Bertha Russell, Mrs Astor and Ward McAllister at the ball

The Gilded Age Episode 9 Recap: Let the Tournament Begin

I’m really sorry, everyone. I know I’m SUPER late with this one, but I have to be honest: I’m deep into the first draft of a novel right now, and I prioritised working on that last week. And having seen this episode, I have absolutely no regrets because… wow. I lost track of the number of times I went: Hahahahaha! No.

Let’s discuss, shall we?

Peggy’s baby

I’m going to fume quite a bit about the fact that Peggy, the character with the most interesting story going on in terms of her writing career, is now getting mired in a missing baby plot. I want to see her develop into Ida B Wells, but will we? No! Because instead we need to see her packing her stuff and setting of for Philadelphia with her mother to track down her predictably totally-not-dead son. I hate to cry ‘sexism’, but is this the subplot we’d ever see assigned to a male character? Hahahahaha. No.

To rewind a bit: Peggy’s dad is stupid. But it seems to be a thing that comes and goes, because he was clever enough to get his hands on her baby, get rid of her husband, and then get the baby secretly adopted out, all without Peggy’s knowledge, but then he didn’t have the sense to not leave a letter that proves all of this in the pocket of his trousers. Sigh. Said letter is found by the maid doing laundry, who hands it off to Peggy’s mum, and now Peggy and her mother are heading to Philly for some baby sleuthing, despite her father’s rage and smug certainty that they’ll never find the kid. He’s just that good at hiding babies, folks. They might start by checking the return address that’s probably on the envelope.

So, this is what Peggy gets to do: be Edith 2.0, with slightly less emotional abuse in her history. Cool.

Still Running Away Bride

Yep, Marian’s still determined to run off with Raikes, despite the fact the two of them have so little chemistry that watching them make out onscreen is actually a turnoff. Basically, Marian’s scenes this episode consist of everyone she comes in contact with saying some variation of: I hope you’re not about to do something stupid. Ada, Peggy, Mrs Chamberlain and LARRY FREAKING RUSSELL all say this to her, in one way or another. For real, the guy who lives across the street clocks that something’s going on with her, and yet Agnes apparently remains clueless. I don’t think Agnes is meant to actually be stupid, but this sure makes her look it!

Peggy stops by the house to collect the rest of her things and Marian fills her in on the fact that she and Raikes have no really firm plans at all, beyond running off together. Where will you live? His place? I guess? Sounds good!

Marian also asks Peggy if she can smuggle her suitcase over to Mrs Chamberlain’s, where she and Raikes plan to meet up before eloping. No big deal, right, since Peggy’s toting suitcases out of the house and it’s totally not awkward at all to ask your only black friend to act as your porter? But Ada notices Peggy taking the suitcase and recognises it as Marian’s. She tells Peggy she hopes Marian isn’t… yeah, you know, and Peggy’s like, ‘I’d totally try to talk her out of it if she was!’ Which is a lie, because she’s made 0 effort to talk Marian out of this stupid plan.

Ada then goes to Marian herself and tells her not to do anything dumb, but that ship has sailed.

Meanwhile, Aurora goes to the opera and sees Raikes canoodling with the heiress from the light switch-on in an adjoining box. Curiously, Raikes does not notice Aurora totally staring at him, but I guess his attention is otherwise engaged.

Marian goes to Mrs Chamberlain’s, where Peggy’s waiting awkwardly so she can see the lovebirds off. As a thank you, Marian gives Mrs C one of her paintings (did you know painting was Marian’s hobby? Yeah, me neither.) She recognises that this is like putting her work next to old masters. No like about it, Marian, it’s exactly that: Mrs C has literal masterpieces on her walls. Also: it’s a good thing you have rich relatives, because your painting wouldn’t be paying the bills, that’s for sure (and no, I’m not saying I’m any talent at painting myself, but that’s why I don’t gift people my paintings. If I want to show gratitude I bake because that’s what I’m actually good at.)

Aurora, meanwhile, shows up at the van Rhijns in an attempt to warn Marian that Raikes is a scoundrel who whispers in other young ladies’ ears. Ada tells her to go to Mrs C’s right away to warn Marian and I scratch my head and wonder why Aurora has to be the one to go. Or, at least, why she needs to go alone? Don’t give me some nonsense about Ada not being able to do this errand because Agnes might find out because, hahahahahaha! Agnes doesn’t know a damn thing about what’s going on in her own household, does she? If she’s never cottoned on to Marian going to Mrs C’s like, every week, then she wouldn’t notice Ada going once, now, would she?

Also: why does Aurora immediately go? To the home of a woman she considers beyond scandalous? If she were seen, it would be socially disastrous for her. And yet, she drops everything and, without a question, rushes to Mrs C’s house. Hahahahaha. No. These people sent notes for things like this. Or at least hesitated before committing social suicide on behalf of a not particularly bright or interesting distant relative.

Now, Mrs C had previously tried to warn Marian to be careful, but Marian just mindlessly answered that Mr Raikes cares as little for high society as Marian does. Which just underlines how deeply stupid Marian really is. Like, unforgivably stupid. She’s not young enough for this level of naivete to work. Hell, even if Gladys was this clueless I’d give it some side-eye, but Marian’s in her 20s. This just makes her seem like an absolute moron.

Aurora arrives and tells Marian what’s up. At this point, Raikes is several hours late, and yet Marian (siiiiiiiigh) is just sure he must have met with some fatal accident or something. Which I guess would be preferable to being jilted. She decides to go to his office to check on him and finds him just chilling there, lamely saying he meant to write a note. Sure, buddy. Sure.

Aghast, Marian guesses this means they won’t be eloping today after all. He tells her no, that’s now off. He totally meant to go through with it (hahahahaha, no he didn’t) but, you know, money… Marian takes her sad self back home. Aurora thanks Mrs C for being kind and also asks her not to say anything about this whole, messy affair to anyone. Of course, Marian’s secret is safe with her.

Marian hurries home, because she realises she gave Larry Russell a letter he was to deliver to Agnes, explaining where Marian’s gone and now she needs to intercept that letter. She manages, just, causing a rather awkward scene. Larry, being a good guy, is fine with it but asks Marian to repay him with a dance at his sister’s ball.

Baudin/Borden

This is…dumb, but it happened, so I’ll cover it. The Russells’ French chef, M Baudin, isn’t French at all, it turns out. He’s just a guy from Wichita, Kansas who trained in France, but isn’t actually French. I mean, he’s still a French chef in a sense, but whatever. We find out about this because he has a vindictive estranged wife who’s threatening to reveal all if he doesn’t give her what she wants.

Hmmm, where have I heard that storyline before?

I’m sure we’ll get some kind of poisoned pie thing next season (he is a chef, after all!).

He comes clean to George, who’s sympathetic and couldn’t care less where his chef is from, so long as the food is good. Bertha, on the other hand, is outraged and insists he be fired the day before her big, important ball, because the people she wants desperately to impress will laugh at her forever if they find out her fancy chef is actually from Kansas. No big deal, they’ll just get another chef from the agency that apparently just has highly trained French chefs lying around waiting for some rich lady in a snit to need their services THE DAY BEFORE AN IMPORTANT EVENT.

At any rate, the guy they hire turns out to be both a drunk and a jerk who gets so wasted during the ball that he’s just lying helpless on one of the prep tables. Church the butler has him carted off and then summons Baudin back to cook an incredibly fancy supper for over a hundred people in less than three hours. Hahahahaha. No.

But apparently it gets done, because I guess Baudin has some Disney mice or Remy from Ratatouille working for him or whatever, so he gets his job back. Cool.

Knickerbox-ican Standoff

Some Knickerbocker whom we’ve never heard mentioned before wants a loan from George. Apparently the Russell Consoldiated Trust is a bank as well as a railroad company? George is like a one-man robber baron bingo card, isn’t he?

Like I said, we’ve never once heard of this person, but apparently Bertha is VERY interested in him and his wife, so George offers the loan, but only if the couple come to Gladys’s ball. The guy can promise himself, but not his wife, so George threatens to tell every lender in America not to give this guy the loan. This side of George is becoming really tired and tiresome. We get it: he has money and throws his weight around and is kind of an asshole about all of it. The man and his wife attend, but don’t seem too happy about it. I’d wonder if this sort of strongarming might come back to bite George in the ass later, but that would be assuming that Fellowes has a plan and the capacity to properly lay the groundwork for future storylines and this episode (and history generally) suggests that isn’t the case.

The ball guest list is shaping up nicely, in large part thanks to Aurora, who really has gone above and beyond with this whole: be nice to Mrs Russell thing. But there’s an important holdout: Mrs Astor. And because she’s not committing to attending, a whole load of other important people aren’t attending.

Bertha goes to pay a call on Mrs Astor, only to be told that Mrs Astor is ‘not at home.’ Now, ladies in this society had specific ‘at home’ times: particular days and times that they were known to be at home and prepared to receive visitors. This was common knowledge, so to be told when you showed up to pay a call that someone was ‘not at home’ was a very deliberate snub. That person is absolutely at home, they just aren’t at home to you.

To make this clear, Bertha sees another woman get ushered in immediately. Outraged, she goes home and uninvites Carrie to the ball, and makes sure to tell her why. Carrie stomps and pouts to her mother, who stands her ground. Carrie, proving she’s her mother’s daughter, responds by locking herself away in her room and refusing to eat or in any way interact with her mother. It’s not at all clear why Carrie is so committed to this particular ball. I mean, she’s friendly with Gladys and all, but they’ve only really just met and that doesn’t seem strong enough to justify her behaviour. Nor does the rather weaksauce explanation that she was going to dance the quadrille with the guy she likes.

This is based on an actual event that I mentioned in an earlier recap. Alva Vanderbilt was planning a costume ball to end all costume balls and EVERYONE was going. Carrie was to dance in a quadrille, but again, because Mrs Astor hadn’t paid a call, the whole thing was up in the air. Mrs Astor paid that call and the rest is history.

BUT. There are some important diferences to note. First up: the Vanderbilts were newer money than the Astors, but they weren’t actually NEW money the way the Russells appear to be. The Vanderbilt fortune was already a couple of generations old by this point. And Alva wasn’t some clueless nobody who didn’t know how to dress and act, the way Bertha is: she was the daughter of a highly respected and very established Alabama family (one of her grandfathers was a US Representative) and she had attended boarding school in Paris. She was a very popular hostess and everyone who was anyone was going to attend this ball. Continuing to snub her just because she wasn’t a Knickerbocker (the NY equivalent to the Boston Brahmins, essentially) was starting to make Mrs Astor look ridiculous.

That is not the case here. Mrs Astor has no reason to acknowledge Bertha. Ignoring her isn’t going to hurt Mrs Astor’s status in the least, a fact that’s made clear by the fact that a lot of people are planning to shun the ball because Mrs Astor is. She’s still directing the social traffic here, not Bertha.

And yet, apparently, Carrie’s tantrum is enough to send Mrs Astor to pay a call on the Russells. She arrives and is like, great, I’m here, now can my daughter go to your ball?

Now, Bertha decides that this is a good time to play hardball with the goddamn Queen of New York society, and I honestly don’t know where she gets the cajones to do this. She accuses Mrs Astor of only stopping by when nobody else would be there and then adds a whole bunch of conditions to this invitation: Mrs Astor has to attend the ball herself (the show seems to think that Carrie could have just gone to the ball without her mother, which: hahahahaha! No. A young lady did not attend balls without a mother or other chaperone, and usually she’d only have the chaperone because her mother was unavailable due to health or death reasons.) Also, Mrs Astor needs to get all her friends to attend AND she needs to get the van Rhijn household to come, because allegedly Bertha is ‘tired of being cut on her own doorstep.’ She has never once shown any interest in the van Rhijns or indicated that it bothered her they didn’t have anything to do with her.

Mrs Astor is rightly annoyed, because it really does seem like Bertha is moving the goalposts here and that’s obnoxious. She rants to Ward, who tells her that if they keep excluding the new people, they’ll just form a society without the old money folk and who wants warring rich people? He also says that holding her ground on this will cost her her dignity and I point to what I said above and ask: HOW EXACTLY?

Really, it seems like Ward just wants to go to the ball, but he can’t if Mrs Astor doesn’t go.

Mrs Astor goes. Carrie goes. Marian and the van Rhijns go. Everyone goes, even Raikes, who arrives with his NEW GIRLFRIEND and then tells Marian he didn’t think she’d be there. Come again, Raikes? Nearly every social meeting you’ve had with this woman has involved Bertha Russell. Oh, lord, whatever.

Marian is upset, but cheered by Larry Russell, who claims his dance. At some point she apparently tells him the whole sordid story of her near-elopement and he’s sympathetic. It’ll be really fun when these two get married and she can just laugh in Raikes’s face while throwing fistfuls of diamonds to her wedding guests.

Gladys and Carrie dance their quadrille, which is cute. Oscar begs Gladys for a dance and she tells him he’ll have to wait for her to change, telling him she’s ‘out’ now, so she won’t be bossed around. We’ll see about that. They do dance, and it’s so awkward it’s actually striking. It’s like the two actors just could not get into the same rhythm or sync with each other. It’s distracting.

The young people dance until dawn. Oscar goes home to John (who was also at the ball) and the two of them make out and I guess are fine with the whole get Gladys plan now.

Marian goes home and rather rudely tells Ada that after all the olds left the party really picked up, which is why she’s crawling in at around 6 am. Ada comforts her over the loss of Raikes and tells her to get some rest and start anew.

Outside, the poor servants who probably haven’t slept at all do not get to nap away half the day like Marian does. They’re back at it, and in a somewhat cute bookend, Bannister and Church nod politely to each other across the street, as they did in the pilot. So, I guess they’re not fighting anymore?

Ooof. So, yes, it turns out that Julian Fellowes does not have many ideas when it comes to stories, because every single thing he’s written has at least included a secret baby storyline. Every. Single. Thing. And yes, I am very mad that Peggy’s journalism career is being backburnered so she can go be a mom. FFS. Also: the horrible estranged wife? Really? Wasn’t it bad and insufferable enough the first time around? Is the Russells’ housekeeper going to be accused of murder next? (Oh, God, please do not recycle that storyline!)

Also: poor storytelling. The whole thing with Mrs Astor and Bertha coming together just made no sense at all. Ditto Bertha suddenly wanting the van Rhijns there.

Can Fellowes’s co-writer please take over for season 2? Please?!

I will note, though, that the costumes improved. Gladys’s ballgown was suprisingly unhidous. Can’t really say the same for Bertha’s dress, I’m afraid. But then, Bertha’s gonna Bertha.

Fare the well, folks! Thanks to all who tuned in to the recaps. I’m back to my writing!



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