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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, February 24, 2014

More Downton/Whodunit Abbey Ruminations on the Mysterious Thomas Barrow

Having now watched Episode 8, the final one of Season 4 of Downton Abbey, I now wish to add to my two earlier posts (read them consecutively for best sense)….

..(which I wrote after watching Episode 7) the following additional observations:

*****************************SPOILERS FOR EPISODE 8**************************

*****************************SPOILERS FOR EPISODE 8**************************

Nothing I saw in Episode 8 has changed my opinion, expressed in my above linked posts a week ago, that, in some way as yet unclear, Julian Fellowes intended his audience to pick up on the Iago aspects of valet Thomas Barrow, which have been there throughout the entire run of the series, and to connect his Iagoishness to the mysterious death of Green the evil rapist valet of Lord Gillingham.

I was watching Episode 8 like a hawk this time for any clues of any kind that bore even indirectly on that theory, and this was not in vain.

It was no surprise to me, e.g., when Thomas not only appeared in several scenes in Episode 8, which might seem to have little to do with Green’s murder, but which do clearly remind us of Iago. Most prominently, Thomas intrusively and angrily spies on Tom Branson, of course the former chauffeur (and surviving widower of the late Sybil Crawley). Thomas carries some unfounded and slimy innuendoes back to Lord Grantham, as to Tom’s budding relationship with the idealistic young schoolteacher he met at a political meeting. There’s no question that Thomas’s words, to both Tom and to Lord Grantham, are meant to remind a Shakespeare-aware audience of the Iago who is so bitterly resentful of Cassio’s promotion ahead of him, when Iago felt he deserved it much much more. Revenge is a dish Thomas enjoys cold, just as does Iago, spiced up with some sexual malice.

So, it’s up to us to wonder whether Thomas’s continuing hounding of Baxter for information about Bates and Anna is more than just Thomas’s usual generalized angling for useful intelligence. Might it have to do with Green’s death? If we think back to Episode 2 of Season 4, Thomas and Green actually were engaged briefly with each other in some testy exchanges of words and looks downstairs, during the memorable card games upstairs in which Edith’s heroic Nazi-confronting lover saves the Crawley family’s financial butt, with some daring counter-card sharping.

But in that scene, and throughout Season 4, Fellowes is very careful to always misdirect the audience away from Thomas, as if Thomas’s actions are somehow disconnected from, and less important than, the otherwise overpoweringly dramatic triangle of Bates, Anna, and Green, which exploded in Episode 7 with Green’s death.  And yet, as I suggested in my first post, aren’t Bates and Anna oddly reminiscent of Othello and Desdemona, at least as to his violent temper, and her initial cavalier friendliness to Green? Has Barrow, somehow, some way, offstage, been priming this pump ever since opportunity knocked in Episode 2 when Green showed up? Has he been distracting himself from his boredom, bitterness, and envy at Downton by taking some exquisite delight in pulling the emotional strings on three susceptible characters, to subtly lead them to act out roles which endanger (and in Green’s case, end) all their lives? Barrow, the vampiric puppetmaster, planning his greatest production?

Again, I don’t know how Fellowes is gonna do it, and I frankly want to enjoy watching it unfold along with everyone else next year, but I know now for sure that Fellowes has not made Thomas a giant red herring, all this winking was not for nothing. There is method in this screenwriting madness, and the payoff will be big in audience satisfaction if Fellowes pulls it off, as I believe he will.

I’ve also found some additional backup for my claim that Barrow has always been Downton Abbey’s Iago, long before Green bit the Piccadilly dust. I found six different blog posts written during the first 3 seasons, in which each blogger, independently, referred to Barrow as the Iago of the show, as if it went without the need for explanation.

So, in that regard, I really love how Fellowes chose this climactic moment near the end of Season 4 to take one of Barrow's Iago-ish plots "underground", after years of showing us Barrow behaving like Shakespeare’s malignant hater in pretty overt ways. E.g., as we all watched Barrow overtly try to blackmail Bates with his wife’s murder in Season 1, now, I suggest, Fellowes merely hints that Barrow is going to try this Iagoish trick again with Bates, Thomas being a very determined fellow, like Iago.

In that exact vein, this online article yearned for the old Thomas of prior Seasons….
…not realizing that he never really left, but this time around we viewers needed to put on our own sleuthing hats to detect all the ways he’s being Machiavellian.

In hindsight, Fellowes has been a major tease about Thomas, and he must be enjoying all the criticism he has received recently for being heavy handed, in seeming to repeat the motif of Bates being accused of murder in a cliched way. He has been very careful not to give any explicit cue for the audience to connect Thomas to Green’s murder. But rest assured Fellowes has all the same been hiding this Iago subtext in plain sight for the entire season. In ways that I am confident will be revealed in Season 5, Barrow was already involved in some murky way with Green downstairs, and we are all going to go “Doh!” when this is shown explicitly.

Think about it---the best revenge Barrow can get against Bates is to make Bates’s own wife doubt him, to make his own bosses doubt him, and to drive him mad, which is the revenge that Iago takes on Othello for giving the promotion to Cassio instead of Iago. I don’t say he will succeed, but I do say he’s giving it a go!

Fellowes plays with the criticism that he writes glorified soap operas, and so gives his critics what they wished for, but should have been more careful before condemning, and they have pretty much all taken the bait.

But he will have the last laugh next season!

Let me finish with a more general but related observation. The whodunit aura, which sprang into full bloom with the mystery of the shocking death of Green, was only enhanced by the thinly veiled sendups in Episode 8 of both (a) Conan Doyle’s “Scandal in Bohemia” (which of course was also the source for Series 2, Episode 1 of Sherlock) which was so nicely interwoven with the Bates/Green mystery; and (b) Bruno Heller’s The Mentalist, which is slyly evoked when Bates picks Sampson’s pocket, an act which has the secondary effect of resolving Lady Mary’s moral dilemma about turning Bates’ train ticket over to the police---I was reminded of how often Patrick Jane has done that trick so many times. So Fellowes fondly stole a chapter out of that playbook as well, and shows he can play in the same league.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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