The Most Appalling Characters on Downton Abbey

“Downton Abbey” is the kind of TV drama that reminds one of placing bugs (as a child) beneath a plastic cup to see if they’ll fight. Sure, Julian Fellowes brings nuance and sophistication to the party, but “Downton” is still a show whose characters exist to get a rise out of global audiences. The success of the recent film revival to the series proves that Fellowes and company were good at their jobs. 

But with 6 seasons and a theatrical release, certain characterizations were bound to rub viewers (more specifically, this viewer) the wrong way. And while most characters on “Downton” are crafted with care and delicacy, here is an entirely subjective list of appalling characters that this writer (and, perhaps, you as well) didn’t enjoy at all. 

Mr. Bates

How many dozens of times does dear Anna say “Mr. Bates,” in faithful adoration to this infuriating, morally grey, disaster of a man who’s too old for her anyway? It became a joke at viewing parties – viewing party friends nodded to each other primly, saying only “Mr. Bates” with a subtly plaintive stare. 

Mr. Bates is a frustrating trainwreck. A man on the run, we learn, Mr. Bates nonetheless displays the most obdurate sense of personal integrity one could ever imagine, to the point that he refuses to defend himself against injustices. But Bates isn’t just a punching bag; he feuds endlessly with people like Barrow, but his story never goes anywhere believable or rewarding. 

Bates started as a tragic character, seeming almost cursed in the hands of Fellowes. But in an attempt to make the character more complex, Julian created a character that’s confused, aimless, and unlikeable. At some point in his second season, some realized that they dreaded seeing his big dumb face onscreen, and thousands of audience members felt similarly. Anna, you could’ve done so much better. 

Barrow

Thomas Barrow has all the earmarks of an interesting character: a resentful, scheming homosexual, living in an era when news of his sexual preferences could mean death. However, Barrow rarely acts like a human being. He’s just so consistently noxious: thieving, backstabbing, and scheming scheming scheming like a mustache-twirling villain in a silent film. 

Movie Barrow wasn’t much better. No sooner is he dismissed from the royal engagement does he, basically, hop on old timey Grindr and get in way over his head. This might all be interesting if it was meant to do more than show us…how bad things used to be? 

At worst, Barrow feels like a doll of a character, carried around by the writers to trigger audiences with his bad behavior, while always pulling out some redeemable or pitiable quality at the last second. This isn’t character complexity so much as it is character incoherence, the audience being force-fed incompatible characterizations without the result ever being truly lifelike. Barrow isn’t always this bad, but he is too often to be a well liked character to this viewer. 

Fortunately, mischaracterizations like these are in the minority in “Downton.” Sure, we’ve had to endure some memorable unpleasantness from the likes of O’Brien, Spratt, Amelia Grey, Edna Braithwaithe, Richard Carlisle, Nanny Grey, and Mr. Green, most of these characters are unpleasant for the right reasons. They do bad things, or have disastrous results despite fairly good intentions, eliciting a deserved reaction from the viewership. 

It’s only when “Downton” characters occasionally stop behaving like people that the show falls into cheap soap opera territory. Fortunately, these missteps are very much in the minority. As memories of the series’ revival in the recent feature continue to warm our hearts, we hope to one day see more of these characters, as the great house in the countryside continues into its still unimagined future.