[Editor’s note: The following post contains some spoilers for “Downton Abbey: A New Era.”]
Thomas Barrow, dashing butler of “Downton Abbey,” has taken quite a journey from nefarious footman to stalwart captain of the Grantham household. Played by the effortlessly poised Robert James-Collier, Thomas launched the early days of “Downton Abbey,” when it was still just a runaway hit TV series, as a slick foil to the good-natured characters filling out most of the wholesome storylines. Over the seasons, the series revealed that Thomas’ schemes were motivated by his struggle as a closeted gay man living in early 20th century England. The character softened when he was slowly accepted by the household, upstairs and downstairs, revealing his tender heart and desire to find love.
But fans were disappointed by Thomas’ storyline in the first movie, “Downton Abbey” (2019), which dangled the possibility of romance for Thomas only to end in a violent brush with the law. At the time, director Michael Engler defended the storyline as “realistic,” calling it a “reminder, in a few places here and there, that it’s not so kind of rosy and easy for everybody.”
But “Downton Abbey” has never prioritized historical accuracy over happy endings for any of its other characters, all of whom are straight. The second season saw Lady Sibyl (Jessica Brown Findlay) falling in love with chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leech), and though their match wasn’t entirely smooth sailing, Tom is now firmly accepted as part of the family. There have been so many romances throughout the many iterations of “Downton Abbey” that it often feels like a childhood game of dolls, with each class or age-appropriate duo eventually pairing off and settling down.
Why can’t Thomas Barrow have his own happy ending? That’s something “Downton Abbey: A New Era” is very much hoping to correct.
Created by Julian Fellowes, “Downton Abbey” follows the lives of a British noble family and their household servants with equal measure, using the stately manor as a site of (mostly) amiable class collision. The first season of the series begins in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic, and the franchise has since expanded to the comfort of the roaring twenties, setting its second movie, “Downton Abbey: A New Era,” in 1926. The film sends half the family to the South of France, mining comedy from seeing the pasty British boiling in the French summer heat, while the rest stay behind as a Hollywood crew films at Downton.
All the servants are thrilled to have famous movie stars in their midst, including the charismatic Guy Dexter, played by none other than Dominic West (AKA Jimmy McNulty). Though his co-star is far less friendly, Dexter charms the servants and family members with his impeccable manners and approachable nature.
At first, Thomas thinks nothing of the particular interest the movie shows him, brushing off his advances as mere kindness. But by the film’s end, Dexter makes an offer that would allow Thomas to live his life without fear or shame — to move with the massive star to Hollywood, where he will publicly serve as his dresser, but can privately be more — as he describes it to the always-understanding Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery).
It’s an unconventional arrangement and the two men don’t even seal it with a kiss (just a smile), but Fellowes has found his period-appropriate resolution to Thomas’ desire to live with someone he loves without fear of appraisal, while the fans get their happy ending to boot. And yes, while Downton’s new era may feel restrained in 2022, there’s no doubt that Thomas has come a long way and is finally able to do something revolutionary for the time — live life on his own terms, upstairs, downstairs, and in between.