THE GILDED AGE, S2 E2: Some Sort of Trick

Posted on November 06, 2023


Hot Beard Russell is dealing with a warring wife and daughter. Bertha orders him to go deal with his unreasonable daughter. Gladys doesn’t want to leave New York for Newport until she settles the matter with Oscar Van Rhijn, but honestly, it seems pretty much settled already. George clearly figured the same thing. He says he’ll say whatever Gladys wants him to say. “I must be allowed the freedom to make my own decisions!” she says melodramatically and lists a few meager qualities in favor of a marriage: money, name, he makes her laugh. George promises to let Oscar down gently. He does no such thing, of course. When Oscar goes to see him, George basically humiliates him and kicks him out. So much for that plotline.

Downstairs and across the street, Jack the footman overslept and everyone spends much more time than is needed discussing reasons why. Seriously, there’s like an entire subplot about this guy’s alarm clock for some reason. It seems strange to us that Agnes has such a bustling household staff when she doesn’t appear to do much of anything. Not that we’re questioning the historical accuracy of a woman like Agnes requiring a staff, but they all seem to be so harried half the time, as if she were putting on luncheons and dinner parties on the regular. The woman barely entertains and seems to only go out rarely. The only reason we’re pointing this out is because Christine Baranski continues to be wasted in this role. Agnes is completely peripheral to the main conflict of the series (the Russells vs. the Old Money guard, mostly in the form of Mrs. Astor) and it seems like half the characters spend their time keeping things from her. The reason the Dowager Countess was so much fun on Downton Abbey is because she was constantly bursting into rooms and getting into people’s business. Anyway, Agnes is reading correspondence and offering unasked-for opinions, mostly on the appalling matter of Marian taking a packed lunch to her job. She makes sure to mention how ashamed she is. Marian stomps out.


At school, we are treated to several unbelievably dull moments of Marian teaching art to a bunch of rich girls who have no interest in it or apparent talent for it. Outside school, not-related-by-blood cousin Dashiell is picking up his daughter, who invites Marian to get in, loser. Marian attempts to demur, but even she has to know where all of this is going. We’re surprised she didn’t mention that they weren’t blood related one more time. Surprisingly, he makes several arch remarks about how tiresome Aunt Agnes can be.

In an extraordinarily awkward and stiff scene (Marian at one point literally says “Hurray,” without an exclamation point) Agnes receives Peggy and offers her her old job back. Peggy is grateful, but she needs to know if she’s still going to have to deal with that bitch in the basement, Miss Armstrong. Agnes assures her she’ll take care of the situation this time.

Laura Benanti enters the cast as Mrs. Blaine, the Newport widow who’s looking to have her cottage refurbished, if you know what we mean. She instantly gives off a little crazy. Bertha seems bemused by her until her interest in Larry becomes a little more obvious. She takes them on a tour of her dreary cottage, which gives her an excuse to share way too much information about her dreary marriage. She asks Larry what his plans would entail and he says something incredibly vague about light and space, which prompts her to hire him on the spot. Bertha’s so shocked she almost tries to talk her out of it. When Mrs. Blaine hears that Larry will be attending a tennis match with his Harvard chums, she more or less invites herself, which prompts Bertha to snort and call her old. While Mrs. Blaine gives Larry a tour of her second floor, if you know what we mean, Ward McCallister gives an eager Bertha some intel about an old money guy with a flashy young wife who might be looking for a box at the Met.


Back on 61st Street, Agnes and Ada are entertaining the new rector, although it’s safer to say that Ada is the one being entertained. She practically falls all over the man and at one point literally blesses him. It’s a bit much. Cynthia Nixon is a fine actress, but she plays Ada without the slightest bit of nuance or subtlety. It’s an odd performance that can get so broad, the character feels like a cartoon. Anyway, Agnes sneers at her for peppering the man with questions and says it’s unlikely he’ll ever visit again. That’s the other thing about the Dowager Countess that made her so fun: she was right all the time. Agnes constantly seems clueless about what’s going on right in front of her. Even Marian could see the spark.

Meanwhile George Hot Beard something-something unions something Pittsburgh something about paying someone off. We confess, we zoned out a bit on these scenes, partially because Fellowes isn’t great writing business plots and partially because this one so far consists merely of people standing around talking about it. We know that, just like horny Mrs. Blaine, this arc will eventually pick up and start making sense.

Mr. McNeil, whose wife is the daughter of Mr. Russell’s valet, who goes by the name of Watson but is actually named Collyer (as typical a Julian Fellowes storyline as you’ll ever find), stops by the Russell house to ask after him. George invites him in and offers to pass whatever message he has for his absent valet, but McNeil says he’ll write him now that he “has the facts straight” and assures him Watson has done nothing wrong. He would seem to be relieved to discover that Watson is not living under his old name, but we can’t imagine this storyline is settled, especially since Watson confessed the whole thing to Church and you just know none of Bertha Russell’s servants can keep their mouths shut.


Across the street, Agnes deals with Miss Armstrong. She informs her ladies maid that Peggy is returning as her secretary and that Agnes has reached the end of Bullshit Road with Armstrong. She’s ordered not to fuck with the returning secretary or Agnes will toss her out on the street. Armstrong attempts to protest, but Agnes shuts her up with the perfect Agnes line: “I see you have mistaken this for a discussion when I am simply giving you an order.” This is what we mean when we say they need to give Agnes more to do. She’s so much more fun when she’s got a purpose and an agenda rather than reacting to everyone else’s. In semi-related news, Agnes receives a letter from Mrs. Astor asking her to join her in the glorious war against the barbarians, aka, the whole business with the opera house. This is good news. For some reason, Fellowes and his co-writer Sonja Warfield shifted the focus to Mrs. Astor as Bertha’s nemesis (there is historic precedence for it, to be fair), but it’s time to get Agnes off the bench and into the bitchery game. Aurora Fane invites Marian to Newport for the weekend because she has a man for her. Agnes is intrigued of course and asks for his name and address, which quickly provides her with the information regarding his lineage. This is the kind of thing we need to see more from her instead of endless scenes of her reading correspondence in her parlor and huffing. Meanwhile, Miss Armstrong pretty much immediately comes for Peggy in the kitchen. We’d ask what that bitch’s problem is, but it’s pretty obvious to just about anyone. While it’s appreciated that the show is attempting to correct the impression that all of these people live in some sort of post-racism utopia, it’s a bit of a cheat to make the one bitter bitch of a ladies maid the voice of an entire society’s racial attitudes. Peggy is also back working at The New York Globe, fully reversing her status on every front at the end of last season. We’re wondering if there was ever a point to the whole missing baby story. Anyway, Peggy helps Miss Armstrong with the mending and then tells her that if she don’t start none, there won’t be none. We doubt very much she got the message.

“I long for a little disruption!” cray and horny Mrs. Blaine says to Larry as she practically drapes herself all over him while complaining endlessly about what a brute her ex-husband was. They drink Champagne over his plans for the new cottage because she’s got no game and comes on like a freight train. Can’t say there’s a problem with the tactic, since it obviously worked for her.

Everyone’s at the casino in Newport, following the tennis matches. Marian is trying to deal with (avoid) the complete tool that Aurora tried to set her up with, Larry is parading Mrs. Blaine around like a fiancee, Oscar is moping, and Gladys is thrilled to be free of her mother for the day. Larry introduces Marian to Mrs. Blaine, who immediately doesn’t like her. We’re telling you. The cray is about to pop out with this one. Just as Marian is about to lay a curse on Aurora Fane’s children’s children for setting her up with such a loser, cousin Dashiell the Unblooded shows up to sweep her away. “DICKS EARS!” she shouts gleefully. “Haha, dicks ears,” Dashiell replies indulgently, but it turns out they’re only talking about a tennis player, not their plans for the evening. Larry takes Mrs. Blaine back to her cottage and they start making out on the front step in broad daylight, which might give you some idea of why we keep saying the lady smells like crazy. Bertha can smell the same thing because she absolutely lights into Larry when he stumbles in at dawn. This scene honestly doesn’t work for us. Larry’s righteous anger at his mother’s worry over a scandal strikes us as out of character for him, but it also doesn’t feel particularly accurate to the times. Of course this would be a scandal. There’s simply no argument that it wouldn’t be. To be fair, the scene does a pretty good job of depicting how much sexual freedom was granted to the men of this class while the daughters had their every breath scrutinized. “Boys will be boys,” George sighs when he hears his son is sleeping around with a client.


At Ward McCallister’s Newport Casino ball, the rooster-voiced social climber is playing both sides. While Mrs. Astor has drafted him into her opera war, he’s providing intel and advice to Bertha. He tells her that he’ll likely come out on top no matter who wins this battle, although we’re starting to think it’s a mistake for Bertha to trust him. Meanwhile, Aurora is still trying to play matchmaker, although she may have gotten it right this time. She introduces Oscar to Maude, a self-possessed young lady who seems to have a good bullshit meter, is “staying with some friends” and just returned from a long trip to Paris. Aurora relates that she has a great deal of money and has a “paid companion” with her in New York. We’re thinking she’s one of them sapphic gals. In unrelated news, it turns out that the new wife of the old money guy who might be persuaded to buy a box at the Met is Turner, Bertha’s horny, bitchy ladies maid who showed up naked in George’s bed before getting fired. PLOT TWIST! An unbelievably absurd one, but haven’t we all come to expect that from Julian Fellowes at this point? Bertha is fucking LIVID.

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