The Gilded Age Review: An Acidic Depiction of the Absurdity of Upper-Class Warfare

HBO’s The Gilded Age considers the social currents of the historical moment, alluringly cutting through the delusions of its aristocrats.

The Gilded Age

Early in HBO’s The Gilded Age, complementary tracking shots explore two homes on opposite sides of Manhattan’s 61st Street in the late 19th century. First, we enter the house of sisters Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon), who take in their young niece, Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), after her father’s death leaves her penniless. The camera navigates the tight corners of the servants’ quarters, highlighting the hidden underbelly of an antiquated, relatively understated aristocracy.

Later, across the street, we follow the recently arrived and modestly raised Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) as she moves through the massive main hall of her freshly built palace, funded by the fortune her husband, George (Morgan Spector), has made in railroads. A dazzling chandelier is set to be raised, and workers and artisans shuffle in and out of frame to make final touches to a building that, like Bertha’s social ambitions, is a capacious work in progress.

These families serve as the primary windows through which creator and writer Julian Fellowes examines the acidic, ridiculous war between old and new money. Where the soft-spoken and sensitive Ada mostly tries to avoid disagreement—she floats just above disputes, buoyed by the spaciness that Nixon lends the character—Agnes and Bertha seem to relish conflict. But pride keeps Agnes from interacting directly with Bertha in the first five episodes of The Gilded Age, so the headstrong matriarchs make their thoughts known through proxies and the grapevine, lashing their wits like whips around their families and intermediaries, including sycophantic socialites Aurora Fane (Kelli O’Hara) and Anne Morris (Katie Finneran).

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Marian also acts as a go-between. She meets Bertha’s daughter, Gladys (Taissa Farmiga), and the bewitching Sylvia Chamberlain (Jeanne Tripplehorn), a widow ostracized for her purportedly ill-gotten wealth, on the charity circuit, where some people try to help the downtrodden and everyone else aims to climb the social ladder. Marian takes to these pariahs, as she does to Tom Raikes (Thomas Cocquerel), the charmingly forthright lawyer who follows her from Pennsylvania to New York, out of what feels like willful humanism. This vexes Agnes, whose protectiveness is suggested to stem from pain suffered long ago.

The Gilded Age, though, refuses to place a halo atop Marion’s head. Her relationship with Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), a Black writer who takes a job as Agnes’s secretary, proves particularly humbling. In a blisteringly embarrassing moment, Marian visits Peggy and her parents (Audra McDonald and John Douglas Thompson) in Brooklyn, where a patronizing gesture of generosity blows up in her face. Later that day, she goes to the opera, without a care in the world save her concern that she might be losing the focus of Tom’s attention. Her humiliation of both herself and Peggy’s family appears to have been obliterated by the wonder of an exclusive box at the Academy of Music on 14th Street.

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The series considers not just racism but other social currents of the historical moment, such as industrialization, immigration, and poverty, largely through the servants who work for Agnes, Ada, and the Russells. But unlike the more vibrant and layered downstairs world that Fellowes created with Downton Abbey, he thinly sketches similar characters here, and to the point of tokenization. Mrs. Bauer (Kristine Nielsen), a German cook, and Bridget (Taylor Richardson), an Irish maid, stand in for two major sources of 19th-century European immigration to the U.S., with little insight afforded into the women’s personal experiences. What attempts The Gilded Age does make to investigate the psyches of its working-class characters prove reductive, like when it reveals horrific elements from Bridget’s past.

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Far more compelling is the gradual illumination of Bertha’s profound rage. She tells George that she schemes for the future of her children, and this may be true, but there’s more on the line. Anne Morris unknowingly encapsulates the stakes of Bertha’s campaign when she refers to her—behind her back, of course—as a “potato digger’s daughter.” Bertha struggles as much against caste as she does for her family, and Coon makes of her a volcano: straight faced, fiery eyed, and filled with wrath that sits deep like magma, until it erupts in vicious flashes.

In an especially elucidating scene, Bertha sits in bed with a cup of tea and a newspaper and learns, through an article, that the old elite have spurned yet another of her overtures. As the frequently stirring score by Harry and Rupert Gregson-Williams swells, Bertha briefly strains to compose herself before launching her tea tray onto the floor.

But Bertha, for all her self-righteous fury, doesn’t want for shelter, food, clothing, or love. Her station is enviable, her sense of aggrievement all but incredible. And while Fellowes takes Bertha and the show’s other affluent subjects seriously, he also demonstrates an awareness of how silly their crusades and squabbles ultimately are. (His efforts to contextualize their solipsism through the travails of servants, though shallow, further evince that self-awareness.)

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While on a tour of the Russell home, Agnes and Ada’s butler, Bannister (Simon Jones), comments with faux politeness on the things that his staff does differently, as per the English way. His petty criticism feels cataclysmic to Church (Jack Gilpin), his counterpart at the Russell estate, and amusingly absurd to the unassuming viewer. Elsewhere, over a cup of tea, Aurora Fane shares with Marian a plan to introduce Bertha to Ward McAllister (Nathan Lane), a gatekeeper of high society. “So Mr. McAllister’s opinion is important?” Marion asks. Aurora answers with startling lucidity: “Is any of it important?”

George serves as the foremost avatar of this understanding. He supports Bertha’s strategizing, and takes advantage of her slowly expanding connections, but recognizes that the old order is doomed. Perhaps that’s why he’s almost always smiling, content with the knowledge that he and his ilk are ascendant. Equipped with immeasurable wealth and blessed with a stomach for violence, he will rule not just New York but the entire nation, signing his name across it with railway tracks. George, then, is a man ahead of his time, and the sharpest knife with which The Gilded Age so alluringly cuts through the delusions of its aristocrats.

Score: 
 Cast: Christine Baranski, Cynthia Nixon, Carrie Coon, Morgan Spector, Denée Benton, Louisa Jacobson, Taissa Farmiga, Harry Richardson, Blake Ritson, Thomas Cocquerel, Audra McDonald, Kelli O’Hara, Katie Finneran, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Kelley Curran, Kristine Nielsen, Taylor Richardson, Michael Cerveris, Debra Monk, John Douglas Thompson, Michel Gill, Ward Horton, Simon Jones, Jack Gilpin, Patrick Page, Douglas Sills, Amy Forsyth, Donna Murphy, Ben Ahlers, Linda Emond, Nathan Lane, Sullivan Jones  Network: HBO  Buy: Amazon

Niv M. Sultan

Niv M. Sultan is a writer based in New York. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Drift, Public Books, and other publications.

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