Denee Benton as Peggy in The Gilded Age

The Gilded Age Episode 6: Heads Have Rolled for Less

So, this is the episode where Bertha really starts to go Full Bitch.


The Russells visit the site of the train crash, which looks really bad. But there’s good news! The five victims were all men. So, yay? They thank Clara Barton for all her work, hand over a big, fat check and then–I kid you not–pose for a newspaper photo in front of the wreckage. Like this is some really ghoulish sightseeing expedition. George tries to play it down by saying if they don’t do it it’ll look like they’re afraid, but honestly, this is some really bad optics.

Back in the city, George learns that the train crashed because the axels failed. And the axels failed because they were shoddy and secondhand, which should not have been the case. He’s outraged and orders an investigation to find out who’s responsible for this. It’s ridiculously presented like there’s just going to be one guy who was responsible for putting these axels on, even though something like this would be a whole chain of responsibility.

Bertha, meanwhile, couldn’t possibly care less about the fact that her husband’s company may be implicated in manslaughter, because all she cares about is protecting their delicate place in Society. George actually (rightly) gets angry with her for being so utterly callous and raises his voice and everything.

Eventually, the Pinkertons produce the name of some guy who is responsible for this axel debacle. But the guy insists that he was given the order to put those axels on by George himself. He claims to have actual proof and everything.

The Swelling Music of Doooooooom wants us to believe that George is in serious danger of going down for this, but honestly, it’s unlikely. Historically speaking, anyway. Train crashes weren’t hugely uncommon at the time, and health and safety really didn’t exist yet. Companies and the people who ran them were almost never held responsible for deaths in a train crash, unless it was super egrigious. But since the show won’t stop mentioning that five men died, I’m guessing we’ll be meeting an outraged widow soon.

Ladies Who Lunch

Bertha can’t be bothered with something as minor as five randoms dying on one of her husband’s trains because she’s got social climbing to do.

First up: a meeting of the Red Cross committee. Mrs Morris is back and outraged at the idea that Bertha, the wife of a now-multiple murderer (in Anne’s eyes) is being considered for the board. Bertha comes sweeping in just as Anne is badmouthing her, and Aurora puts an end to this whole thing by calling for a vote. A few people vote in favour of Bertha joining the board, and then Clara basically says, ‘Ladies: HANDS UP. This is about saving lives, not your petty rich-girl squabbles.’ It works. Bertha is on the board and Anne stomps out in a snit.

Afterward, Augusta tells Bertha that Ward is interested in seeing the inside of her house. They hatch an idea for a luncheon, with the same guest list as the last lunch with Ward, which seems to me like it would just highlight for him how few people will actually accept Bertha’s invitations. Augusta also advises Bertha to get her staff schooled in the English manner of table service–as we’ve been told, Bertha’s household doesn’t roll that way.

At the Russell house, everyone’s getting a little anxious about having to learn a whole new service. The housekeeper reminds Bertha that the Van Rhijns have an English butler, and maybe he can help? Bannister is invited over, but the sheer amount of information he pours down on the Russell butler is kind of overwhelming, so Bertha asks Bannister if he’ll come over and serve the lunch. He reminds her that he already has a job, so she does what the Russells do and throws a bunch of money at the situation.

Bannister tells an absolutely atrocious lie that clearly Agnes doesn’t believe to get out of serving lunch at the Van Rhijn house for one day. He puts Jack, the young kid who doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, in charge in his place, and this whole thing is played out as being rather silly and yet does not interest me much at all. Jack doesn’t massively screw up and that’s pretty much all you need to know.

At the Russell house, the guests arrive for the lunch. Marian notices Bannister but promises not to tattle. Ward rolls in and compares the house to Tsarskoye Selo. Bertha acts like she doesn’t know what on earth he’s talking about, which seems a little odd, seeing as how she just got back from an extensive tour of Europe’s palaces. Russia was definitely a popular stopping spot for rich tourists. Whatever, I guess it’s to remind us that Bertha is a bit unfinished, but no worries, Augusta’s there to cover for her. Augusta’s really taken to this whole being-friends-with-Bertha deal like she never had any objections to her at all, which is also odd.

All the guests receive extremely lavish favours (which was definitely a thing back then, but not really at luncheons) and Ward is pleased with his new sparkly thing.

The only hitch in this whole thing is Agnes, who receives a mysterious note telling her about Bannister’s moonlighting. She marches across the street in a rage and bursts into the dining room, where everyone immediately covers for this potential embarrassment by doing the whole, ‘Oh, are you early for our meeting, or are we running late? Our bad!’ Crisis averted. Lunch goes well.

Hello, Young Lovers

Of course Raikes is at the luncheon, a fact which Marian does not hide from her aunts ahead of time. Agnes finally gets to explain her objections to this guy a little better: she warns Marian that he’s using her to get ahead in Society, and getting a little too comfortable with the sort of lifestyle neither she nor he can afford to maintain. Once he secures a richer prize, he’ll just dump her. ‘I’ve seen it before,’ she adds. Marian is, understandably, not happy to hear this and Agnes is like, ‘You could have been nicer, there.’

Thing is: Agnes isn’t wrong. Lots of people did this, it’s how you got ahead. And while Marian may be blind to it, this guy’s ambitious. He moved to New York in the first place to get ahead, and now he’s getting invitations to really fancy lunches because of her. Tread carefully, dear.

Marian takes her pout off to Mrs Chamberlain’s. She’s really been sent to pump the woman for money for the Red Cross, but while she’s there she opens up about what her aunt said and how frustrating it is trying to date when your guardian doesn’t like your boyfriend. Mrs C basically says, ‘Your aunt may be right, and she’s seen a lot in this town, so maybe listen to her? Also, you barely know this guy.’

Marian points out that she has few opportunities to get to know him better, like they aren’t constantly getting the chance to chat off in private corners during luncheons and trips out of town and strolls in the park. Mrs C offers her house as a meeting place. No way this could go badly!

Peggy is the New Nelly Bly

Peggy’s great, right? This lady does not have time to mess around and isn’t afraid to remind people of that.

She accompanies Marian to the Red Cross meeting, where she’s quite warmly greeted by Aurora (and goes in through the front door, which I only point out because of her mother’s statement last week about wanting her daughter back in Brooklyn, where she wouldn’t have to use the servants’ entrance all the time.)

Afterwards, Marian tries to hail a cab, and when the cabbie refuses to take Peggy, she starts yelling at him. Peggy’s all, ‘Girl, save your white saviourism for someone who has as little to do as you: I’m BUSY.’ And then she hails the cab.

Her articles are so popular she’s singlehandedly increased subscriptions to the newspaper she works for. She (and I) ask the editor how they can possibly know that she’s responsible and gets the seriously weak answer that people are talking about her article a lot, so that must be it. Does this paper actually have a budget to pay people to wander the streets in the hope that they’ll overhear chat on their articles? This seems like a very imprecise way to cultivate content, but I guess in the days before Google Analytics you had to use what you could.

Peggy rides that high all the way to Brooklyn, so she can say hi to her mom, listen to her play piano, and tell her she’s sorry their relationship basically became collatoral damage in this dispute Peggy has with her dad.

Armstrong 1 – Ada 1

At the Van Rhijn house, Armstrong the horrible housekeeper tries to set Agnes against Peggy for no other reason than Peggy offered to run any errands Armstrong might need. The HORRROR! And, ok, there may be another reason. Agnes points out that Armstrong’s racism is showing and tells her to stop trying to make trouble for Peggy. Agnes is about as Team Peggy as I am.

Armstrong retreats, but then gets a lucky break later on when she spots Oscar conversing with Bertha’s maid, Turner. He’s pumping her for info on how to get in good with the Russells again, so he can have a shot with Gladys. Turner suggests he try making friends with George, because unlike Bertha George seems to love his daughter and wants her to be happy.

Armstrong takes the info that Oscar is in communication with Turner to Agnes, and Agnes does not take it well.

The Kids are All Right

Gladys gets her ‘dear Jane’ letter from her boyfriend, who perhaps does not mince words as much as her parents had hoped. He makes it very clear her father has left him no choice but to dump her, and she gets mad at George over it. Fair. He tells her he did it because her mother wanted it, and she calls him out on just doing whatever her mother says.

To cheer her up, Larry invites her along to a very bizarre dolls’ tea party at Mamie Fish’s place. Bertha doesn’t want her to go, because as we keep being reminded, Gladys isn’t ‘out’ yet. Bertha apparently thinks this means the girl can’t go to any social functions at all, which is ridiculous. When Larry tells her Carrie Astor will be there, she relents.

The party is odd, and Carrie’s in tears. Larry gets uncomfortable and ditches his sister with her, and she and Gladys end up bonding over their difficult mothers meddling in their love lives. I’m guessing Carrie’s all upset over Marshall Wilson, whom she’ll eventually marry and who her family did not approve of because his father was basically a Confederate war profiteer. Carrie won her family around by literally starving herself, which is not a method I would recommend.

Carrie and Gladys are now friends, and Carrie comes over to the Russell house to hang out with her. This is generally how things go, right? The older generation is desperately clinging to its rules and the kids are like, ‘They seem nice and I like hanging out with them, so what’s the big deal, exactly?’ And that’s how families like the Russells really make their way in.

Bertha is over the moon to have Mrs Astor’s daughter under her roof, for surely Mrs Astor must follow? Carrie asks about Gladys’s debut and suggests she and some friends plan a quadrille for it. Bertha can’t really object to something suggested by Mrs Astor’s daughter, so maybe Gladys will have her ball before she’s 30 after all.

And Larry? Well, he’s interested in pursuing a career in architecture, apparently. Marian comes across him coming out of the offices of McKim, Mead and White and he confesses that, even though his father’s business empire encompasses railroads, banking, property, mining and just about everything else on your Robber Baron Bingo card, he wants to build things. Good for you, Larry. More power to you.

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