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HBO's period drama features excellent performances and incredible production values
Early in the first episode of The Gilded Age, after a series of sweeping shots setting up many of the major characters and the luxurious block of Manhattan they sometimes uneasily share, there's a scene that seems likely to echo throughout the rest of the series. After the death of her father, Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) meets with her lawyer where she learns the fortune she expected to inherit does not exist. After living a life of comfort, she now has nothing, apart from what money she can raise by selling her furniture. Even the Pennsylvania house she calls home is rented. The world she thought she understood has disappeared with no real warning. If she's to live on it's to be in a much different world.
Set in 1882, The Gilded Age takes place at a moment when one world is reluctantly giving way to — or at least being forced to make room for — another. The Manhattan block that gives the show its center doubles as a microcosm for New York, and for America as a whole. On one side lies the house of Marian's aunts, the widowed Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and her spinster sister Ada (Cynthia Nixon), who hail from old New York families of the sort that look down at those with names like "Morgan," "Vanderbilt," and "Rockefeller" as shameless arrivistes. (It's here that Marian will take up residence in spite of her father's long estrangement from his sisters.)
Across the street, in a palatial house constructed by an up-and-coming architect (not one of the names approved by the old money types, in other words), lies the home of George Russell (Morgan Spector), the newly (but extremely) wealthy head of an expanding rail empire, and his wife Bertha (Carrie Coon), who makes no attempts to hide her social ambitions. In fact, she's happy to be defined by them. And if she won't be accepted by the Agneses and Adas of the world, she'll set about taking their place.
Long in the works and given what appears to be a no-expenses-spared production budget, The Gilded Age is the latest creation of Julian Fellowes, the English writer best known for writing Gosford Park and creating Downton Abbey. The Gilded Age does little to try to hide its resemblance to its predecessor, from the lavishly detailed settings to an expansive cast to storylines in which the drama stretches from the upstairs of the series' luxurious homes to the downstairs servants' quarters. Sometimes it spills over from one to the next. In Agnes and Ada's home, only the even-tempered guidance of the experienced butler Bannister (Simon Jones) keeps the staff in line. George's servants include Turner (Kelley Curran), a lady's maid determined to move up in the world.
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We know this of Turner both because of her actions and because she says it out loud on more than one occasion. As with Downton Abbey, Fellowes throws in some unambiguous heroes and villains to keep the plot churning. But if some of the show's characters can sometimes feel a little one-dimensional (however fun the performances animating them), The Gilded Age finds a lot of nuance and moral ambiguity in depicting the spoken and unspoken rules of the world in which it's set. "I am opposed to her tribe," Agnes says of Bertha. But there are places where the tribes have to overlap, like the charity functions that double as entry ramps for those with enough money to contribute on a scale that makes them impossible to overlook. Agnes and her kind might see the newly moneyed as barbarians at the gate, but no gate can stand forever.
Then there's the other New York, the one not noticed by New York's new money or its old. Robbed of her money and her train ticket while waiting to travel from Pennsylvania to New York, Marian finds herself dependent on the charity of Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), a young Black woman who pays her fare then, unable to take a ferry to New York because of the rain, spends the night at Agnes and Ada's home (with some grumbling from some of the servants). Hired, thanks to her accomplished penmanship, to serve as Agnes' secretary, Peggy uses her new position as a way to put some distance between herself and her parents and to launch a writing career, despite the many professional roadblocks she faces as a Black woman. Marian befriends her but isn't sure what to make of her and, in a later episode, learns that some assumptions she's made about her new friend and her background have no basis in reality.
"I live in a different country from the one you know," Peggy tells her, and in many ways The Gilded Age is a series about the different ways of living, and of looking at the world, that can exist within a shared space. As with Downton Abbey, Fellowes' impulse to explore the nuances of his series' world sometimes seem at odds with his instincts as a storyteller. Sometimes The Gilded Age will pause to consider the complexities of a moment when Peggy reluctantly accompanies Marian to a then-new store opened by the Bloomingdale brothers where she meets unspoken hostility that Marian doesn't expect or detect. Other times it rushes the story along via dramatic developments and heated confrontations. At one point one character notes another's resemblance to a character in a melodrama and it plays like a wink to the audience who recognizes they're watching a high-toned drama's exterior placed atop a soap opera chassis.
Yet, also as with Downton Abbey, it's pretty tough to resist, both because Fellowes is so skilled at setting up suspense about what will happen next and the rich performances of the cast. Coon leans into Bertha's sometimes pitiless determination, Nixon plays Ada as a woman of good intentions who's overwhelmed by nervousness and the doubt cultivated by being in the orbit of her strong-willed sister, and Baranski plays Agnes as a woman whose archness and acerbic one-liners can mask hidden complexity. (She has no time for Bertha but, so far at least, offers Peggy nothing but support.) Some well-chosen guest stars don't hurt either, like Bill Irwin, Audra McDonald, and a mustachioed Nathan Lane as the high society gatekeeper Ward McAllister, one of several real-life figures worked into the story.
How deep Gilded Age wants to get beneath the surface of its world in transition still remains to be seen. For all the series' emphasis on the prejudice and restrictions of its era, it's also in love with its finery and pageantry. The title comes from a name for America's late-19th century boom period taken from a novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, yet The Gilded Age, in the five episodes provided to critics, often revels in the gold without worrying too much about what's beneath the gleaming exterior. At least not yet. One dramatic episode reveals just how quickly a fortune can be lost, especially when the game's new players have little regard for the old rules. It makes clear that, in many respects, every character here is in the same position as Marian, one that finds them being forced out of the life they've lived until now and into the unknown. They just don't know it yet.
Premieres: Monday, Jan. 24 at 9/8c on HBO and HBO Max, new episodes weekly
Who's in it: Christine Baranski, Cynthia Nixon, Carrie Coon, Morgan Spector, Denée Benton, Louisa Jacobson
Who's behind it: Julian Fellowes
For fans of: Downton Abbey, dramatic period pieces
How many episodes we watched: 5