Downton Abbey Ethics: Evil Barrow’s Ethics Lesson


If some of your PBS watching friends are unclear on those essential ethics analysis tools, the concepts of moral luck and consequentialism, the season finale of “Downton Abbey”( which you can view here) provided a wonderful example of both in action.

Now, settle down, because this takes some table-setting:

In the typically complicated episode, Lord Grantham, his family, and a stripped down staff including Barrow, the sneaky, Machiavellian and inexplicably still-employed butler, travel to scenic Brancaster Castle for a bit of shooting and socializing with Lord Sinderby, the new, but not newly snotty, father-in-law of niece Rose. In the previous episode, the Lord  made it clear that he objects strenuously to her, her parents (who are divorcing, making them socially unacceptable), her extended family, and his son’s marriage to her, because Rose’s family isn’t Jewish. His son, Atticus, named after Gregory Peck (kidding!), defied him by marrying outside the Jewish faith.  Sinderby grudgingly rented the castle for the gathering as a social requirement that he only consented to, in all likelihood, because his more reasonable and unbigoted wife insisted on it.

Lord Sinderby brings his own butler with him, the obnoxious and bitter Mr. Stowell.  When the  Grantham party arrives at Brancaster, Stowell refuses to serve Tom, the common-born widower of the only likable daughter of the Earl of Grantham, because the butler knows that Tom used to be a chauffeur, and thus pouring wine for Tom is beneath him. Stowell is also nasty to Barrow and so is Lord Sinderby, though the party’s host is pretty much all-rude, all the time.

Haughty Mary, who has grown fond of Tom, sics Barrow, whose proclivities as a snake are known to her, on Stowell through her servant. Barrow, informed of the Lady’s mischievous wishes, forges a phony message to be delivered to the castle’s cook, causing Stowell to serve Lord Sinderby the wrong meal at dinner. Lord Sinderby excoriates Stowell in front of the guests, humiliating him, and also calls Barrow a “stupid fool.”

Mary thinks Barrow’s sabotage of the nasty butler is complete, but he is like Bruno in “Stranger on a Train”: once unleashed, he is without mercy or restraint, and now he has both the butler and his master in his sights. Barrow sucks up to Stowell in an attempt to unearth some dirt on Sinderby, and hits the mother lode.

Lord Sinderby’s party for the Granthams at the castle is interrupted by an uninvited guest (well, the evil Barrow invited her under a false identity), an uncomfortable-looking young woman with a young child who “coincidentally” shares a first name with Lord Sinderby. Lord Sinderby almost faints when he sees her and his secret love child enter the room with his wife, who knows nothing of his infidelity, in the vicinity. Stowell also looks stricken, realizing that he gave his enemy, Barrow, the means to destroy him and his master with one vicious strike.

Amazingly, young Rose instantly takes all this in, realizes what is happening, and acts to avoid a multilateral family scandal. She quickly asks the panicked Sinderby for the woman’s name. and then dashes across the floor to greet her as if they were old friends and she had sent the invitation. The Earl and Mary gamely join her in the charade. The deception is successful  in keeping Lady Sinderby and Atticus from learning truth: that Dad is a hypocritical bounder.

Lord Sinderby is grateful to Rose and recognizes that she is a worthy partner for his son, and that he has been an ass. He softens toward the Granthams too, and also Rose’s parents, belatedly realizing that divorcing is hardly more morally objectionable than fathering bastard children behind one’s wife’s back. Stowell, warned by Mary that they will keep the source of the information Barrow used to create the potential crisis secret if he stops treating Tom like sheep dung under his shoe, instantly becomes the poster boy for obsequious service.

All’s well that ends well, right? Tom is finally shown respect, the rude butler gets his just desserts, the scandal is averted, Lord Sinderby has been taught a life-altering lesson in humility, and a rift that threatened to shadow Rose’s and Atticus’s marriage has been healed! That Barrow is a regular Mary Poppins!

It is all just moral luck, however. Once the Lord’s secret arrived at the castle, lots of scenarios were possible, many of them horrible. Barrow betrayed the trust of Stowell, placed his job and security in jeopardy, creates the threat to the Sinderby’s marriage, seeded a potential scandal that would have devastated Rose’s husband and his mother, and callously (and un-Kantly) used a young woman and an innocent child as pawns in his scheme. What he did was unethical in numerous ways, cruel, reckless, and excessive even by the unethical rules of revenge. The argument that what he did is in any way mitigated because it happened to have unexpected benefits is classic consequentialism, the mistaken belief that conduct’s ethical character can altered by the results of it.

Mary, who is the only one who knows that Barrow was behind it all–with a little push from her—should fire him. She won’t, both because she feels partially responsible and because she is probably justly fearful that he might expose her role in the fiasco and maybe more, to do some of the damage that Rose narrowly averted.

This was, however, a perfect example of how a miserably unethical action can, by shear moral luck, turn out hunky-dory for all.

That still doesn’t make it right.

24 thoughts on “Downton Abbey Ethics: Evil Barrow’s Ethics Lesson

  1. If they didn’t fire Barrow for stealing (first season), dabbling in the Black Market (season 2), his homosexual inclinations (which we learn in season 3 that they all know about and nearly caused a police issue given the mores and laws of the times), his bullying of the other servants (all seasons) and his recommending a convicted felon as Lady Grantham’s Lady’s Maid so that he could extort information from her about the family, they certainly aren’t going to fire him for going above and beyond Mary’s instructions.

    Barrow always bounces like, like some unethical people always seems to do.

    Yet, James is fired when Grantham catches him in bed with a guest and two previous housemaids are fired for doing or trying to do the same thing.

      • They usually are…but never enough to actually fire him for good. I suppose the day he takes an axe to the downstairs staff during the night, Lady Grantham might work up enough indignation to kick him out of the house.

        But only until he finds her favorite teacup…or something.

  2. Thomas technically is the Earl’s servant — and Mary acknowledged to the Earl that she is partly to blame. Any firing should be done by the Earl, but he won’s because Thomas is the best cricket player in the house and Thomas saved Lady Edith from a fire. Otherwise, this is a very fine recap!

    • 1. Wait, is Tom a servant, or a contractor? There’s a difference.
      2. She’s completely to blame, in the sense that she opened the door for a known sociopath to run amuck.
      3. The Earl doesn’t know what Barrow did, does he?
      4. Wait: you’re mixing up your Toms! Tom is the widower and a good guy. Barrow is also named Tom (I forgot that), but he’s not a good guy. He did rescue lady Alice, though.

      • I’m not confusing the Toms. You require remedial Downton Abbey watching! I may be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that Mary confessed to the Earl last night what her role was.

        Thomas is a servant — Tom is a contractor, but I wasn’t writing about Tom at all. Thomas (evil servant) is an excellent cricket player — that’s why he wasn’t fired even though he’s gay. They covered that about 2-3 seasons ago.

  3. Did anyone else find it hard not to read that post with a pompous British accent?

    I’m gonna go back and try it with a cockney underclass one next time.

    Otherwise, I don’t know anything about the show, but great analysis.

  4. I’ll try to think of a serious response when I stop laughing. Which won’t be for awhile. I am obliged to you, sir, for a delightful trek through the colorful thicket of BBC period drama.

    (…time passes…)

    It just occurred to me that I have no way to fact-check your story, much less unsnarl it, and you have wrapped up the finale in a neat ethical package anyway, corrective direction included . . . so I am free to go on reading bits aloud, a sentence at a time (sort of like doing I am the Very Modern of a Modern Major General all in one breath), in between guffaws.

  5. I’ve got to finish watching this. A dick to the very end, huh? Remember that evil woman he used to smoke with? For some reason, I thought they were heading towards a story of redemption with Barrow. I guess that was just wishful thinking.

  6. Clearly this post was Jack’s chance to use the term “bounder.” Personally, I think an “and a cad” would have been in order as well.

    But really, British nobility actually learning something and changing their world view and behavior? Preposterous and silly. It’s the kind of sentimental claptrap all their productions purvey to deluded American Anglophiles and why I don’t ever watch any of it. As silly and inaccurate as “Mad Men.”

    And speaking of ethics, let’s hear it for Michael Caine for turning down a knighthood because he thinks the entire idea of people being knighted promotes snobbery.

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