Did you know that a Gilded Age silk-stocking once had a dinner with a pool of swans in the middle of the table? That’s the bar for this show. I’m looking for table swans.
The Russells are prominent this week as Bertha forces her way into the Four Hundred. I love that they’re focusing on fewer storylines so you get to know the characters more deeply. Good job, show. We begin with Gladys Russell trying to sneak out with the help of a maid. Gladys really keeps endangering the jobs of servants with her selfish goals. Last week it was her governess, and now this! Fortunately, Bertha catches Gladys before she escapes, so the maid is not punished as an accessory to Gladys’s crime.
Here’s the thing. It makes sense that Bertha wants to hold off on Gladys being out in society until they are received by The Fancy People. That tracks. What I am worried about is that Bertha seems like a real parallel for Alva Belmont, also known as Alva Vanderbilt, who also wedged her way into society. Alva Belmont forced her daughter Consuelo into marrying the Duke of Marlborough (Consuelo cried at the wedding, and not in a happy way), a marriage that was unhappy for both. If this whole marrying an Englishman with a title thing sounds familiar, yes, this is what happened with Cora Crawley in Downton Abbey, only that marriage seems rather more successful.
It seems like this is the way the wind is blowing due to Bertha’s mysterious references to her plans for Gladys! Poor Gladys. She just wants to marry her nice, bland young man. But that will not happen, especially after George’s talk with him.
At the van Rhijns’, Marian wants to see Clara Barton give a talk in Dansville, New York, which is the location of the first branch of the American Red Cross. Aurora Fane has invited her, but Agnes is dubious, not just because Aurora has been making questionable decisions lately. Agnes says charity has two functions: it can raise funds for the less fortunate, and it can act as a ladder for social climbers. Imagine being in a rich-person club where you were wary of people donating money to nonprofits because they might then try to hang out with you. The sheer audacity. Again, the Astors made their money by killing beavers in Michigan. Sorry, Bertha, you’re going to have to prove yourself to the beaver killer’s descendants before you can go to their parties.
Agnes tells Marian she can go if Peggy goes with her. This is an extremely wise move because Marian makes bad judgment calls all the time! Look at the shoe incident of last week! She’s still recovering from that with Peggy. I don’t know how she can ever recover! She brought a carpetbag of old shoes to donate to Peggy’s rich parents! I would sink into the earth and never return. Marian kind of tries to apologize to Peggy, but doesn’t really? She tries to defend herself by saying she was curious about Peggy’s life because Peggy hasn’t told her anything. Marian: Maybe the Worst? I’m just trying to think of a scenario where a friend who worked for my family didn’t share about their life, and then I showed up at their parents’ house uninvited and tried to give them old shoes (I will never let that go) because I felt like I deserved to know more about them?? Look at your LIFE, Marian. Look at your CHOICES.
Remember Miss Armstrong? She works for the van Rhijns. I’m unsure of her job. She’s usually saying grumpy things to Peggy, and she’s played by Broadway star Debra Monk. We get a glimpse of her life outside the van Rhijn house when we follow her on her day off. She goes into a squalid tenement building, and we discover that Miss Armstrong takes care of her elderly mother, who’s an invalid. A very unpleasant invalid. Some of Miss Armstrong’s personal unpleasantness suddenly makes more sense. Caretaking is extremely hard and stressful work, and it’s even harder when you are short of money and the person you are taking care of treats you like garbage. Miss Armstrong can fix her attitude towards Peggy despite this, but I do love a more complex character with some backstory.
Aurora has a luncheon for Ward McAllister, coiner of the Four Hundred and right-hand man to Mrs. Astor. He is played by Nathan Lane, who adopts a nasal Southern accent (I can’t pinpoint the region, but McAllister is from Savannah, so let’s assume there). It is extremely weird to hear Nathan Lane speak with this accent because I’ve never heard him use any voice but his own, including when he was a talking meerkat. He tells Bertha they’ll get the right people in the door of her house, so she is now one step closer to social victory.
I’m very excited about the trip because I want to see Clara Barton speak because the women will have to stay overnight, and that sounds really ideal for some queer interactions between the ladies. We have had NONE of that. Nothing! Oscar is kind of with John Adams’s descendant, but the latter almost never shows up, and also I demand more representation for queer women. On this trip are Aurora Fane, Marian, Peggy, and Bertha. The obvious choice would be to pair Marian up with any of them, but, as mentioned, Marian is The Worst, and I don’t love the power dynamic between Peggy and any of them, so that leaves Aurora Fane and Bertha. Don’t hate it. I would be on board.
Unfortunately, instead of amazing tension between Aurora and Bertha in the hallway hotel after the talk from Clara Barton, it’s Marian and Tom Raikes — yes, Tom is there because he’s creepy and gross and following Marian everywhere. He walks Marian back to her room and they’re in the hallway alone, which means he does not give one fig for Marian’s reputation, so great job, Tom. They kiss and he tries to eat her face. Thank GOD Peggy shows up and shuts him down. GET OUTTA HERE, TOM. Peggy goes into Marian’s room and tells her a story about falling in love with a stock boy named Elias at her parents’ pharmacy. Here’s the thing: I trust Peggy’s judgment 5000% more than Marian’s, and I’ll bet Elias the Stock Boy was nice and not skeevy.
I am unbearably crushed that we get no hotel shenanigans other than the gross hallway kiss. People need help getting their corsets undone, and maybe their maids can’t be found!
Then everyone is back home and Bertha invites Gladys’s paramour, Archie Baldwin, to lunch. Gladys’s new lady’s maid Adelheid is excited about this. I scream when they call her Adelheid. It’s still used in Germany and surrounding countries, but it immediately makes me think of like, Aethelred the Unready, which is fun for me.
Church, the Russells’ butler, says that Bertha plays a long game to not assume anything based on this luncheon invitation. Which is true! Church is extremely correct. Archie seems nice and like he is actually into Gladys, which I was not expecting. He calls her “just about the best girl there is,” which is v cute. But Bertha makes everyone leave Archie and George alone, and George offers Archie a job as a broker with a prestigious firm if he leaves Gladys with one final letter and never contacts her again. It is harsh! But probably expected. Thought not by Archie; he’s pretty surprised.
Archie wants to refuse, but George says if he does, he will never work in the financial sector again. Poor Gladys. George even likes Archie, but this is not Bertha’s Big Plan, so out the door he goes. Archie says goodbye to Gladys, and her brother Larry asks Bertha what she’s done. Why are we spending all this time on Tom when the stalwart and much more handsome Larry is literally right there?
Gladys is clearly very upset and she tries to tell her mother that she loves Archie, but Bertha is very sure that she alone knows what’s best for Gladys. I’m telling you. Consuelo Vanderbilt. There’s gonna be weeping at an altar.
George’s main henchman comes to the house with news that a train has derailed in Pennsylvania, with at least three people dead so far. George says this could destroy the company and the Russells. “Then make sure you survive it,” says Bertha. And we’re left on that cliffhanger!
Meditations of the Middle Class and Unpowerful
• Is Tom going to pull a “nice guy” and start berating Marian when she hopefully dumps him? Seems like it.
• There are currently four Gilded Age fanfics on Archive of Our Own, and one is Bertha/Aurora, so I feel very justified.
• THE CARPET BAG OF SHOES.