The Gilded Age Series-Premiere Recap: Keeping Up With the Astors

The Gilded Age

Never the New
Season 1 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 3 stars

The Gilded Age

Never the New
Season 1 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 3 stars
Photo: HBO

IT IS HERE. The long-awaited The Gilded Age has finally arrived, and it is … complicated. Creator Julian Fellowes introduces an even more expanded version of his typically large cast of characters, which may leave you in a bewildered “wait — who is that again?” state, but we will sort all that out! Together!

Where are we? We’re in New York City, in the eponymous Gilded Age. The Gilded Age is a period in America that encompasses approximately 1870 to 1900. It is marked by corruption, greed, corporate monopolies, and industrialization, as well as economic mobility. All of these elements will appear in this series, and they will all be dramatic, which is fun.

Let’s dive right into it because the first episode lasts over an hour and covers much expository ground. The year is 1882, and Miss Marian Brook has no money. Her recently deceased father never informed her of this, and now she is going to live with her father’s wealthy sisters in New York City. Marian’s lawyer Tom is clearly into her, but we don’t need to worry about that for the moment.

As she waits for the train to New York, Marian is seated next to a young Black woman, aspiring writer Miss Peggy Scott, played by Tony-nominated actress Denée Benton. She marks the first of many extremely impressive Broadway cameos in this series, and I invite all musical-theatre nerds to just lose their skittles with me about this. My only guess is that the shutdown of Broadway led to all these amazing people being available for something shot in New York that was not a Law & Order spinoff.

Marian loses her purse just as the train arrives, and Peggy buys her a ticket because she is generous and amazing. This is after Marian accidentally tears Peggy’s dress too, so I think we can all just say, wow, good job befriending the Best Person, Marian. Peggy has to board in the last group because she is Black and everything is garbage. It turns out she’s from Brooklyn, and Marian brings her to her aunts’ because the ferry isn’t running. “What about the Brooklyn Bridge?” you say. That’s exactly what I said! It didn’t open until 1883, so we’ve got another year.

Let’s meet Agnes and Ada! Christine Baranski plays Agnes van Rhijn, a woman who is not quite the doyenne of Old New York high society, but she’s up there. Her sister is Ada Brook, played by Cynthia Nixon, a timid but smiley woman who loves her Cavalier King Charles spaniel. Its name is Pumpkin.

Agnes’s character is marked by stoicism, grumpiness, and occasional humor and kindness. Her late husband was apparently terrible. When Marian arrives and tells the story of Peggy lending her money, they demand to meet her. Agnes asks for Peggy’s address, which she’s reluctant to provide, but when she does, Agnes admires Peggy’s exquisite penmanship. Peggy says she learned to write at the Institute for Colored Youth, which delights both Agnes and Ada, as their father was a patron and they used to attend performances there. Agnes hires Peggy to be her secretary, a thing we can all be excited about because Peggy is great.

Here’s where I admit that I do not care about Marian. Maybe future episodes will make me care about her! I have not given up hope on Marian. Sometimes it takes younger actors a few episodes to get into it, but as of the premiere, she is stilted and does that thing some actors do where they overenunciate because it takes place in The Past. Am I also grumpy that the actress playing her compared “calling-card culture” to Instagram? Possibly. But fortunately, there are so many other characters!

This period involves the new pushing out the old, building railroads, creating empires, and knocking very insistently at Mrs. Astor’s door. Caroline Astor was Society’s gatekeeper and descended from the early Dutch white settlers back when New York was New Amsterdam (and part of what was known as “Lenapehoking” by the Lenape). She married William Backhouse Astor Jr., who was a businessman who owned and bred racehorses and sailed yachts, so I dunno about that. His grandfather was John Jacob Astor, who made his money by killing all the beavers in Michigan (not an exact fact) and smuggling opium into China after the emperor said, “Opium is a poison.”

So as you can see, these nouveau riche (read: didn’t make their money from killing beavers and forcing drugs on entire countries) upstarts needed to learn their place. Enter the Russells! While the van Rhijn home evokes dark, dusty, Victorian wealth, the Russells’ Beaux-Arts palace across the street is enormous and airy and opulent. Its architect, Stanford White, would eventually design the Washington Square Arch and be murdered by a millionaire at Madison Square Theatre. He also sexually assaulted many underage girls, so let’s not spend any more time on him.

Bertha Russell, played by the excellent Carrie Coon, is determined to be a part of Society. Her husband, George Russell, owns Russell Consolidated Trust and is a Jay Gould type, building railroads and making ridiculous amounts of money. They have a son named Larry, a daughter named Gladys (Taissa Farmiga!), and a servant named Miss Turner, who seems pretty determined to bang Mr. Russell. This is probably an achievable goal.

Side note because I’m mad about it: The actor who plays Larry is only 12 years younger than Carrie Coon, and when he first showed up, I definitely thought he was her brother. But here we are.

Larry is part of the Rich Young People set, and so Mamie Fish (another real person!) invites him to Newport, Rhode Island, where he is forced to play party games. This sounds like my personal hell. All I will say about Mamie Fish is she was married to Stuyvesant Fish, and then they named one of their children Livingston Fish. If you are thinking these sound like characters in absurdist novels of the 20th century, you are correct. Bertha Russell clearly hopes her son’s in with the Fish people and that it will help her family.

Back with the van Rhijns, some of the servants are being racist about Peggy Scott moving in, but there’s a cute little butler who is nice about her. Broadway star Debra Monk is annoyed with her, which is disappointing. Peggy goes to a café to meet her mother, who is — wait for it — YES, SIX-TIME TONY WINNER AUDRA MCDONALD. If you have never listened to Audra McDonald sing, then you go find “Wheels of a Dream” from Ragtime right now. We still don’t have the full story about why Peggy is avoiding home, but it’s clear she has an issue with her father. Broadway, film, and television star Audra McDonald says Peggy will have to forgive him eventually and that he loves her. Then she leaves, hopefully to return.

Bertha and the van Rhijns are invited to a charity planning event (it’s honestly pretty unclear what’s going on there) that is going to train orphans to be servants. Sure, why not. Marian and Ada go, where they meet Old New York stalwarts Aurora Fane and Anne Morris, played by more Broadway legends, Tony winners Kelli O’Hara and Katie Finneran. I just cannot. The extreme number of musical phenoms playing small parts is a true highlight of this series.

Bertha introduces herself and her daughter Gladys, and everyone is awkward and uncomfortable but Marian. It’s clear Bertha was only invited because the charity needs money, which she is aware of, but also plans to make use of if she can. Everyone is very mysterious about a Mrs. Augusta Chamberlain and refuse to say why she is scandalous. I will be so delighted if she turns out to be a fictional version of early suffragist, candidate for president, stockbroker, and self-proclaimed medium Victoria Woodhull. That’s my dream.

My notes for George Russell’s business meeting just say, “Railroad man is meeting with capitalist man.” George menacingly says that he wants to control Sandusky, Ohio, and I can’t tell if that’s a joke or if Julian Fellowes just does not get that it should be. The main message here is that George is Good at Business and also ruthless, so he’s a robber baron.

Bertha decides to hold an “at-home,” which immediately seems doomed to failure because we know the rules of fiction. Bertha is steadily optimistic, though, and orders food for 200. Almost no one comes, although Marian does slip away from her aunts’ watch to take a look inside. The humiliation of rejection clearly creates a John Wick–level desire for vengeance inside Bertha Russell, which will probably result in a very satisfying comeuppance for Mrs. Astor and her friends.

Silver-Plated Thoughts

• Will Marian get better? Or maybe instead Peggy can take over as the protagonist and Marian can go away somewhere?

• I understand Marian wants her independence, but I kind of want two aunts telling me I am not allowed to carry my suitcase down the street by myself? I’m tired. Let someone else carry that shit.

• How did I not even MENTION Broadway luminaries Douglas Sills, Michael Cerveris, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Donna Murphy?

The Gilded Age Recap: Keeping Up With the Astors