Before we all became addicted to “Downton Abbey,” the Emmy and Golden Globe award winning PBS “Masterpiece” program now in its second season, lords and ladies, dukes and dowagers, weren’t on my radar screen.
Since being seduced by the siren song of “Downton,” I’ve been obsessed with butlers and ladies, maids and an earls and valets aficionado. (Season two of “Downton Abbey” is just out on DVD.)
Like “Mad Men,” “Downton” has created a complex world of villainy, drama, romance, characters and style. Its wit, design and costumes are a special treat. Most surprising, given that the first two seasons of “Downton” take place from 1912-1919 in England, where being queer was illegal (not long after gay writer Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for “gross indecency”), the show features a gay character: Thomas Barrow, a footman who is a soldier in World War I (played brilliantly by Rob James-Collier).
Thomas, though closeted and a servant, is far from shy or servile. He lustily kisses a duke and hits on a Turkish diplomat. He’s smart, alert, and, here’s the kicker, a villain.
“Downton Abbey” is the story of the Crawley family and their servants (from the footmen to the chauffeur). The “upstairs” people (the Earl and Countess of Grantham, their daughters, and the inimitable Dowager Countess, played by Maggie Smith) and the “downstairs” folk (including the ladies maid Sarah O’Brien, the butler Charles Carson and the housekeeper Mrs. Hughes) form a tight-knit community. The underpaid servants do exhausting work for long hours and the Crawleys endure woes from losing their cousin (and heir) on the Titanic to being jilted in love. Despite these class divisions, they’re a “family,” working to preserve the estate and to serve their country in World War I.
Each family (at least in a riveting TV series) needs a black sheep. Thomas (often acting in cahoots with O’Brien) splendidly fulfils this role. He’s everything you wouldn’t want your son, lover, father or brother to be — manipulative, untrustworthy and, mostly, unfeeling. I’m sure I’d loathe him in real life. Yet, (it’s a guilty pleasure to admit this), as a fictional character, I’ve come to like the cad.
Here are just a few of Thomas’ dastardly deeds. He blackmails a duke who visits the Crawleys. Thomas threatens to expose some compromising letters because the duke, an aristocrat with whom he’s had a “dalliance,” wouldn’t promise to give him a job. “One swallow doesn’t make a summer,” the duke says to Thomas, throwing him over.
Thomas falsely accuses Mr. Bates, Lord Grantham’s valet, of stealing bottles of wine because he feels unjustly passed over for Bates’ position. While overseas during the war, Thomas is sent home with a self-inflicted wound. When Downton Abbey becomes a convalescent home for wounded soldiers, Thomas, as manager of the facility, is rude and imperious to everyone. “I want tea right away!” he snaps at Daisy, the young kitchen maid (who, not knowing he’s gay, has a crush on him).
Why do I like Thomas even though he’s often so cruel? Because when the class system in England was entrenched, and you could go to jail if you spoke gay love’s name, Thomas dares to fight class restrictions and express his sexuality. As “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes said of Thomas in “The New York Times,” “He’s not just horrible. To get any kind of emotional life going, he’s got to take his own life in his hands every time.”
Occasionally, Thomas, perhaps, because he’s queer, is empathetic. He’s teary-eyed when blinded vets are discharged from the hospital. “I’m different like you,” he tells a disabled soldier.
Thankfully, we’ve reached a point where not all LGBT TV characters have to be saints.
Bring on the tea and coronets, Downton Abbey. I can’t wait to see what happens next.