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The Gilded Age, Season One; Review by Robert Pruter

gilded age posterOriginally aired 24 January 2022-21 March 2022
Created by Julian Fellowes

Starring Christine Baranski, Denée Benton, Carrie Coon, Taissa Farmiga, Louisa Jacobson, Cynthia Nixon, Harry Richardson, Blake Ritson, Morgan Spector

My rating: ★★★★ stars

Historical drama of the Gilded Age society of New York City by Julian Fellowes that captures the era with its sharp dialogue, compelling storytelling, and high production values, which make viewers feel they have been really transported back in time.

The Gilded Age is an 1880s period drama of New York’s high crust society, with an upstairs-downstairs approach. Not surprisingly, the creator/writer of the show is Julian Fellowes, who gave us Downton Abbey. The series has received quite a bit of criticism and disinterest as well. But I found the series a powerful and rich historical drama well deserving of attention from the public. This is a wonderful window into the late nineteenth century world of Americans, mostly of the rich, but also including stories of common people of far fewer means.

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Old Money Doyennes: Ada and Agnes

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Morgan Spector as George Russell

The narrative of the series features some 12 strands, reflecting the stories of the 12 “series regulars.” The focus of these stories is centered on two households. One is an old wealth house with two fiftyish sisters, played marvelously by Christine Baranski (with sly snappish wit) and the kinder Ada Brook, played by Cynthia Nixon (in one of her best performances). The old wealth was indeed old, the Van Rhijn sister showing a connection to the original Dutch settlers, who founded New York before the British seized the colony. The other is a new wealth household headed by the married team of George Russell (Morgan Spector, whose riveting performance deserves an Emmy) and Bertha Russell (played by the great Carrie Coon). Some have criticized Coon’s performance as bad acting, but I think the creators wanted Mrs. Russell to be an unpleasant person, and Coon succeeds only too well.

What is most striking about The Gilded Age is how much the creators focus on the old wealth-new wealth conflict, which was like a poison that ran through New York high society. Social standing then was determined by the women of each household, and it is the old wealth women led by Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy) who work to exclude the Russells from their Blue Book clique. I am not sure how well Fellowes captured this conflict, but if he got it right the social exclusion was openly and brutally applied. The Russells are not invited to any social events, and Mrs. Astor and friends work hard to ensure that no members of their families should ever step inside the Russells’ home, or any member of the Russells’ household ever step inside their abodes.

The men generally then didn’t give a hoot about such social barriers, and sometimes broke them. Ward McAllister (Nathan Lane), for example, was a real Gilded Era figure, who is depicted in the show as allied with Mrs. Astor in guarding the gates of high society, yet he befriends Bertha Russell. George Russell has absolutely no interest in being accepted into the old wealth clique, not thinking them worthy of his company anyway. But he loves his wife and wants to see her happy, so he does his best to help her penetrate the old wealth social barriers. The men, however, competed with each other in the world of business and finance, as well as politics. We see this competition in the story of George Russell, the fictional representative of one of the late nineteenth century Captains of Industry. A huge factor in the growth in the economy during the Gilded Age was the building of railroads, and much of George Russell’s business was engaged in railroad building.

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The younger generation: Peggy and Marian

We also see in The Gilded Age how some of the younger generation work to erode the social strictures, in both the Van Rhijn old-wealth household and the Russells’ new-wealth household. The Van Rhijn household notably features the sisters’ niece, Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), a poor relation who at her father’s death was left penniless and had to live with her aunts. Miss Brook is one of the main protagonists in the series and we see much of the Gilded Age story through her eyes. She presents a more modern and progressive view compared to her elders. Her aunts want her to marry someone worthy of her old wealth station, and she has her eyes on a young up and comer. But waspish Van Rhijn dismisses him as a gold digger (and she may be right). Also in the household is a well-educated African American young lady, Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), who gets a job as secretary to Agnes Van Rhijn. She lives in the quarters of the downstairs servant staff. The third younger-generation member of the household is Van Rhijn’s son, Oscar (Blake Ritson), who rebels against his mother’s strictures, notably carrying on a homosexual relationship (well closeted given the times).

The Russells’ household features two teenage children—Gladys (Taissa Farmiga), who is treated terribly by her mother, who keeps her almost imprisoned in the house and at the same time uses her to advance her social ambitions; and Larry (Harry Richardson), who causes his father great stress by showing no desire to follow him into the business and instead wanting to be an architect.

Fellowes also shows the outsized role that philanthropy played in the comings and goings of New York high society and their social standing. The wealthy proved their worth on how much they gave—to help the poor, to help in building cultural institutions, and to help do-good agencies like the Red Cross. There is an interesting episode where the New York elite meet with Clara Barton, showing how adroitly she milks the rich for funds. The Russells are able to make strides in New York society by their tremendous philanthropy. I agree with the argument that if the titans of industry were so interested in the downtrodden, etc., why not pay them a living wage? Fellowes might well get to that argument as the series, depending how long it goes, gets to the labor turmoil of the 1890s.

The show was criticized by some because supposedly Fellowes concentrated on the comings and goings of the upper crust, and ignored the “true story” of the Gilded Age of the common people working in poverty from the low wages. Aside from the idiocy of criticizing a show for not being the show that the reviewer wanted to see, the criticism has no merit.

As one gets further along into the show, there are a number of other stories, including those of downstairs folks, notably that of Van Rhijn’s long-time butler, Bannister (Simon Jones), who betrays Agnes Van Rhijn by secretly moonlighting at the Russells. Then there is the story of one of New York’s black elite, Peggy Scott, who while working as a secretary for Van Rhijn, is trying to make it as a fiction writer. She soon becomes a journalist advancing black interests. As there is little knowledge of the black elite during the Gilded Age, Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune wrote a whole column on the revelation at seeing this untold story of a black person from that period.

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The fictional and the historical: Mrs. Russell and Mrs. Astor

This is a fictionalized story—with fiction characters interacting with real characters, notably Mrs. Astor, Clara Barton, and Ward McAllister—but the series is an invaluable learning experience, not to say an entertaining experience as well.

One comment on “The Gilded Age, Season One; Review by Robert Pruter

  1. Yours is the first review I’ve read of the show, having purposely avoided reading any, based on an expectation that to do so would require me to suffer “the idiocy of criticizing a show for not being the show that the reviewer wanted to see,” to borrow your wonderful phrase. I loved The Gilded Age, for the reasons you’ve given here, and am happy to take this review as the defining critical evaluation of the show

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