Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Thomas Affair

Although I'm by no means an avid watcher of the popular Downton Abbey TV series, I did make a point of watching last week's episode which focused in large part on the show's homosexual character, Thomas Barrow.

Last April, when I made a brief return to Australia, I watched the entire first season of Downton Abbey on the in-flight entertainment system. (Hey, it is a thirteen-hour flight!) It's certainly a well-made show, and I got involved enough to decide that my two favorite characters are the modern and liberal Mrs. Crawley and the firm but kind Mrs. Hughes, housekeeper of Downton Abbey. Season One also introduced me to the handsome but not-very-likable footman Thomas, who, along with the equally unlikable Miss O'Brien, was forever scheming to undermine his fellow staff members, most notably Mr. Bates, the new valet to Lord Grantham, master of Downton Abbey.

Anyway, after this first introduction to Downton Abbey, I never really bothered to revisit the show. To be honest, I found many of the plot lines just too far-fetched – chief among them the whole storyline involving the hot young Ottoman attaché dying during lovemaking with Lady Mary. The cover-up of the incident by Mary's mother Lady Cora and the housemaid Anna, along with efforts of Cora and the Dowager Countess of Grantham to prevent a public scandal that would ruin Mary's marriage prospects, dominate much of Season One.

I was curious, though, to revisit the show after hearing about last week's Season 3 episode involving Thomas. Here's the gist of it: Since Season One, Thomas and O'Brien have had a falling out, the details of which I'm unaware. What I do know is that O'Brien is determined to ruin Thomas, and, knowing that he's homosexual, she encourages him to put the moves on the new footman, the young and handsome Jimmy. Jimmy, however, isn't homosexual, and O'Brien knows it. But she tells all kinds of lies to Thomas to make him think that Jimmy fancies him as much as he fancies Jimmy. You can see where this is going, can't you?

Sure enough, Thomas makes a move, Jimmy freaks out, O'Brien pushes Jimmy to go to the police, and Thomas' whole future looks extremely dire indeed. Remember, homosexuality was illegal in Britain in the 1920s, and punishable by a harsh prison term.

Yet Thomas doesn't end up in prison. Many of the staff come to his defense, as does even Lord Grantham, in his own way. Such a turn of events managed to upset all kinds of viewers. Liberal folks thought in totally implausible that so many of Thomas' colleagues would have been so forgiving and accepting. Accordingly, the show failed to depict the terrible reality faced by homosexual people of that era. Others thought the show was serving as a propaganda piece for the so-called 'homosexual agenda,' just another example of the pro-gay media "ramming it down our throats" – an expression which, giving the topic, always makes me chuckle!

And so I watched last week's episode online a few days after its broadcast on PBS, and, yes, I found it all rather implausible – including the way Thomas makes his move on Jimmy. I must say, though, I really felt for poor Thomas after he realizes his mistake. I think he has genuine feelings for Jimmy – as evidenced by the way he had earlier engaged him in conversation at the kitchen table. Also, if Thomas simply wanted to get his rocks off, and if he believed Jimmy felt the same, then I think Jimmy would have woken up with Thomas' lips on an entirely different part of his anatomy than his mouth. That Thomas chose to kiss Jimmy tenderly on the mouth says something, I believe, of Thomas' desire for sexual intimacy, not just sexual activity. It tells us that Thomas saw Jimmy as a subject with whom he wanted to be relationship, and not simply as an object to exploit.

I haven't been the only one pondering last week's storyline involving Thomas. Here's a sampling of what others are saying, including Rob James-Collier, the actor who plays Thomas:

Why did Thomas think it was a good idea to put the moves on Jimmy in the middle of the night? As a gay man forced to live in metaphorical shadows, Thomas presumably felt that the only time he could act on his feelings was under the cover of darkness. But even if Jimmy had reciprocated Thomas’s affections – and for the record, I think maybe, deep down, he does – he still would have been creeped out by such an unanticipated mouth invasion. Bad choice, Mr. Barrow. Still, all credit to Thomas for being honest about what happened and defending himself against Carson’s slurs: “I’m not foul, Mr. Carson.” Thomas was never foul because of his sexual orientation. And for once, he’s not even foul for any other reason.
February 11, 2013

One of the great things about Thomas is that, despite being such a delectable, over-the-top villain, he does have a vulnerable side, one that’s actually quite convincing.

He’s a gay man living at a time when living an honest life required breaking the law, and when someone like Carson could say, “You have been twisted by nature into something foul” and mean it sympathetically. He’s also a working-class lad with higher aspirations that will never be realized, thanks to a ludicrously unfair economic system. Yes, he channels his frustrations in unproductive ways, but Thomas’ motives are often more understandable than those of his peers.

His late-night high jinks immediately send shockwaves through the house. Carson, desperately afraid of scandal, allows Thomas to resign and promises him a good letter of recommendation, but when O’Brien pulls one of her Jedi mind tricks on Jimmy, Thomas is pretty much doomed. Bates, sensitive to unjust persecution . . . decides to intervene . . .

– Meredith Blake
"'Twisted by Nature Into Something Foul'"
Los Angeles Times
February 11, 2013

[Rob James-Collier], who has become an instantly recognizable face both in the UK and abroad through his sensitive portrayal of the complex [Thomas], has enjoyed bringing out Thomas’ more vulnerable side in the most recent series.

Of the celebrated kissing scene, he described his character as "going through a whole mill of emotions, essentially destroyed by the manipulation of O'Brien."

"I got a lot of response," he said. "People were feeling sorry for Thomas and that's never happened. He's been undone by love. People identify with being heartbroken. We've all been heartbroken, haven't we? I've been dumped, and it feels horrible.

“He’s not evil, he’s misunderstood,” he [says], and gave an impassioned defense of his character, both because Thomas was gay during a closeted Edwardian age, and because of his behavior during the First World War as depicted in Series 2.

The Huffington Post
January 11, 2013

O'Brien's scheme accomplished zero, except to cause lots of pain and to shove Thomas' sexuality into the spotlight. What did you think of the way various characters reacted? Lord Grantham seemed to deem it no biggie. Mrs. Hughes was all understanding and good wishes. And while Carson made it clear he found Thomas "foul" and "revolting" and due to be "horsewhipped," he also noted that he thinks being gay is bestowed by nature and not something one chooses.

February 10, 2013

For the time and place, homosexuality was treated as a crime, which is why both Jimmy and Alfred wanted to report [Thomas] to the authorities. The more religiously conservative members of the household also felt that Thomas brought his repugnant sin into the house. "I cannot hide that I find your situation revolting," Mr. Carson told him. "You have been twisted by nature into something foul."

– Hanh Nguyen
"Was Thomas' Downfall Deserved?"
TV Guide
February 10, 2013

I was surprised by how moved I was by Thomas' plight – proud of him, even. He didn't deny his gayness, and he stood up for himself when he told Mr. Carson, "I'm not the same as you, but I'm not foul." And I loved Lord Grantham's admission that "If I screamed blue murder every time someone tried to kiss me at Eton, I'd have gone hoarse in a month."

I think [Downton Abbey creator] Julian Fellowes did a good job of finding credible reasons for the servants to stand up for Thomas: Mrs. Hughes didn't want to see a man who'd been wounded serving king and country ruined by a vain, flirtatious young whippersnapper like Jimmy. Bates thought Jimmy was being a "big girl's blouse" (a phrase that seemed anachronistic since I knew it as the catchphrase of the great Northern comic Hylda Baker); and the rest of the downstairs crew were appalled at the thought of one of their number being dismissed without a reference.

At the same time, Thomas seems doomed to a life of loneliness at Downton. I suspect that . . . he'd be happier in a place where no one knows his story.

February 10, 2013

Actor Rob James-Collier did a great job of conveying Thomas’ struggle. After years of loneliness and contempt, love seemed to be calling from across the hall. He knew the risks – a beating, dismissal, jail – but he gave in to his romantic side and kissed the man he had been told was mooning over him. There was no suggestion of Thomas forcing himself on Jimmy, who is physically strong and an independent thinker; he was simply making the first move.

– June Thomas

Rob James-Collier stole the episode with his confusion and angst, surprising Thomas doubters into unexpected compassion as he pointed out to a befuddled Mr Carson, "It's not against the law to hope, is it?"

– Caroline Frost
"Doubting Thomas Steals the Show with Kissing Confusion
The Huffington Post
October 28, 2012

Related Off-site Links:
Downton Abbey Official Site (UK)
Downtown Abbey Official Site (US)
Guys Are Down with Downton Abbey – Cynthia Mccormick (Cape Cod Times, February 16, 2013).
Downton Abbey: What Does the Cast Really Look Like?Yahoo TV (February 2013).
Dan Stevens: Why I Left Downton Abbey – Sarah Crompton (The Telegraph, December 26, 2012).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Don Gorton on the Significance of Maurice (Part 1)
Don Gorton on the Significance of Maurice (Part 2)
E. M. Forster's "Elusive Ideal"
At Swim, Two Boys: A Beautiful Novel
Something to Think About – February 14, 2013


Liam said...

O'Brien's fall-out from Thomas arose from the fact that Thomas set her nephew Alfred, a new footman who she was trying help succeed, up for a very embarrassing failure.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks for that background info, Liam!