The queer male has experienced a resurgence in prestige television historical dramas. Examples include Thomas Tallis, William Compton, George Boleyn, and Mark Smeaton in The Tudors (2007–2010); the sadistic soldier Captain Jack Randall in Outlander (2014-present); the duplicitous servant Thomas in Downton Abbey (2010–2015); and the merciless assassin Micheletto in The Borgias (2011–2013). These characters are often villainous or, sometimes more generously, pathetic, and are often punished, either through death or through simple expulsion from the narratives of history articulated by these series. Thus, they fit into the pervasive and pernicious “bury your gays” trope so common to television, and it is understandable that critics tend to read these characters with the grain of the series themselves, i.e., as either the detritus of history (that which must be left behind in order for it to move forward) or as participants in the continued marginalization of queer people in narratives about the past.
However, these characters’ refusal to play by the rules constitutes, I argue, a form of “queer failure,” which, as Jack Halberstam explains, “allows us to escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development,” exposing the contradictions and inequalities of American society (3–4). Whether it is through their inflicting of suffering and death or through their pursuit of pleasure outside the bounds of reproduction, the “failed” characters in contemporary historical dramas likewise queerly rupture these series’ historical and ideological coherence. Rather than submitting to the hetero-futurist logic that drives the overall narrative arcs of these series, in which the family or the heterosexual couple represents the fulfillment of historical destiny, these characters express a desire to exist outside and alongside of this relentless focus on the future. Furthermore, in their conscious refutation of the conjoined imperatives of heterosexuality and traditional male heroism, these characters also provide a different means of experiencing the past, one predicated on the perilous pleasures associated with queer desire. Though frequently accompanied by pain, narrative dead-ends, and sadness, these desires nevertheless offer a subversive counterpoint to the dominant narratives of heterosexual history and, as such, a way of reclaiming — and repurposing — those negative emotions for a queer experience of history. Here, I will focus on two such characters: the assassin Micheletto from Showtime’s The Borgias and the footman Thomas Barrow from the British series Downton Abbey.
Of course, the queer characters in these recent dramas did not emerge from a vacuum. Indeed, as Richard Dyer has documented, the queer male has maintained a substantial presence in the heritage film, and even goes so far as to suggest that the sartorial pleasures of this genre open up a space in which queers can recognize themselves in prior historical moments in which queer people (men in particular) were persecuted and marginalized. Examples of this high-brow homo can be found in various heritage films of the 1980s and 1990s — one of the genre’s periods of success — most notably the 1987 film Maurice (based on the E.M. Forster novel of the same name). The costume drama seemed to hit another peak when it made its appearance on prestige cable networks such as HBO, Showtime, and Starz in the 2000s and 2010s. Almost every costume drama series that appears on these networks — The Tudors and The Borgias on Showtime, Outlander on Starz — includes queer male characters, many of whom slide quite easily into what Dyer has elsewhere theorized as the figure of the “sad young man.” As he says, “the world before the sad young man offers four resolutions: death, normality, becoming a dreadful old queen or, especially in the later texts, finding ‘someone like oneself’ with whom one can settle down” (132). Certainly the queer characters of The Tudors, which ran from 2007 to 2010, fits the first two of these two conventions, sometimes within the same storyline, as is the case with the composer Thomas Tallis and the courtier William Compton. After Compton of the “sweating sickness” — what some have suggested is a thinly-veiled allusion to AIDS — Tallis goes on, but only after shattering his musical instrument on Compton’s tombstone. Later, both George Boleyn and Mark Smeaton, also a queer male couple, die at the end of the headsman’s axe after they are convicted of having consorted with the queen Anne Boleyn.
The Borgias, like its predecessor The Tudors (which preceded it on Showtime), focuses on the exploits of a particularly notorious Renaissance dynasty. In this case, the family patriarch is Rodrigo Borgia (played with scenery-chewing panache by Jeremy Irons), cardinal and later pope, who has aspirations not only for himself but also for his three children: eldest son Cesare, daughter Lucrezia, and troublemaking younger son Juan (portrayed by perennial costume drama cad David Oakes). All of the Borgias, as the title suggests, remain invested in cultivating their dynastic ambitions through a combination of poisoning, political maneuvering and, this being Showtime after all, lots and lots of sex. Into this dangerous web of Renaissance debauchery steps Micheletto, a poisoner and death-dealer who lends his services to the dynasty and its ambitions, particularly Cesare, who is the most politically savvy (and ruthless) of the Borgia children.
From his first appearance on the series, Micheletto serves as Cesare’s enforcer and assassin, skilled in all of the arts of death, ranging from poison to stabbing, from strangulation to, in one particularly gruesome case, the feeding of a vicious noble to a pond full of carnivorous fish. As if enacting Lee Edelman’s famous polemic against the child as the bearer of the future, Micheletto even murders an altar boy by drowning him in a well (more on Edelman shortly). Something seems to draw him to Cesare in particular, a loyalty that supersedes everything, even his own desires. Throughout the series’ three seasons, he exhibits a signature lack of compassion or mercy; he even helps Cesare murder his brother Juan.
He also happens to be, for lack of a better word, queer. Indeed, in episode “The Choice,” we see him engage in a clandestine sexual encounter Antonio, a man from his native city of Forli (who may in fact be his brother). The two re-encounter one another at Michelleto’s mother’s home, where it is revealed that she believes that she thinks that her son is at school (his sexual desires are not the only thing he keeps secret from her, apparently). The assignation, appropriately enough, takes place in a cemetery, and it is worth dwelling on, for it tells us a great deal not only about how Micheletto is meant to signify in the series, but also about the avenues that it opens up for a queer experience of history that is not about the rescuing of queer individuals from historical amnesia but instead about articulating the pain, frustration, and anger of the queer experience.
Most obviously, of course, the fact the first scene of same-sex sex takes place in a cemetery highlights the extent to which Micheletto’s sexual desires are inextricably intertwined with death. Throughout this sequence Micheletto conveys a sense of potent and deadly menace. Part of this stems from the nature of Sean Harris’s performance. There’s something vaguely unsettling about Harris’s affect, including his disheveled appearance — hair slightly tousled, beard not patchy yet not full, clothes askew — and though his body is lean and sculpted (though we don’t really see it that often), he is not what one would call traditionally attractive. He is not, to put it another way, the sort of eye candy that typically makes queer characters such a pleasure to watch when they appear in heritage and costume films. The queer characters that inhabit The Tudors, for example, are as pretty as the rest of the cast, their beauty adding another layer of pathos to their doomed love.
Unlike the queer characters that preceded him in The Tudors, however, Micheletto is not content to let others dictate the terms of his life. When Antonio criticizes him for his murderous ways, asking him why he pursues it, he says, “I punish this world for not being as I want.” What he wants, seemingly, is a world where his desire wouldn’t be punished by those in power. For Micheletto, love and death are not just intertwined: they are of the same substance. He recognizes for himself the fact that the world of Renaissance Italy not only condemns same-sex eroticism (even as the heterosexuals continue to engage in all manner of licentious behavior, sometimes in the very Vatican that is supposed to be the arbiter and bastion of morality) but doesn’t even have a way of articulating or classifying what this desire even constitutes. For all of its historical inaccuracies (and they are, to put it mildly, legion), I would argue that The Borgias comes closer than almost any other historical drama to capturing the unnamable nature of queer desire in this pre-modern period. While Antonio has chosen to pursue a married life with a woman (thus avoiding the painful execution that awaits any sodomite), Micheletto spurns that for the empty life that it is.
Unlike most of the other characters in the series — whose ambitions remain predicated on the furtherance of familial ambition and, as an afterthought, the betterment of the city of Rome — Micheletto has no other ambition other than punishing the world. In that sense, I would go so far as to say that he is the embodiment of the queer death drive as theorized by Lee Edelman. In the introduction to his polemical and controversial book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Edelman argues that “the death drive names what the queer, in the order of the social, is called forth to figure: the negativity opposed to every form of social viability” (9). Micheletto moves through the world slaying with impunity, exposing the emptiness at the heart of the splendor of the Borgia dynasty.
Indeed, so strong is Michelleto’s drive for death and relentless loyalty to Cesare that he is even willing to kill the one person who seems to have found a way into his cold, compassion-less heart: his lover Pascal. After forging a measure of love and happiness, Micheletto discovers that Pascal has been sent as a spy by one of Cesare’s enemies and gives him the choice of how to die, to which his lover responds: in your arms. The scene is staged as almost too beautiful, too exquisite a conjoining of death and desire. Certainly, the fact that Micheletto ultimately kills his beloved for his role against the Borgias can be seen as falling into the all-too-common television trope that queer love must always end in tragedy. I would suggest, however, that it serves as the series’ internal critique of the family-centered political ambitions of the Borgia clan, which are exposed for what they have always been: the corrupt, short-sighted ambition that burns everything in their path, even one of the few relationships that has emotional depth and resonance. Micheletto ultimately comes to bear the agony and the ecstasy of early modern queer desire.
Thomas Barrow of Downton Abbey is at once a more positive character and a more layered one than Micheletto. Positioned on the very cusp of 20th Century modernity, as the last vestiges of the feudal system are crumbling, Thomas seems to exist in a peculiar temporal space, consistently out of joint with the world that surrounds him. Because of his essentially liminal status — a gay man living in an age in which that identity is still taking shape, a man embittered because of the way that life has treated him — Thomas comes to bear, and to engender in us, the negative affects associated with early 20th Century queerness.
For those unfamiliar with Downton, it is somewhat of a retread of Upstairs, Downstairs, with a bit of Mrs. Miniver and sundry other period and costume dramas thrown in. It primarily centers on the noble Crawley family and their attempts to navigate the turbulent waters of modernity. Equally important is the dynastic problem faced by Lord Grantham. Because he and his wife have produced only daughters, the death of his male heirs in the sinking of the Titanic necessitates the estate going to his next legitimate male heir, a dynastic crisis that motivates the plot for most of the first several seasons. Meanwhile, the large staff of the estate deal with their own various crises, ranging from physical ailments to war trauma, relationship drama to petty feuding.
Given that Downton is not exactly the most subtle of series, from the beginning Thomas falls easily into the queer villain stereotype, always huddling in corners with his conspirator Mrs. O’Brien, plotting and scheming against the “good” characters of the manor: both the noble Crawleys and the other, allegedly more sympathetic staff such as Mr. Carson, Mrs. Hughes, and the series long-suffering couple Anna and Mr. Bates. Their actions are often astoundingly petty, as when Thomas goes out of his way to spite footman William’s feelings for the cook Daisy by asking her to accompany him for a date (which is obviously disingenuous, since he had no feelings for her himself). However, for the first several seasons they train most of their ire on the newly-arrived Mr. Bates (who is appointed Lord Grantham’s valet, a post Thomas aspired to and believes he deserves).
At first, the series wants to paint Thomas in a negative light and to associate that negativity with his queer desires. In the very first episode, for example, he attempts to blackmail the Duke of Crowborough, his former lover, but his plan is foiled by the wiliness of the duke, who steals their love letters and burns them. It is no accident that it is Thomas and Miss O’Brien who point out early on that the nobility’s days of political dominance are limited, that the rights and freedoms of the laborers will soon have to be respected. For a very politically conservative series like Downton (its creator, Julian Fellowes, is a member of the British House of Lords), nothing could be more terrifying than the lower orders thinking that they have the right to speak back to their social superiors or challenge them on their own assumptions about the way the world works, unless of course one of those happens to be a queer man.
Yet I would argue that it is precisely Downton’s (admittedly rather lazy) efforts to associate Thomas’ queerness with his villainy that ultimately opens up the very resistance that it attempts to discipline. In particular, the series’ attempts to contrast the Saint Bates/Saint Anna dyad (with its associated heterosexuality and presumed reproduction) to the queer (or at the very least anti-sexual) Thomas/Miss O’Brien pairing, can be read against the grain, and indeed Downton seems to call out for such a reading. For as much as Downton wants us to identify with Bates and Anna, it is a remarkably unstable binary. Bates and Anna are often a little too squeaky clean to be truly sympathetic, and Bates in particular can often come across as being more than a little sanctimonious, a little too good to be true (even if the series wants us to see his repeated suffering as a source of pathos rather than irritation). As a result, it’s easy to find oneself cheering on these two as they puncture the holes in this mythos and as their actions sabotage and endanger the budding romance between Anna and Bates.
In a particularly moving scene in season Thomas at last has the opportunity to stick up for himself. After coming to believe that one of the new footmen has feelings for him, he makes a sexual advance, and is resoundingly rebuffed. When Mr. Carson, that emblem of servant respectability, naturally takes it upon himself to reprimand him for his behavior, sneering that he is twisted and foul, Thomas, though chastened and embarrassed, nevertheless refuses to accept these condemnatory labels, and he proudly asserts that while he might be different from Carson and the others on the estate, he is not foul. He further remarks that, when one is like he is, one has to learn the signs of queer desire. This moment is noteworthy in that it marks one of the moments in the series where Thomas gets to speak for himself, and it reveals the extent to which he understand his own identity, his sense of self, and the world in which he lives and forces us to acknowledge it as well. Beneath the soft lighting, the convoluted dance of courtship, and the general aura of respectability and beauty that Downton has invested so much energy in cultivating there lies a very ugly and virulent strain of intolerance. While we are encouraged look at the period that Downton portrays with a sense of nostalgia, this moment reveals that beneath that façade is a reality that we, living in the present, would probably not want to inhabit.
As the series goes on, Thomas continues to struggle with his sexual identity and the consequences this has for his ability to truly bond with anyone. Driven nearly to despair, he tries a number of fraudulent attempts to “fix” himself and, when these fail, he even goes so far as to try to take his own life. These scenes are distressing and disturbing to watch, in no small part because the insidious practice of conversion therapy continues to this day, and because so many queer people still see death as the only escape from a world that refuses to accept them or their existence. Given how much we as viewers have invested in Thomas — and given how he has been shown to be at least somewhat sympathetic — they are also particularly moving, reminding us once more of the costs associated with the closet and the relentless pathologizing of queer sexuality that existed right into the 20th Century.
Certainly, costume dramas like Downton Abbey and The Borgias intend us to see these characters in a negative light, as individuals who are fundamentally out of step with the times in which they live. Yet it is precisely their unwillingness — and it is important to stress their agency in these matters — to live in the accepted way that makes them such compelling screen exemplars. As Heather Love reminds us in her book Feeling Backward, there are other ways of engaging with the queer that do not rely on or emphasize the “positive.” She forcefully calls for a turning away from the mainstreaming of queer identity in our search for a presence in the historical record. As she puts it (and I quote at length): “While it would be neither possible nor desirable to go back to an earlier moment in the history of gay and lesbian life, earlier forms of feeling, imagination, and community may offer crucial resources in the present. Attending to the specific histories of homophobic exclusion and violence […] can help us see structures of inequality in the present […] It may in fact seem shaming to hold onto an identity that cannot be uncoupled from violence, suffering, and loss. I insist on the importance of clinging to ruined identities and to histories of injury. Resisting the call of gay normalization means refusing to write off the most vulnerable, the least presentable, and all the dead” (30). Only by recapturing, and sometimes even dwelling upon, these negative feelings can we truly give a measure of justice to those who have suffered in the past.
These historical dramas crack open the polite façade of history to expose the raw, powerful, negative affects associated with the pain of the queer past. While it would be easy to simply take these representations straight and condemn them outright for their shortcomings, to my mind this is a fundamental misreading (and underestimation) of the subversive pleasures they contain. I for one question just how satisfying (or emotionally resonant) it would be to have queer historical characters who are depicted in a “positive” light, or who had happy endings. Would Michletto be nearly as fascinating if he were a sanitized queer character, one who wasn’t a ruthless killer ultimately ensnared in his own pursuit of violence? Would Thomas Barrow be the character we all love to hate if he supported Bates? The answer, of course, is no, and by embracing the negative aspects of our past, we can find revolutionary potential for the future.