James Herriot may not have the same positioning as a romantic hero compared to leading men in other MASTERPIECE dramas. However, his demeanor and actions are a well-needed antidote to the toxic masculinity and male aggression found in characters such as Ross Poldark. Part of the enduring appeal of All Creatures Great and Small is not only how James treats his animal patients, but how he treats the women in his life as well.
Patience is both James’ most endearing quality and the trait that defines his entire story arc. He met Helen while she was engaged to Hugh. While that didn’t stop James from getting to know her, he knew there could not be more to their relationship. In modern parlance, James spends a lot of time in “the friendzone” but this is far from a negative thing. He learns the ways of the Yorkshire farmers. He builds trust and proves himself to be a reliable veterinarian and friend. He’s also not afraid to be kind, which isn’t always a personality trait valued for men.
Intertwined with patience is a clear belief in consent. During the era, this would be referred to as being “a gentleman.” James has multiple opportunities to either physically or psychologically pressure Helen into being with him. However, he never tells Helen “it’s either him or me” towards the end of Season 1. Last year’s Christmas special with the Chapmans put James’ moral compass to the test, and he passed with flying colors. Crashing on the couch after Suzie birthed her puppies could have been the perfect time for James to try and corner Helen for a kiss or more. Yet Mrs. Hall’s advice to not do anything he would later regret really wasn’t necessary. His heart was aching but he knew leaving Helen alone was the right thing to do. This took far more strength of character than taking the easy way out and taking advantage of Helen’s vulnerability.
James’ emotional intelligence kicks in at the end of the special when he turns back to Darrowby. Helen decided on her own terms to break it off with Hugh. James arrives just in time to be the friend she needs after a tough day. He senses time to heal is what she needs most. Viewers can assume in the time between seasons he makes sure to not be a reminder of the breakup or a source of gossip. Even though Tristan later on suspects James did something to cause or influence the breakup, we know nothing unethical happened.
Season 2’s arc of Helen and James finding their way to each other is so immensely satisfying to follow because it’s a story of reaping the rewards of time invested. Helen emerges from the self-isolation caused by piling too much judgment on herself for making an empowered choice. James is ready to be her friend, and possibly more, as spring replaces winter. James also values her for helping him appreciate the world around him, so their first kiss on the roof is so satisfying because the will-they-won’t-they is tied into James realizing the Dales truly is where he belongs. Of course, it’s difficult to separate work from fun when clients interrupt their movie date, or when they spend alone time discussing work issues. Some may think they spend too little time in the dating stage, but the time they’ve spent as friends has helped achieve an even closer bond. It also helps to keep in mind that weeks are passing between each episode on the show versus days here in the real world.
Every romantic hero has to have some flaws. In James’ case, he has trouble with setting boundaries with his mom. Some may mock his "mama’s boy" tendencies but on the other hand, it’s a good thing he loves and cares about her feelings. James is an only child so he feels obligated to help his parents financially since they scrimped and saved for his veterinary training. Despite that, James doesn’t waste time making excuses over failing to discuss the job offer in Glasgow with Helen. Yes, he over-analyzes situations and struggles with spontaneity. He’s also not immune to jealousy when he sees Helen kiss Hugh on the cheek at the cricket match. But the way he overcomes these flaws is admirable, especially the way he resists peer pressure to make Hugh’s return to Darrowby more miserable.
What does the future hold for James and Helen? That depends on a few factors. Siegfried’s wage packet probably won’t be enough for James to move out of Skeldale House for a while. Helen still has to help Jenny and Mr. Alderson on the farm. Naturally, James would also want to save up for a ring, and they’ll both have to break it to Mama Herriot that they’re staying in Darrowby. Most importantly, Helen has to be fully ready to want to consider marriage.
Regardless, a male main character in a period drama who isn’t filled to the brim with toxic masculinity is worth celebrating. James Herriot may not have the physically cleanest job in the world, or the best hours, but his heart is pure, and that’s why we can’t wait for him to propose to Helen when the time is right!