Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) gets his happy ending in Downton Abbey: A New Era, which properly concludes one of Downton Abbey’s oldest storylines. In A New Era, “the modern world comes to Downton” in the form of a film production shooting a movie in Downton Abbey. Meanwhile, several members of the Crawley family travel to the French Riviera to investigate a secret from Lady Violet’s (Maggie Smith) “mysterious past.” With Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) among those abroad, Barrow as butler tries to keep Downton in order while the house is invaded by filmmakers and movie stars like Guy Dexter (Dominic West).
As a footman, Barrow was one of Downton Abbey’s original villains. Along with Mrs. O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran), Barrow was a venal presence among Downton’s servants, endlessly scheming and manipulating his coworkers. However, Barrow also had a tragic secret: as a gay man in the 1910s and 1920s, the footman feared he could be imprisoned if people found out. Sadly, Barrow believed there was something “wrong” with him and he even sought a painful medical treatment to make him “like everyone else.” Poor Barrow lived in misery as his few attempts to connect with others he thought were homosexual were met with scorn. But Barrow also developed a true friendship with Lady Mary’s (Michelle Dockery) young son, George, that showed his softer side. When Carson had to retire due to palsy, Barrow had a remarkable change of heart, mended his ways, and Thomas replaced Carson as Downton Abbey’s butler, a position he held in the 2019 Downton Abbey movie into A New Era.
In Downton Abbey: A New Era, Thomas expectedly gets his chance at a happy life. At first, Barrow is distraught when he learns that Mr. Ellis (Max Brown) is getting married. Barrow met Ellis, the King’s Valet, during the royal visit in Downton Abbey 2019 and learned Ellis was also a gay man hiding in plain sight. But Thomas wanted to be more than friends with Ellis and he was laid low when that opportunity was dashed – until Guy Dexter revealed to Barrow that he was also gay and invited Thomas to work for him and “take care of him.” Dexter soon confirmed Barrow’s hopes that it means what he thinks it means and that Thomas could live relatively in the open with Guy in Hollywood. In Lady Mary’s own words when Barrow gave his notice, it’s his chance to be “as happy as our cruel world will allow” and Thomas is taking it.
In truth, despite becoming Downton’s butler, Barrow was still overshadowed by Carson and the Downton Abbey movies kept finding ways to have Carson resume his role as butler unofficially. Meanwhile, Barrow’s eyes opened to the possibilities of how he could have the life he’s always desired in Downton Abbey 2019, all he needed was some “good fortune,” as Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), phrased it in A New Era when Barrow confided in her. Dexter seems to be on the up and up and he legitimately fancies Barrow. The film star also needs Thomas to “take care of him” in all manner of ways, and he promises to reciprocate in kind. In the late 1920s, this outcome is the best Barrow can hope for to end the lonely path he’d walked all of his life and it was a golden opportunity Thomas was overjoyed to accept.
If Downton Abbey: A New Era does mark the end of Barrow’s story, it was an ideal way to give the long-suffering servant the happy resolution he deserved. Barrow has proven he is indeed kind and has a good heart, but he desperately needed a hopeful future. Of course, it’s possible that Robert James-Collier will rejoin Downton Abbey’s cast as Barrow if there is a Downton Abbey 3, and either Thomas’ relationship with Dexter sadly doesn’t work out or Julian Fellowes concocts a way for Barrow to visit the Crawleys. But hopefully, Downton Abbey: A New Era is the start of a new era for Thomas Barrow as well.