Also see my followup post at 5:45 pm 2/19/14 in which I amend my opinion about Lady Mary]
I just learned last night that Julian Fellowes, of course the mastermind behind Downtonmania, was the screenwriter for Gosford Park, Robert Altman’s award-winning 2001 venture into the English country-house murder genre. I also just learned that Fellowes originally conceived of Downton Abbey as a continuation of Gosford Park, a factoid which transcends Maggie Smith’s formidable presence in both productions.
The reason I came upon this info---and why you should care, if you’re a fellow Donwtonmaniac--is because of a chat I had with a fellow Downtonmaniac yesterday, whom I hereby thank profusely for getting me started down the long and winding road of literary sleuthing that led to this post.
She didn’t know she was doing this, of course, she was merely expressing her dissatisfaction with the idea that Bates would actually go to London to murder Green, the evil varlet & rapist, given the risk that something could go wrong with such a risky plan. How could Bates, our favorite early 20th century Job, do such a thing? After all, if all did not go perfectly, and he was discovered, it could ruin all future hopes for happiness for him and wife Anna, who was of course the victim of Green’s brutal, sadistic attack. Hadn’t she (and he, for that matter) suffered enough?
At first I took the other side, suggesting Bates faced a moral Catch-22, since inaction on his part would be equally horrible—it would likely have the effect of Bates standing helpless, watching & allowing Anna to continue to suffer each and every time Green’s master, Tony Gillingham, happened to visit Downton, which seemed to be practically every episode this season, as Tony continued his relentless, aggressive courtship of Lady Mary.
But my persistent opponent in this friendly debate then landed a telling point—how could Bates know for sure that it really was Green who raped Anna, given that no one who knew the truth (Anna, Mrs . Hughes and Lady Mary) had actually told him so. Even though Bates felt he knew for sure, who did he think he was, Patrick Jane, the Mentalist? After all, as Jane Austen taught us, “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken.”
For example, Anna’s extreme distress in Green’s presence could quite plausibly have originated from a nasty, but non-criminal beginning: first we have Green, the egotistical, sexually provocative jerk, flirting with Anna, a married woman, right in front of her husband, practically daring Bates to react; then we have Anna, surprisingly oblivious of the jealousy she is raising in Bates—but, like Desdemona, she is so confident of the solidity of her love with Bates, she believes he cannot be jealous, so she responds to Green’s flirtations with indiscreetly positive vibes; and then, finally, after the rape, Anna realizes the tragic role she has so inadvertently played, and feels intensely guilty about all of this. Then, when she is attacked by an intruding stranger, she really suffers, because she knows Bates will never believe her that it is not Green, so now she must constantly worry that Bates will take revenge on the wrong man. From Bates’s point of view, if he can somehow be objective, that would be a pretty plausible, even compelling alternative explanation for his wife’s particular reactivity vis a vis Green. How, indeed, can he be sure?
That’s when the light bulb went on in my mind for the first time, and I had a Mr. Knightley moment about Julian Fellowes’s authorial machinations. I.e., I began to suspect him of some major-league double dealing in leading millions of viewers down the garden path of uncritically assuming that Bates had to be guilty of murdering Green, a crime he would have committed only after first assuming Green’s being guilty in the first place!
Wheels within wheels! That’s when I learned of Fellowes’s screenwriting pedigree; and when the recollection of the murder mystery of Gosford Park went through my mind with the speed of an arrow, the Shakespearean subtext that Fellowes had been hiding in plain sight in Downton Abbey came into clear focus before my eyes, and this post was born! It’s not short, but if any post I’ve ever written has a payoff worth a few extra words, this is it!
WHO (REALLY) DONE IT?
Who (other than Bates) would also have had opportunity, motive, and M.O., sufficient to induce a reasonable, level-headed viewer to suspect him or her of having created some fresh Soylent Green under a London double-decker bus? I’ll give my answer before the end of this post, but I think it’ll be more fun for you if you don’t skip to the end, but instead follow me down my very good faith garden path, so perhaps the answer will occur to you before I give it!
Opportunity: Who besides Bates was in London at the time of the murder and could have gone off alone to find, and then kill, Green, before returning to the company of others?
Well, in addition to Bates, that includes (believe it or not) five other cast regulars! Lady Mary, Anna, and Tony Gillingham are the three who should immediately come to your mind.
But there are two others, whom you probably did not think of at all, even though, when you do reflect on it, they both could easily have passed through London that fateful day----I’m referring to Lord Grantham and his temporary valet for the Earl’s American excursion, Thomas Barrow.
So now we have a pool of potential suspects, let’s see how they fit the rest of my criteria.
Motive: Who besides Bates had a motive to kill Green?
Anna, for two powerful, mutually inciting motives: wanting to get rid of Green before Bates could do it and get himself hung; and wanting revenge for herself. And who knows how long Anna was gone while Mary sat with Tony asking him to sack Green?
But also, Lady Mary, whom we witnessed being deeply shocked by Anna’s revelation of Green’s guilt not long before. She could feel enormous guilt over having been the reason why Green was in Downton in the first place, and, even worse, had returned repeatedly. Mary is still recovering from the devastation of Matthew’s tragic death, and is in a very volatile state of being very persistently courted by two attractive suitors. She says to Edith, in another context, something like “We must face life’s challenges” –maybe she experiences Anna’s shocking news as such a challenge, requiring bold action from Mary, who more than anything seeks to return to the helm of her own life, which ran aground on dangerous rocks after Matthew died.
In contrast to Anna and Mary, Lord Grantham would appear to be utterly unconnected to Green, and so would Thomas—does anyone recall any interaction between him and Green during Green’s previous sojourns at Downton? I don’t.
And finally, Tony. When Mary asks him to sack Green, he does respond to Mary saying he did not care for Green, a curious thing to say—why wouldn’t he have fired him long ago, in such a case? And Tony certainly would have been the one among this group of five in London who would have had every reason in the world to be right next to his own valet! But is a vague dislike a motive for murder? Certainly not, unless that expression of vague dislike was a cover for some much deeper enmity which Fellowes has concealed from the sight of the viewer until a big reveal in Season 5.
M.O.: Again, it is Bates’s M.O., of which the viewer is incessantly reminded, as a man who, like Raskolnikov, believes himself to have the right to exact personal justice after holding his own private trial of Green’s guilt. Plus Bates has the skill set—the wits, the resourcefulness, the boldness-- to execute any plan of that kind that he might conceive. Plus, he can get very very angry.
Whereas Lady Mary, Anna, Gillingham, and Lord Grantham all pale in comparison as suspects on this point-none of them has any particular penchant we know of for behavior outside the pale of the law in a civilized society that does not condone taking an eye for an eye.
And Barrow? Well, he is certainly amoral in a number of ways, but his M.O. is not murder, it’s blackmail, it’s fraud. His attacks are virtual, not physical.
At this stage of my analysis, I checked in the Message Boards for Downton Abbey at IMDB and found a thread started right after this last episode, on this very same question of who might have killed Green besides Bates, and, sure enough, among the possibilities brought forward were Tony Gillingham and Anna. Nobody made any suggestion about the other three suspects on my list.
I will now inject a very limited SPOILER for those reading this post from the American side of the Pond, who have not yet seen the so-called Christmas Special which actually was the true finale of the English Season Four. So if you are extremely scrupulous about not wanting to know anything about what happens, or doesn’t happen, in that Special Christmas episode (which I haven’t seen, but which I read about yesterday, because I just had to know what happens in it before I see it on Sunday), you may wish to stop reading this post now, and wait till after this Sunday’s U.S. airing to read the rest.
But for the rest of you….
…for the “punch line” (or more aptly, the punch page) of this post, in which I will reveal what I realized immediately after I had my Mr. Knightley moment. That’s when I knew that Julian Fellowes had, in the above described episode, coming after nearly four seasons of episodes, sprung a delicious mousetrap on his viewers, which he may well have planned going back to Season One, and which, it is clear from the absence of clear revelation in the Christmas Special, he will not explicitly reveal until Season Five!
And how subtle the mechanism of Fellowe’s’ mousetrap, that very few viewers have even noticed they’re caught in it yet! I will in the remainder of this post, reveal how Fellowes has done a splendid job of emulating Agatha Christie and all the other great murder mystery writers, indeed has emulated his own screenplay for Gosford Park, and has in a metaphorical sense revived the country house murder motif which is central in the 2001 film. And, as my Subject Line teased you, there’s Shakespearean tragedy at the heart of Fellowes’s practice upon the trusting minds of his millions of viewers, which I will invoke repeatedly in the remainder of this post!
Further cuteness and suspense would be entirely inappropriate at this point, so I will now reveal to you that my #1 suspect for the murder of Green the Evil Varlet, is none other than……Thomas Barrow, the Iago of Downton Abbey!!!! And actually, as I will demonstrate, Fellowes—who perhaps you will think of as the Iago of Downton Abbey the series (as opposed to the fictional estate) has quite clearly had Shakespeare’s great marital tragedy, Othello, in mind as he masterfully constructed this dramatic sleight of hand!
Here’s the tipping point, that sends the viewer down the path which I think Fellowes is going to take us down during the first few episodes of Season Five. Everyone is thinking that the murderer must have been someone who wanted Green dead solely because of what Green may or may not have done to the murderer, or to someone the murderer cares about.
But now think outside the box---what if (and a mystery buff could probably name a hundred novels, stories, and tv episodes which use some variation on this theme I’m about to set forth) Green was merely (and ironically) an innocent victim of a plot as to which he was NOT the murderer’s principal target? In other, less cryptic words, what if Green’s being known to Anna, Mrs. Hughes and Mary, and suspected by Bates, of having raped Anna, was of no particular concern to the person who actually murdered Green, other than as an opportunity for his murderer to “murder” (the reputation) of his true target, a man who hates Green-i.e., Bates?
Just recall how Iago, wishing to destroy Othello, does not physically attack Othello, but instead drives Othello insane with jealousy of Cassio, so that Othello will destroy himself and Desdemona, and almost destroy Cassio as well? And further to that goal, Iago falsely frames Cassio as an adulterer with Desdemona? You must see where I am going, as Barrow has, in effect, cast Bates as Othello, Anna as Desdemona, and Green as Cassio—and since I had to miss two of the prior episodes of Downton Abbey while traveling, I would not be surprised to learn that prior to the rape, Barrow had been bantering with Green, suggesting to him (with a broad, leering wink or two) that Bates, the old man with a limp, was not able to satisfy his young, sexy wife, and maybe she’d be more than receptive to Green’s advances?
Let’s revisit the three key points that would make Barrow a character a prime suspect:
Opportunity: Barrow came back from America that same day of the murder with the Earl, and surely passed through London on the way back to Yorkshire from Southampton (where the ship from the US would have landed, that’s where Titanic sailed from) which of course is south of London. He could easily have obtained, from the Earl, permission, after a long trip abroad, for an hour or two to see an old friend or the like, before heading back to Downton. And the first thing Barrow would have done once he was alone would be to telephone Baxter, and ask her for news about Anna and Bates.
And doesn’t my theory put Barrow’s obsessive interest in Bates and Anna’s relationship, and in particular the circumstances that led Anna into such obvious distress, in an amazingly clear light? He’s looking for intelligence that he can exploit. He may even have identified Green as a sociopath during an earlier encounter at Downton (it takes one to know one, after all). And so, imagine Barrow’s excitement if Baxter, fulfilling her duty as spy, without understanding to what use her info might be put (think about how much she would then be like Emilia, Iago’s wife, when she unwittingly seals her mistress’s fate by her role in the fantasy of the handkerchief which is the final straw in convincing Othello --mistakenly, of course-- of Desdemona’s adultery with Cassio) , revealed to Barrow the rumor that Bates believed Anna had been attacked by Green, who was at that very instant back in London?
Barrow would have perceived this news as a providential gift from God, an opportunity to do to Bates what Bates’s first wife had done to Bates only a few years earlier, i.e., to frame Bates for a murder!
Motive: Who wants revenge against Bates more than anyone on the planet? Barrow, of course! He hates Bates, and has never stopped hating Bates, because of what happened in Season One. For those who don’t know or recall, here’s Wikipedia’s synopsis, in relevant part:
“Thomas remains extremely annoyed that he had been passed up for the position of Lord Grantham's valet by "Long John Silver", which is what he calls John Bates when talking with Miss O'Brien about the new valet. He is always at odds with John. Bates catches him stealing wine and threatens to tell Mr Carson, unless Thomas stops insulting William. Thomas and O'Brien attempt to get him fired for theft by planting one of Robert's snuff boxes in his room, but Anna warns him, and he replaces it without informing on them. They later try accusing him of being the one who has been stealing wine. He and Ms O'Brien get Daisy to lie to Mr Carson. But Daisy feels guilty and admits that she lied, and then later when Molesley sees Thomas "replacing" Carson's wallet, that he found, back into his jacket, Carson tells Lord Grantham, and they agree to fire Thomas.”
Nothing need be added to demonstrate Barrow’s compelling mens rea. Fate would seem to have given Barrow the means of destroying Bates the way the Greek tragedians destroyed their tragic protagonists. To Job, add Oedipus, then, as a second ghost haunting the tragic soul of Mr. Bates. Unless Barrow’s scheme can be foiled—and of course, I believe that is exactly what will happen, or Downtonmaniacs will riot in the streets till Fellowes gives us the resolution we all demand! ;)
And think of even more learned subtext that Fellowes’s has slid in here. Much scholarly analysis of Iago’s motivations has focused on an unmistakable homosexual component in his character. Does Iago secretly love Othello and is his “murder” of both Othello and Desdemona, by turning them all into his puppets, the result of Iago’s jealous rage? And of course Iago’s other more obvious motive for destroying everyone other major character in the play is his rage over being denied advancement, being cheated out of the elevated position he believes he has fairly earned. Well, hello! Isn’t that exactly how Barrow feels about Bates having been given the plum position of valet to Lord Grantham, instead of Barrow? And wouldn’t Barrow’s acute sense of aggrievement be at its peak at the very instant when he returns to England with his master, knowing that before the sun sets, they will be back at Downton, Bates will be back at his role as valet to Robert, and Barrow will, like Cinderella, have turned back into a lowly footman , downstairs, being treated (as he sees it) like dirt.
That would be exactly the desperate moment when Barrow would be tempted to cross the line into physical violence---but (being the Iago that he is), he’d murder Green the way Iago murdered his first gull, Roderigo, as mere collateral damage, in order to get to his real victim, Bates, whom he’d “kill”, bloodlessly, by remote control.
M.O.: Earlier in Season Four, Barrow and Edna (the sneaky maid, remember her?) tried to frame Anna for something bad that happened at Downton, but failed. Barrow is the quintessential sleazy weasel, we know that. As I said before, his M.O. is blackmail and fraud. Well, perhaps when this brief window of opportunity opened for him when he returned to England from America, he decided to seize the day, and so (as one IMDB poster wittily put it) threw Green under the bus, for the purpose of destroying Bates once and for all! He would be like the insane Bruno in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, committing a murder on behalf of someone else! But of course, Barrow’s motive would have been revenge on Bates, whereas Bruno turned blackmailer of the hero Guy for a murder he didn’t commit, only after Guy refused to return the favor to Bruno by murdering Bruno’s mother!
A CRUX….OR A BRILLIANT STROKE?
Now, if you’re really paying attention, and in full Columbo /Miss Marple/Mentalist mode at my side, you have probably noticed the weakest link in my otherwise very strong chain of inference, which is the coincidence of Barrow arriving in London at precisely the moment when he would learn about Green’s rape of Anna, but, even more so, the coincidence of Bates leaving Downton for that entire day, thereby losing an otherwise ironclad alibi.
How could Fellowes have been so clever in constructing this masterfully veiled reenactment of Othello, with plausible motivations at every step of the way, but then has to rely on Bates’s coincidentally taking a trip alone away from Downton Abbey, thereby making himself vulnerable to being framed by Thomas?
It was in asking myself that question that the answer occurred to me, and it is really the piece de resistance of Fellowe’s’ authorial craftsmanship, truly inspired. What we have here is the final potentially tragic irony-i.e. what if Bates’s secret mission to London was not prompted by anything anyone said to him, but was out of his concern that Anna, while in London accompanying Lady Mary, might take some desperate action against Green (after all, she was also at the table in the Downton downstairs, when Green revealed the Gillingham residence address)?
Bates would have gone to London precisely because he knew that Anna was afraid he’d get himself hung or imprisoned for life for murdering Green, so Anna actodually had a third motive for murdering Green, beyond the previously stated ones of revenge and guilt-this third motive would be to risk her own hanging or imprisonment, in order to prevent Bates from getting to Green first! And Baxter, when Barrow called her, would of course have informed Barrow that Bates had gone off on a day trip, giving Barrow the idea to act right then and there!
Today, seven hours after posting my first version of this post at 3 AM, I awoke and realized that I needed to amend this post, to add more possibilities, because Fellowes’s densely interwoven web of mystery, his serpentine garden path of storytelling, actually has another, equally plausible outcome , besides Barrow as Iago-like murderer, which I have now only seen as I revisited my imagining of Bates’s imaginings about Anna in London.
Let’s start, then, with two (mercifully) final questions.
First, if Bates feared Anna would murder Green while in London, would Bates have imagined that Anna asked for Lady Mary’s help in this scheme? I.e., would he think Anna, on the train to London, thought it all through, and explained everything to Lady Mary, and proposed that together, they could pull off the “accidental” death of Green, with Mary keeping Tony occupied long enough for Anna to do the deed?
So now, you see, just before the finish line, in justifying my interpretation of Barrow as Iago having pushed Green under the bus, I have established the equal plausibility of Anna, assisted by Mary, having done audaciously done Green in!
Because I’d really like to think that Anna really did murder Green, and that Mary really did help Anna in this! It would be such good karma for both of them, women who both had spent a very long time after an emotionally devastating, life-altering event, feeling utterly powerless. They both knew by this climactic point in the story that there was only one option open to them for removing an evil sociopath from the world, a man they knew was guilty, and that was to just get rid of him once and for all, by taking proactive steps….toward a man, Green, standing at a bus stop in Piccadilly, that is!
But then, a final question---if I am correct as to either Barrow OR Anna/Mary having murdered Green, then, if Bates really did come to London, and I think he did, then….did Bates observe the murder? Or, if he did not, did he only learn of the murder when he returned to Downton at the end of the day? In either case, if he thought Anna had done it, that would explain his oddly inscrutable smile back at Downton, talking to Anna about their respective long days, because he’d be the only one (other than the murderer) who’d know the identity of the murderer!
So… in Season Five, will Thomas attempt to blackmail Bates, because he can prove Bates was not in York as Bates told everybody? Or, will Bates expose Thomas as the murderer?
Or…..final turn of the mentalizing screw……will Fellowes cross everyone up, including yours truly, and reveal that Green is not really dead at all, but it was a case of mistaken identity? I.e., just a monstrously clever Red Herring constructed by Fellowes?
All I know is that now I really can’t wait for Season Five to find out! And that’s where I’ll leave you, my indulgent readers, hanging until….Season 5 reveals what Fellowes had in mind---or maybe, he hasn’t decided yet! And I, for one, will not be guilty of any assumptions about which option he will ultimately choose!
@JaneAusten on Twitter
P.S.: For those who might’ve wondered why my Subject Line includes “Donwell” as in Donwell Abbey, the country estate of Mr. Knightley in Jane Austen’s Emma, well, that’s my final “Gotcha!” in this post, because there is a startling resonance between my claim that Barrow could have attempted to frame Bates for the murder of Green, on the one hand, and my claim one week ago….
….in which I suggested that Mr. Knightley may well have murdered Mrs. Churchill, for the purpose of framing, and then blackmailing, Frank Churchill into actually entering into an engagement with Jane Fairfax, under the terms of which he will give her the Churchill family jewels, but ultimately Jane will not have to marry Frank! Think about Emma sketching a portrait of Harriet and then giving it to Mr. Elton to go get it framed—was Jane Austen, mistress of wordplay, suggesting by the means I described in the above linked post, that Knightley similarly and sinisterly, had framed a “portrait’ of Frank as murderer of his aunt, thereby making Frank too “tall” (i.e., macho)?
I do believe that Fellowes was inspired as much by Emma as by Othello in his grand design of the Mysterious Death of Green the Evil (and Vile) Varlet.
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