Reconsidering Sarah O’Brien

“Her ladyship’s soap,” tells us all we need to know about Sarah O’Brien, doesn’t it? After all, who really missed Cora’s scheming lady’s maid? Besides Cora of course. Alfred seemed rather indifferent to the disappearance of his aunt and protector against the evil Mr. Barrow.

While Edith and Isobel have their detractors, it’s hard to argue that O’Brien isn’t the most disliked regular character on Downton Abbey (with the possible exception of Ethel). No one else on the show left soap on the ground to remove potential heirs from the equation. Something about writing O’Brien off simply 024-downton-abbey-theredlist-1because of the soap incident doesn’t sit right with me.

Is it murder? I don’t think the show thinks it is. Why? She was never punished for it. Characters in fiction don’t get to escape the guilt of murder scot-free, or by risking Spanish flu.

Beyond that, it’s ridiculous to assume that O’Brien could’ve placed the soap in such a way that it would guarantee a miscarriage. She also tried to stop it as it was happening, remarking that such was not in her character. If you want to hate her for ensuring that Matthew would remain the heir, fine, but O’Brien is actually a very complex character.

If you look at O’Brien’s relationship with Thomas, you might think that it simply came to be because the two were chain smoking villains. That’s really not all there is to the story. While, I suspect that she genuinely cared for Barrow, at least until series three, it was actually likely the other characters’ fault that the two were brought together.

Carson and Hughes are extremely picky as to whom they spend recreational time with. Carson only likes to hang out with Mrs. Hughes, treating Molesley like pure garbage even though the two are likely closest in age of the male servants. He’s happy when Bates comes back for some strange reason, but the two don’t spend any real recreational time together. It doesn’t appear that Carson would ever invite Bates to go fishing in ponds for limp correctors.

Hughes is a bit more complex due to the presence of Patmore, who is under her command even though the two don’t really work together, at least after Mrs. Bird lead the kitchen revolution to give Beryl control of her own pantry. The two are clearly friends. Hughes also plays a maternal role to Anna, Daisy, and to a lesser extent, Gwen.

Where does O’Brien fit into this? Hughes has her confidant in Patmore and as lady’s maid, she’s above the others, though she does participate in eavesdropping with Anna and Gwen precisely one time. Who is supposed to be O’Brien’s friend?

You could argue that she brought that upon herself with her abrasive personality. Except she’s nice to Mr. Lang. Maybe that’s loneliness, or maybe the other characters just didn’t give her a chance.

There’s also the fact that she did have a part to play. The show needed a villain and O’Brien and Barrow’s schemes played a large part in the show’s success. Problem is whereas Barrow is highly regarded by many fans, myself included, O’Brien is despised. Is that fair?

From everything we know about O’Brien, she’s a woman who’s fiercely loyal to those who show kindness to her. We see this in her interaction with Cora, Barrow, and Alfred. She’s someone who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty to benefit the people she cares about, especially if it means that Bates find himself lying in the dirt.

With that in mind, we can sort of blame Hughes for their distant relationship. Hughes had a friend and didn’t need O’Brien. It doesn’t make sense that O’Brien would be intentionally hostile to her boss. It makes much more sense that she was lonely and jealous of her relationship with Patmore.

I wanted to start and end my evaluation of O’Brien with the soap because that really was her defining moment. From everything she’d heard, Cora was replacing her. Cora even talked about it directly to her. This was all one big misunderstanding and while I won’t excuse what she did with the soap, I do understand where she was coming from.

The aristocracy often sent servants packing and at that time, it wasn’t always easy to find other work. O’Brien felt she was faced with losing her livelihood and she lashed out because of it. Wrong, yes. Human, yes. Cora essentially controlled her entire existence and from her perspective, was flaunting it right in front of her. To write O’Brien off completely because of the soap feels wrong.

Her biggest flaw appears to be her lack of likability. She wasn’t very nice to Molesley when he feared for his own job during the “Matthew doesn’t need a valet for all of one episode” debacle. She lacks Barrow’s wit, which endears him to the audience. I wouldn’t say she’s more a villain than Barrow, but her shorter tenure on the show didn’t allow her to be as complex as he grew to be.

It’s hard to really say she wasn’t missed either. Even if she isn’t that well liked as a character, series four and five weren’t great. Could that be because there wasn’t one epic O’Brien/Barrow showdown to end their feud once and for all? I’m not sure we can rule that out.

These points may not make you like O’Brien and that’s okay. She isn’t a very likable character, though certainly more so than the insufferable Mr. Bates. To write her off simply because of her ladyship’s soap ignores her considerable contributions to the success of Downton.

I Hate Mr. Bates

I recently rewatched most of Downton Abbey in preparation for season six, which starts a week from today. Being known for its soap operatic value, one shouldn’t step into Highclere Castle expecting plots that make sense or robust character development. Julian Fellowes doesn’t hit his mark every time, but there’s certainly a reason why the recent trailer tugs at many people’s heartstrings and it’s not just because of the music. It’s because we’ve grown to love these characters.

There’s one man I used to love (as one loves a fictional character) once upon a time, but that affection has vanished. Like many, I started to feel it in season four and that continued as questions regarding his morality surfaced yet again. As you probably gathered from the title of this article, I am, of course, referring to Mr. Bates.

At first glance, he’s a tough guy to hate. Misery seems to follow him everywhere, tracking him by the sound of his cane thumping on Downton’s creaky floors and yet, he’s a pretty decent guy. He gave Molesley some money and saved Barrow from ruin at the hands of O’Brien/Jimmy. So why hate his Lordship’s valet?

The Mr. Green plotline has been almost universally panned. Many articles have been penned about how Fellowes has no ideas what to do with either Bates. I’ve found that the problem goes even beyond Mr. Green. To put it simply, Mr. Bates is terrible.

I’ve gotten into several arguments regarding the Bates/Barrow feud. People say I’m terrible for taking Thomas’ side, usually because they forget what’s important. It’s not about who’s the most morally altruistic person. It’s about who’s fun to watch.

There’s a scene in season five where Barrow acknowledges the simple fact that the two do not like each other. This gave me a bit of an “aha” moment as I too realized that I don’t like Mr. Bates either. In season three, I was firmly on team #freeBates. Now when I watch season three, I usually skip his scenes (along with Edith’s, which makes it easier for me to keep watching the same show over and over).

Think about how many episodes of the show feature a happy Mr. Bates. He’s sad when he first gets there because no one likes him. He spends the rest of season one feuding with the O’Brien/Barrow dream team and sad about his leg. We also find out he was in trouble for being a thief, which was the first red flag.

Season two brings even more bad news. We find out he has a wife who he doesn’t like. He has a brief moment of happiness when he marries Anna, but then he goes to jail, where he spends most of season three.

He’s happy for a little bit at the end of season three and the beginning of season four, though we find out that he’s also a forger in addition to being a thief. What a standup guy. No one can blame him for being moody after Anna’s horrifically unnecessary rape, but he pretty much spends the rest of the show moping around.

The reason for this sadness is simple. He has nothing else to do. Fellowes never tried to give him any storyline that didn’t involve horrible things happening to him. It got boring. I left the #freeBates team in favor of #killBates. At least then, Molesley could take his place as valet.

Downton Abbey is a drama. We expect characters to endure hardships. It’s generally considered reasonable to expect to be given a reason to like the character as well.

Bates and Barrow contrast well in this regard. Both are generally pretty moody and we know why. Bates is a crippled creep and Barrow is gay at a time when that was not only completely unacceptable, it was criminal.

Their unpleasantness manifests itself in different ways. Barrow takes his anger out on others while Bates is just a grump. We can probably assume that Bates is the better person (unless he actually killed Mr. Green or more gruesome details about his past turn up), but what does that really matter?

As a character, Bates lacks depth. Even his romance with Anna seemed a bit rushed. More importantly, he doesn’t make for good television.

Reports for season six suggest that not everyone will have a happy ending. It’s hard to tell where Bates will fit into this. One would think Fellowes would throw a curveball and let him limp off into the sunset with Anna on his arm. Problem is, I don’t care.