The Gilded Age
Drama! Action! Astounding dresses! It feels like The Gilded Age has finally arrived with this episode. So much happens, and we’re finally not talking about stocks and aldermen but about actually interesting things, like an unwanted naked lady’s maid in your bed.
I read some bad take before the show premiered that Julian Fellowes was adding a Black main character for the sake of “wokeness,” which is insulting to Denée Benton and also belied by this much-improved episode, in which Marian makes a number of thoughtless and/or racist decisions that negatively impact her friend Peggy despite her good intentions.
After rejecting the Christian Advocate’s offer to publish her story without her real name attached, Peggy tells Marian she has an appointment with T. Thomas Fortune at the New York Globe, a leading Black newspaper. Marian congratulates her and immediately says they should go into Bloomingdale Brothers. She completely disregards Peggy saying let’s not, because why would Peggy ever feel uncomfortable in a retail situation? That’s not for Marian to think about!
The disappointingly infamous Mrs. Chamberlain is in Bloomingdale’s, and while Marian chats with her, the store manager glares at Peggy. Marian remains oblivious, but Mrs. Chamberlain kindly calls Peggy over to clearly include her in their group. The store manager keeps glaring, and Peggy basically pushes Marian out the door. Take a hint, Marian.
At the Russells’, Bertha is firing Gladys’s governess because she’s not governessing hard enough, i.e., she let Gladys meet that guy she talked about the other week: Mr. Baldwin. Compounding her crimes, she let him meet Gladys at a hotel, which is frankly shocking, and I would fire her, too. Bertha is trying to shove her way into society, and this is not helping, Gladys. My sympathy for Bertha dims a bit as she dismisses Mr. Morris’s death by suicide by saying he was weak. NOT GREAT, BERTHA.
George Russell strikes a deal with Charles Fane in which Aurora Fane will help bring Bertha into society. You know, I don’t love George Russell and the actor behind him, but he really shines in this episode. I was very worried they were going to turn him into some “I’m a powerful man; I take what I want” cliché, but he seems to genuinely love and respect Bertha. And that is NEAT. Does this involve the aforementioned naked lady’s maid? Yes, and we will get to that.
I wish I knew more about fashion! Anyone who does, please forgive me, because all my notes on the dresses are things like “Ada is wearing a very fun turquoise dress” and “Bertha has a dress with a bird print and feathers on the shoulder — BIRD DRESS.” Hopefully you’ll all make TikToks discussing whether these dresses are historically accurate and what the different elements of the dresses are and then I will watch those TikToks — but only when my wife shows them to me because I am not on TikTok. As far as I am aware, these dresses are daring and delightful.
The van Rhijns and Russells connect this week via Pumpkin the dog. The van Rhijns’ butler, Bannister, is walking Pumpkin when he gets distracted and Pumpkin slips through his leash. Ada is distraught, and Agnes tells her there’s no point in carrying on as if she lived in a tree, which is classic Agnes. Fortunately, Pumpkin is safely gathered up by one of the Russells’ servants, and Bertha has a note sent over telling the van Rhijns. I legitimately thought she might hold the dog hostage. I guess she has, in a way, because she is telling them they have to come get him. Agnes forbids Marian or Ada to go and sends Bannister.
Bannister touring the Russells’ mansion is exactly what I wanted from this series. What do I actually trust Fellowes to know? I trust him to know that chicken soup for luncheon is embarrassing and that the fruit knife should arrive with the fruit plate. Thank you, God, for this interlude. It reminded me very much of the ancient Onion article “U.S. Gives Up Trying to Impress England.” The Russells’ butler, Mr. Church, is thrown off his game by this visit because what if Mrs. Astor also thinks colored glasses are gauche?
Peggy has her meeting at the Globe, and it goes much better than the one at the Advocate. The moment she arrives, she’s thrown into the printing process by being asked to turn the wheel on the press. The man who asks her is none other than Mr. T. Thomas Fortune, who immediately gets ink on her fingers. It is a MEET-CUTE. So long as the show changes history and he is not currently married. He wants to publish one of Peggy’s stories, and he also asks her to write 200 words about political affiliation without voting rights after she asks why she should ally herself with a political party when she doesn’t have the right to vote. Go make your career, Peggy!
Back with the Russells’ downstairs staff, Miss Turner feels like she’s wasting her life. If Miss Turner’s name doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because I’ve been avoiding her story line until this moment. It was very clear in the premiere that her motive was “I’m going to try to bang Mr. Russell,” and she hasn’t done anything but hint around that since. Now is her doomed-to-failure moment. She goes into George’s room (remember, he and Bertha sleep in separate rooms), takes off literally all her clothes, and wakes him up. He is surprised, to say the least, but you really think her argument about being wholly focused on him while his wife is busy trying to get into society might work. BUT! The one flaw in her argument, George tells her, is that he loves his wife. The bar for men is low, but I am nevertheless impressed every time.
George tells Miss Turner to put her clothes back on and go back into her room. Why is she not fired? Great question. It’s because he knows Bertha depends on her guidance regarding society women, and he doesn’t want to take that away from her. DAMN, GEORGE. I hope he doesn’t change his mind later and say, “Eh, okay,” because that would be quite the letdown after this scene.
Speaking of Bertha: She has coffee with Aurora Fane, who wants to introduce Bertha to Ward McAllister. McAllister was the coiner of the Four Hundred and a close friend of Mrs. Astor’s, so getting in his good graces seems like the right move. Side note, but Aurora calls Ward McAllister Mrs. Astor’s amanuensis, which is amazing because I never see that word outside Victorian literature and very pretentious books. Aurora invites Bertha to a concert at the Academy of Music, to which she has also invited Marian.
After Marian runs into Mrs. Chamberlain shopping, Mrs. Chamberlain sends her a carved box, which Ada tells Marian she must immediately return. This is good because we get to see inside Mrs. Chamberlain’s house. She has an amazing art collection, including a Degas just hanging out on an easel. There might also be a Monet, but I never took art history, so my knowledge of these comes solely from jigsaw puzzles I have completed. Back at the van Rhijns’ place, Oscar knows some more deets about Mrs. Chamberlain’s kind-of, sort-of sordid past. She lived with Mr. Chamberlain until his wife died, and they had a son together during that time. That’s it. Sigh. Remember on Selling Sunset when Jason and Mary hosted a birthday party for their dog and then Christine showed up and Mary threw a fit? I just miss that sometimes.
But toss that aside because AUDRA MCDONALD IS BACK. Peggy goes home for her mother’s birthday. Her parents own a gorgeous house in Brooklyn with stained-glass windows in the dining room, and they have a maid and are generally fancy. Peggy’s father, the parent she is having issues with, owns a pharmacy and wants to pass it on to Peggy. He does not help their familial dynamic when Mrs. Scott toasts Peggy’s success in selling her work to the Globe and her father calls it a fool’s errand. That is not supportive, sir! She is in her 20s! That is when you work things out.
Meanwhile, guess who shows up? Yep, it’s Marian. Was she invited? No. There’s what feels like five hours of her gazing in astonishment around the entryway, looking completely flummoxed by Peggy’s parents not being poor. It’s a very Office-style, secondhand-embarrassment moment, especially what comes next.
Mrs. Scott, who is kind, says to show Marian into the parlor. Mr. Scott, who is not as kind, asks why she is here uninvited. A GREAT QUESTION, SIR. Marian is holding a large carpetbag, and they ask what’s in it, and she reeeeally doesn’t want to show them. IT IS OLD SHOES. SHE BROUGHT THEM OLD SHOES. The look Audra McDonald gives her — I would die immediately.
Peggy, who definitely does not have to do this, tries to dig Marian out of her very deep hole by suggesting that Marian brought them because she wondered if the Scotts knew of a charity that could use them. Mr. Scott points out there are many charities in Manhattan. Peggy, who is very done with her father after his comments about her writing career, leaves with Marian, but she asks her WTF she was thinking (not her exact words). As an attempted excuse for her showing up at Peggy’s house at random, Marian tries to argue that her aunts let Peggy live at their house, to which Peggy correctly responds that she works there and for Marian to stop thinking she’s Peggy’s friend. YEAH, TAKE THAT, MARIAN.
The show decides to ease up on Marian at the end, when she, Aurora, and Bertha attend the symphony at the Academy of Music. Tom Raikes shows up and flirts with her, etc., etc.; Bertha makes an ominous remark that Tom will find it hard to keep up in society without money; and I Shazam’d the closing music because it is pretty. We end on John Knowles Paine’s Symphony No. 2 in A major, opus 34, In the Spring. So many new plot threads to pick up next week!
Meditations of the Middle Class and Unpowerful
• Is Peggy going to get with T. Thomas Fortune? Because if he’s not married, I’m into that.
• If Tom and his not-great American accent disappeared and we never heard from him again, would it be a loss? Or a loss that is truly a gain?
• Can Bannister come back and tell the Russells’ staff everything they’re doing wrong and why? Because if that were the rest of the series, I would avidly watch every minute of it.