Though he’s taken a bit of a back seat this season, Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) has always been among the most important figures in the world of Downton Abbey. He was the series’ seminal villain, and while that portrait was eventually filled in with the color of his own pathos, rendering him in a more ambiguous shade of grey, Thomas hasn’t really altered his outward presentation to the world. He remains vaguely aloof, above it all, barely disguising his scorn for those around him, while cultivating a mannered air about himself. A man once portrayed as little more than ambitious and self-serving, Thomas steps into the limelight this week with what is essentially the climax of his season-long storyline: his internecine feud with O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran). Of course, a storyline is not a character arc, so while we can say that Thomas has spent the better part of a season as a figure of contrast with new footmen Alfred Nugent (Matt Milne) and Jimmy Kent (Ed Speelers), that doesn’t tell us anything about his personal journey. The simple fact is that one of Downton Abbey’s seminal schemers is being manipulated himself, and it’s truly harrowing television, commenting upon a very modern, yet universal, concern: misunderstanding.
While it would be pretty simple for me to just write that the “misunderstanding” in question is how Thomas is manipulated into thinking Jimmy reciprocates his yearnings, it actually goes a bit deeper than that. Beyond describing a quarrel or disagreement, “misunderstanding” denotes 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. We’re lucky to live in a more accepting age (although this era still leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to acceptance without judgment), but Thomas, unfortunately, will never live to see the day where misinterpreting the signals from another man won’t lead to his complete and utter ruin. While we don’t know what Carson intends to do with Thomas at the moment, it’s hard to imagine that he will allow the erstwhile Mr. Barrow to continue on unabated.
O’Brien, for her part, has been after Thomas all season. Their rivalry has been brewing for a while now, and it’s only been made worse by Thomas’s mistreatment of her nephew, Alfred (who I’m still convinced is secretly her child, though I have no evidence from within the narrative or externally to support this, so I might as well be throwing darts in the dark). Once Jimmy confessed last week to how uncomfortable Thomas’ constant touching made him, O’Brien’s scheme became pretty clear, and she wastes no time setting it into motion this week, telling Thomas that Alfred told her how Jimmy won’t stop talking about how fond he is of Mr. Barrow, stating that it’s a sloppy sort of longing on Jimmy’s part (implying a yearning that’s more overtly sexual than Thomas’ last affair, with the Duke of Crowborough).
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, presenting an understanding front to someone as guarded as Thomas, a man in constant search of just that kind of understanding, but always mistrustful of it whenever he should come across someone who treats him well (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, even if she didn’t know his secret). Thomas presents an aloof front, stating that he has no idea what O’Brien is talking about, but she knows that the idea has already taken root in Thomas’ mind, preying upon his desire to see what he wants to see, to believe that Jimmy is someone who gets it.
Naturally, that turns out not to be the case at all, as Thomas sneaks into Jimmy’s room while he’s sleeping, and plants a kiss on him, which Alfred witnesses. 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 there is between them. But Jimmy is having none of it, kicking Thomas out of his room before he decides to punch his lights out. Thomas appears on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Where once he had been so careful to remain discreet, he’s now nakedly vulnerable. 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 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. Hell, it doesn’t seem like there’s anybody even willing to try. Sure, he’s been a jerk for much of the series, but it’s hardly been a one-dimensional portrayal. His actions are weighted by the burden of his loneliness, a solitude that has emotionally impoverished him. Because, as a very wise woman once said, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”
While the business with Thomas was the biggest issue on Downton this week, there is probably more going on in this episode than any other episode so far this season, given just how many plates are spinning at once. Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) travels to London to meet with the editor of the newspaper, and the man is clearly interested in more than just her writing talents. I’d love to get a substantial romantic arc with Lady Edith. Not the chaste, Sir Anthony Strallan-type of romance, but the broad, sweeping, Mary/Matthew-type of romance. At this point, I’d even take a Sybil/Branson-type of romance so long as Edith gets to do something more than be the Jan Brady of the Crawley family. I really am quite taken with her, after a fashion.
There’s also a thread following the continued struggle of Ethel Parks (Amy Nuttall), who is something of a passion project for cousin Isobel (Penelope Wilton), even while the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) is scandalized by Ethel’s continued employment. Violet correctly deduces that it’s going to be immeasurably difficult for Ethel to overcome the strength of opinion against her, and so suggests employment out of town, given that her cooking skills have considerably improved, and she’d likely secure steady employment with a strong recommendation from a Crawley. However, Isobel is married to her sense of duty, which ultimately blinds her to what’s best for her charges, and so, although she raises the matter to Ethel, she stops just short of informing her of Violet’s suggestion. It’s somehow simultaneously noble and selfish on Isobel’s part: the desire to do good, undermined by the subconscious need to be a martyr about everything.
Isobel is desperate in her own way, continually looking for excuses to continue helping people who probably no longer need it, simply because she doesn’t want anyone to succeed unless it’s with her help. Ethel has the opportunity to get a fresh start somewhere new, and the possibility is almost enough to get Isobel to consider letting her try, but she wants to believe that Ethel is doing just fine where she is, and doesn’t need anyone else’s help but hers. “Are you happy?” Isobel asks. And it’s perhaps the stupidest question anyone has ever asked another person on this show. Ethel, for her part, tries to smile through it, but she’s clearly very far from happy.
In other huge news, Bates (Brendan Coyle) is finally free. It should feel like a MUCH bigger deal than it is, especially given that the prison business never seemed to want to end. But Bates’ first steps as a free man are dispensed with inside the first few seconds of the episode. I really can’t argue with that choice though, as the romance between Anna and Bates has been among the more subdued romances of the series. They have the more traditional melodramatic complications to keep them apart, but beyond that, there’s none of the sweeping grandeur of an epic romance. And that’s fine, because that’s not who these two people are. Bates is looking to have his job back as the Robert’s valet, but that requires finding a different position for Thomas. Bates still holds a grudge against Thomas, but assuming that Thomas is likely looking at an ouster from Downton, that might end up blowing over sooner rather than later.
Also in this episode (did I mention this episode was packed?), Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Robert (Hugh Bonneville) continue to differ on the running of the estate. 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.” Much of the episode on this end is spent figuring out how Downton will be salvaged, moving forward, although we take brief detours into Matthew and Mary (Michelle Dockery), and their continued inability to conceive, with Matthew feeling he should maybe get checked out. Mary won’t hear of it, insisting that they will have children – it will just take time. To help alleviate the burden of running the estate alone, Violet, Mary and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) talk Robert into hiring Branson (Allen Leech) for the position. Tom readily accepts, and though the arrival of his drunkard brother to Downton Abbey causes a brief stir, it seems as if Tom and Robert are making amends, in their own way. Robert 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. For once, the entire clan, in-laws included, feel like a unified family. It really is a surprisingly lovely development, even if Robert is still far from full acceptance.
The preview gave no indication of what to really expect for next week’s finale, but some of the best episodes of Downton Abbey have very misleading previews, so color me intrigued as to how they’ll close out this relatively stellar season.