Oscar van Rhijn (Blake Kitson) in The Gilded Age improved upon the long-suffering Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) in Downton Abbey. In The Gilded Age, Oscar is the only son of Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and he’s a member of Old New York since his family has been part of Manhattan’s wealthy elite since the 17th century. Agnes is steadfastly against allowing “new money” like railroad tycoon George Russell (Morgan Spector) and his ambitious wife Bertha (Carrie Coon) into The Gilded Age’s New York high society. But Oscar doesn’t share his mother’s beliefs and he’s hiding a secret from everyone much like Thomas Barrow on Downton Abbey.
Thomas Barrow was a scheming villain for most of Downton Abbey’s six seasons. Barrow was a footman who was widely disliked by Downton’s other servants for being callous and cruel, but he was also hiding the secret that he was gay. Barrow was deeply unhappy and hated his life as a closeted homosexual, especially when his few attempts to connect with other men were met with derision and revulsion. However, Thomas was slowly redeemed and he achieved his career goal when Barrow was asked to replace the retiring Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) as Downton Abbey’s butler at the end of season 6. In the 2019 Downton Abbey movie, Mr. Barrow met the King’s Valet, Richard Ellis (Max Brown), when King George V (Simon Jones) stayed at Downton. In Ellis, Barrow made a true friend who was also gay, and he realized that he didn’t have to be alone and unhappy any longer.
The Gilded Age’s premiere episode, “Never The New,” revealed that Oscar van Rhijn is gay, which no one but his lover, John Adams (Claybourne Elder), is aware of. Oscar’s story is already a significant improvement over Barrow’s circumstances in Downton Abbey since the younger van Rhijn is able to maneuver in New York high society and enjoys his family’s wealth, access, and privilege. Although Oscar must maintain the facade of being the heterosexual heir to the van Rhijn fortune, he is in a far better position than Barrow in every way. However, Oscar is aware his inheritance is relatively little money compared to the wealth of Agnes’ new neighbors, the Russells. Thus, Oscar has dedicated himself to accumulating money by finding an heiress to marry while maintaining his private life as a gay man.
Oscar has already made it clear that he’s interested in marrying the Russells’ daughter, Gladys (Taissa Farmiga). However, Oscar’s reputation as a “fortune hunter” already precedes him and no one has any doubt that his intentions are to gain control of Gladys’ dowry. While Oscar has to maintain his deception in public, in his private life, he and John seem to have a solid relationship. Adams may not be happy about Oscar’s blunt declarations that he needs to marry an heiress to secure his financial future, but John also seems to understand this is how society works and Oscar is doing what he needs to do. There’s no possibility Oscar can live openly as a gay man in The Gilded Age’s 1882 New York, especially not considering who his mother is, yet Oscar seems to be making the best of his lot even if he’s not especially happy about it.
Oscar van Rhijn’s circumstances in The Gilded Age aren’t ideal but they are still a marked improvement over the anguish Thomas Barrow will undergo in Downton Abbey over 30 years later. Oscar has numerous advantages Barrow lacked, such as his mother and Aunt Ada (Cynthia Nixon) who love him, and even his cousin, Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), who enjoys his company. Oscar’s cover as a playboy-about-town holds up nicely, he has prospects for marriage, and a clandestine relationship with John Adams. If Thomas had any of Oscar’s benefits, he would have been a lot happier in Downton Abbey. But instead of repeating Barrow’s Downton Abbey story in The Gilded Age, Julian Fellowes, who created both series, is wisely exploring a different kind of life for a closeted gay man in 1882 New York City.