IT HAS ARRIVED. “The Gilded Age”, long-awaited, has finally arrived, and it’s… difficult. Julian Fellowes introduces an even larger version of his usual vast cast of characters, which may leave you perplexed as to “wait — who is that again?” but don’t worry, we’ll figure it out! Together!
What are our current locations? We’re in the eponymous Gilded Age in New York City. “The Gilded Age” was a period in American history that lasted roughly from 1870 to 1900. Corruption, greed, corporate monopolies, and industrialization, as well as economic mobility, characterize this period. This series will include all of these elements, and they will all be dramatic, which is exciting.
Let’s get started because the first episode is nearly an hour long and covers a lot of material. Miss Marian Brook has no money in the year 1882. Her recently deceased father never informed her about this, and she is now relocating to New York City to live with her father’s affluent sisters. Tom, Marian’s lawyer, is clearly smitten with her, but we don’t need to be concerned about that for the time being.
Marian is sitting next to a young Black woman, aspiring writer Miss Peggy Scott, played by Tony-nominated actress Denée Benton, while she waits for the train to New York. She is the first of many outstanding Broadway appearances in this series, and I invite all musical-theatre nerds to join me in losing their skittles. My only hypothesis is that the closure of Broadway resulted in all of these wonderful people being available for something other than a Law & Order spinoff shot in New York.
Marian misplaces her purse just as the train arrives, and Peggy, being the nice and amazing person that she is, buys her a ticket. Marian has also torn Peggy’s dress, so I guess we can all just say, “Wow, Marian, excellent job befriending the Best Person.” Peggy is forced to board with the final group since she is black and everything is a shambles. Marian takes her to her relatives’ because the ferry isn’t running, and it turns out she’s from Brooklyn. You say, “How about the Brooklyn Bridge?” That is just what I stated! We’ve got another year because it didn’t open until 1883.
Let’s get to know Agnes and Ada. Agnes van Rhijn, played by Christine Baranski, is a woman who isn’t exactly the doyenne of Old New York high society, but she’s close. Ada Brook, played by Cynthia Nixon, is her sister, a shy but cheerful woman who adores her Cavalier King Charles spaniel. Pumpkin is the name of the creature.
Agnes’ personality is defined by stoicism, grumpiness, and the rare display of warmth and humor. Her late husband was said to be a jerk. They demand to meet Marian when she arrives and inform them about Peggy lending her money. Agnes requests Peggy’s address, which she reluctantly gives, but when she does, Agnes compliments Peggy on her beautiful penmanship. Peggy claims to have learnt to write at the Institute for Colored Youth, which pleases Agnes and Ada because their father was a supporter and they used to go to plays there. Agnes hires Peggy as her secretary, which is something we can all be happy about because Peggy is fantastic.
This is when I admit that Marian is unimportant to me. Perhaps in future episodes, I’ll develop an interest in her! Marian is still a possibility for me. It can take a few episodes for younger performers to get into it, but she is stilted and does that thing some actresses do where they overenunciate since the show is set in the past. Am I the only one who finds it irritating that the actress portraying her equated “calling-card culture” to Instagram? Possibly. But, thankfully, there are a plethora of different characters!
During this time, the new is driving out the old, railroads are being built, empires are being built, and Mrs. Astor’s door is being knocked on often. Caroline Astor, Society’s gatekeeper, was descended from the early Dutch white settlers who arrived in New York when it was still known as New Amsterdam (and part of what the Lenape called “Lenapehoking”). I’m not sure about it because she married William Backhouse Astor Jr., a businessman who owned and bred racehorses and sailed yachts. John Jacob Astor, his grandfather, made his fortune by killing all the beavers in Michigan (not an accurate reality) and smuggling opium into China when the emperor declared, “Opium is a poison.”
As you can see, these nouveau riche upstarts (read: people who didn’t gain their money by slaughtering beavers or imposing pharmaceuticals on entire countries) had to learn their place. The Russells have arrived! The Russells’ Beaux-Arts castle across the street is huge, airy, and luxurious, whereas the van Rhijn home conjures gloomy, dusty, Victorian grandeur. Stanford White, the building’s architect, would go on to design the Washington Square Arch and be assassinated by a millionaire at Madison Square Theatre. Let’s not waste any more time on him because he sexually raped numerous teenage girls.
Bertha Russell, played by Carrie Coon, is desperate to become a member of Society. George Russell, her husband, is the owner of Russell Consolidated Trust and is a Jay Gould-type who builds railroads and makes obscene amounts of money. They have a son named Larry, a daughter named Gladys (Taissa Farmiga! ), and a servant named Miss Turner who appears to be hell-bent on hitting Mr. Russell. This is most likely an attainable aim.
Because I’m annoyed, I’ll mention that the actor who portrays Larry is just 12 years younger than Carrie Coon, and when he first appeared, I assumed he was her brother. However, here we are.
Mamie Fish (another real person!) invites Larry to Newport, Rhode Island, where he is forced to play party games. This sounds eerily similar to my personal misery. All I know about Mamie Fish is that she was married to Stuyvesant Fish, and one of their children was named Livingston Fish. You are correct if you believe these characters sound like they belong in a 20th-century absurdist novel. Bertha Russell is clearly hoping that her son’s involvement with the Fish people will benefit her family.
Back at the van Rhijns, some of the servants are dismissive of Peggy Scott’s arrival, but there is a sweet little butler who is sympathetic. Debra Monk, a Broadway star, is irritated with her, which is disappointing. Peggy travels to a café to meet her mother, who is AUDRA MCDONALD, a six-time Tony Award winner. If you’ve never heard Audra McDonald sing, go right now and listen to “Wheels of a Dream” from Ragtime. We still don’t know why Peggy is avoiding her family, but it’s evident she has a problem with her father. Audra McDonald, a Broadway, film, and television actress believe Peggy will have to forgive him in the end and that he loves her. She then walks away, hoping to return.
Bertha and the van Rhijns are invited to a charity planning event (I’m not sure what’s going on there) where orphans will be trained to be slaves. Yes, why not? Marian and Ada travel to Old New York, where they encounter Broadway luminaries Kelli O’Hara and Katie Finneran, who play Old New York mainstays, Aurora Fane and Anne Morris. I’m sorry, but I can’t. This series’ genuine feature is the large number of musical phenoms who take minor roles.
Everyone, except Marian, is embarrassed and uncomfortable when Bertha and her daughter Gladys present themselves. Bertha was clearly invited only because the organization requires funds, which she is aware of and intends to contribute if she is able. Mrs. Augusta Chamberlain is shrouded in mystery, and no one can explain why she so scandalous. If she turns out to be a fictionalized version of early suffragist, presidential contender, stockbroker, and self-proclaimed medium Victoria Woodhull, I’ll be overjoyed. That is my fantasy.
“Railroad man is meeting with capitalist man,” I wrote in my notes for George Russell’s business meeting. I’m not sure if George is joking when he claims he wants to govern Sandusky, Ohio, or if Julian Fellowes simply doesn’t understand what that means. The major theme is that George is a robber baron who is both good at business and brutal.
Bertha chooses to host a “at-home,” which appears doomed from the start because we all know how fiction works. Bertha, on the other hand, remains upbeat and orders meals for 200 people. Almost no one shows up, but Marian does take a peek inside while her aunts are watching. The humiliation of rejection plainly instills in Bertha Russell a John Wick-like drive for vengeance, which will almost certainly result in a very pleasurable comeuppance for Mrs. Astor and her associates.