THE GILDED AGE: Face The Music

Posted on February 08, 2022

Surprise marriage proposals! Servants fraternizing off duty! A long-forgotten beau re-appears! Financial ruin! Financial chicanery! One thing you can’t say about The Gilded Age writers Julian Fellowes and Sonja Warfield; they do NOT coast. We haven’t taken notes this extensive for one episode of television since the Mad Men days. Let’s get into it.

Agnes reads in the paper about Aurora Fane’s plans to hold another charity and sneers. Let’s face it: the woman has a way with a sneer. Marian pipes up (as she tends to do) and suggests that Aurora has no reason to be embarrassed, since the last charity event she chaired made over 2000 dollars. Marian will spend most of this episode cheering on the Russells and mentioning their wealth to people who a) aren’t inclined to cheer for them and b) find it grotesque whenever someone brings up money. In other words, Marian is astonishingly bad at reading a room. Gladys and her governess are seen leaving the house across the street and Agnes delivers the one and only compliment she’s likely to ever pay Bertha Russell: “She keeps her daughter under her control.” When Marian expresses confusion that Gladys hasn’t had her coming out yet, Agnes reveals that under the snobbery is a shrewd and sharp mind:  “Mrs. Russell is not sure she can fill the ballroom. You see? I know more of these things than you give me credit for.”

Marian and Ada head to Aurora Fane’s castle to hear Clara Barton speak. She is met with polite, silk-gloved applause by Mrs. Astor and her Old Money Mean Girls. Ada makes eyes at the only gentleman in attendance, the saucy minx. He comes over to introduce himself, bearing the rather wonderfully Victorian name Cornelius Eckhardt, III, an old friend from the days when the Brook sisters were in Pennsylvania. He makes it very clear he’d like to get re-acquainted with Ada, who seems a little reluctant and overwhelmed. Granted, she always seems that way. We realize Cynthia Nixon is trying to imbue this character with a sweetness and naivete that may seem odd to anyone familiar with her Miranda character, but there are times when she really overdoes it and Ada winds up coming off a little… well, dim. Anyway, Marian, who was born with a deficiency that makes it impossible for her to read social cues, immediately tries to play matchmaker before turning to the appalled society ladies to start talking about money again.

Agnes recalls Mr. Eckhardt as someone who had no money and no prospects back in the day. This is quite literally the only way she looks at people, through the lens of their finances and their bloodline. She scoffs at the idea that he’s been dreaming of Ada all this time, which Ada takes as a cruelty. Oscar announces he’s having dinner at the Russells’ and Agnes reacts melodramatically as per usual. “When you say those words, you stab me in the side.”

Potential romance is in the air at 61st and Fifth. Gladys is sneaking off with her (no doubt soon to be fired) governess to see a man named Archie Baldwin. Bridget the kitchen maid and the …footman? Hall boy? Shoe-shiner? Whoever he is, we haven’t learned his name yet because we’re always too busy marveling at his constantly changing accent. Anyway, they make plans to see a magic lantern show and it’s clear he wants to get into her crinolines while she makes it even more clear that it’s never gonna happen. In other words, it’s a repeat of a scene we’ve watched at least a dozen times on Downton Abbey. Also looking for love, or at least a reasonable facsimile so he can live his life as he wishes, is Oscar, who tells his pouty boyfriend with the great pecs that he has his sights set on Gladys, thinking her to be naive enough to never catch on to his true desires. We suspect he’s very wrong about that. Oscar comes to dinner at the Russells’ and tries to ingratiate himself with the family. Bertha is under-impressed. George calls him a “young jackanapes” and somehow it sounds hot when he says it. Interestingly, Bertha notes, “If anyone plans to marry her for money, he’ll need much more to offer than Oscar Van Rijn.” George asks her what she means and she waves him off. We don’t know if Fellowes and Warfield are implying that Bertha clocked Oscar as gay, but we think it’s a slightly absurd premise if that’s the case. It’s interesting how Agnes and Bertha are fighting largely identical battles for the young women in their charge. It’s also interesting – and we can’t wait for Agnes to figure this out – that Bertha doesn’t consider the Van Rijn family name to be of enough value. Anyway, the real story here is that George and Bertha fuck.  May I stay with you tonight?” “You have only to ask,” she all but growls back at him. Cora would NEVER.

“He is not fit to be one of your circle,” Agnes intones when she hears that the pushy Mr. Raikes has moved to New York and she makes it perfectly clear that Marian isn’t to see him. Marian turns on the little spitfire act and berates Agnes, who moans to the heavens “Oh, Henry, Henry, must you live on in your child? Can you not set her free, for pity’s sake?” Fellowes is so good at these sorts of melodramatically bitchy lines. Agnes insists he is “an adventurer” and that she’s never wrong about these things. Unfortunately, we suspect, much like the Dowager of Downton Abbey, Agnes will somehow be proven right about Mr. Raikes. Later, he invites Marian into his new office and shuts the door, which  makes her uncomfortable. He also suggests they meet at a hotel, which makes her even more uncomfortable. Even later, he meets up with her at the Statue of Liberty’s hand and proposes marriage to her. There’s definitely something shifty about this one. The fact that he was the deciding factor in her sudden poverty and almost certainly knows more about her father’s finances than anyone makes this all feel rushed and agenda-oriented. We wonder if he’s planning on suddenly discovering an unknown source of wealth for Marian. Fellowes LOVED to shower money and titles on his put-upon heroines of Downton Abbey (the Dowager is receiving an entire villa in the new movie), so we wouldn’t be a bit surprised if at some point, Marian’s fortunes change dramatically.

Meanwhile, as characters jump into bed with each other and/or declare their intentions (including that sneaky little ladies maid who has her eyes set on George), there’s some sort of business plot happening, but the script is almost hilariously vague about it. “The law may be rescinded” (what law?) and the station can’t go forward. George berates Patrick Morris, who poo-poos his threats. “Public position has moved away from your position,” he says smoothly. Everything about this deal is so vague. George calls the aldermen “Greedy, dirty thieves.” Bertha urges George to fight the corrupt aldermen and he tells her he would have to put “a large part of our capital at risk.” “Very well,” she shrugs. “All of this, would be lost,” he reminds her. She continues with her “ain’t no thing” attitude about money: “You made it once, you can make it again if you have to.” He is overcome with lust for his devious wife. None of this is over-explained, nor is George’s course of action, which is to “buy all the company stock.” Mr. Morris and Mr. Fane are beside themselves as the stock rises and George slowly grows little horns and a tail.

Peggy learns she’s going to be published, but is crushed to find out that The Christian Advocate will want her to hide her race. Peggy would not have been naive about the world, but much like Oscar patiently explaining to his lover why gay men in the 1880s might want to take wives, we suppose Fellowes and Warfield feel like these things need to be spelled out. Peggy’s father comes to see her and even though they have an extended conversation about their quarrel and disagreements, it’s not clear what happened that keeps them apart. He doesn’t approve of her writing career and thinks she’ll be working for him before long. He wants her to come home for her mother’s birthday.

Lunch at Aurora Fane’s castle again and as per the usual, Marian can’t keep her mouth shut. Mrs. Astor and her Mean Girls are beside themselves because “a group of the new people” are building a new opera house (which will eventually become the Met). Marian takes their side, because she can’t read a room to save her life, and Ada all but slaps her across the face to get her to shut up. “That’s enough, dear. Time to let other people speak.” Later, Ada reveals that Mrs. Chamberlain is shunned because she is said to have had sex with her husband before marriage. In related news, Agnes has Mr. Eckhardt over for tea and slices him up into tiny pieces while Ada is out of the room. He scurries off.

The Fanes are at each other’s throats for pissing off the Russells, as are the Morrises. Both Ann and Aurora claim it’s the other’s fault. An increasingly frantic Patrick Morris tells his wife she has to go and kiss Bertha’s ring, a prospect that leaves her nearly speechless. When he tells her she’ll lose everything and have no one to boss around, she practically hops to her feet. She semi-hysterically begs for mercy while Bertha gently puts her foot on her neck and coolly informs her that because Mrs. Morris never showed her any kindness, she is in no position to ask her for one.  Patrick Morris literally gets on his knees and begs George Russell for mercy. “You and Mrs. Morris have snubbed and belittled my wife. How could I allow that to go unpunished?” he asks as clouds of smoke surround him and his eyes flash red. Patrick Morris goes home with a sign around his neck reading “I’m about to kill myself” and Anne doesn’t notice it. It would seem the Russells plan on being accepted into high society by more or less conquering it and destroying anyone who gets in their way. We can’t imagine Patrick Morris’s suicide is going to ingratiate them with that crowd any further.



[Photo Credit: Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO]

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