The Gilded Age
Charity bazaars and tepid romances are the order of the day! Also some milquetoast insider trading, but we won’t spend too long on that.
I think I’ve figured out the problem with The Gilded Age so far: It needs to be more like Selling Sunset. Hear me out. These women are overall terrible — show me their opulence! Do shots of marble bathrooms and jewel-encrusted bosoms set to “Legends Are Made” by Sam Tinnesz, but then go one step further than Selling Sunset and pair it with shots of the starving poor of the Lower East Side to make a statement. Sure, it’s an obvious statement, but it’s more visually interesting than a group of women sitting in a circle planning a bazaar.
Marian Brook is still bad at acting, but Peggy Scott is a delight, so this scene is a mixed bag. Marian’s lawyer from Pennsylvania is coming to New York, and Peggy asks if she can talk to him because she needs legal advice. If she asked a Black lawyer, her father would hear about it. Who is Peggy’s mysterious father, and why is she hiding from him? This is one of the few plotlines I am invested in so far. Also I want Audra McDonald to come back, and then maybe she and Denée Benton can sing a duet (can you imagine?). Marian asks how Peggy’s writing is going, and Peggy has sent out query letters but will say no more unless she hears back. It’s hard enough emailing pitches, so the agony of physically mailing your work and potentially getting it sent back and rubber-stamped “Rejected” like in the movies sounds truly like the worst. Good for you, Peggy.
Marian’s lawyer is Tom Raikes, and he seems to be one of her potential suitors. Look, it’s been almost two full years of the pandemic and my tact has all but completely evanesced, so I have to say that the caliber of acting on this show is … varied, to say the least. I do think we should all be as kind to each other as possible, but we’re all trying to enjoy this show, and some of the casting has made that a challenge. Marian’s scenes with Tom are like a community-theater Oscar Wilde production, only none of your friends are in it, so there’s really nothing there for you.
Marian asks Tom over for tea because he waived his legal fee for her (for secret romance reasons), but before that is an interlude with a character I failed to mention last time because this show has too many characters: Oscar van Rhijn is Agnes van Rhijn’s son, he flirts with everyone, and at the end of the last episode, he made out with John Adams’s descendant. I didn’t love Oscar in the premiere, but he’s less terrible in this episode, so let’s talk about him. When I look at Oscar, all I see is his mustache, but he is a man who doesn’t like to take things seriously yet is simultaneously very focused on getting to know Gladys.
Gladys is the seemingly innocent daughter of the Russells across the street. “Seemingly” sounds like I know something, but I just don’t want to close any doors that might lead to Taissa Farmiga getting to act out a secret opium addiction or something. Marian comments that she met Gladys with Aurora Fane, and Agnes says, “Aurora skates so close to the edge” as if Aurora is out every night competing in illegal street races.
There’s a plotline here in which the van Rhijns’ cook steals silver candlesticks to pay off her gambling debts, but all we need to take from it is that Peggy, Marian, and Ada van Rhijn are nice people, which we already knew, so it feels unnecessary. I guess it gives the Irish maid a moment of not having “racist to Peggy” as her main personality trait. Said Irish maid also says Mr. Oscar is good-looking. Is he? Please comment below because I honestly cannot tell.
Anne Morris, played by Katie Finneran from both Broadway and Wonderfalls, invites Marian to take a stall at the charity bazaar. Charity bazaars were a whole thing in the 19th century. This particular one is raising money to join together the Dispensary for Poor Women and Children with the Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. Makes sense. Anne, if you’ll remember, did not attend the nouveau riche Russells’ “at home,” whereas her friend Aurora (the illegal street racer) did. Her husband is Alderman Morris, whom George Russell wants to bribe, so she has to dine at the Russells’ place despite being terrified of what the looming presence of Mrs. Astor will think.
She tells her bazaar-planning friends about this and how she is not inviting Bertha Russell to participate in the bazaar. Anne says money isn’t everything, and Marian tells her, “It is when you haven’t got it.” I cannot. This line is so on-the-nose “Ho-ho! Showed those rich ladies a thing or two!” despite being set in the Gilded Age. I want cutthroat drawing-room whispers that topple a nation and/or family name! I want lavish, lingering shots of Selling Sunset–esque sartorial opulence! Instead, it’s out-of-touch women sipping tea in not even that fancy of a drawing room while talking about whom they’ll invite to their charity event. I’ve seen Gosford Park, Julian Fellowes. I know what you’re capable of.
At the Russells’ entrance, Anne likens dining there to Dido throwing herself on the flaming pyre. Okey dokey. Bertha looks great in her burgundy dress and has a ballroom in her house, which she offers to the bazaar if their first choice of venue falls through. Meanwhile, George tells Alderman Morris he wants to build a new rail station, and the aldermen can buy stock on margin and then pass a law allowing the station. Morris later accepts this. The only reason I know buying stock on margin is a bad idea is because of a Futurama episode in which Dr. Zoidberg wants to do it. So this feels like it will end poorly instead of the usual way where they all just get away with it! It’s the Gilded Age! It all looks terrible underneath!
Remember how Tom is coming over for tea? Oscar is coming, too. Ada suggests to Agnes that Oscar might start to like Marian, and when Agnes points out that (1) they are first cousins and (2) Marian has no money, Ada replies, “Money isn’t everything.” ADA. WHAT. What would be the advantage here? That their children are more susceptible to genetic diseases like the nobility of old? If I have to be Team Anyone on this show, I am first Team Peggy, then maybe Team Agnes just because she sometimes says something that isn’t ridiculous. I do also like Bertha, but I’m waiting for her to do more.
At tea, Tom the lawyer keeps making broad insinuations about how he’s maybe moving to New York because of Marian, and dude, can a lady just use your lawyerly services when her father has just died and not have you move cities for her? He says when he sees something he wants, he takes it if he can. Ugh, boo. She asks him to talk with Peggy, though, so they arrange to meet at the Bethesda Fountain the next day.
Oscar invited Larry Russell to tea, and Larry is also flirting with Marian for some reason. Agnes is angry a Russell was in her home and says she feels like King Canute, trying to hold back the tide of vulgarians, and I am delighted they did a fun spin on it instead of writing barbarians! Good momentary job, show. Then they ruin it by having Agnes say she is not concerned with facts if they interfere with her beliefs. It’s so unbothered by subtlety of any kind that I wonder if Fellowes wrote it in brackets, like “Obviously do not have this be the line, but put something like this,” but then he forgot about it and it made it into the show.
Marian, Peggy, and Tom meet at the fountain the next day. After Tom tells Marian the fountain’s statue “was made by a woman; you’ll like that” (What?), along with some other fountain facts, they have this incomprehensible dialogue, starting with Marian: “I hope you just read that in a guidebook.” “I did.” “What a relief — you scared me for a moment.”
WHAT IS HAPPENING.
I can see you asking why this episode got three stars out of five when there are so many WTF moments, and the answer is that all the best parts happen around the bazaar at the end. These start with Bertha reading the newspaper in bed, seeing they moved the bazaar to a different location from her ballroom, whereupon she violently throws her breakfast tray to the ground, underscored by dramatic music. I finally felt something at this moment. I marked the time stamp so I could go back and rewatch it.
Then the absolute fresh breath of goddamn air that is multiple-Tony winner Donna Murphy shows up at the bazaar as Mrs. Astor. I had a very big gay crush on Murphy when I was a teenager, so I admit to not being totally impartial, but I think I’m right in saying that literally everything she does is perfect. Mrs. Astor opens the bazaar, and then all the society ladies wander about to buy doilies.
Jeanne Tripplehorn is back as the mysteriously scandalous Mrs. Sylvia Chamberlain. She and Marian have a little chat, and Agnes walks up after and tells Marian her money is tainted. Yet another reason Marian is unrelatable is she is not immediately sussing out the most susceptible society lady and making that lady tell her what is up with Mrs. Chamberlain. That would be the absolute first thing I did. Agnes literally says Mrs. Chamberlain has terrible things in her past, and Marian is like, Hmm, okay, no more questions.
Mrs. Russell shows up with Mr. Russell, and he buys out every stall and shuts down the bazaar. It is magnificent. Mrs. Astor is impressed and happy to have unexpected free time at home. The Astors: They’re just like us.
Meditations of the Middle Class and Unpowerful
• Wouldn’t it be amazing if episode three was just Jeanne Tripplehorn’s entire backstory, and we didn’t deal with any of the other characters except maybe Agnes looking scandalized in the background?
• Did everyone notice Erica Armstrong Dunbar is a co-executive producer? Dunbar is a history professor at Rutgers and has written multiple books about Black women in 19th-century America. She is great.
• But really, is Oscar good-looking?