THE GILDED AGE: Tucked Up in Newport

Posted on March 16, 2022

This week’s episode was all about plans, schemes, and agendas coming to fruition. Bertha is in her glory finally putting plans into place for Gladys’ coming out and muscling her way into Newport. Oscar is finessing his plans for Gladys. John is throwing caution to the wind and becoming the Ur-Big Messy Queen. Marian is planning her escape. Peggy is forced to reveal herself. And practically every servant alive has a secret or is willing to keep one for the right price. Meanwhile, at Russell Consolidated Trust, George is meeting with his lawyers where things do not look good for the embattled baron. “Things do not look good,” one of the lawyers says helpfully. He loses his temper with them for not getting any dirt on this Dixon person, who something-something, middle manager, yadda yadda. As we’ve said before, Julian Fellowes explains the intricacies of place settings with more care and interest than he does business, medical or legal plots.

Oscar and John have another tense lunch. John loudly and stupidly declares that he loves Oscar and claims not to understand why they can’t “carry on” together as they always have. This strikes us as a conveniently anachronistic naivete that’s somewhat typical of how Fellowes writes gay people in history who act and sound too much like gay people from a post-Stonewall world. We used to get in trouble with the Downton fans when we pointed out that Fellowes tended to give the evil gay under butler way too many opportunities for love and sex at a time and place where the opportunities for both would have been outrageously limited and a more accurate (and more poignant) depiction would have shown him living a life of extreme loneliness or in a sham marriage. While it’s perfectly reasonable that two men of this class and time like Oscar and John would want to remain lovers, it’s not likely either of them would be at all put out by the idea of marrying a woman to maintain a socially appropriate facade. Even Oscar Wilde was pursuing a wife around this time.  Anyway, John is annoyed that Oscar still wants to pursue Gladys. Oscar patiently explains the situation by reading passages from the book Homophobia Among the Upper Class in the 19th Century to John, who puts on his “evil, plotting homosexual” face in response. A Julian Fellowes character archetype has returned.

 

Marian goes to see Oscar and Larry Russell as they leave to stay as guests of Mrs. Fish in Newport. She meets George’s stenographer and kind of nosily asks after her in a manner that signals that this will all mean something down the line, then she orders Larry to keep Oscar away from his sister. Inside, she hears that Aurora is also going to Newport, along with Mrs. Russell, to stay as Ward McAllister’s guests. Agnes sneers her disapproval for no reason whatsoever. Ada helpfully reads some passages from Wikipedia, explaining to everyone why Newport is fashionable and mentioning that the renovations are complete at Mrs. Astor’s place. Ada sneers at her for knowing these things that literally every person in the room would consider common knowledge. “I don’t live in the bottom of an oubliette!” Ada says indignantly even though no one has ever uttered those words in that order. Aurora takes Marian aside from the sisters’ latest Statler and Waldorf routine and tries rather awkwardly to wave her away from Tom Raikes without ever saying the words “Don’t trust that POS, girl” because she’s genteel and expresses everything by the furrow of her brow. Marian either doesn’t read the signs or she doesn’t care. We’re gonna go with the latter, because minutes later she’s in Peggy’s room, bothering the hell out of her while she’s trying to work and informing her that everyone’s doubts about Tom Raikes are making her want to marry him more. Peggy discreetly ignores all of the red flags and notes in the most hilariously non-committal way possible “At least it’s a decision.”

Downstairs – all the way downstairs – Tom arrives with a note for Peggy and, knowing that it’s full of confidential information, leaves it with Armstrong the Human Smirk. The fact that he was so reckless indicates just how quickly he wanted to get out of the house and avoid Marian. Armstrong drops the note off with Peggy, who immediately notices that it’s been opened. Bannister walks across the street to stir up some shit with the Russell servants. Monsieur Baudin is seen arguing in the street with some woman. Mr Watson, George Russell’s sad bald valet, is caught sadly watching the mysterious woman he’s been stalking. He refers to himself as Collyer, which causes her to run inside. Also, Bridget gets a little stalking time in as well, since it’s all the rage among the servant class. She spends an entire episode stalking Jack in order to discover that which the viewer figured out in the first five minutes.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Bauer takes the opportunity of a fairly empty household to inform Ada and Marian that Armstrong is smiling a lot and that can’t mean anything good for Peggy. “I don’t like Armstrong and I never have,” says Ada who keeps getting sassier by the episode. Marian passes the bad news on and Peggy finally unburdens herself of her secret, which most of the viewers had at least partially figured out an episode or two ago. She was married and had a baby. The husband’s gone thanks to her father’s manipulations and she was told the baby died. She’d been trying to find the midwife that delivered him, which is where Tom Raikes came in. We doubt very much that this baby is dead, but that’s literally a story for another day. Marian goes to visit Tom at his office (a situation she used to be uncomfortable about, but one that she’s aggressively seeking out now, which tells you where her head is) and talks about the possibility of eloping and whether or not it would be a good idea. He assures that all will be well once they’re wed. Neither of them bring up the fact that he probably just ruined Peggy’s life.

“Remember everyone,” the dance instructor informs Gladys and her new friends across the street, “The quadrille is not a romping dance.” We will be working this sentence into every conversation for the foreseeable future. Bertha has all the party planning smoothly in hand, including the designing of dresses for everyone involved, which doesn’t sound like it will go over well with their parents. Anytime Bertha gets over-confident, we presume it’s all going to be a disaster and she’ll be throwing her breakfast tray again.

 

In Newport, Bertha is scheming and climbing with the encouragement of Ward McAllister under the perpetually disapproving eye of Mrs. McAllister, who sounds like an aging, bitchier version of Scarlett O’Hara. Bertha rather recklessly announces that she’d love to see Beechwood, Mrs. Astor’s newly renovated estate. Ward suggests she exploit Larry’s friendship with Mrs. Fish and schemes to get them all invited to her place for dinner. At the casino, Mrs. Fish is pushy and nosy to Bertha, who is more than capable of pushing back on her aggressiveness. She worries to Ward that she “bungled it,” but Ward predicts that Mamie will wind up begrudgingly admiring her. Oscar is making progress with Gladys when suddenly John Adams shows up and worms his way into the group. Mamie is delighted by bitchy gay drama and social climbers, so she invites them all to dinner. She loudly calls Bertha “tenacious.” Aurora discreetly  urges her to take it as a compliment. All Aurora does is discreetly urge people to do things and yet Kelli O’Hara is great to watch in the part. Anyway, Bertha has no problem taking it as a compliment and gloats at how far she’s come. Aurora notes that Bertha amuses Mamie. Aurora discreetly worries that Gladys’ ball is happening too soon. Bertha assures her that she has a campaign planned.

Back in New York, in a rather absurd sequence of events that will seem familiar to most Downton viewers, Marian notices Miss Ainsley, George’s stenographer, leaving Bloomingdales — and we’ve tried at least four times to sum up the sequence of events that had Marian inadvertently reveal to George that Miss Ainsley is somehow involved with the Mr. Dixon who’s been causing him so much trouble, because she left her purse behi — oh, forget it. It was all kind of ludicrously unlikely and over the top. Suffice it to say, the deus popped out of the machina, right on time. George is magically cleared of all charges and he’s a petty enough bitch to tell Ainsley that he’ll work to ensure she remains poor for the rest of her life. “You may scrub floors to earn your bread, but nothing more.”

At the Van Rhijn house, Peggy comes clean to a sympathetic Agnes and Ada, who are saddened to hear of her hardships and outraged at Armstrong for interfering. Here, Fellowes returns to one of his most common tropes from his Downton Abbey days; the ruling class sighing with regret every time a servant commits a crime or is caught doing something nefarious. Staff members at Downton could literally get away with attempted murder and still get a Christmas present from Lord Grantham every year. Peggy announces she’s leaving that night because she can’t stay in a house with a woman who plots to ruin her all the time. Agnes sighs that she can’t get rid of Armstrong because it’s too much trouble to train a new ladies maid at her age. Which is weird when you think about it, because she almost never leaves the house. Her needs can’t be all that great in the ladies maid department when she’s one busted bustle away from Grey Gardens. “Seems very feeble on my part,” says Agnes, feebly. She calls Peggy an impressive young woman and shakes her hand. “Perhaps the time has come for a new chapter for all of us, ” Marian says, making this moment all about her. Ada is all “WTF girl, how about not now?”

Carrie Astor pleads with her mother to go to Bertha’s upcoming ball. Caroline patiently sits down on her daughter’s bed and lovingly reminds her that she doesn’t consort with filthy trash like Bertha Russell because that’s now how things are done, end of story. “My dear, to be a leader means sometimes one must be unkind,” she says unkindly.

Back in Newport a series of events and decisions even more ludicrous than the ones that got George miraculously exonerated results in Ward McAllister risking literally everything in his life to pay off Mrs. Astor’s butler in order to sneak inside her newly renovated estate to show it to Mrs. Russell. Like Bannister lying to his employer to spend an afternoon as Mrs. Russell’s cater waiter, this decision makes absolutely no sense for everyone involved, but it’s clearly meant to set up further conflict to come. OF COURSE Mrs. Astor arrives early from New York, resulting in Bertha being shuffled through the kitchen and out the service entrance before she can be spotted, humiliating her completely. While we found the whole sequence too silly to believe, we have to give a special shoutout to costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone, who had Bertha dressed more or less like a rooster, in white feathers and red lace, as she stomped her way through the chicken yard, vowing vengeance once again on her supposed social betters.

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