We All Know About Barrow: On "Downton Abbey"

Thomas Barrow and TV's trouble with 'the Gay Character'

By Richard KramerApril 16, 2013

    We All Know About Barrow: On "Downton Abbey"

    IT WAS A SEASON OF SADNESS, a season of tsuris; the anti-Passover, I guess, as at the last minute the Angel of Death, that occasional writing partner of Julian Fellowes, stopped at Downton Abbey after all. Yes, Season Three of the most successful drama in PBS history ended with both a death and a birth, as Fellowes is a generous host. If you didn’t watch, you can read on without fear; here be no spoilers. I’ll just say that we were left with a Major Character dead on a country road, blood leaking from (gender unspecified’s) mouth. Season Four, which we won’t get for a year, will pick up six months after the Sadness. Maggie Smith, in the role of Maggie Smith, will once more in her Don-Rickles-with-a-title mode trot out the zingers, his Lordship will disapprove of something or other, and Lady Edith will defy the example set by her late sister Sybil that Girls With Ideas come to early ends. Shit may, as they say, happen at Downton, but Fellowes believes that just getting on with it is the best revenge, a worldview that helps him infallibly locate and dramatize the perfect balance between what needs to change, and what must never change, with the latter given the weight.

    Thus, the tale of Thomas, substitute valet, a tale thrilling and disheartening at once.

    Thomas is part of the downstairs world, although in his role as valet he is permitted to ascend, several times a day, to dress his Lordship. But when he returns, to his place among the Rude Mechanicals, he’s not only one of them, but he’s also, and always, odd man out. For Thomas Barrow is a Nancy boy, a poofter; today we’d call him the Gay Character (the GC, from here on), who’s a fellow I know well. Not only am I a GC myself, I’ve put several into TV shows, folding them into the heteronormative enclaves of shows like thirtysomething, and ones like Tales of the City, where they could breathe a bit more freely. In the first instance I put GC1 into bed with GC2 and implied, without resorting to a single gratuitous cum shot, that they had just Had Sex.

    The GC title doesn’t quite fit Thomas, as he lacks the dimpled outrageousness and moist nobility of present-day GCs on shows like Glee, The New Normal, and Modern Family. He isn’t bubbly; he’s a broody thing, actually like Poor Tom in King Lear, who feeds on “mice and rats, and such small deer,” along with Mrs. Patmore’s sticky pudding. He’s got sharp teeth, a snake’s tongue, a permanent sneer. “Do you think it makes people nasty to be loved?” Christopher Isherwood asks in A Single Man, written 40 years after the time of Tom’s story. “Then why should it make them nice to be loathed?”

    Poor Tom knows the others “know,” just as he knows none would ever let him know that he knows. (Ask me, when next we see each other, to tell you of the show I worked on for years, during which no one, ever, ever, asked about my life, despite “knowing.” Oh, that knowing. Oh, us open, unread books!)

    It was Season One when we first met Thomas, played by a good and handsome actor called Rob James-Collier, new to me. He wound the clocks, kissed two of Lady Mary’s suitors, hissed the bitchy remarks that told us he was queer as a rabbi on horseback. In year two he went to war, messed about with the black market, and put his hand in the path of a bullet so as to get his ass out of the trenches and back to the good great house. And now, in the season just ended, he stepped in and up as valet to Lord Grantham while the usual fellow was in the slammer for a murder he (of course) didn’t commit, a murder for which he might have been set up by, some internet whispers suggest, Thomas, himself (!)

    And then, also this season, he fell in love, or something, with Jimmy Kent, a poodle posing as a footman, an all-purpose cock tease with lush lips and a look that could mean, well, anything. Thomas reads it as a look of love, a reading that will generate lots of plot and a heap o’ trouble, even as it underscores what we all know, which is that for men like him — a.k.a Men Like That — love is only suffering, shame, and self-selected martyrdom. We do all know that, right? If we don’t, the genius of Downton Abbey is that no matter how archaic, even repellent the characters’ values might be, Fellowes somehow flatters us into believing we secretly share them, which, if we do, makes us lords and ladies, with a great house of our own.

    Thomas’s hopes were nudged along by Miss O’Brien, the lady’s maid who defies all efforts to motivate her malevolence, although one reason might be a hairdo that would drive anyone to evil, featuring two coiled hair-Slinkies that sprout from her forehead and serve, it seems, as receivers for Satan’s commands. (None of the Downton women come off too well, really; they are either bitches, fools, or nannies. The bitches include Miss O’Brien, Lady Mary, the Dowager Countess Maggie, and, I would argue, the humorless and worthy Mrs. Crawley, Matthew’s mother, who somehow strikes a tent in all three camps. The fools are Women With Ideals, such as dead Lady Sybil, and her sister Lady Edith, whose efforts at Journalism are treated as touchingly spunky and a little sad. The Head Nanny is the housekeeper Mrs. Hughes, who has all sorts of practically perfect Nannies-in-Training scurrying about, hoping to please her. And then there is Elizabeth McGovern’s Lady Grantham, a bemused and beaming American whose fortune floats the joint and who seems to be kept in line by some early version of a strong benzodiazepine. But one must feel for these women; their men are, again for the most part, either maimed, martinets, or man-sized Christopher Robins.)

    Miss O’Brien intimates to Thomas that he and Jimmy might make as sweet a pair as two Staffordshire spaniels on a mantelpiece. So perhaps Poor Tom isn’t crazy to hope (mark that verb, please) that Jimmy might not say no to the occasional white-gloved hand job whilst polishing the silver. And so he gets close, too close, with sinister sucks at a cigarette, gazing at Jimmy a beat too long and a bit too longingly. Jimmy, in the Northern accent that signals his small-mindedness, registers his disgooost (mark this word, too). But how disgooosted is he, really? He’s a slimy little climber, for sure; Thomas, as valet to his Lordship, is above him, and they both know it. So when he leaves ajar the door to his servant’s room so Thomas can, should he be there (and he will be) catch a glimpse of his hairless pudding’d flesh, how much is a signal of desire, and how much a smart playing of his hand to a man who could help him advance?

    We can’t know. This isn’t because Thomas, or Jimmy, or any Downton folk are drawn with much complexity, but because Fellowes doesn’t want us to know, at least not at this point in his story (and remember: a fourth season is on its way). He’s using Thomas to make a point — two, really — and this is where it starts to get interesting, exciting, even —

    But let me backtrack, to just before the pot comes to a boil.

    Mr. Bates, his Lordship’s regular valet, has been freed from prison, mostly due to the efforts of his wife, Anna. Thomas, in taking over Bates’s duties, has left “Thomas” behind and become the far grander Barrow. But as soon as Bates comes home it’s over for Barrow and he’s Thomas again, which is to say no one. The other servants are thrilled to have Bates back; he’s one of them, he belongs, and Poor Tom never did, or will. No one asks him, “What now? What becomes of you?” So, dramatizing his own invisibility, he retreats behind a cloud of smoke, emerging only to give unasked-for advice to Jimmy, sneaking glimpses of him that are scored to the kind of sinister music that usually signals monster, or killer.

    Thomas’s words to Jimmy have been witnessed by Miss O’Brien, who, seasoning the soup with some eye of newt, hisses that they’d make quite the “cozy couple.” (She seems progressive for a lady of her time and station, causing one to wonder if on her day off she looks in on that nice Mr. Forster in his Cambridge rooms.) Jimmy, this yenta from Hell adds, is always going on about Thomas. “Silly, sloppy stuff,” she says, separating herself from her own gender and registering her contempt for the sort of match she seems to be trying to make. But she’s done her witch’s work, for when next the two men meet Thomas ups the ante. In reply to Jimmy’s bitching about how Mr. Carson, the butler, hates him, Thomas says, “But I love you.” The great house shakes a little, its Van Dycks of former Granthams suddenly hanging askew, for Thomas has taken a bold step, one that Jimmy rather showily brushes off.

    But Tom presses on, with the first-date questions one asks when pretending to be interested in someone with whom one mostly wants to have sex. Jimmy is alone, Thomas learns, other than for Cousins, the only relations Outcasts like him ever seem to have. “Must get lonely,” Thomas says, then. Is this empathy? Is it seduction? We can’t fully know, as Thomas is shifty, because his sort are; Fellowes has buttered three seasons’ worth of toast with this point. Whatever the truth is, Thomas has just sent Jimmy a signal that he understands. They are, he remarks, in an echo of O’Brien, quite a pair.

    And we think — we hope — that he might be right, that something actual and authentic might bloom between these boys. Maybe even love? And there’s risk involved, which makes it hot; if Thomas is mistaken about Jimmy it would not only be disappointing, it would be disastrous, possibly even criminal. Miss O’Brien presses on with the prods and pokes, even as Thomas insists Jimmy is a “proper ladies’ man.” But she’s met her goal, which is to float the question. Fellowes, in the only sequence I can think of in the series that suggests a character has an inner life, cuts between Thomas, growing increasingly anxious downstairs, and Jimmy, taking his clothes off upstairs, revealing a body that is hairless, soft — and strikingly unsexual, much more a schoolboy’s than a man’s. Thomas looks so miserable (and unhealthy) that I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had sprouted fangs or his eyes had gone yellow. The beast within him is Love, Lust, Loneliness — call it what you will. But whatever its name we’re led, through acting, writing, and staging, to feel there’s something dark at work, dangerous, maybe even Unholy. As one who has occasionally lusted after footmen, I’ve got to admit these guys are onto something.

    When we next check in on Thomas we find him in his shadowed under-the-eaves lair, pacing and smoking as one will when at war with one’s nature. He looks frightened, in fact, as if at any moment he might cry out Don’t leave me out in the moonlight! You know what happened last time! The idea of a Thomas-Jimmy hookup has gone from sweet to scary, with Tom the one with the fangs. We don’t see his bare chest, for some reason, as he sinks down onto his cot, fighting grief, rage, self-pity, and horniness. Can he win this battle against his feelings? Does Fellowes want us to think it would be a far, far better thing if he did?

    But he rises, the fight now lost. As he steps into the hall his jaw muscles are at work, as if warming up for his dish of footman. Said target sleeps, turned to the camera, seemingly all eyelashes and innocence. But sleep no more, sweet Jimmy — Barrow doth murder sleep! This scene, scored, shot, and staged like a rape, also becomes a suspense sequence of will-the-fiend-get-caught? as Fellowes cuts between Thomas’s steps forward and those of the giant galoot Alfred as he climbs the stairs. Thomas, now at Jimmy’s bedside, sits down and moves in for his kiss. As he’s about to touch his own thin lips to Jimmy’s lush ones, they are interrupted. Jimmy, theatrically “horrified” and “disgoosted,” bounds from bed in a nice show for his sudden audience of Alfred, with Thomas going Blanche DuBois-crazy as he reaches for Jimmy, pleading with him to acknowledge “all there is between us.” Thomas is denied, of course, and his bold, choked little cry for closeness leaves him more alone than ever. His Lordship, learning of this moment a few scenes on, will say, “We’ve all always known about Barrow,” revealing views on homosexuality that suggest he’d fit right in at a Brentwood fundraiser for Barbara Boxer.

    The next day, placed as the next scene (which suggests in a multi-storied episode the weight Fellowes wants for this one), the servants gather for breakfast, where Thomas offers Jimmy the odd love-gift of a plate of burnt toast. Jimmy, eyeballs popping, tells the little housemaid who pines for him how pretty she looks, letting the whole staff know that he, Jimmy Kent, is no toast-eater! Thomas hides his feelings, whatever they might be (shame? disappointment? fear?) while Jimmy shoots him a look that says: Your fate is in my hands, Mr. Barrow. The other servants don’t know what happened, but they know something did.

    Miss O’Brien now stirs the pot of fast-thickening stew, urging Nephew Alfred to tell all to Mr. Carson, the butler, which he does, good lad that he is. Carson informs Thomas that what he has done is a criminal offense, but Thomas rather intriguingly cuts him off. He and Jimmy haven’t done anything, he points out. “But you were hoping to!” the butler blusters, giving an end-of-the-case nod to an unseen jury. Thomas, though, proves an able opponent. “It’s not against the law to hope,” he says, his point more powerful because of the quietness with which he makes it.

    As Carson explodes at this cheek, and from a Nancy boy, no less, I felt something shift in the room in which I was watching; a moment passed before I saw that I’d sprung up from the couch, that I was standing, that I seemed to be right there in the room with them, in Downton’s downstairs world. I cheered Thomas on, because by some stroke of storytelling magic I had just, somehow, become him. “Good for you!” I thought, or maybe even said. “For not denying the thought, or the desire.” I’d been there, facing a Mr. Carson of my own, although I didn’t have anything like Thomas’s candor; when asked, as I have been many times, “What are you looking at?” my answer has always been “Nothing.” Nothing. Because that’s what you learn to say. Thomas didn’t do that, though, and this moment didn’t feel anachronistic, or GLAAD-approved, or even brave; it felt true. He wasn’t begging for a few scraps from the tolerance table. He was saying This is who I am, whether or not anything happened, and whether or not you approve.

    So when Mr. Carson asks for a defense, Thomas doesn’t offer one. He misread a hint of mutual interest from Jimmy, that’s all. “When you’re like me,” he says, “you have to read the signs as best you can, because no one dares speak out.” Now, even though I was watching alone, I looked to whatever phantoms were in the room with me as if to ask, “Did you just hear that?” This wasn’t Masterpiece Theatre, or TV, or a Sunday night in California. This was life, as lived truthfully and specifically by a particular single man.

    And I don’t know that I’ve come across many scenes better than this in all my decades of watching TV and making it, too. It’s an irony of storytelling, or maybe of life, that at what would seem to be his moment of greatest powerlessness Thomas Barrow is at his most powerful, as he stands behind his life, claims it, doesn’t let it down. The actor plays it marvelously, too, his lips working as if in private conversation with himself, or Mr. Carson, or Downton, itself. “So I’m out the window, then,” he says at last, his words floating into a public-private middle space. Thomas has been safe behind his willingness to remain hidden while in plain sight. But that’s come to an end. “You have been twisted by nature into something foul,” Carson tells him, adding, with what charity a man of his time could muster, that even he could see that Thomas did not ask for it.

    And so, it would seem, this is the end of this man’s story. It’s not — Julian Fellowes is much too smart a writer to let a great gleaming hunk of narrative slip off into the cold wet night — but Thomas doesn’t know this. He thinks this is it, and he’s over. And it might be because he thinks this that he turns back to face Carson once more before he leaves his office. “I’m not foul, Mr. Carson,” he says, in words a dozen gay male friends have quoted, wonderingly, in the weeks since the season’s end. “I’m not the same as you,” he goes on, “but I’m not foul.” This is an extraordinary statement, because of the words, sure, but as much for the actions that have not accompanied them. Thomas’s lip has not quivered, his eyes haven’t filled with noble tears. And while he may not have taught Mr. Carson the sweet, moist Life Lesson so beloved of today’s GCs, he has taught us that he knows himself, he knows the facts of the world he lives in — and his show knows him.

    Now Fellowes goes to work, tearing at this story with greater relish than any other in the show. O’Brien, eavesdropping, learns Thomas will be leaving with a “good” reference from Mr. Carson. She runs with this to Jimmy, who seems like he’d like to forget the whole thing, until O’Brien hisses that unless he makes a complaint the others might think he was “like that,” which is of course the Fate Worse Than Death, the Worst Thing That Could Ever Happen, the trope that is far from dead in popular culture today. Jimmy marches in to tell Mr. Carson that he is going to the police, as he won’t turn a blind eye to sin.

    Thomas panics when he learns he won’t be given the reference he’ll need after 10 years at Downton, his assertions of not-foulness of no use to him if he has to account for a decade lost. He asks for one more day, so as to try to figure out some kind of next move, and Rob James-Collier again delivers in the role. Without words, without visibly acting, he suggests a soul in extremis, a situation made all the more moving by the fact that he can’t openly reveal himself. As he looks away, his mouth forming whispered half-words, he briefly travels to a secret place, finds something there, and returns to the scene, never letting Carson or us know what it is. To take nothing away from the terrific actor who plays him, he’s able to do all this, of course, thanks to the grace and favor of Julian Fellowes. As someone who has written television I envied Fellowes this moment, as I know how rare it is to find a situation that is so strong it doesn’t need words, in which eloquence is unnecessary, in which television isn’t the undersized child of theater and cinema but is wonderfully, even triumphantly, itself.

    When next we see Thomas, he is outside, at night, in the shadows, and what at first sounds like weeping reveals itself to be gasping, for a final lungful or two of Downton air to propel his departure in the morning. Mrs. Hughes, housekeeper and mother hen, sees him; when he tells her she would feel only shock and disgust if she knew the accusation against him, she twinklingly tells him, “Well, I have to hear it, now!” She’s kind, and he needs that, but she’s also just reduced his real, even desperate problem to that of a small boy whose bad dream has caused him to call, pipingly, for Nanny.

    Thomas, a scene or two later, emerges from shadows yet again, to startle and confront Mr. Bates, whose return from the slammer and subsequent reinvestiture as his Lordship’s valet has spelled Thomas’s first doom, and with whom he has a long and troubled history. “I envy you,” Thomas tells him, referring to Anna, the perky lady’s maid whose hand Bates has recently taken in marriage and who has helped him clear his name. “The happy couple,” Thomas goes on, “and everyone’s so pleased for you. Can’t imagine what that’s like.” Simple, odorless, no writing here; just words.

    But here, again, is another Thomas moment to marvel at, a moment I’ve lived but have never seen represented, perhaps because I’ve always felt that it couldn’t be. What Thomas feels here is a truth too awkward, too shameful, too not what people want in their big box entertainment. And that truth is the envy, even bitterness a gay man can feel for what he sees, rightly or wrongly, as the ease of a straight man’s life. It’s not an easy moment to own or to witness, and as I watched it I wondered if so-called “positive portrayals of gay people in the media” can comfortably include such bitterly honest observations. The GCs on New Normal and Modern Family and Glee are snippy-sweet, proudly trivial, commedia dell-arte figures fingering price tags at Design Within Reach on a Sunday afternoon. I enjoy these shows; they’re well-meaning, and well done. But don’t we deserve the whole picture? Aren’t gay people as contradictory, compromised, fucked up as anyone else? I know I am, and I’m pretty sure Thomas Barrow is. Life has taught him some rough lessons, and they haven’t sweetened him up much; in fact, they’ve made him a bit of a monster. (Isherwood again, from A Single Man: “Do you think it makes people nasty to be loved? […] Then why should it make them nice to be loathed?”)

    So here he is, facing the prospect of suddenly being someone with only a Cousin in Bombay to turn to, some Reggie or Nigel who has probably fled there for his own sad reasons and who almost surely doesn’t want Cousin Tom in for an open-ended camp-out. Bates, who knows something about hopelessness, suggests that they conspire to bring down O’Brien. But Thomas declines. “I know when I’m beaten,” he says, although he’s wrong in this case, for he doesn’t know that Men Who Are Not Like That are soon going to save him, since he so clearly can’t save himself. He’s an able cricketer, therefore of use to his Lordship, who needs him on the house’s team in an upcoming match with the “village.” In one of Fellowes’s ripest displays of classism, the servants are the ones disgoosted by Thomas’s vile non-action, while their betters are wittily above such things.

    But there are kind souls below-stairs, too, “liberals,” one might call them, who decide that they will come up with a plan to save Thomas, as it is understood by all, including Thomas himself, that he is utterly without power. Through a crafty upstairs-downstairs collaboration, one whose details don’t matter here, Thomas is spared 10 years on the treadmill, the punishment for buggery (replacing hanging) cooked up by the enlightened, pro-aerobics English penal system. His friends help him out, and darned if they don’t feel pretty anachronistically swell about it.

    Season Three’s final episode is set one year later. All’s well that ends well, or sort of well, as we see Thomas snapping out orders (“Quickly! Quickly!”) in his new role as Under-Butler. Hardly three minutes pass, though, before we see him gaze at Pretty Jimmy with that chalky undead look that almost doomed him. Didn’t his scrape with disaster teach him to hide his love away?

    I worried. Where might it lead? Internet bees buzzed that a big surprise would end the season, and that often means a death. Fellowes creates a terrific sense of dread as he splits focus between the family’s trip to a Scottish castle (I cringed every time I saw a shotgun, or when Lady Mary winced from a pang in her barely noticeable nine months’ pregnancy) and the doings of the domestics left at home, who are emboldened to actually sit on the furniture.

    The servants decide to go on an outing to the county fair. It looks like fun, too, surely more than the Family is having traipsing through the heather with a disagreeable pack of goyim. There are stuffed toys to win, Cornish pastries to devour, a tug of war with village yahoos that the Downton team, which includes Thomas and Jimmy, wins. Jimmy, even prettier and dumber a year later, struts about getting loaded and making unsportsmanlike swipes at the losers. They wait for him in a mossy little grotto, falling on him with ill intent as he staggers in. Before a punch has landed, Thomas appears in his function as valet ex machina, plucking Jimmy from the scrum and taking his place as punching bag. Jimmy dashes, offering no help, happy to let the man whom a year ago he’d have blithely sent to prison absorb the blows that he provoked. Fellowes cuts here to Mrs. Crawley, as with a different violence she rains obtuse blows on the sweet sexless hopes of the nice doctor who has touchingly hinted that he might be interested in her less as a hooker-redeemer than as someone with whom to pass the time before the next preventable Crawley death. When we go back to the grotto we (and Jimmy) see Thomas bashed and bloodied, with an odd, almost post-coital smile. Did he fight back? Who knows? Did the yobs who pulped him get called to justice? It doesn’t matter. What does is that Thomas took it in the name of his read-the-signs-Mr.-Carson love. He’s manned up, in a way he didn’t quite during the recent unpleasantness known as World War I. Sure, he’s sacrificed and suffered for nothing, but he has proven — what? Sorry, I’m not sure. But Julian Fellowes is. He has Thomas where he wants him, and we’re about to see where that is.

    When we return to the tale of Thomas we find him in his room, on his bed, plastered and grotesque, his own considerable beauty punished and ruined. Jimmy appears, come to let Tom know he regards what he did for him at the fair not as crazy but “brave.” He asks Thomas if he was following him, and Thomas admits he was. “I like to keep an eye out,” he says, as his own swells further shut. When Jimmy presses for a why Thomas says, “You know why.”

    Again, I need to ask some questions. Does he? Do we? Could anyone? And again, I know that the answer to that last question is — yes, Fellowes knows, as he should, for he is the true master of Downton and squire of its attitudes. We intuit what we’re supposed to, without the need of words, an unquestionable “truth” that keeps the great house in order and the great world spinning. Thomas does what he does because that is what Men Like That do, those poor dears who never give up hoping, like little dogs who for 10 years wait at the train for their dead master to return. (“It’s not against the law to hope, is it, Mr. Carson?”) Jimmy pulls up a chair now, close but not too close to Tom’s bed. He can never give Thomas what he “wants,” which, after studying and poking at these episodes, is still unclear to me. Did Thomas want to fuck him, or be fucked by him? It could be anything, but whatever it is — Thomas understands, because GCs do. They don’t have families, or normal feelings, so that leaves them a lot of time to understand. And they understand, most of all, that the best they can hope for is a bit of gristle from the roast, the bits left behind on the platter, hidden under the fast-congealing fat. He tells Jimmy that he would like to be “friends,” if Jimmy could see it in his heart. Again, again: why? And again — unclear. What is there to like about this vain little coward, whose disgoost has given him the power in this musty room? Jimmy agrees. Yes! Friends. “Thank you,” Thomas tells him, just suppressing one of those gallant little GC sobs.

    I suppressed one, too. But mine was a cry of frustration. Because Julian Fellowes, and Rob James-Collier, and the BBC — even you, Laura Linney — had shown me something new, and rich, and strange. They’d shown me how it is to be this man, in a way that was authentic, close to home, and real. And then, just minutes on, they snatched it out of my hands, with births and deaths and a shopgirl’s ironies, taking this man Thomas Barrow, whom they’d let me see whole, and reducing him once again to a cliché.

    It broke my heart. Poor Tom, indeed. I hope he finds love in the fourth year. We’ve learned that the actress who plays O’Brien won’t be returning, so maybe his luck will improve. A crumb, maybe, could become a loaf. I’ll be watching.


    LARB Contributor

    Richard Kramer is the award-winning writer, director and producer of TV series, including Thirtysomething, My So-called Life, and Tales of the City. His first novel, These Things Happen, was published in 2012 and is in development as a TV series.


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