From his first appearance in episode two, it would be hard to tell that Joseph Molesley would become one of Downton Abbey’s most endearing characters. From butler to valet to laborer to footman, Molesley has a list of occupations rivaled only by Thomas. The backwards progression of these jobs naturally lead to a consistent suffering matched only by Lady Edith. Yet as season five comes to a close, Molesley goes on, earning both the adoration and respect of his fellow workers and viewers alike.
Molesley begins his time on Downton as the butler to Mrs. Crawley, a job that appears to have been organized by either Robert or Violet as Molesley was away from the area at the start of the show. He continued to be a minor character and occasional comic relief throughout the first season. His standout moment was perhaps when Matthew struggled to embrace his services, creating a unique moment where the lavish excess of the upper class is countered by the pride that a person like Molesley takes in his duties.
We see this evolve in season two as Molesley finds himself with little to do in Mrs. Crawley’s absence. Rather than sit around twiddling his thumbs, Molesley makes himself useful at the big house. This is overshadowed by his accidental drunkenness brought on by wine tasting and his failed romantic overtures directed at Anna. Season two establishes Molesley as the good-natured Mr. Bean like klutz destined to be Julian Fellows’ whipping boy.
This “Molesley must suffer” mentality continues in season three. With Matthew engaged to Lady Mary, it makes sense that Molesley would be destined for the big house as the valet to the heir of Downton. Problem is that Matthew doesn’t want a valet. But then he gets one for some strange reason, only it’s not Molesley. It’s Alfred. Without the interference by a jealous Thomas, who insisted that Alfred was not ready for such duties, Molesley might still be in the service of Mrs. Crawley.
Molesley’s high status as Matthew’s valet was short lived. While Mary and Mrs. Crawley could recover their statuses following Matthew’s death, there was no one for Molesley to valet for. Season four showed Fellows’ love of making Molesley suffer as convenient landing destinations for his services were foiled using spotty logic. Mrs. Crawley could’ve easily taken him back as butler and Spratt could have been kicked to the curb following his sabotage of Molesley’s audition. So poor Joesph had to settle for the lowly job of second footman.
The problem is that the positive outcomes would’ve taken him away from the big house, which at this point is where he belongs. The staff has taken quite a beating over the past two years, seeing O’Brien, Alfred, Jimmy, and Ivy all leave. The latter three weren’t exactly replaced by new characters, making Molesley even more important.
There are two distinct versions of Molesley that the viewer gets to see. There’s the drunken bumblehead who loses at cricket and can’t seem to catch a break. But then there’s the man who shows a genuine desire to help others like Baxter and Daisy and of course, the strong man victory in the season three Christmas special.
Mrs. Patmore’s scolding of Daisy for her treatment of Molesley was what prompted me to write this article. In telling Daisy to be nice to people who are kind, Patmore reminds us why people like Molesley are special. They’re rare.
Molesley has had his fair shares of ups and downs, but besides his reluctance to accept the footman position, which received a rather rude response from Carson, he takes his fortunes in stride (even his strong man carnival victory). How many of us can say the same?
Through five seasons, Molesley has grown from a background comic relief figure to the heart and soul of Downton Abbey. He’s an older worker facing uncertain times without the capital of Carson, Hughes, Patmore, and the Bates, who can all invest in retirement options. But you wouldn’t know that just by looking at him. He’s neither the best looking nor the most interesting person on the show, but his consistent good nature sets him apart from the rest of the cast and earns him a place in the viewer’s hearts.