THE GILDED AGE S2 E3: Head to Head

Posted on November 13, 2023


The Russell household is all abustle, preparing for something everyone keeps calling an “opera tea,” as if that was some sort of common social gathering instead of something they all just made up. Then again, everyone in this story is very good at making up things to be dramatic about. And speaking of bustles, Bertha sashays hers through the house in the ugliest dress in creation while helpfully filling in Hot Beard that she’s throwing an opera tea. He asks her about Mrs. Winterton, she of the high bitchface skills and the former ladies maid to Bertha. She assures her beardstud that she’s got the upper hand when dealing with the perpetually lemon-sucking Mrs. Winterton. Adelheid, the current ladies maid, evidently does not, as she completely loses her shit at the sight of her predecessor and runs all over the house screaming about it until Mr. Church has her quietly taken away and presumably briefly institutionalized. The chef who pretended to be French and the valet who used to be rich are the only ones not puzzled by Turner’s sudden good fortune. “This is America!” the not-French chef says, and then goes back to dicing furiously, lest he be thrown out onto the street.

Across said street, Agnes is being a pointless bitch and Ada talks like she’s eight years old. “Oh Agnes, don’t you miss parties?” she asks her snorting sister, the kind of question only the dimmest of people could ever think of asking Agnes Van Rijn, who only goes to parties to criticize everyone. Still, the question gives Agnes an idea. She’ll throw the luncheon with Ada’s rector, but only as a ruse to sit Marian next to cousin-but-not-by-blood Dashiell, who has written to Agnes and expressed an interest in his daughter’s art teacher. She asks for Ada’s help in handling Marian, who she characterizes as stubborn, and Ada seems put out by the suggestion that Marian should be handled at all. The whole conversation strikes us as a little odd, if only because Marian practically throws herself at Dashiell the Unrelated every time she sees him. Manage her? Girlfriend is managing things just fine. In fact, she perkily announces that she’d be happy to stand in as his daughter’s replacement mother at a school event, which is not the tactic of a girl who needs to be convinced. Anyway, Ada forces Agnes to eat soup before five pm, so she will surely be sent to the Van Rijn dungeons at some point. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Today, Agnes is entertaining Mrs. Astor, who has come with plans to destroy the Metropolitan Opera. Upon hearing the news from a visiting cartoon rooster that the Met’s opening night will be on the same date as the Academy’s, Mrs. Astor orders everyone involved to be shot immediately. Failing that, she charges Agnes with writing letters to Academy members about a rumor that they’ll lose their boxes if they take one at the Met. Agnes tasks Peggy with this and Miss Armstrong is furious to hear about it. We’ll just bet she’s going to try and fuck this up.


Across the street, Mrs. Winterton reveals herself to be not very good at this society lady stuff because she fails to keep any of her cards close to her well-corseted bosom. She threatens Bertha the second they’re alone together. Oh, Former-Turner. That’s not how these things are done. You smile through your rage, talk politely with your enemies about flowers and light fixtures, and then go home and plot their downfall and the ruination of their children. Now, you’ve played the only card you have – that Hot Beard has seen your nipples – and you’ve turned the formerly cool Bertha into a red-hot vengeance seeker. Again, though; we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, Bertha must confront Hot Beard, who crumbles in like 15 seconds under her questioning, which makes us think he’s in no position to be dealing with labor movement matters. Anyway, he’s all, “So I saw her poon for a second. So what?” But she’s furious with him for leaving her in the dark and humiliating her by letting Turner continue to work for her.

Meanwhile, at the bustling offices of The New York Globe, Peggy is eager for more work and practically throws herself at a potential story. Her editor T. Thomas Fortune is traveling to Tuskegee to meet Booker T. Washington, who’s opening a new dormitory at his Tuskegee Institute and Peggy makes it more than clear that she wants in on this action, even though it would require her to travel alone with a married man. He expresses some reluctance about the idea of training free Black men to become farmers when there are so many other opportunities open to them, but she notes that Black people helping other Black people and lifting them up can’t ever be a bad thing. “I like independence and self-reliance,” she says pointedly. Eventually, he relents and invites her along (which strikes us an unlikely development given the times), but her mother is aghast at the idea of her daughter traveling into the heart of the post Civil War south. She begs her daughter to reconsider until Peggy crumbles and reveals that she’s got to find things to keep her from thinking about her son. Marian, by the way, is aghast that she would travel with a married man, which is pretty rich coming from her.


In Newport, the Blaine residence is stripped of its furnishings except for one making-out couch. Mrs. Blaine and Larry can’t keep their hands off each other and it’s starting to look like this affair is a little one-sided. Larry is clearly smitten with her and she’s starting to make it a little clear that she’s just in it for the fun of it. “I mean to have a lot of fun this summer and pay no price for it.” This seems to go right over Larry’s head, sailing past all of the little popping heart-shaped bubbles.

Hot Beard deals with the burgeoning American labor movement head on. He invites a labor leader to his house. “Look at my big house,” he says to him. “Check out my hot wife. Look at how much money I have. Would you like to have some money too? I can give it to you. I have lots.” The labor leader snorts his disgust and saunters out, stealing a few pieces of silverware as he leaves. George is perhaps not the mastermind he thinks he is. He should’ve let Bertha handle it. She’d have had that guy selling his children in under 30 minutes. As for her, she’s taking her tray in her room, which is code for “Not even a handie tonight, mister.”

Speaking of selling off family members, Hot Beard’s valet Mr. Watson (who is secretly Mr. Collier, much in the way Mrs. Winterton is secretly Miss Turner and that chef is secretly very bad at accents) is meeting with his long-estranged daughter’s wealthy husband. He reveals later that his son-in-law offered him a fairly generous lifetime pension if he moved to San Francisco and cut off all contact with his daughter. The other Russell servants (and it’s strange how they all walk around the kitchen openly discussing this) wonder if perhaps his daughter is unaware of the situation. Of course she is.


Everyone heads to the theater for that new horrible Oscar Wilde play. Marian and Dashiell the Unblooded flirt outrageously and she makes her offer to become surrogate mother to his daughter, Oscar van Rijn and Maude Beaton make bitchy asides to their mutual delight, John Adams watches Oscar and Maude bitchily, and Aurora Fane is simply beside herself, but then again, she always is. Oscar Wilde makes an appearance at a party given by the Fanes afterward, and you never saw such a dull, listless take on the legendary wit. Having said that, it was pretty funny how quickly he sussed out the John Adams/Oscar van Rijn situation. You’ve gotta love Victorian gaydar.

Bertha, evidently over her fit of pique, bursts into Hot Beard’s office and announces “I’m going to make it my life’s mission to make that c-word miserable” and orders George to use his “contacts at Cunard” to find out when the Duke of Buckingham is coming to America. The Duke is a friend of Mr. Winterton and Former-Turner was throwing his name around at the opera tea like a frisbee. It’s good for everyone to have hobbies, don’t you think? Bertha is so much more fun when she’s trying to destroy someone. We look forward to seeing her standing on the smoking ruins of Former-Turner’s life.

In other potentially scandalous news, Ada looks at some watercolors. Agnes will be furious when she finds out.

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