The Gilded Age
Expectations started high in this episode for those among us who love 19th-century American women’s history! Marian immediately mentions to her aunts that “Angel of the Battlefield” Clara Barton is giving a talk at Aurora Fane’s as Ms. Barton tries to raise money for the founding of the American Red Cross. Patent clerk turned nurse Barton worked on the front lines of the Civil War, helping the wounded, cleaning field hospitals, and distributing supplies. She then helped identify and properly bury more than 20,000 missing men after the war. Essentially, Barton did way more than any of the people we will discuss today. Marian and Ada decide to attend her talk together.
The plot threads this episode are (1) George Russell fights with other rich people about money, (2) Ada almost has a boyfriend, (3) Oscar searches for a beard, (4) Marian and Tom, etc., etc., and (5) Peggy gets excited that people aren’t going to be racist and then they are racist. Oh! And (6) Irish Maid and Younger Butler go on a date.
If you were excited about Clara Barton, you shouldn’t be! She’s barely in it! Justice for Clara Barton. While Mrs. Astor talks with Barton after the lecture, she name-checks presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and James Garfield. I can’t explain how jarring it is hearing Hayes referred to on HBO when he usually just shows up in my tweets, but, also, Mrs. Astor is libelously incorrect when she says Garfield wasn’t pro–Red Cross. He was, but then he was assassinated. Mrs. Astor is going to feel pretty foolish when she finds all this out.
The real point of this scene is to introduce Cornelius Eckhard III, who used to be acquainted with Ada. He’s flirty in a nerdy way, and Marian asks him to call on them while Ada giggles. The point of this scene should be to highlight how LUMINESCENT Kelli O’Hara looks as Aurora Fane. You know what? I’m retracting luminescent and changing it to pearlescent, because she looks like a goddamn pearl with her dress and her shiny hair.
Ada finally tells Marian what the deal is with the scandalous Mrs. Chamberlain, and?? Apparently?? She had a child out of wedlock and then married the father?? THAT IS THE WHOLE SCANDAL. NOTHING ELSE. I was furious. Again, I thought Mrs. Chamberlain was possibly a stand-in for Victoria Woodhull, a.k.a. “Madam Satan,” a stockbroker, medium, suffragist, and the first woman candidate for president who outed the affair of a prominent clergyman (the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe). She was also bankrolled by Cornelius Vanderbilt, so it’s not like all the pieces weren’t there. It’s fine. Maybe she’ll show up later.
So the George Russell “Rich people fighting about needing more money” thing is connected to his bribery of the city aldermen to allow his train station. I studied 19th-century literature in college and have no earthly idea what anyone is angry about here. The aldermen, after passing the law and making a profit on the stock they bought on margin, are going to repeal the law and not allow the train station. So I get that part. But then George is angry because they have some plan of tanking the stock and then buying it again? I have read two articles about stocks, and I still do not understand. Something about short selling MAYBE.
I also looked up Martha Stewart to see if this is what she did, but no, her crime was insider trading. Did you know she saved only $45,000 by doing the insider trading she was convicted of?? I mean, sure, that’s a lot to me, but she’s Martha Stewart! In 2002, her net worth was $650 million! I did math for this recap, and that is 0.0069 percent of her net worth. Rich people sure love money (Martha Stewart, please do not come after me).
George and Bertha have a moment in which he says he will have to put all their capital at risk to get revenge on the aldermen. She tells him he made it once, so he can make it again. Which I LOVE as a Slightly Nefarious Couple dynamic, but they have zero chemistry. I wish they did! But the dialogue is so stilted, and some of the actors just can’t get past I Am Being Someone in the 1800s, so it just comes off as wooden and bad. And by “some of,” I mean not Carrie Coon.
Oscar van Rhijn comes to dinner at the Russells’ and tries to chat up Gladys, but she’s fixated on a man we haven’t met: Archie Baldwin. Oscar later tells John Adams’s descendant that she is the perfect beard for him and he is so excited to marry her, so let’s hope for better things for Gladys. I wonder if Gladys will be set up for some Washington Square situation. Poor Gladys. George doesn’t like Oscar, and Bertha shuts Oscar down. Later, George and Bertha make out in bed until the camera literally pans to a candle as they blur in the background. Is this Days of Our Lives: The Gilded Age? No, the plots in that would be more fun. Remember when Marlena was trapped in a giant golden birdcage under Paris and then had to save John from getting guillotined by the evil Stefano? Why can’t The Gilded Age be like THAT?
Marian and Peggy meet Tom at his office so Peggy can talk with him, except Peggy literally says nothing the entire time. Tom and Marian meet privately in his office, which feels inappropriate, but what do I know? He asks her to lunch at Delmonico’s and specifies Madison Square, not Broadway. I tried to look into what this was about, and there were so many Delmonico’s locations opening and closing and burning down in the 19th century that I’m not positive, but it is EITHER that the one on Broadway is too cheap or that it is part of a hotel and therefore a risqué choice. He invites her to go to Madison Square and check out the Statue of Liberty’s hand, which was just hanging out there as a prompt to donate for the whole statue. Tom tells Marian he’ll be there like it’s a treat to spend time with this man.
They meet and he hoists up a party garland of red flags by proposing to her. He tells her he could have proposed to her when they first met in his office and to send him a message when she wants to see him. NEVER. I HOPE IT’S NEVER. Good LORD.
Let’s talk about Peggy because she doesn’t get to say anything until 23 minutes into the show despite being in multiple scenes. When she finally gets to speak, it’s with the servants, so … don’t love that. The publisher of the Christian Advocate wants to talk with her about publishing her short stories. A potential win for Peggy! We finally meet her father outside, and he tells her he can forgive her, which she takes umbrage with. It looks as though their disagreement may be about her decision to be a writer, and his concern is that there are no Black writers who can make a living wage. This is an understandable concern! But, also, Peggy is amazing, and you should support her, Peggy’s Dad.
Peggy has an awful “Oh no, my dad was right, and I can’t tell him” moment when she goes to the publisher. After making her wait until everyone else has been seen (because of racism), a very honest publisher finally gives her an incredibly disheartening meeting. He wants to publish one of her stories, but he wants the little Black girl to be made white. When she questions this, he admits that keeping the story as is would cost them most of their readership in the South. Peggy seems to be willing to go along with this, but then he says her race would need to be hidden and she would have to sign a document that would not allow her to publicly state she is the author.
“The Christian Advocate is asking me to lie.” Well put, Peggy! The publisher says there are white men drinking in a bar down the street who would kill to be in her position, and she says they would never be in her position. NAILED IT. YES. This is such an awful problem to have, and she decides not to publish her story with them. While watching this, I was like, What about Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and her novel Iola Leroy? But that was not published until 1892. And yes, I tried to look up the Christian Advocate’s circulation numbers after 1840 but could not find them. “MOVE ON, BURTON,” I said.
You really want me to talk about the train … stock … financial deal, huh? Okay, in terms that I can understand: George decides to buy all the stock the aldermen sell, which makes them panic about losing all their money, although I do not know why. Trust that Julian Fellowes knows. Patrick Morris panics to his wife, Anne, and Charles Fane panics to Aurora. O’Hara is so good here, and I was finally able to experience catharsis in this show through her grief, just like the Greeks wanted. Morris tells Anne she has to go and grovel to Bertha and then Anne visits Bertha and does zero groveling. NONE. No groveling. She just laughs and then asks for mercy, and read the room, Anne! Bertha kicks her out, as she should.
Mr. Eckhard from the Clara Barton talk visits Ada and Agnes, and Agnes does an excellent job of scooting Ada out of the room and telling Eckhard that if he wants money, Ada has none, and he better get out if that’s what he’s after. Which it is, so he does — and then Ada and Agnes have a nice sister moment. I appreciate Agnes. More Agnes and Peggy scenes in which they conquer the world through correspondence!
The aldermen visit George and ask him to stop bankrupting them all. Fane says, “We’ve taken you for a fool when it is we who are the fools,” which made me laugh. Morris literally kneels, saying they’ve lost enough to make them poor. He cries a lot. Russell tells them they must face the music and dismisses them. Morris goes home, and you know he’s going to kill himself. And then he does, which is made even more tragic by alternating his preparations with George telling Bertha he’s going to relent with the aldermen. Morris’s death by suicide closes out the episode. Really unclear what this is going to do for the social order next week.
Meditations of the Middle Class and Unpowerful
• Do we think Miss Turner is going to succeed in seducing George? Or do we not care?
• The rich people are having an opera fight, and I love opera, but the fight is so dumb.
• I didn’t talk about the butler and the maid, but they go out and it’s nice, only she’s not into him in that way. But maybe she will be?