It's shocking that my estranged mother and I can have so many things in common, while being completely different all the same. We share a lot of commonalities in television programming, but we are completely unable to discuss those shows because of a very fundamental division over which characters we find empathetic. Take Downton Abbey for example, a top tier show in my esteem, and one I even got my mom hooked on. But despite that, when it came to discussing the latest episodes, it was as if we'd seen two completely different productions. It's interesting to observe how the same thing can be broken apart so distinctly, but I think it creates a rather interesting note about how personal values and interests color things like character and motivation in dramatic plots.
In the case of Downton, it comes down to the way we view the show's ensemble cast. While my mom holds a character like John Bates in high regard, I find him absolutely reprehensible. Meanwhile, I am wholly empathetic to the smug and ambitious plight of Thomas Barrow, resident dissenter and winner of best thrower of shade this side of Yorkshire. Mom and I would literally get into violent arguments over this diametric difference: while she supports the individual who is portrayed as a noble bleeding heart, it is that exact description that makes me gag. Of course, meanwhile, it is Thomas's apparent reprehensible behavior that makes him an empathetic and realistic character for me.
This element is something I usually incorporate into my writing. It is more interesting to follow the struggles of a Thomas Barrow as he navigates a world that has consistently done him wrong. The easiest example is related to his sexuality, a plot point established in the first episode. It is easy for a modern audience to forget that in the time period that Downton takes place in, Thomas's very existence is enough to get him hung, and that he has to fight that much harder to make it in the world. What does this tell us, though? We can see he is ambitious, that he is clever -- but not so clever that he averts his own follies. His love for Jimmy Kent in Series 3 shows us this quite clearly. Think for a moment on how a lovestruck Thomas puts all his ambitions and scheming aside when it comes to Jimmy, or how he consistently puts Jimmy's needs ahead of his own. Does this not more poignantly describe Thomas's growth than the bleeding heart nonsense we often hear from Mr. Bates?
In that vein, it is funny how people are willing to forgive other characters of the same things they condemn Thomas for based solely on the way the narrative tries to direct the viewer. We can see this very clearly with Mr. Bates, the antithesis to Thomas. Interestingly enough, most of Mr. Bates's plot lines surround his apparently shady past, which includes stealing and even a body count. But while Bates is busy browbeating and putting his bleeding heart on display for these things, Thomas is consistently reamed by the plot for similar behavior. But how is it more honorable for Bates to keep all these things secret until he absolutely must share, when Thomas is at least brave enough to be honest about who he is. As he says in Series 3: "I'm different from you, but I'm not foul, Mr. Carson." Truly, to me this is an obvious statement, more poignant than the torture porn poor Thomas was subjected to in Series 6. But that is another topic for another day.
We get other instances of it, like in Series 2, when Thomas, terrified and certain he was going to die in the trenches of World War I, intentionally takes a shot to the left hand to get sent home. Not only is that scene one of the most poignant in all of Downton's six series, but I found it laudable in the face of such grave circumstances. Many Downton fans label Thomas as a coward for this, even while simultaneously feeling poorly for Mrs. Patmore when she is told her nephew has been shot for doing the exact same thing. Why are we to feel bad for Mrs. Patmore's plight but not Thomas? Again, it is the narrative steering us one way or the other, but also another instance where Thomas's honesty is what makes him far more gripping. In a world that is literally out to kill him, he's learned to take care of himself, and is that not something worth appreciating?
Characters like Thomas, his love, Jimmy Kent, and others like them are what consistently power the scenarios I tend to write about it. For me, it is far more interesting for a character who is flawed and struggling to come through an experience with something new about himself than a character who consistently sits on his high horse and extols either righteousness, bleeding heart nobility -- or worse, both. If art is meant to describe the human condition, there is far more to explore with the troubles of man than his aspirations for godliness. We see it in some of our most beloved characters, like Holden Caulfield, Stephen Dedalus, the various iterations of Jack Kerouac and on.
So here's to the bad guys, the flawed heroes and the characters that speak our truths.