It all comes to a head in the first season finale of The Gilded Age! And by “all,” we mean plots and relationships that you had no idea even existed before now! Series creator Julian Fellowes and his co-writer Sonja Warfield tried to wrap the season up in a bow by ending on the long-awaited debut of Gladys Russell into society and the fruition of all of Bertha Russell’s hopes, plans and schemes. Unfortunately, in terms of plotting, they spent almost all season at Point A and skipped straight to Point C in the final episode. When George Russell asked Bertha what she was waiting for when she said it wasn’t time to go into the ballroom, the entire room went silent as Mrs. Astor’s presence was announced and Bertha replied triumphantly, “That.” The music swelled to underline her moment and it all felt like a great ending to a story someone forgot to tell. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves – and forgetting the other major storyline of the season. In our defense, it was the least interesting one and the one with the most obvious ending. Marian, that’s your cue, dear.
Marian goes to see Mrs. Chamberlain and asks for her help in her plans to run off and elope with Tom Raikes. Mrs. Chamberlain appears to have some reservations, but she’s the last person to impose judgment on someone while standing in front of them. “I have no fear of scandal. I’m a walking scandal as it is,” she notes sadly. Marian appears to have no idea what her post-marriage life will be like or where she’ll live. Mrs. Chamberlain pointedly notes that Mr. Raikes is not likely to want to leave New York soon. “You’re wrong,” Marian says wild-eyed, “Society means as little to him as it does to me.” Mrs. Chamberlain’s lack of judgment is just about stretched to its limits so she excuses herself and runs off to her Room For Laughing Discreetly At Guests. Marian and Tom meet in the park to go over plans. Or rather, she talks about her plans and he says little except that he’s never loved her more than he does at this moment.
Peggy stops by the Van Rhijn house to pick up her things and check in on Marian, who immediately imposes on her to sneak her belongings out of the house and drop them off at Mrs. Chamberlain’s. She also asks her to come see her off on Friday, when she plans to run off with Mr. Raikes. “It’s really happening, then” Peggy says non-committally. It seems strange to us that Peggy isn’t voicing more concern about the rashness of Marian’s actions, especially when Marian answers that she doesn’t know where she’s going to live after she marries Tom. This show hasn’t been super-great about giving characters defined, articulated character traits outside of “Agnes is snide,” or “Ada is wide-eyed,” but they’ve gone to some lengths to show that Peggy is both practical-minded and doesn’t suffer foolishness. Her passive responses to Marian’s actions — when literally every other character is alarmed by them — is a weird blind spot in the story. Later, Ada notices Peggy leaving with Marian’s bag and immediately figures out what’s happening. She asks pointedly if Peggy would allow Marian to do something foolish. “I’d try to persuade her not to, you can count on me for that,” Peggy replies. But we know that’s not true. Peggy hasn’t done a thing to talk Marian out of her course of action. Not that it was her responsibility, especially since she has so many problems of her own, but why make her say that line when it’s clearly not true?
Later, Ada begs Marian to reconsider whatever “escapade” she has planned and tells her to just come out with it and have the argument with Agnes in the hopes that she’ll eventually come around. “I haven’t got time for eventually!” Marian replies melodramatically and nonsensically. What exactly is the rush here? Did we miss something? Ada says she’ll break Agnes’ heart and Marian nastily replies that “It’s her pride we’re dealing with, not her heart.” Later, at the Academy of Music, Aurora Fane furrows her brow worriedly, as she’s prone to doing, at the shocking display of Mr. Raikes letting Sissy Bingham touch him one box over. And yes, we spent some time finessing that sentence.
At the Russell house, Bertha is a whirl of party planning and frazzled nerves. Downstairs, the servants all express that everything is well in hand and she has nothing to worry about while M. Baudin sits there and looks worried. Bertha calls on Mrs. Astor and is turned away at the door while a Mrs. Randolph is shown in right in front of her. At dinner that night, she coolly informs Gladys that Carrie Astor can no longer attend her ball, making the long planned quadrille appear to be a non-starter. Gladys protests, but Bertha holds her ground. “You will not say ‘can’t’ to me,” she growls at Larry, when he suggests that she’s being unreasonable. Still, she even manages to silence George’s objections when she asks, “Do you think Mrs. Astor would entertain a young woman whose mother had snubbed her?” We aren’t sure where we’re supposed to believe this leverage or power is coming from. We guess it’s possible her humiliating march through Mrs. Astor’s chicken yard last episode lit a fire under her ass, but we don’t know what else has changed in regards to Bertha’s social standing that she thinks she can play hardass with queen of The Four Hundred.
Evens so, Carrie Astor stomps into Mrs. Astor’s Room For Opening Letters to pout (because no one was in the Room For Pouting to notice her snit, evidently). Mrs. Astor asks if she received her invitation to Bertha’s “wretched ball” and Carrie relays between huffs and foot stamps that Bertha’s letter to her not only explained why she was disinvited, but mentioned the details of her snub, specifically that Mrs. Randolph was received when she was turned away. She’s clearly being very specific about the offense against her and very precise about how she expects it to be handled. Carrie throws it all back on her mother and says she wouldn’t call on Mrs. Russell if her life depended on it. She stomps out to go spend time in the Room for Stomping. She sends word later that she won’t be coming down for dinner and won’t be accompanying her mother to the reception they planned to attend. She’s upset, although we’re never really given any reasons why. She and Gladys have a growing friendship, but why is she making such a big deal out of this party? And how does she have all this sudden power over her mother?
Carrie goes to visit Gladys and tells Bertha,”Your kindness is a beacon of light after the treatment you’ve received.” Bertha makes it clear that she’ll happily invite Carrie to the ball if that stone cold bitch of a mother deigned to pay her a visit, in so many words. She later admits to George that none of the people she most wants to come have answered her invitations. She seems weirdly confident that things will go her way, even though the ball is the following night. Carrie informs her mother, “The trouble is you assume she’s weaker than you.” “She is weaker than I am, in this instance,” Caroline replies imperiously. She’s not wrong, so far as we can see.
Fellowes based the outcome of this story on the real-world rivalry between Mrs. Astor and Alva Vanderbilt, which came to a head (and its end) when Alva threw a massive ball that was the talk of the social calendar in 1883, and pointedly snubbed Mrs. Astor and her daughter for exactly the same reason Bertha does here. It’s such an odd creative choice to fictionalize only one half of a well known story, but the bigger issue is all the parts of the real tale that got left out here. Alva Vanderbilt was a hugely popular hostess and already a social powerhouse when she threw her massive masquerade ball. We’ve only watched Bertha stumble her way up the social ladder, making only minor advancements with about an equal number of setbacks along the way. She’s nowhere near as powerful or popular as Alva Vanderbilt was when she forced Mrs. Astor’s hand. By transposing the story from a party so legendary that entire books have been written about it to the belated coming out of an unpopular robber baron’s daughter, the stakes have been lowered to the point that they honestly don’t make much sense. We’ve been given no reason to believe that Mrs. Astor would care about this party at all, especially since, as Bertha noted to George, none of the big name people have responded to her invites yet. No one of import considers this party worth their time. Bertha has no real bargaining chip here except Carrie Astor’s ability to pout. “I wish I knew the cards you think you have up your sleeve,” George notes at her relatively serene attitude. “Whoever achieved great things without taking a chance?” Bertha asks. That’s not an answer, Bertha. No one ever bothers to answer that question, upon which the entire outcome of the season rests.
In other, sillier news, Monsieur Baudin comes clean to George: he’s “just a farmboy from Kansas” whose abandoned wife has discovered him living a lie and has threatened to expose him, as all mysterious servants’ abandoned spouses must do in a Julian Fellowes melodrama. Bertha shows the most emotion she’s demonstrated all season upon hearing the news. Her voice rising several octaves from her usual cool and low delivery, she outlines all the ways in which this news could ruin everything she’s worked for, which is when we realized she literally says that about anything she doesn’t like. “Mrs. Russell, it’s likely to rain later today.” “This could ruin everything I’ve worked for!” “Mother, I’d like to read a book.” “This could ruin everything I’ve worked for!” Downstairs, the servants are flabbergasted that they ever fell for such a ridiculous accent. A new, even more outrageously French chef is hired. He is a haughty, lazy drunk. Mister Bordin is reinstated at the last second to save the ball. He talks even funnier when he’s supposed to sound like he’s from Wichita.
In Brooklyn, poor Audra McDonald has to work her way through one of Julian Fellowes’ favorite plot conveniences, the Discovered Secret Letter, which in this case gives her the exact information needed in response to last episode’s revelation (also found in a semi-secret letter) that Peggy had a baby she was told had died. Yes, the baby’s alive and Peggy’s father is responsible for getting rid of it. Meanwhile, Peggy’s sitting in Mrs. Chamberlain’s gallery, having coffee served to her. “I have broken rules I don’t agree with all my life,” Mrs. Chamberlain tells her. Marian arrives fresh from tearfully saying her goodbyes to Ada and imposing on Larry Russell to deliver her secret letters on the very night his mother is throwing a ball. She gives Mrs. Chamberlain a painting she completed from a paint-by-numbers set.
A frazzled Aurora shows up at the Van Rijn house dressed as an upholstered chair. She informs Ada that she witnessed Mr. Raikes “more than talking” with Sissy Bingham, who, she also takes the time to inform Ada, is “very rich.” Ada springs into action – by telling Aurora to go to Mrs. Chamberlain’s without telling her why. “Marian will explain if she wants to!” Aurora, whose furrowed brow has driven entire plot developments, immediately runs off to the house of the most scandalized woman in the city without question.
Across the street, Mrs. Astor arrives unexpectedly at the Russell house. Once again, human emotions well up in Bertha when she hears the news. This is the much referenced “everything I’ve worked for” moment. In a wonderful, subtle touch, Bertha sizes up the room quickly and chooses to receive Mrs. Astor while standing in front of her massive portrait, a nod and a flex in response to Mrs. Astor’s own well-known and massive portrait, which was highlighted in an earlier episode. In fact, it was back when she told Carrie that the Russells were a force to be reckoned with, so it makes for a neat little callback. “You have dropped by at a time when no one else was likely to be here,” Bertha tells her. She switches to dictating the terms: If she wants Carrie to be invited to the ball that night, Mrs. Astor must not only accompany her, but she must get Mrs. Van Rijn and her sister to come because “I’m tired of being cut on my own doorstep.” This comes completely out of left field, since she’s barely even acknowledged Agnes and they’ve shared no more than 15 seconds of screen time all season. She then more or less has Mrs. Astor thrown out of her house. Meanwhile George, not trusting that his wife’s machinations will pay off, is threatening to ruin people’s lives if they don’t show up at his wife’s ball that night. “You are no gentleman, sir,” he is told not for the first time. The Russells will burn Manhattan to the ground if every little thing doesn’t go their way. They’d be delicious to root for if this story made more sense.
“I don’t believe you!” Marian cries when she hears Aurora’s news about Tom Raikes’ unseemly box behavior at the Academy. Aurora responds wearily (she’s clearly exhausted by her family and we don’t blame her) while Mrs. Chamberlain looks concerned and Peggy tries not to look uncomfortable. Marian insists that Tom’s lateness by several hours (for his WEDDING) combined with him all but making out with another woman the night before doesn’t mean a thing. “Maybe he’s been hurt!” Aurora’s all “Girl, PLEASE.” Mrs. Chamberlain dashes off briefly to the Room for Laughing Discreetly again. Marian and Peggy leave to find Tom. An uncomfortable Aurora thanks Mrs. Chamberlain for receiving her and for being kind to her cousin. She asks her to keep silent about the whole thing. Mrs. Chamberlain says that Marian’s reputation is safe with her, but she says it calmly, while flipping a double bird at Aurora (that last part was probably imagined). Marian goes to visit Tom and asks “I assume we’re not getting married today.” Girl, if you’ve gotta ask the question… He insists that he did love her and that he was only trying to push her into marrying him because he was being tempted more and more by other prospects. Also, she has no money, which is a problem for someone who likes to go to balls as much as he does. All of this is somehow supposed to be a defense or an explanation or something? He’s a terrible lawyer. “Listen, you’ve got to understand, I love you, but I love money a whole lot more.” THAT’s your defense, counsel? “Can we at least part as friends?” he asks her. “Fuck off,” she replies, although we may have imagined that part too. Outside, she starts ugly crying on the street, so Peggy rushes her into a carriage and tells her to go home. Because everything in her life is so dramatic, she realizes she has to get home before Larry Russell delivers the letters she asked him to drop off. She dashes into the parlor and makes the most ridiculous attempt to lie about what’s going on. That all of this is going on under her roof more or less is starting to make Agnes look like the dumb sister. Ada’s practically running that household behind her back. Larry Russell tells Marian he claims a waltz at the ball that night as his payment for making him look like a jackass for no reason.
Peggy goes home to Brooklyn and the news that her father more or less sold her baby away. She tearfully tells her mother she wants her baby back. We don’t love this development. There are so many more interesting ways to go with this character, not least being her career as a budding Ida B. Wells, but we also would have loved to have seen her navigate Black Elite society of the time. The white people weren’t the only ones having balls. We hate to see her put through a moldy old Julian Fellowes plot about lost babies. Poor Edith gave her scandalous baby away like half a dozen times on Downton Abbey, but at least it fit her character as the sad, forgotten middle sister. Peggy’s got too much going on to make unwed motherhood the focus of her character.
“But if I don’t maintain standards,” Mrs. Astor asks of Ward McAllister, “What is the point of me?” Girl, if you’ve gotta ask the question… “We cannot hope to keep out the new people entirely or they’ll form their own society that would exclude us,” he replies in Foghorn Leghorn’s voice. He advises her to write not only to Agnes Van Rhijn, but to all of her friends to urge them to join her at the ball that night, explaining that if he tries to fight Mrs. Russell it will be at the cost of her own dignity. How? What reason does Mrs. Astor have for acknowledging her at all, knowing that her ball is likely to be seen as a failure by the very people she wants so desperately to impress unless she steps in and starts making demands of all her friends? Meanwhile, Agnes is beside herself at the request. She decides to do as Mrs. Astor asks because she doesn’t want to quarrel with her, but reserves the right to quarrel with Mrs. Russell later. That she’s barely had any scenes or interactions with either of these women makes her sound completely delusional. What is the point of casting Christine Baranski as an American dowager countess character and have all of her scenes consist of her sitting on a couch, sneering at her family members and never going anywhere?
Anyway, the ball is a huge success. We just wish the plot had more sense getting to this point. Mrs. Astor asks Bertha if she isn’t worried that she might try to destroy her after the night is over. Bertha smugly replies that she won’t, because they’re too much alike (a point that has never been made and about which there is little evidence, except that both women are stubborn) and because Bertha would make a good friend to her (a point that also has no evidence to support it and isn’t something Mrs. Astor would ever consider to be true or necessary in her life). The supposed rivalry or relationship with Agnes is wrapped up with no more than head nods from across the room. We’re starting to wonder if some of these cast members are feuding with each other or something. Oscar Van Rhijn latches onto Gladys all night but she’s not interested. Meanwhile, Larry gets a waltz with Marian and, like anyone who pays her the slightest attention, gets to hear all about her problems. Everyone goes home when the sun comes up. The end.
Look, we had fun with this season mostly because several years of recapping Downton Abbey left our expectations in a sub-basement. But The Gilded Age has a pretty great cast and more than a handful of interesting characters who need way more development, so we find ourselves frustrated by the unrealized potential. Downton may have had some utterly ludicrous plotlines, but it never failed at illustrating the various relationships that drove the story forward. The Gilded Age had a bunch of characters and an ending in mind, but meandered way too much on the way to getting there. We hope they back off Marian’s romantic life in season two, get Agnes out of the house, and show us more of Peggy’s life and plans. Also, let’s add Bernadette Peters to this cast of Broadway legends, shall we? She’s got some experience wearing a bustle.
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