into form. I could not abide.
So, there I was: watching things I enjoyed and enjoying things I watched. Four whole years went by without so much of a thought of Downton. Then, a few months ago, I was sitting on my parents’ bed, and my mother was braiding my hair. I love being pampered when I visit home, so I will do anything to prolong the treatment. Lulled into a happy daze, I gave her the remote. Unaware the extent to which this choice would derail my life, I let her pick the program. “Downton?” she asked. Downton it was.
Without going into too much detail, I was reminded instantly of how much the sneaky Thomas Barrow had fascinated me in the first season (and it’s not just how he fills out that livery, neither). My interest was piqued even further when my mother informed me at the end of the episode that his character had really been put through the ringer. Suddenly, I needed to see how his story had developed. I grabbed my laptop and set up camp in the guest bedroom. Hours later, the sun was rising and I had not slept a wink.
Over the next three days, I successfully caught up on four seasons of Downton Abbey. My internal monologue gained a British accent, and a dramatic orchestral soundtrack pursued me at every turn. I also happen to work in a historic mansion from the early 20th century. For weeks, I would walk, starry-eyed, into the butler’s pantry and sigh. I still lurk quietly in the servants’ quarters from time to time and let loose my wildest fantasies.
The problem with being so thoroughly hooked, however, was the nature of the addiction. It was not the revolving prison door for Mr. & Mrs. Bates that had me on the edge of my seat. Nor was it the ever-lengthening list of Lady Mary’s beaux. It wasn’t the Crawley’s slow castration of Tom Branson’s soul or even Daisy’s growing passion for socialism that left me craving more. It was Thomas Barrow. Tricky, mean-spirited, wholly unlikable Mr. Barrow.
This blog post started as a simple explanation of why I needed a win for Thomas in the series finale tonight. The fact of the matter is, I didn’t finish in time. The sun was shining, and it was 70 degrees in the middle of November. You don’t miss a day like that for a blog post. Below you will find a slightly modified version to suit the fact that the episode has aired, that I have watched it, and that I am entirely displeased…
Why I Needed A Win For Thomas Barrow
One. Thomas Barrow’s character has been an absolute gem throughout the entire series. His development was so subtle, so meticulous and calculated. Unlike most characters in the show, he took effort to unpack. The way he lit his cigarettes, the places he chose to stand, who he provoked, who he defended, when and how he reached out–dozens of tiny clues, closely guarded, took six seasons to form a complete picture. True, viewers shared knowledge of his homosexuality almost immediately, but that fact was not used to force us into sympathy. Despite his being gay, we were not obligated to love him. He was allowed to be mean and nasty. He was allowed to have flaws instead of rainbows. He was human, not a caricature. And while the rest of the cast bustled around in their happy, servile purgatory, his motivation and ambition helped push the narrative beyond the estate. Even as his story stagnated and his outlook turned inward, his character remained compelling and dynamic. That is good writing, and a good beginning deserves a good ending.
Two. For whatever reason, I feel the strongest affinity for characters that reflect the ugliness of being, especially when it happens to coincide with the ugliness of being me. I am privileged in many ways, but I have struggled with depression in the past, and it has not been pretty. I can joke about it now. I can make quips about whether Julian Fellowes is writing the storyline of a gay underbutler in the 1920s or a 20-year-old part-time employee in 2015. I can joke, but the fact remains that I have been Thomas Barrow.
My depression has, at times, caused me to act out in ways I don’t recognize. I have been mean and spiteful. I lost the ability to connect with my peers in meaningful ways, and many of my clunky attempts since have ended in failure. I have managed to make friends, but it is rare that I trust my relationships to hold. I often have difficulty discerning between love and pity, and so I reject most compassion. I used to lose my voice inside myself, and it was all I could do to sit and watch quietly as others celebrated and laughed. I forgot all my hopes and dreams and the amazing talents I once had. The place I had lived for nearly six years had smothered my potential, yet I remained devoted to it. My entire identity was there, the good and the bad, and I convinced myself that I couldn’t possibly find anywhere else to belong. I was restless, but I was stuck. I was broken, but I was proud. For every time Mr. Barrow was caught, crying alone in the dark or the rain, I was secreting myself away in bathrooms and closets and lonely corners doing just the same.
I’m happily moving away from that stage of my life. I’m older now, and (somehow) wiser. But it hasn’t been easy, and it’s certainly not over. I needed a win for Thomas Barrow tonight, because I needed a win for me, if only to remind myself that when the going gets tough, people like us pull through.
Three. I was desperate for a sign that Fellowes was not simply phoning it in with a superficial load of misery porn. The latest (and final) season of Downton Abbey had not been kind to my Mr. Barrow, both in screen time and treatment. There was regression where there had once been growth, harsh treatment and neglect without rhyme or reason. Lacking exploration, his brief cameos in each episode seemed jarring and out of place. Yet I held out hope because, surely, it was leading towards something big. All the spoilers dropped by the cast and crew hinted at a tragic heroism that would emerge in Mr. Barrow this season. As each episode passed, I eagerly waited for his suffering to come to an emotional head, for understanding, for redemption, for tenderness and love. The actor who played Thomas, Rob James-Collier, once mentioned to reporters that he had received fan mail from gay youth, confessing how connected they felt to Mr. Barrow’s story, how they shared his hopes and fears. He spoke of responsibility to bring Thomas to life in a way that would honor and inspire the gay community, to do his best to reject stereotypes and cliched portrayals. I was sure the writers felt the same way. I was so sure…
When I was in high school, I loved the How It Should Have Ended series on YouTube. Each video was so funny and clever. In some cases, they built on stories that had ended beautifully. In others, they healed the betrayal of a rushed or botched conclusion. As I finished the extended final episode of Downton Abbey (holding out hope until the very last second), I found myself shaking with anger. Until that moment, I had never needed a HISHE video more.
(Warning: This is where the spoilers get real!)
What I needed was something to help me forget that a series with such international success had completely glossed over a troubled man’s suicide attempt. I needed something to change the fact that a piece of fruit from an adorable child was considered enough to heal years of emotional turmoil, that the only people who got to discuss Thomas Barrow’s depression were people who barely knew him or who had horribly mistreated him, that his storyline was used as nothing more than a minor plot device.
Sadly, there is no HISHE video for Downton Abbey, and I haven’t the talent to make one. Thankfully, I have a vivid imagination that thrives under bitter disappointment. Thomas Barrow may not have gotten the ending he deserved, but if I close my eyes and peer between the scenes, I can write it all away. What follows is mostly for my own benefit and peace of mind, but if you, too, were left bewildered by the season finale of Downton Abbey, please feel free to share in my creative analgesic…
How Downton Abbey Should Have Ended (for Mr. Barrow)
Miss Baxter is trying not to cry as Andy breaks down the bathroom door, but her heart is racing and her stomach is churning. He is blocking the entrance, but she can just see over his shoulder, and it’s exactly as she feared. The writers had been alluding to this all season, and (as awful as it sounds) she realizes it would have been a bit cheap if Mr. Barrow were only brushing is teeth.
As Andy rushes downstairs to get help, she kneels by the side of the tub and administers what care she can manage alone. She drains the water and gently dries his hair with a soft towel, quietly humming a song they had sung as children. Even if the writers have forgotten their shared past, she hasn’t. The humming is as much to calm her nerves as it is to comfort him. He may be unconscious, but she can feel his heart beating through his shirt. She could cry with relief, but she doesn’t. Maybe he was right to say she was strong. Suddenly, she knows what she will do about the disconcerting letter she received from the jail.
When Thomas wakes up, he shouts, and it startles Andy, who has fallen asleep in the chair by his bed. Andy tries to reason with him, but the older man is distraught and ashamed and pushes him away. Andy, although wary, respects his boundaries and agrees to wait outside the door until Thomas can collect his thoughts. When he is invited back inside, the under-butler has softened and asks him to stay the night. There is no question: Andy will not leave him alone.
Meanwhile, Miss Baxter has been given leave to find Thomas’s family. Despite his father’s original discomfort with his sexuality, she finds him surprisingly forgiving in his old age. He misses his only son and needs someone to run the family’s shop in London. Mrs. Hughes has news to share as well. She has convinced Mr. Carson to hold Thomas’s job, should he chose to take a brief rest away from Downton. Upon her return, Miss Baxter relays this information to Thomas and he reluctantly agrees that leaving the Abbey (at least for now) will be good for him. She hugs him, and, although he is shocked by her affection, he hugs her back.
The episode ends with Thomas leaving Downton. Both upstairs and downstairs have a chance to comment that it will be strange with him gone. He is allowed to see the children one last time, and they all give him trinkets to remember them by. He promises to write and hopes Andy will practice writing back.
Time passes, and Mr. Barrow finds himself entirely at home in London. Lady Edith (now Marchioness of Hexham) even visits him in the shop, on Marigold’s request, and they bond over how cathartic leaving the Abbey has been. Only…seeing her reminds him that he misses his old friends. When she hands him an invitation to join them for Christmas, he accepts and packs a bag, thinking he will return to his old job if all goes well…and it does. Andy is reading full stories in the primers he’s borrowed from the school. Miss Baxter has not forgotten him, either. Mrs. Hughes gently wraps an arm around his shoulders and guides him into the servants’ hall. She leaves him alone to think, and he sighs contentedly.
It comes out later that Mr. Carson is considering retirement. Lord Grantham extends a warm handshake and a job offer. Come and be our butler? Thomas thinks of the children, of Andy and Miss Baxter. He opens his mouth to accept, but ends up refusing. Floored, the Earl asks him why. He explains that all his life he has wanted to fit in, that, after his family rejected him, he imagined Downton was the closest he would ever get. But leaving helped him to see that the world outside offered so many opportunities for happiness and peace. He is honored to have served the Crawley family, but he finally has control of his own destiny. The writers add some more drivel about changing times, but it doesn’t matter because nothing matters now. Thomas Barrow is happy. His story is resolved, and I can finally, finally stop watching.