Christine Baranski in The Gilded Age

The Gilded Age: Never the New

I never thought I’d see the day when this one would actually debut. I feel like it was announced aaaaaages ago (like, around the time Downton first came out, no? Ahh, yes, I see now it was first floated in 2012.) It just hovered around forever and then, Boom! Here it is!

I’ll be honest: I approached this with some trepidation. Having watched Downton go steeply downhill over the years, largely due to bad plotting and extremely sloppy writing, I wasn’t expecting much here. This sounded like Downton in New York, and it basically is. It even starts off almost exactly the same way, with early morning belowstairs tracking shots of a letter bearing news of a death that will unsettle the family status quo. Homage? Laziness? You decide, depending on your generosity.

Having watched the first episode now, my overall reaction is… eeeeeh. Not bad but not hugely invested either. I’m interested in Peggy, who appears to have something going on both personally and professionally. The others I can take or leave (the others being the rich folk, at the moment. We haven’t gotten to know the servants very well yet, and pretty much all they did this episode was comment on what we just saw happening upstairs, so not much to say about them.)

One thing Downton did have that this show seems to lack is style. Even when the dialogue and stories got ridiculous, I could still drool over the clothes. This, however, has some of the THE WORST historical costumes I’ve ever seen committed to film. Tudors-level terrible. I literally missed all the dialogue in one scene because I couldn’t stop laughing at Bertha’s dress. They are SO BAD and there is NO EXCUSE FOR THAT. This is an HBO show: you can’t tell me they don’t have the money to dress these people properly. Now, yes, I do know and am happy to accept that stories are almost always being told through costumes and there are things being said about old-money-taste vs new-money-tacky, but here’s the thing: you can definitely make that clear without going completely off the rails on period accuracy. You want to see some masterful character stories being told through costume? Check out Gabriella Pescucci’s work on The Age of Innocence (she also costumed The Borgias, and we know how I feel about those clothes). I mean, trims and draping and colours could get pretty kooky during this period, you could definitely work with that and not make stuff that’s just straight up hideous and nonsensical. According to IMDB the costumes are by Kasia Walicka-Maimone whose work is mostly darker, moody, non-period pieces, so I wonder if she was just in way over her head and didn’t do any research or something? I don’t know. It’s tragic, guys.

So, here’s the deal: the aforementioned letter brings word to Agnes and Ada, two sisters living in New York City, that their brother has died. Agnes is an uptight widow of an old-money family, and Ada is her spinster sister who has apparently been living with her for years. Ada is the nice one.

Agnes couldn’t possibly care less that her brother is dead, because apparently he sucked. We find out later that their father died rather young, and the brother took the inheritance and totally wasted it. In order to avoid being penniless, Agnes felt she had no choice but to marry a man who, it’s implied, was really abusive.

The dead brother leaves behind a daughter, Marion, and basically nothing else. Seriously, this guy sounds like an absolute douchecanoe. He led his daughter to believe they were fine, financially, and then when he died his lawyer breaks the news that she has the princely sum of $30 to her name. Not much, even in 1882! Even the house they were living in was rented. She does, however, have a handful of railroad stocks which the lawyer says are useless, but I’ll mention them here in case it becomes important later. The lawyer, who clearly has a soft spot for Marion, waives his fees and is sympathetic. He suggests she go live with her aunts, whom she barely knows, because what else is she going to do?

I’m going to break in here and say that this segment was both delightful and slightly baffling for me on a personal level, because it turns out Marion lives in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, which is my home town! That’s fun! But also strange, because it’s a pretty small town, well outside of Philadelphia. It’s a beautiful town, don’t get me wrong, but you really have to zoom in on maps of the greater Philadelphia area for it to even show up, which makes me wonder how Fellowes even heard of it and why he chose it to set part of his story. Eh, no matter, fun to see familiar places on screen. And credit where it’s due: the lawyer’s office is bang on for the interiors of Doylestown’s 19th century buildings, so well done there, folks.

Marion decides she has no choice but to go live with her aunts, and it looks like Ada’s pipped her to the post by sending her train and ferry tickets. Thanks, Ada! We also get a strange moment where Ada races through the roughly half dozen trains and stations Marion will have to go through to get from Doylestown to New York, which is like a whistle-stop tour through the areas of my childhood but also one of odder moments of a writer desperately showing their research that I’ve ever experienced.

The nice lawyer drops Marion off at the train station, where she settles down on a bench beside a young black woman to wait for the train. Two men begin to scuffle nearby, crashing into the ladies and stealing Marion’s purse in the process. Marion’s too busy apologising to the young woman for accidentally tearing her skirt to notice at first, but once she does she panics, because now she has no way to get to New York. Fortunately, the other young woman (Peggy, because it’ll take the show about 15 more minutes to actually give her a name) takes pity on her and buys her a ticket. Marion promises her aunts will reimburse her once she gets to New York.

Now, about Peggy: apparently she’s been in Philadelphia for her education, which makes me wonder what she was doing in Doylestown. Doylestown isn’t a train stop on the way to New York or anything, it’s the end of the line. The only reason for her to be there would be if she was there on purpose. Is that going to be important later? Or is this a research screw up? Guess we’ll see. Her family lives in Brooklyn but she’s not all that eager to go home, it seems. We’ll later find out that it’s at least in part because her father’s not very supportive of her dreams of becoming a writer. Her mother (Audra McDonald!) is a little more on board but also clearly trying to play the peacemaker in the family. Tough gig, lady, you have my sympathies! She seems cool, and I like the relationship between her and Peggy, so I hope we get to see more of her (also: Audra McDonald!)

It’s worth noting that when Peggy meets up with her mother later both of them are very well dressed and her mother seems uncomfortable with the not-so-genteel meeting place. So we’re definitely looking at a family of some wealth, which is an interesting narrative vein to plumb, less than 20 years after the end of the Civil War. We don’t get to see too many depictions of the black middle and upper class in the 19th century.

Marion and Peggy arrive in New York and Marion is collected by the family’s coachman. But the weather has taken a turn for the worse and Peggy’s stranded (her family lives in Brooklyn and the ferries have stopped running). Marion invites her to stay at her aunts’ home, which is a bit brazen of her but also nice. Despite some microaggressions from Agnes, the aunts are cool with Peggy staying the night. Agnes only asks that she write down her parents’ address, in case they need to get in touch with them. This gives her the chance to see that Peggy has beautiful penmanship.

Agnes turns her attention to Marion next, and asks what she plans to do. Marion tentatively mentions possibly getting a job, but Agnes is like, ‘Yeah, the women of our family don’t do “jobs”. It’s fine, we’ll marry you off.’ She tells Ada to take Marion to their dressmaker in the morning and order a new wardrobe. ‘No black!’ she adds.

Aghast, Marion points out that she’s in mourning but Agnes just waves that off because nobody they know knows when Marion’s father died.

I’m sorry, but there is no way a woman of Anges’s class and time would be so cavalier about mourning, no matter how she felt about the deceased. People of this era were very, very serious about their mourning rituals, and there were serious rules around them (especially amongst the upper classes). And the people they know absolutely would be aware of how recent their brother’s death was. These two sisters would already be getting some serious side-eye for not being in mourning themselves (siblings were expected to wear mourning for six months). For Marion to start parading around in bright dresses at parties would have been so shocking it probably would have torpedoed her reputation right then and there. For someone as obsessed with the old way of doing things as Agnes is, she doesn’t seem to know…the old ways of doing things.

Belowstairs, the staff are a bit less tolerant of Peggy. The Irish maid is absolutely aghast at the idea that she might have to share a sink and a water closet with a woman of colour. The butler, a Brit, is way more laid back, so I guess he hasn’t been in the US very long. Also, his name is Bannister. Yes, we have a character whose name is literally “railing”.

The next day, Peggy ingratiates herself with Agnes by offering to take some dictation. Since she has such lovely penmanship, Agnes agrees. Agnes is, after all, constantly complaining about all this correspondence she has to keep up with, and insisting that she has no time to do it. Worth pointing out that we see Agnes leave this house exactly once this entire episode, and that’s for a carriage ride around the park, so I’m not sure what, exactly, is keeping her so busy. Peggy does so well with this task Agnes agrees to keep her on at the house for a while.

Meanwhile, across the street, a grandiose new mansion is being built by the Russells. It’s been designed by a new architect, Stanford White (heh) and appears to be the kind of mishmash of interior design styles that usually warrant a place in McMansion Hell. In case you couldn’t tell, the Russells are new money. The house has just been finished and they’re moving in. Bertha, the lady of the house, sweeps in in the first of a line-up of dresses so terrible it’s actually fascinating. The more you look at it, the worse it gets. And apparently all her dresses are made of the same tacky, cheap-loooking satin and have the same off-centre, random drape across the front. Yes, that sort of draping did show up on dresses of this period, but they didn’t look so tacked on and they weren’t on EVERY OUTFIT.

WTF is even happening with that bodice?!

What you need to know about Bertha is that she’s a serious social climber. And although she claims to have learned how to operate in moneyed New York society, she clearly knows and/or understands very, very little. She is determined, though, you have to give her that. She informs her husband, George, that she’s left cards with every rich New Yorker of the era you’ve ever heard of.

George is pretty chill about the whole society thing, but then, the men in these stories almost always are. He clearly loves his wife and their two kids, and that’s nice. We do find out that he’s super ruthless in business, though, to the point where he’s willing to waste a huge amount of money building a train line parallel to an existing line just to put the existing company out of business. And he’s doing this, I think, because the owner of the other company tried to bargain with him? This does not seem like sound business sense, I have to say.

George and Bertha have two kids: a teenage daughter, Gladys, and a son, Larry. Larry (hey! It’s Drake Carne! Hello, there–still looking cute!) has just finished up at Harvard and seems to be doing a bit better at making friends with the right sort than his mother is. He stops by the house just long enough to grab a few things before heading up to Newport with a who’s who that includes Mrs Astor’s younger daughter, Carrie. While there, he also meets Agnes’s son, Oscar (the Duke of Kent from Upstairs, Downstairs. Probably my favourite character in that whole series.)

Ok, I have to drop this here, because this is a rare example of costumes that are actually quite good.

Rich people in Newport! See, Caroline Astor’s dress is how asymmetrical draping was meant to be done at the time. And I’m tickled that Mamie Fish’s dress has bottom layers that look like fish scales. Extra points for Carrie and Larry (heh) matching so nicely. Applause!

Larry gets to meet cute with Marion when Ada’s dog (a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel that makes me a lot more sympathetic to this whole endeavour, because it looks like the one I used to have) runs across the street and Larry saves it from being run over. Agnes, however, absolutely shuts down the notion of their family mixing with trashy types like the Russells.

Nevertheless, some mixing is inevitable. Ada takes Marion to the meeting of a charitable society run by a relative, and Bertha shows up as well, accompanied by Gladys. She wants Gladys to start mixing with the right people, which makes sense. Here’s where things get weird, though: the two old-money ladies who run the charity act quite nice and welcoming and polite towards Bertha, and she’s really snippy and borderline bitchy in return. When they start talking about Gladys meeting other young people, she bites that Gladys is not “out” yet. Don’t you want her meeting well-heeled young ladies, Bertha? Isn’t that why she’s here today? Granted: a big part of the reason these other ladies are so nice to her is because they want Bertha to make a big donation, but she’s fully aware of that and realises this is all part of the game, so I don’t get why she’s acting this way. These are people you’re trying to get in good with, Bertha! What’s your deal?

There’s also a woman at the event named Mrs Chamberlain, whom nobody seems to want to speak to or approach. We get the impression she’s some sort of lady of ill repute but that’s about as far as it goes. She’s played by Jeanne Trippelhorne, though, so I’m sure we’ll be seeing a fair bit more of her.

Bertha decides to hold a big housewarming party and sends invitations to absolutely everybody. There are essentially no RSVPs, because, according to her, that’s not what people do (oh, Bertha…) so she thinks they’ll be fine catering for around 200 people. (Oh, Bertha…)

Belowstairs, Bertha’s maid kind of eyerolls at her employer’s naivete. The maid used to work for an old-money family, until her mistress died, and she has a better idea of how things work. She predicts this party will fail. George’s valet seems a bit more sympathetic to his employers, but then George is kind of the nicer and less annoying of the couple.

Side note: it seems this is taking place in the summertime, or at the very least late spring, so why are there fires lit in every room in every scene? Do they think we won’t get the sense that this takes place in the past without roaring fires? New York gets hot, people! And in all those layers, these people would have been roasting!

Agnes and her family get an invitation to the Russells’ party, but Agnes says they will absolutely not be attending. Marion is disappointed, because she was clearly hoping to see Larry again. Peggy suggests she sneak out through the basement, with Peggy keeping watch.

Marion pleads a headache after dinner, runs upstairs, changes, puts on a blue coat that I actually find pretty cute, and runs across the street.

As predicted, the Russells’ party is a total dud. There appear to be fewer than ten people there, and five of them are the Russells and Stanford White. Ouch. Equally ouch is the terrible dress poor Gladys has been made to wear.

Puffed sleeves were not 1880s at all. Sleeves at that time were very fitted, or nonexistent (on ballgowns). I’m also questioning those necklines. But really, that poor girl. Ouch.

Marion stays just long enough to see one of the ladies from the charity do show up. Bertha, frustrated by this failure, I guess, is a total bitch to her, threatens to withhold money from the charity, and then tells the woman to get lost. Way to make friends, there, Bertha. Marion decides this is a good time to duck out as well. I don’t blame her, even if Larry is cute.

The elaborate buffet goes uneaten and will be donated to the poor instead, to the snooty chef’s chagrin. Bertha swears this will not be her last attempt to win over high society and her husband is proud of her for not giving up.

Agnes’s son, Oscar, is gay. Just FYI. He goes over to his boyfriend’s and says he was sad not to get an invitation to the Russells’ party, presumably because he, too, thinks Larry is cute. He obviously doesn’t say that to the boyfriend, because he’s there to get laid.

Caroline Astor returns home from an evening of classical music with her older sister and her brother-in-law, James Roosevelt (half-brother of Franklin) and finds her mother going through some old invitations. This is just an opportunity for Mrs Astor to make a show of burning the invitation the Russells sent, and sniffing that she would never mix with them. She once said the same about the Vanderbilts, and yet!

(But then, Alva Vanderbilt was MUCH smarter than Bertha, it seems. You know how she got Mrs Astor on-side? Alva planned a housewarming ball to inaugurate her massive new house, just like Bertha. And part of these balls at the time were dances known as Quadrilles. They were very elaborate, choreographed routines, with costumes and themes and everything. Alva’s quadrilles were going to be amazing, and all the young ladies and gentlemen wanted to be part of them. Carrie Astor was dying to be in one of the quadrilles and was practicing with her friends for it and everything. But then Alva was like, ‘Oh, I would LOVE for Carrie to be in the quadrille, but you see, her mother hasn’t called on me, which means we’re not acquainted, and so I can’t include her daughter because there are RULES AND I KNOW THEM.’ And so, Mrs Astor called, and Carrie was in the quadrille, and the ball was a huge success. That’s how you win, Bertha. Granted, this ball was held in 1883 and the current action is in 1882, so maybe Bertha will see this and learn from the master.)



4 thoughts on “The Gilded Age: Never the New

  1. You remember when Stephen Colbert had “Downton Abbey” cast members read lines from the show but with American accents instead? Well, now we can look forward to an entire season of that. Not to say that the “Downton” writing or dialogue was ever amazing, but the British accents may have helped conceal the problem. With American accents, it’s all the more obvious.

    Simon Schama pointed out how all the storylines from “Downton” were already done by “Upstairs Downstairs.” I’m sure that will apply to “Gilded Age” as well, but it already feels like Fellowes owes a huge check to Edith Wharton. How much of this will be retreads of “House of Mirth” and “Age of Innocence”?

    I don’t know how this show got jumped-up from NBC to HBO, but somehow you can tell that this was originally intended for network TV. It does not look and sound like a prestige television production meant for a premium channel. “The Gilded Age” looks and sounds…cheap.

    1. I agree–it looks very much like something that would be on network TV. This New York is so sanitised and dull. I can’t help but think of shows like The Knick, which is set in New York very close to this time period but felt so much more real and lived in. Even the opening credits really aren’t up to the standards I expect from HBO, a network known for iconic opening sequences.

      1. Exactly. The cinematography and aesthetics are drab and sterile, like something you would expect from an afternoon TV movie with discount CGI. Which is worse because they filmed this in actual locations in New York and Newport, not some generic block in Vancouver or green screen. And yes, the opening titles seem like a Powerpoint presentation.

        Prestige shows often savored in the showing the “dark and gritty” aspect of things, especially for period or historical dramas. Some of them took it too far. But shows like “The Knick” or “Boardwalk Empire” or “Rome” did try to show real communities could contain both grandiose wealth and crushing poverty and lots in between.

        Though now they are showing nudity, so maybe that is an attempt to suit their HBO digs?

        1. God, I miss those three shows you mentioned. I loved them all. Interesting characters, interesting stories and dialogue, great costumes, not afraid to show how dirty and grim things could be but somehow never overdoing it. I was so sad they discontinued The Knick.

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