They’d better speed up Tom’s revelation as a villain because I need him out of here ASAP. We have so many characters to spend time with, and he adds nothing. Nothing!! Get yourself together, Marian. You’re looking like a real tater tot right now. We know Larry is the endgame, so hop to.
One of George Russell’s trains crashes due to a worn-out axle. Five people died! George knows one of his employees was responsible for buying the old parts, so he hires Pinkerton detectives to look into it. Pinkerton is one of those things that, when you first hear about it, sounds neat. Wow, spies! And there was a lady detective in the Civil War! But then later you find out that they were hired to spy on unions and break strikes, so. That’s not good.
There’s a lot more Clara Barton in this series than I expected. Do you think Julian Fellowes was like, “I get one women’s social activist in my series, and I’m picking the nurse lady”? And then he just stuck her in a bunch of scenes? I’m not complaining; I’m just surprised. Barton shows up when Peggy and Marian go to a Red Cross meeting with Aurora Fane. Mrs. Morris (remember Mrs. Morris?) is in mourning for her husband and extremely Out to Get the Russells, whom she holds responsible. One of the main purposes of the meeting, so far as I can tell, is to vote Bertha onto the board, which causes Mrs. Morris to walk out. Bertha is making inroads!
Back at the van Rhijns’, Agnes is complaining about the new opera house and says she won’t patronize any jumped-up opera houses, which is my favorite line of the episode. Yeah, all those jumped-up opera houses that people create to try to be cool.
Did anyone besides me see Bad Teacher and really relate to her ex-boyfriend at the beginning who’s shouting about how if no one goes to the opera, there’ll be no more opera? I felt a lot of solidarity with whatever that character’s name is. You think I’d care about this Opera War that keeps being alluded to by our beginning-to-be-beloved snobs, but this fight was historically silly, and it remains silly in the show.
Basically, the Old Guard in New York City had a corner on the Academy of Music and would not allow the Vanderbilts, Morgans, et al. to buy boxes in the opera house, so the nouveau riche built their own opera house, the Metropolitan Opera. The Met is still in existence today and is coincidentally offering a work later this year starring Kelli O’Hara, a.k.a. Aurora Fane. The Academy of Music fell apart pretty quickly after the Met opened, which is satisfying, but also, why not just have two opera houses? More opera for everyone!
Bertha is just a vulnerable little muffin in this episode, only don’t tell her I said that because I’m pretty sure she’d find a way to crush my hopes and dreams. When Aurora tells Bertha that Ward McAllister wants to visit the Russell home, Bertha is so unsure of what to do, and it’s cute. Bertha doesn’t know whom to invite because she doesn’t know any of the Astor set, and Aurora instructs her to just invite the same people who were at Aurora’s when McAllister visited. The thing is, the service has to be English. Aurora says Bertha has one chance, which makes this episode feel like it’s that classic “the boss is coming to dinner” sitcom trope, only everything goes smoothly (thank God), minus Agnes storming in, but that’s later.
The English-service part is a wrinkle in the plan because the Russells’ butler, Church, does not know how the English do things. Bertha asks Church if he can do it, and he’s like, “… yep.” But we all remember how Bannister came over and taught Church things about forks and finger bowls, so it inevitably comes to pass that Bertha offers Bannister $100 (approximately $2,700 today!) to manage the luncheon. Church is displeased.
Remember T. Thomas Fortune at The Globe? Peggy visits him again! I again hope they eventually have some sort of romance because Peggy deserves it. Or they could just be friends because she is a CAREER GAL. Fortune tells Peggy her writing has increased their subscriptions, which is amazing? He wants her to keep writing for them. Peggy visits her mother, Broadway legend and inspiration to us all Audra McDonald, and look. I knew this wasn’t going to happen, but when the scene opened, and Audra McDonald was playing the piano, I was like, “SING, AUDRA.” And then she could do a duet with Peggy and my goal for this show would be achieved via an Audra McDonald–Denée Benton duet.
Can you imagine if The Gilded Age did a musical episode like Buffy? Literally almost everyone in the cast has the skills to do it, and since it feels as if most of this show’s demographic probably loves musicals, it could only be a win. Would it be weird? Yes. But we would get past that.
Peggy’s mother congratulates her on her journalistic success, but they are both well aware that her father will not be on board since he still believes her career is doomed to failure. I was worried Mrs. Scott would present some united front nonsense, like, “You see both of us or neither of us,” but when she realizes Peggy doesn’t intend to see her father, she asks if they can meet without him. Great job respecting your daughter’s boundaries and maintaining a relationship, Mrs. Scott.
When George talks to Bertha more about the train crash, she is solely focused on the impact it could have on her luncheon and her ability to get into Society. George has been really patient about her goals here, but he goes off because he thinks the crash itself and five people being dead is more important than her social ambitions. It’s a good point! But you know who you married, George. And that person is going to be accepted by the upper echelons of society if she has to murder them all to do it.
We find out that Bertha opens all of Gladys’s mail. Incidentally, this article on what constitutes a mail crime was very interesting (it seems that Bertha is in murky territory, but that the U.S. Postal Service would definitely not think she was doing a great job). Archie Baldwin, the young man Gladys was sneaking off to see, has written to Gladys. George feels bad about the whole “ruining his daughter’s relationship” thing, and he talks to Gladys about her mother’s hopes for her. She wants a marriage that’s “special.” Okay, at this point, the fact that Bertha is not openly discussing her desire for Gladys to marry a member of the English nobility or peerage is just insulting to us as viewers. We know what’s what! But they’re insisting on maintaining this enigmatic air about it, so fine. Wow, whatever could a special marriage be; I am on tenterhooks waiting for the reveal.
Watch Bertha tell Gladys she’s marrying that guy who claimed sovereignty over part of Chicago via squatter’s rights. I mean, that’d be pretty special.
The theme for this season is “Agnes is basically always right.” The “basically” allows her to be wrong about the Russells and not nice to new people with money. But I mean, she shuts down Miss Armstrong about Peggy, she wards off that fortune hunter who’s after Ada, she’s protected her family all these years, and she knows something’s up with Tom, even though Marian’s a real box of pencils on that subject. I mean, she’s also wrong about Bannister, but I think she realizes that. Agnes is great.
Good lord, I almost forgot about the doll party. Mamie Fish throws a doll tea party for the young people. It’s extremely weird. I would definitely go. There we see Larry (he’s so handsome) and Gladys, who is allowed to go because Caroline Astor will be there and Bertha knows what an opportunity is. Gladys and Caroline bond about their difficult mothers (a great bonding subject).
Marian and Tom are going to meet secretly at Mrs. Chamberlain’s to get to know each other. I hate it. Unless Mrs. Chamberlain susses out that Tom sucks.
The denouement of the episode is the luncheon for Ward McAllister. McAllister is very into the Russells’ magnificent house and makes some Catherine the Great references, which Bertha clearly doesn’t get, but which no one is an asshole about. Everyone has a present on their plate when they sit down, which is exactly what my family did at Thanksgiving (they were from the Thanksgiving Fairy), only McAllister gets a gold cigarette case and I got a VHS copy of Casper.
Someone sends a note to Agnes spilling the beans on Bannister’s betrayal of every snobby value she holds dear, and she strides furiously across the street, into the Russells’ house, and barges into the dining room, where there are so, so many people (it’s not that many guests, but there are so many footmen). Marian and Aurora help Agnes save face, and Agnes bows out, telling Bannister that heads have rolled for less.
We end with Agnes discovering her son has been fraternizing with Miss Turner and George learning that someone at his company is pointing the finger of blame for the train accident squarely at him. We hear dramatic violins as Bertha holds George in the library! End of episode.