Recap and review of Downton Abbey – Season 3 Episode 6:
Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) has always been one of Downton Abbey‘s most significant figures, and it’s never been more evident than in tonight’s double episode, which aired separately in the UK. He was the series’ seminal villain, and while that portrait has been given color and nuance over the seasons, Thomas hasn’t done much to change his outward presentation to the world. He maintains a certain amount of distance, manifesting a pervasive quality of scorn for those around him. Yet the simple fact remains that one of Downton Abbey’s foremost schemers gets manipulated himself, and it’s truly harrowing television, commenting upon a very modern, yet universal, concern: misunderstanding. While, in the general sense, a “misunderstanding” could be used to describe Thomas’ mistaken notion, planted by O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran), that Jimmy (Ed Speelers) carried a torch for him, the word also describes “an inability to comprehend or identify”. It isn’t simply that Thomas misreads the situation, it’s that the world around Thomas misreads him. Carson (Jim Carter), God bless him, will never understand what Thomas is going through, and he doesn’t really try to either, despite many of his superiors being nonplussed by the supposed revelation of Thomas’ sexuality. We’re lucky to live in a more tolerant age (even if this era isn’t nearly as tolerant as common decency would facilitate), but Thomas, unfortunately, will never live to see the day where misinterpreting the signals from another man won’t lead to a man’s complete and utter ruin.
O’Brien insists that she’s on to Thomas, and that it’s okay to come clean with her. It’s a particularly disgusting tactic on O’Brien’s part, as she should know better than anyone that Thomas has always been in search of understanding, yet remains inherently distrustful of others’ kindness towards him (hence, his devastated reaction to Lady Sybil’s death, as she had been among the few in his life with whom he ever felt understood at a basic human level). Thomas pretends he has no idea what O’Brien is talking about when she makes her inferences, but she knows that the idea has already begun to take root in Thomas’ mind, an idea that feeds on his desperation to see in Jimmy what he wants to believe is there. And as we could have anticipated, Jimmy couldn’t be farther removed from Thomas’ lifestyle. When Thomas sneaks into Jimmy’s room while he’s sleeping, and plants a kiss on him, Jimmy flies into a rage, and Thomas attempts to justify his actions by repeating all the romantic inferences he heard from O’Brien, talking about all that exists between them. But Jimmy is having none of it, kicking Thomas out of his room before he decides to punch his lights out. Alfred (Matt Milne) witnesses the whole thing, though he seems somewhat uncertain as to what, exactly, it is that he’s seen. Thomas, for his part, is on the cusp of a nervous breakdown. It’s tragic, in more ways than one, particularly when O’Brien convinces Alfred to confess what he saw to Carson, as this leads to Thomas having to explain that his lifestyle brings with it certain risks, such as the possibility of misreading another man’s signs. Because, really, subtle signals are all he has to go on to find others of his own kind. Thomas is perhaps Downton Abbey’s most heartbreakingly lonely character. He has no family, no one who genuinely loves him, and worse, no one who understands him. His actions have long been weighted by the burden of his loneliness, a solitude that has emotionally impoverished him. As a very wise woman once said, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”
Carson (Jim Carter) cannot abide Thomas’ continued employment, and gives him his notice, though Carson at least intends to see Thomas off with a reference. However, the scheming of O’Brien convinces Jimmy not to allow the matter to pass. Rob James-Collier is such a tremendous force in this episode, imbuing Thomas with a defeated weariness. It’s a performance that strips Thomas of his customarily smug self-certainy, and instead illustrating a person who’d rather take his licks and go, instead of fighting back and risking having the entire sordid enterprise come to light. Yet it’s Bates (Brendan Coyle), of all people, who takes up his cause. Given their previous enmity towards one another, it would be only natural for Bates, fresh out of prison and in a rapturous honeymoon phase with Anna (Joanne Froggatt), to relish in Thomas’ downfall. But prison has changed him. He knows what it’s like to feel powerless, and so he implores Thomas to give him some kind of information by which he can blackmail O’Brien. The information Thomas gives Bates is little more than a phrase, but one that holds great power with both O’Brien and the viewer: “Her ladyship’s soap.” Neither Bates nor Anna understand it, but the ploy works. O’Brien folds quicker than Superman on laundry day, and goes out of her way to convince Jimmy to let the matter with Thomas go, insisting that he speak with Carson and recant his objection to Thomas receiving a letter of reference. It’s hard to believe that O’Brien will ever truly get over having spitefully placed a bar of soap just below Cora’s (Elizabeth McGovern) bath tub, causing her to slip and fall, resulting in the miscarriage of a boy whose birth could have settled the succession of Downton Abbey, once and for all. In her desperation to get Jimmy to change his mind, we can see how heavily the guilt weighs upon her, and it’s to Siobhan Finneran’s credit that we almost feel something akin to sympathy for her, in spite of all that she’s done.
Of course, in an unexpected domino effect, Jimmy removing opposition to Thomas receiving a reference leads to Robert (Hugh Bonneville) deciding to keep Thomas on, under the assumption that it can’t be that big of a deal if Jimmy is relenting. The lack of a position for Thomas to fill leads to Robert promoting him to under-butler, a position that would ironically place him above Bates. Meanwhile, in return for not making a big stink about the misunderstanding, Robert promotes Jimmy to first footman – because Robert, if not exactly progressive in any other sense, seems to have a more modern, 21st century mindset about Thomas’ right to be with whom he chooses, or, at the very least, his right to privacy. And it instantly makes Robert likable again – and man, does Robert need a few wins in his column after the last few weeks, particularly after his quarrels with Matthew (Dan Stevens) escalate. Matthew feels that Downton should be self-sustaining, and not have to rely on Cora’s fortune or eleventh hour bailouts from a dead man’s inheritance. Jarvis, the manager of the estate for the last forty years, takes grave offense to Matthew’s assertions that the estate has been poorly run, and resigns with a pretty great kiss-off line to Matthew (paraphrased): “I am the old broom, and you are the new. I wish you luck in your sweeping.” As if catalyzed by that passive-aggressive bit of well-wishing, Matthew elects to bring Branson (Allen Leech) on as the new estate manager, which Tom readily accepts, although the arrival of the Irishman’s drunkard brother causes a brief stir (though not enough to disrupt what’s been a pretty remarkable rehabilitation for Branson’s image in the Crawley family). Robert even seems to be coming around on Branson. He still isn’t on board with the Catholic baptism, but he agrees to attend when Tom emotionally details how it’s what Sybil would have wanted and, for once, the entire clan, in-laws included, feels like a unified family.
On the subject of family, there is the continued issue of Matthew and Mary’s (Michelle Dockery) attempts to have a baby, with Matthew visiting a doctor, and discovering Mary arriving for an appointment as he’s leaving. Mary is visiting for a follow-up to a mysterious operation she’s had for an even vaguer condition, and it’s particularly puzzling that Matthew doesn’t delve deeper for answers, but he’s just so stoked at the prospect of finally getting on with the business of making babies that he doesn’t seem to care all that much about the procedure his wife has gotten. It’s really weird how Matthew and Mary become exponentially less interesting once we couldn’t root for them to be together anymore. Soap operas somehow become less compelling once any of the characters become happy, although the presence of the baby-makin’ plot at least gives the audience something new to root for with those two. Maybe they can give baby Sybil a cousin to grow up with, since Branson has decided to live at Downton while the little girl grows up. It’s a fitting elucidation of the theme for the episode, that of family and community: whether through the blood connections of the upstairs portion of Downton Abbey, or the piecemeal community downstairs, who have come to regard themselves, if not a family, as a group of individuals compelled to look out for one another. It’s a more engaging line of pursuit, at least, than the episode-long arc involving a House vs. Villagers cricket match. Or the romance between Edith (Laura Carmichael) and her editor that’s straight out of Jane Eyre, as it’s revealed that the editor is trapped in a Mr. Rochester-like marriage to an insane, institutionalized Bertha Mason-esque character whom he can’t divorce, or Ethel’s (Amy Nuttall) continued search for employment outside of Isobel Crawley’s (Penelope Wilton) house. Yet any one of those storylines feels more germane to the episode than the sudden introduction of Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James), a great niece of Robert’s sister, Lady Rosamund Painswick (Samantha Bond).
Rose is modern to a degree that proves frustrating to her family, as the girl cavorts around town with a married man, leading the trio of Matthew, Edith, and Lady Rosamund tracking her down to a hot jazz club called the Blue Dragon, where she’s dressed like a flapper and making out with her hitched suitor in full view. It’s not very interesting in the story it tells, though Lily James exudes a certain affability as Rose, even if she’s the kind of character that needs to be given a much sterner talking-to than Matthew was able to muster. The Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), at least, is given ample opportunity to concoct some schemes of her own, in the service of preserving the integrity of the family by getting Rose sent away. She also has some great observations on parenting (“‘the on-and-on’-ness of it”), particularly her pride in having spent an hour with her children each day after tea. It’s all wonderfully witty and a classic return to form for the Dowager Countess, whose comic wit has too long been absent.
Though Sybil’s death was the turning point of Downton Abbey’s third season, these storylines represent, more than anything else, what the show is going to be, moving forward, as the show draws the disparate threads of the upstairs and downstairs stories closer together, creating a more palpable sense of community.