Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

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Sunday

13

September 2015

2

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I Hate Mr. Bates

Written by , Posted in Blog, Downton Abbey, Pop Culture

I recently rewatched most of Downton Abbey in preparation for season six, which starts a week from today. Being known for its soap operatic value, one shouldn’t step into Highclere Castle expecting plots that make sense or robust character development. Julian Fellowes doesn’t hit his mark every time, but there’s certainly a reason why the recent trailer tugs at many people’s heartstrings and it’s not just because of the music. It’s because we’ve grown to love these characters.

There’s one man I used to love (as one loves a fictional character) once upon a time, but that affection has vanished. Like many, I started to feel it in season four and that continued as questions regarding his morality surfaced yet again. As you probably gathered from the title of this article, I am, of course, referring to Mr. Bates.

At first glance, he’s a tough guy to hate. Misery seems to follow him everywhere, tracking him by the sound of his cane thumping on Downton’s creaky floors and yet, he’s a pretty decent guy. He gave Molesley some money and saved Barrow from ruin at the hands of O’Brien/Jimmy. So why hate his Lordship’s valet?

The Mr. Green plotline has been almost universally panned. Many articles have been penned about how Fellowes has no idea as to what to do with either Bates. I’ve found that the problem goes even beyond Mr. Green. To put it simply, Mr. Bates is terrible.

I’ve gotten into several arguments regarding the Bates/Barrow feud. People say I’m horrible or contrarian for taking Thomas’ side, usually because they forget what’s important. It’s not about who’s the most morally altruistic person. It’s about who’s fun to watch.

There’s a scene in season five where Barrow acknowledges the simple fact that the two do not like each other. This gave me a bit of an “aha” moment as I realized that I don’t like Mr. Bates either. In season three, I was firmly on team #freeBates. Now when I watch season three, I usually skip his scenes (along with Edith’s, which makes it easier for me to keep watching the same show over and over).

Think about how many episodes of the show feature a happy Mr. Bates. He’s sad when he first gets there because no one likes him. He spends the rest of season one feuding with the O’Brien/Barrow dream team and sad about his leg. We also find out he was in trouble for being a thief, which was the first red flag.

Season two brings even more bad news. We find out he has a wife who he doesn’t like. He has a brief moment of happiness when he marries Anna, but then he goes to jail, where he spends most of season three.

He’s happy for a little bit at the end of season three and the beginning of season four, though we find out that he’s also a forger in addition to being a thief. What a standup guy! He’s also always moody. Sure, he’s had rotten luck, but so has Molesley. Downton’s cricket champion never lets the world get him down.

The reason for this sadness is simple. He has nothing else to do. Fellowes never tried to give him any storyline that didn’t involve horrible things happening to him. It got boring. I left the #freeBates team in favor of #killBates. At least then, Molesley could take his place as valet.

Downton Abbey is a drama. We expect characters to endure hardships. It’s generally considered reasonable to expect to be given a reason to like the character as well.

Bates and Barrow contrast well in this regard. Both are generally pretty moody and we know why. Bates is a crippled creep and Barrow is gay at a time when that was not only completely unacceptable, it was criminal.

Their unpleasantness manifests itself in different ways. Barrow takes his anger out on others while Bates is just a grump. We can probably assume that Bates is the better person (unless he actually killed Mr. Green or more gruesome details about his past turn up), but what does that really matter?

As a character, Bates lacks depth. Even his romance with Anna seemed a bit rushed. More importantly, he doesn’t make for good television.

Reports for season six suggest that not everyone will have a happy ending. It’s hard to tell where Bates will fit into this. One would think Fellowes would throw a curveball and let him limp off into the sunset with Anna on his arm. Problem is, I don’t care.

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Monday

16

February 2015

0

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The Ramifications of Jimmy’s Departure from Downton Abbey

Written by , Posted in Blog, Downton Abbey, Pop Culture

Note: I have seen all of series five of Downton Abbey, which has two more episodes to go in America. This article does not contain spoilers for those episodes. I recommend reading my article on the implications of Matthew’s death as there’s some overlap in subject matter.

At its core, Downton Abbey has always been about change. Lord Grantham, Lady Violet, and Mr. Carson fight this at nearly every corner, while many of the show’s other characters welcome it. As we’ve seen from five series that cover a twelve year time span, even the British aristocracy cannot escape change. For the most part, that’s a good thing.

The natural progression of this change is a shrinking servant staff as Earls learn to dress themselves and pour their own tea. Nearly every servant, young and old have explored this change in mentality as they ponder their places in the ever changing dynamic. Despite this, we saw the cast expand in series three with the arrivals of Alfred, Jimmy, and Ivy.

Seeing fresh faces at Downton coupled with the new aged business practices of Matthew and Tom breathed new life into the dynamic and suggested that Downton might be able to survive without sacrificing too much of the old world. Downton was hiring, not cutting back. Lord Grantham even created a new position for Thomas Barrow, creating the underbutler position to ensure that he could continue to be the man everyone loves to hate.

The youth movement was short lived. By the end of episode one of series five, Alfred, Ivy, and Jimmy were all gone. No new footmen were hired as Molesley was left to endure the wrath of Carson alone. The kitchen features the occasional character helping out, but Ivy was certainly not replaced from a storyline perspective.

This kind of makes sense. Alfred left to become a chef, aware that there wasn’t much of a future in the service industry for a footman. Seeing Molesley struggle to find work despite having experience as both a butler and a valet must have reinforced that. Ivy similarly jumped ship for a new adventure, traveling to America to serve Cora’s brother Harold. Jimmy was the only one whose departure wasn’t linked to the changing times, having been dismissed after being caught in bed with Lady Anstruther.

Alfred’s departure can be easily explained. He needed to go in order to make room for Molesley, who was without a position at Downton. Linking his leaving to the changing times was an added bonus. Ivy wasn’t exactly in a position where she needed to go, but it’s pretty clear that her character was expendable and likely a waste of screen time. She was boring.

The only departure that didn’t really have an obvious motive belongs to Jimmy. That’s not to say that there wasn’t one. Ivy and Alfred were the two characters he interacted with the most, but there was still Barrow, Daisy, and to a lesser extent Rose. Problem is, there isn’t a lot that could have been done with them from a storyline perspective.

I suppose Jimmy could have had a relationship with Daisy, but that wouldn’t have made much sense. A relationship with Rose would’ve been too similar to Sybil/Tom (not that Fellowes is against repetitive storylines). There are limitations for how much Jimmy could do with Barrow as well. It’s not really hard to see why he was viewed as expendable.

The implications of their departures seem to matter more than the loss of them as characters. Not hiring a new second footman means that Downton has cast aside formality for practicality. They didn’t need two footmen, but does that mean there shouldn’t be two footmen?

A side effect of their departure was that it removed Downton as a future centerpiece of prosperity. The young people moved on and the old people need to make arrangements for retirement. Daisy’s storyline has been all about this, undoubtedly provoked by the departures of her peers.

This is where I think getting rid of Jimmy was a mistake. Even if there wasn’t a clear storyline for him, he was still worth keeping around for the sake of appearances. He made Downton look like less of a retirement community.

Fellowes has had no trouble going long periods of time without giving characters like Patmore and the Bates anything to do. Instead of doing that with Ivy and Jimmy, he sent them away. In doing so, he cast a rather premature spotlight on the inevitable direction Downton is headed toward. We know what’s coming. We just didn’t need to see it this early.

Series 6 is widely considered to be the last for Downton Abbey. My next DA themed article will talk about why that’s a good idea, but it’s important to understand why losing Alfred, Ivy, and Jimmy made series 7 such an improbability. Killing the youth movement sped everything else up, a problem that will be further exacerbated by Rose’s presumed departure as the actress is filming Cinderella. There isn’t much else left to do but wrap things up. I’m not convinced that had to be the case all along.

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Saturday

10

January 2015

3

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Analyzing the Impact of Matthew’s Death on Downton Abbey

Written by , Posted in Blog, Downton Abbey, Pop Culture

 Note, while I dislike spoiler notes immensely, as Downton Abbey is currently airing in America, I thought it was polite to note that this article contains minor spoilers through season five as it’s completed its run in England already.

It’s hard to believe it’s been two years since the abrupt car accident took Matthew Crawley away from Downton Abbey at the tail end of the season three Christmas Special. Perhaps it feels longer because of the drop in quality since the heir to Downton left the show. The excellent season five Christmas special shows that DA does have some life left, making now an appropriate time to take a look at how Matthew’s death changed the show.

Downton Abbey, being an ensemble drama, means that it’s hard to argue that Matthew’s death changed the storylines for every single character on the show, even though he was a main character. Matthew didn’t frequently interact with everybody on the show, making it hard to really say that his death impacted everyone equally. You could argue that he might have played a part in Mrs. Patmore’s dead nephew storyline, but you wouldn’t really say that his death altered her arc in any substantial way.

I’ve organized the impact of Matthews’s death on the cast by five tiers. I’m going to exclude Lord Gillingham, Charles Blake, and the rest of Mary’s suitors who were introduced post season three as it’s unlikely they would have been even introduced had Matthew stayed on the show.

Tier 1 (Major): Mary, Molesley

Tier 2 (Secondary): Lord Grantham, Isobel Crawley

Tier 3 (Unknown): Lady Rose, Tom Branson, John Bates, Anna Bates

Tier 4: Everyone else.

Tier 1 is fairly straightforward. Mary’s entire storyline was completely altered because of her husband’s death. No Matthew means no suitors. It’s possible that either Lord Gillingham or Charles Blake could have been introduced in a similar fashion to Simon Bricker, but most of her storylines would be in conjunction with Matthew’s. Maybe she would be a better mother.

Molesley is the other one whose entire storyline was impacted by Matthew’s absence. Matthew’s death caused Molesley’s complete fall from grace, going from valet to second footman. This might have been for the best from a screen time perspective, but he was already comic relief. He might have been in a better positon to court Miss Baxter, but Fellowes has always found ways to screw Molesley. Matthew’s death took much of his dignity, but perhaps it made him more endearing to the audience.

Tier 2 might be a point of debate for some, especially considering that Isobel is Matthew’s mother. But his move to Downton set up Isobel’s relationship with Violet quite nicely and I think that would have happened regardless of whether or not Matthew died. Obviously there were grief moments that wouldn’t have happened, but I don’t think her storyline took the drastic turn that Mary and Molesley experienced.

Lord Grantham fits largely under the same category. Aside from the will stuff, Robert’s storylines would have happened anyway. Matthew would have been involved with the business matters, but you can mostly swap Mary out with him to see what would have happened there. I don’t think Matthew’s death necessarily precluded him from any particular storyline.

We can split up the Tier 3 Unknowns into two categories. Lady Rose and Tom likely experienced slightly larger roles due to Matthew’s death. But I don’t think it’s fair to say that Matthew’s presence would lead to any major changes for either one. Rose could have still come to Downton to represent the younger side of the aristocracy. There was the role of Sybil to be replaced as well, though she was hardly a major character in season three.

Tom is a bit trickier. There’s no denying that he filled some of Matthew’s role, both in Lord Grantham’s eyes and the viewer’s. But would Matthew’s presence prevent his relationship with Miss Bunting or interfere with his desire to move to America? I don’t think so. Matthew meant a great deal to Tom, but his path wasn’t blocked by having a friend and similar (relative) outsider.

As for the Mr. and Mrs. Bates, they seem like an interesting choice to put in the mix considering neither shared much screen time with Matthew. But Matthew’s death lead to Lord Gillingham, which led to Mr. Greene and Anna’s subsequent rape. If Greene hadn’t done it, there’s certainly the possibility that someone else could have. But Matthew’s presence and the need to give him something to do might have cancelled that one out entirely. We don’t know. Hence the unknown.

Which is sort of the same for the rest of the cast. You could say that Matthew might have developed a rapport with Carson, but that’s pure speculation that isn’t really rooted in anything. He could have gotten caught up in a Barrow plot or maybe not.

One element worth speculating on is whether or not Alfred, Ivy, and Jimmy would have left if Matthew hadn’t died. While Matthew didn’t really have anything to do with those three, he was at the forefront of Downton’s “youth movement” in season three, as he and Tom worked with Lord Grantham to modernize things from a business perspective. Entering season six, that youth moment is largely gone, though there’s a new footman in Andy who could bring down the servant’s average age by quite a bit.

One could point to Matthew’s death as indirectly causing Alfred’s departure as Molesley took his place as footman. I wouldn’t say that necessarily needed to be the case and the subsequent departures of Ivy and Jimmy suggest that if that hadn’t have happened, something else might have. Unless you want to make the argument that Matthew’s death elevated the importance of Molesley as a character, rendering some of the servants redundant since there’s only so much screen time to go around.

Which isn’t an unfair point. Matthew’s death took much of the “let’s bring Downton into the modern times” away and instead created a sort of holding pattern that did the show no favors in its lackluster forth season. It’s fair to suggest that the show would have been more business related if for any other reason than it would’ve needed something to take the place of all the grieving over Matthew’s death.

Matthew’s death may not have created much of a visible “void” considering Downton’s large cast, but it had a tremendous impact. Shows like DA tend not to get better with age, but much of the complaints over the past two years fall on Mary’s storylines and the stunting of the plot that was forced by his death. That was avoidable, but it still happened because Dan Stevens wanted off the show before Fellowes could figure out how to adjust properly.

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