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Brace Yourself for The Gilded Age Finale’s Most Intense Moments

A den of debauchery. Photo: Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO

Without a doubt, The Gilded Age is the most heart-pounding show on television. Who can forget the thrill of when Carrie Coon threw a party and no one showed up? Or when Christine Baranski had to walk across a street and get her skirt dirty? Or when Donna Murphy walked past a portrait of herself? Or when Thomas Edison turned on some light bulbs and everyone lost it? Almost nothing of consequence happens on the Julian Fellowes super-budget costume drama, and yet it’s all treated as if it is earth-shattering.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the grand finale of the show’s first season, in which a bunch of things happen at once and yet hardly anything happens at all. Now that the dust has settled from the shocking news that Mrs. Russell threw another party but this time people actually came, we can calmly and stoically survey all the most thrilling moments The Gilded Age threw at us Monday night to determine which most shocked and unsettled our delicate sensibilities.

Marian plans to elope!

After a season of white-bread-ily hanging out with Mr. Boring Lawyer From Pennsylvania Tom Raikes, Marian decides at the start of the episode to make a go of it and slip away from New York society to marry for love.

Excitement-o-meter: I’m breathing normally. This girl was always going to do something silly, and deciding that you want to defy social conventions because you’re in love is the most boring way to be silly!

… but then she discovers that boring lawyer Tom Raikes is just not that into her!

Marian arranges a secret meet-up at the house of her disgraced yet Degas-owning friend Mrs. Chamberlain, but as she’s plotting all this, Tony Award–Winning Actress Kelli O’Hara (her character’s name is Aurora Fane, but that’s not important) sees Raikes at the opera getting hot and heavy with another woman. TAWAKOH shows up to Mrs. Chamberlain’s while Marian’s waiting for Raikes and reveals that at the opera, “at one point he leaned over and whispered in her ear while she was transported.” Needless to say, the whole scheme is off, and Marian has to go and confront Raikes, who is like, “Would we really have been happy if we didn’t have money?” Kind of the ethos of the entire series there.

Excitement-o-meter: Whenever TAWAKOH is onscreen, I think about how The Bridges of Madison County deserved better, and that does get my heart rate up.

… and then Marian has to stop Larry Russell from delivering her letters to her aunts about her elopement!

One part of Marian’s whole elopement plan involves sending letters to her aunts Agnes and Ada that would have said something like, “Thanks for taking me in when I was at my lowest. Anyway, I’m going off with a lawyer you don’t approve of who has no money just because.” She trusts Larry Russell, Mrs. Russell’s floppy-haired son who just wants to be an architect (the 19th-century version of going to Oberlin), to send those letters because they just seem to have a good vibe. He shows up in front of Ada and Agnes, but Marian intercepts him and awkwardly shoos him away while Agnes grumbles that she feels like she watched something in a foreign language and Ada coos that she’s happy the kids are having fun. (Ada, like me, just wants everyone to kiss in front of her.)

Excitement-o-meter: Goofy misunderstandings gone awry? The Gilded Age is basically doing a heavily sedated episode of Frasier.

Mrs. Russell’s French chef is revealed to be from Wichita, Kansas!

All season, Mrs. Russell liked to brag to everyone that she has a fancy French chef named Monsieur Baudin, played by Douglas Sills with an exaggerated French accent, which thankfully turns out to have been exaggerated on purpose. Ceci n’est pas un chef français! He’s some guy named Josh Gordon from Kansas who was a merchant seaman, ended up in France, learned how to cook there, and just got addicted to the bit. Needless to say, he’s fired, but now what will happen to Mrs. Russell’s party?

Excitement-o-meter: Surprising, but ultimately relatable. Real “studied abroad once and just couldn’t stop” energy from Mr. Gordon here.

Mrs. Russell’s replacement French chef has a mental breakdown three to five hours before dinner is supposed to be served!

Somehow Mrs. Russell just calls up a chef service and brings in a new homme, but before long he’s just lying on her kitchen table muttering something in French and caressing himself, which is how you have a breakdown if you’re really from Europe. Celia Keenan-Bolger’s Mrs. Bruce expositionally announces that they have only a few hours to go before dinner and the hot food isn’t ready yet, so of course the Russells have to bite their tongues and hire back Mr. Gordon.

Excitement-o-meter: My heart did jump when Coon scowled at Mr. Gordon’s American accent and said of Wichita, “Couldn’t we just call it the Middle West?” Nobody does disdain like actual Midwesterner Coon.

Oscar van Rhijn hits on Gladys Russell while his secret gay boyfriend watches!

The only people with much of a sex life on The Gilded Age are the secret gays, Blake Ritson’s Oscar van Rhijn (a steampunk gay) and Claybourne Elder’s John Adams (who must be working out in 19th-century Manhattan’s only Equinox). That sex life might be in jeopardy, though, because now that Taissa Farmiga’s Gladys Russell is out to society and performing strange dance homages to 18th-century France, Oscar has started hitting on her even more aggressively. Will Mrs. Russell ever find out? And will his boyfriend ever forgive him?

Excitement-o-meter: We inch closer to The Gilded Age being about how to communicate well in an open relationship, which is actually kind of fun.

Mr. Russell convinces a powerful New York banker to come to his wife’s party by threatening to tank his business!

Buried in the D-plot of this episode, there are a few scenes in which Mr. Russell takes it upon himself to solidify his wife’s guest list by telling a Mr. Cuyper that he’s not going to get a loan unless he and his wife show up to Mrs. Russell’s party.

Excitement-o-meter: The Gilded Age is so horny for evil robber baron Morgan Spector. Probably too horny, considering that he is an evil robber baron, but anyway, every scene with him is horny.

Mrs. Russell worries that her podium isn’t big enough for her party!

As she prepares for her party at the start of the finale, Mrs. Russell walks past a large podium set up for the band leader. “I’m worried that it may be too small,” she says.

Excitement-o-meter: The secret of The Gilded Age is that Coon and Spector are acting in a four-hour Eugene O’Neill melodrama and everyone else is in a light comedy. Which is to say that at that moment, I, too, worried that the podium would be too small.

Peggy Scott’s child is alive after all!

Finally, a crumb of real melodrama! Back in Brooklyn, after leaving the Van Rhijn household, Denée Benton’s Peggy Scott has made a big discovery about her past. The child that her father told her died when she gave birth is in fact alive after all. Her mother, the great Audra McDonald, supports her after this discovery, and the two decide to head off to find the child over Peggy’s father’s objections.

Excitement-o-meter: Benton and McDonald are great together, but it’s wild to cram this much of soap-opera plot into the corner of this episode. The Gilded Age can barely manage to give the scene gravitas before getting back to matters it considers more important. Namely …

Mrs. Russell forces Mrs. Astor to come to her party!

In a scheme ripped directly from the real-life interactions of Alva Vanderbilt and Caroline Schmerhorn Astor, Mrs. Russell uses Mrs. Astor’s daughter’s desire to dance at her big party against Mrs. Astor. First Mrs. Russell decides to go over to Mrs. Astor’s house to invite her, but Mrs. Astor doesn’t see her despite having time for another visitor. (Egad!) Then Mrs. Russell revokes Mrs. Astor’s daughter Caroline’s invitation because how could Caroline possibly come to an event if her mother herself wouldn’t see the host? (Brutal!) So Mrs. Astor has go call on Mrs. Russell. At the end of it all, Mrs. Astor, with some egging on by Nathan Lane’s Ward McAllister, relents. New money wins for now!

Excitement-o-meter: Hooting and hollering at every hard stare Coon and Murphy, two of our finest hard-starers, give each other.

Agnes van Rhijn sees Marian reading, goes “Isn’t Henry James a little dense for a young lady?”

Baranski has almost nothing else to do in this episode, but still, I have no idea how Marian survived such a dig.

Excitement-o-meter: Screaming, crying, throwing up.

The Gilded Age Finale’s Most Intense Moments