At first I denied the inevitability of his departure. After all, it’s Season 5, and Lord and Lady Grantham really like him now! And Mary and Edith both have great sibling-chemistry with him! And he has a decent job that he is good at! And most importantly, Sybbie: shouldn’t she be surrounded by the family of the mother she will never know? And the poor Crawleys – Sybbie is a link to their beloved, departed Sybil after all.
Despite my internal (and sometimes muttered) protestations, it is clear that the conflict between Branson and the Crawleys has not gone away, but has just become latent.
Ever since Sybil died, Branson has had to stifle his political beliefs to keep the peace with his in-laws and he has repeatedly mentioned feeling lost. While it is normal for people to question the beliefs they hold and to form different opinions throughout their lives, in Tom’s case it is difficult, if not impossible, to fully explore -let alone fully express- his thoughts on serious political or social issues, since doing so could easily cost him the respect and affection of the people he is dependent on. Even if we, the audience, feel confident that the Crawleys value Tom enough to disregard any distasteful political views, I don’t think I would feel so certain if I were in Tom’s position. After all, the Crawleys didn’t really start to feel comfortable around Tom and think of him as family until after he had become their “tame” rebel – NOT a coincidence.
And regardless of whether the Crawley’s affection is dependent on Tom not challenging the status quo (unless he does so VERY politely), there is a real power imbalance between Tom and his in-laws, regardless of how much everyone likes each other. In addition to being the parents of his deceased wife, they are his social superiors, as well as his employers. He is beholden tot hem for the comfort and ease of his life, and until he is independent of them, he cannot live his life without constantly considering their opinion of him.
Tom has already pointed out that his love-life will be continuously Crawley-blocked as long as he is at Downton. No matter how much they may support Tom’s need to move on with his life, it won’t be easy or comfortable for anyone.
This awkwardness will be made even more difficult by his strange social position. Again, Tom has already pointed out that the women who are most likely to be interested in him would probably not be considered an acceptable step-mother for the Crawley’s granddaughter. And anyone that they would approve of would probably not be interested in marrying a former-chauffeur.
But what about Sybbie? Sure, it would be great for her to have a close relationship with her mother’s family. Honestly that is probably the most compelling reason I can think of for him to stay after all. But, it is still not a perfect solution. Tom doesn’t belong anywhere: the villagers consider him to be part of the Crawleys (more or less), and the Crawley’s social circle … well, just refer back to the scenes with the SInderbys’ butler, or Lord Merton’s sons, Timothy Grey and Larry Grey (or Thing 1 and Thing 2 as I prefer to call them after listening to the hilariously witty podcast, Up Yours, Downstairs).
He could probably fit in with a relatively middle-class-only social sphere, but how is he going to form his own circle of friends and acquaintances that openly accept him while living among the upper class that despises him? And what will his daughter grow up to think of her father, seeing him ignored by one group of people and scorned by another? How will she be treated by those same people? Sure, in front of the Crawleys she will probably be treated politely – but what about the rest of the time? When she is at school or meeting friends and potential husbands, will they see her as the grand-daughter of an Earl, or as an Irish Catholic?
Finally, we should not forget that Tom’s desire to raise her as an Irish Catholic (and probably one with the same values as himself and Sybil, her mother) will be challenging, at best, to the sensibilities of Lord and Lady Grantham. Remember, after Sybil died and Tom first talked about going to Liverpool, how the Dowager Countess literally told Lord Grantham that if he wasn’t careful, Tom would get to raise Sybbie however he wanted? How Lord Grantham should keep him around so that they could better influence Sybbie’s upbringing? How likely is it that the Dowager Countess of all people will have suddenly decided that Tom knows what’s best for his daughter?
Sad though I am, I think leaving is the only choice that makes sense for Tom and Sybbie.