THE GILDED AGE: Charity Has Two Functions

Posted on February 22, 2022

Bertha catches Gladys trying to sneak out to meet her would-be beau Archie Baldwin, with the help of her housemaid friend Adelheid, whose name we had to Google at least three times before we came close to the spelling. “If you won’t let me go into society, mother, I must find society for myself,” Gladys says somewhat clumsily (they could’ve workshopped that line a little more), Once again, George asks Bertha why she’s keeping her daughter captive and once again, Bertha says she has her reasons. We suspect those reasons are something along the lines of “I want a grandson who’s also a Duke.” Still, she agrees to have Archie Baldwin over for dinner. That should’ve been Gladys’ first clue, but it’s already been established that the girl’s not much of a thinker, poor thing.

Later, Bertha receives confirmation that Ward McCallister will be at Aurora Fane’s luncheon and she swells with something almost akin to a human emotion for a moment, to George’s delight. “We’re getting there, don’t you see? All the things we promised ourselves when we first married.” “The things you promised yourself,” he corrects her. While they may be the current hottest couple on television, you don’t write a naked ladies maid scene unless you plan on seriously challenging a seemingly rock solid marriage and we suspect Bertha’s ambition and George’s lack of enthusiasm for it are going to come to a head before this season is over.

Marian sits in the parlor with her aunts and they engage in a long bout of exposition about charity and class distinctions, which is kind of all that Agnes is good for in this story so far. “Charity has two functions in our world, my dear. The first is to raise funds for the less fortunate, which is wholly good. The second is to provide a ladder for people to climb into society who do not belong there.” Believe us, we’re enjoying Christine Baranski’s way with a sneer, but we do wish the show would use one of its best actors for more than just serving as some sort of snide narrator. Anyway, Marian is very taken with Clara Barton’s Red Cross and is committing herself to various meetings and functions, including going to upstate to Dansville for the opening of the latest Red Cross center. Later, Marian and the aunts leave the parlor and have another long exposition scene, this time in a carriage in Central Park. We appreciate the change of scenery, but again, we wish Agnes had more to do than roll her eyes at parvenus and explain (for like the third or fourth time) who Ward McCallister is and why he matters. Especially when we have people like Aurora Fane saying more or less the same things about him. Aurora explains Mr. McCallister’s role to Marian (again), his relationship to Mrs. Astor, and how she turns a blind eye to his manipulations until it suits her to pay attention. “He is Cerberus, snarling and growling to protect his Mystic Rose,” she says rather grandiosely, adding that Mrs. Astor  “uses him to filter the new arrivals.” A befuddled Marian asks if he’s really that important, to which a weary Aurora replies “Is any of it important?”

Downstairs at the Russells’, Adelheid is hoping she can advance to become Gladys’s ladies maid now that her governess has been sacked. Turner sneers at her and acts put out that she’s even speaking to her. Mrs. Bruce asks permission from Gladys to go to her mother with this information (for which Gladys is hugely appreciative) and goes to bat for Adelheid (we’re going to keep typing her name because we spent so much time on it), convincing Mrs. Russell, who really does seem to be incredibly pliable at the hands of her servants, to promote the house maid. When Bertha asks if she’ll report back to her, Mrs. Bruce savvily answers “I’ll tell you anything I think you should know.” Bertha can be so shrewd about so many things, but she seems largely clueless about her own servants’ machinations and agendas. That is definitely going to bite her in the ass some day. She’s so focused on climbing the ladder that she’s not paying attention to her own house.

Marian tries again to apologize to Peggy for assuming her family was poor and manages to turn the whole thing around on her, complaining about her secretiveness and pointing out that Mr. Raikes knows more about her than she does. “Look, we fell out. Let’s not make it worse,” Peggy replies with annoyance. We’re with her on this one. Slow down, white girl. You did a dumb thing. Own it. Later, Mrs. Scott comes to see Peggy and runs into Marian. For some reason, she figures this white girl who assumed she needed old shoes is the perfect person which whom to discuss her family problems. As per the usual, the conversation about Peggy’s family remains frustratingly vague.  “Parents do things to protect their children.” WHAT? WHAT THINGS DO THEY DO?  She doesn’t say, but she does get in a good line about  wanting her daughter to walk through front doors instead of back entrances. Marian is sympathetic and offers to give her a hat or something. She later tells Peggy about the conversation and makes a plea on behalf of her mother. Peggy is once again annoyed. She switches gears and starts grilling Marian about the intentions of Mr. Raikes and whether he’ll be able to settle down with her after spending so much time climbing the social ladder, to which Marian replies, “We’re both from Doylestown, where life isn’t about whose guest list you’re on.” Oh, Marian. You silly, under-emotive, naive slip of a girl. You had to leave Doylestown because you had no options. He chose to do it for pure advancement. Ada susses out that Marian wasn’t entirely forthcoming as to the guest list for Aurora Fane’s luncheon with Mr. McCallister and gets it out of her immediately about Mr. Raikes’ presence. It’s a little strange how the writing handles Ada, making her seem wise and sharp with Marian, but histrionic and a little slow to the mark with Agnes. Marian once again tries to get clever and fails. “‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.’ Rabbie Burns,” she says smugly to her aunt.  “‘Love makes fools of all of us.’ William Thackeray,” Ada replies, in a “Don’t try me, bitch” tone.

Downstairs at the van Rhijn house, Miss Armstrong has the day off. She goes to visit her mother, who is a witch and lives in a cave. We suppose that’s meant to explain why she’s such a sour bitch to Peggy, but frankly, we remain unmoved. Agnes assesses Peggy and notes her ambition, but that she’ll have obstacles in her way. “You’re a colored woman, to name two of them.” Agnes is clearly very taken with Peggy and entrusts her to keep an eye on Marian in Dansville and “make sure she’s safe.” If she’s not aware of Mr. Raikes’ presence, she’s intuiting it fairly well. While we don’t love Julian Fellowes need to make the ruling classes seem more benevolent than they actually were, we’re enjoying the relationship between these two women.

Lunch at Aurora Fane’s castle! Bertha is positively glowing with excitement and asks Marian if she’ll be going to Dansville to support Clara Burton’s efforts. They plan a trip together. Whatever else you can say about the society matrons and mavens of the Gilded Age, they really knew how to network. Ward McCallister arrives and he is… well, he’s Nathan Lane, in all his Nathan Lane-ness. A total Kentucky fried ham. The real McCallister wasn’t quite the dandy portrayed here, but it’s never not fun to watch Nathan Lane tear into some cheesy dialogue in an outrageous accent while sporting a waxed mustache. He and Bertha have a frank conversation in front of the other guests about her lack of a guest list, despite her French chef and palace of a house. He offers to help her and she nakedly asks if Mrs. Astor will accept her. We kinda think a conversation like this would be met with gasps by people like the Fanes, but everyone smiles politely. Bertha informs Aurora she’ll be making a sizable donation to the Red Cross and Aurora tells her it’s a great idea, but not “without its complications.” Presumably, Ann Morris will not be reacting kindly.

“I understand,” Ann spits at Aurora when she shows up in Dansville with Bertha. “The murderer’s wife is trying to buy her way into society and you’re happy to take her money.” In other words, no, she will not be quiet about her loathing. Aurora tells her she’s acting like a child. Bertha butts in and asks with a shit-eating grin, “You two bitches talking about me?” Clara Barton calls her up to the stage to thank her for giving enough money to open three new branches. “My husband is dead, my house is sold, my money is gone. And now you’ll turn your back on my like all the others, just to keep in with this potato-digger’s daughter,” Ann says. She’s growing on us, even if she is clearly put out that she has to spend the day with Irish and Black people. Clara later reminds the group that she’s not an idiot and she knows Bertha’s deal. She also tells them that she’s well aware of Mrs. Chamberlain’s reputation, just as she’s well aware of the size of her fortune. She’s a shrewd one, that Clara Barton. Marian offers to reach out to Mrs. Chamberlain and Aurora practically disintegrates at the prospect of Aunt Agnes finding out.

Mr. Raikes makes it clear he’d like to get into Marian’s hotel room and she opts to make out with him in the hallway instead. Peggy does her job and breaks them up. She admits to Marian that she has “a lot more experience” than her and Marian finally gets her to open and talk about the stock boy at her father’s pharmacy that she fell in love with, to their disapproval. Later, Marian segues from complimenting Peggy on her article to pleading with her to make up with her parents – without even knowing what the estrangement is even about. “I don’t think it could be heavier than what I’m carrying now,” which makes us wonder if her time in Doylestown was to have a secret baby – another trope Fellowes likes to return to.

Oscar van Rhijn and Miss Turner have a fateful meeting, the result of which is that the two schemers immediately see how they can do each other good. He starts paying her to spy on the Russell household for him. “The vengeful ladies maid,” his boyfriend mutters. “Sounds like a character in a melodrama.” As we noted when we first wrote about that line, you can say what you want about the quality of Julian Fellowes’ writing, but he is never un-self-aware, which is to his credit. He knows this is all cheesy and cliched. He doesn’t care. Here. Look at a place setting for a minute. Check out this gown. How about those chandeliers?

Archie Baldwin comes to dinner, all bright-eyed and ready to be welcomed with open arms, the poor, deluded boy. George, his horns once again sprouting from his head, makes the boy an offer he pretty much can’t refuse and sends him on his way, with strict instructions to never contact Gladys again after he dumps her. We’re a little surprised to see George giving into Bertha on this, since every conversation where it came up, he was fully on board with Gladys having a beau. “He’s not what I want,” Bertha says for the 500th time. Larry can tell that his parents have done something terrible. “What makes you think I’ve done anything?” Bertha asks. “I know you,” her son replies with disgust. Bertha ignores him and sits down with her heartbroken daughter, all but admitting that she sent her prospect running away. “I want the whole world for you,” she tells Gladys. “And I’ll get it, any way I can.” Three times this episode Bertha’s social climbing was shown to have side effects she doesn’t seem to be aware of – her servants plot against her, her husband is doubting her, and her son seems to think she’s turning into a monster. God knows what Gladys will do when she finally snaps.


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