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'The Gilded Age' gives old New York money the HBO treatment

Carrie Coon plays Bertha Russell in HBO's <em>The Gilded Age</em>.
Alison Cohen Rosa
Carrie Coon plays Bertha Russell in HBO's The Gilded Age.

The starting point for any discussion of HBO's new series The Gilded Age, from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, is whether the show is Downton Abbey: Only Now It's On HBO.

After all, this is another period piece, this time set in 1882, in a New York City awash in money. It is still fixated on the etiquette and conventions of the very rich, it still relies heavily on the swoosh of a dress and the reveal of a grand home or a grand room, and the style — we follow from behind, looking over her shoulder, as the woman enters her massive foyer to the sound of swelling music -- will be familiar to Downton viewers.

On money, new and old

But where Downton Abbey turned largely on the dynamic between the rich Crawleys and their staff, The Gilded Age is about the dynamic between old money and new. Here, old money is represented by sisters Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon). Agnes is a widow, and Ada never married, so the two are living together when they're joined by their young niece Marian (Louisa Jacobson), who moves to New York from Pennsylvania after the death of her father, who was estranged from her aunts.

With Marian comes Peggy (Denée Benton), a young Black woman who meets Marian during her travels and extends kindness (and money) to her. The two travel together to Agnes' house, where Peggy ultimately becomes Agnes' secretary. Across the street from Agnes and Ada, on the corner of 61st St. and Fifth Avenue — right on Central Park — is a new, ornate home built by the new-money Russells, robber baron George (Morgan Spector) and his wife Bertha (Carrie Coon). The sisters and their friends have been silently mortified at the construction of this palace, which they clearly consider hopelessly tacky in its spectacle.

There are also people in service in these homes, and some will remind you of the Downton staff — butler Bannister (Simon Jones) runs the sisters' house with Mrs. Bauer (Kristine Nielsen), while Armstrong (Debra Monk) works as Agnes' maid. The scurrying staff in the new Russell place includes butler Church (Jack Gilpin), housekeeper Mrs. Bruce (Celia Keenan-Bolger), Bertha's maid Turner (Kelley Curran), George's valet Watson (Michael Cerveris), and the French chef Baudin (Douglas Sills). But at least in the first five episodes shown to critics, the storylines among the "downstairs" part of the "upstairs/downstairs" dynamic are modest.

The engine of the show is not that tension, but Bertha Russell's passionate desire to be accepted into New York's old money society, which is why it's so crucial to the success of these early episodes that they cast Carrie Coon. Coon is one of the most reliably grounded actors working in television, and her presentation of Bertha as wounded and ruthless at the same time gives The Gilded Age an emotional center that it needs. No matter how large the hat or how grand the dress — and she does get to wear some amazing clothes — Coon is always recognizable as a person with desires and disappointments. Bertha's husband George cares less about "society" itself, but he is deeply devoted to his wife, almost as much as he is to making money, so he wants her to have what she wants. (But honestly, the men in this series are sort of ... not the point.)

Meanwhile, young Marian finds herself the beneficiary of a system that treats her as part of "old New York" on her very first day. She finds a lot of her aunts' behaviors and expectations curious, but she isn't sure how much to really challenge them, in part because after the death of her father, she has no way to support herself but to rely on Agnes' generosity.

Christine Baranski as Agnes in <em>The Gilded Age</em>.
Alison Cohen Rosa / HBO
Christine Baranski as Agnes in The Gilded Age.

The myth of meritocracy

The framework of Downton is certainly present; this is not some sharp turn in Fellowes' creative output. But there is something intriguing about this examination of old and new money. There are people who promote a myth to this day that the United States has a class system that rewards achievement and success and working your way up by the power of your own abilities, but Agnes looks down on the Russells precisely because they got their money from work; that they made themselves rich rather than being born rich. She has the same feelings about other "new money" families like the Rockefellers, whom we would now think of as old-money families.

There are people who promote a myth to this day that the United States has a class system that rewards achievement and success and working your way up by the power of your own abilities, but Agnes looks down on the Russells precisely because they got their money from work; that they made themselves rich rather than being born rich.

I would certainly not go so far as to call The Gilded Age a critique of a system that venerates inherited wealth, but it makes for a sometimes provocative challenge to the very idea of meritocracy that the caste system on display in this New York is immovable: Marian is Old New York without doing anything at all; Bertha is New New York no matter how hard she tries and no matter how much "success" her husband has. Everyone seems to understand that eventually, someday, Bertha's family might be respectable by the sheer force of their accumulated money, but for now, they're ignoring her invitations.

The Gilded Age is also surprisingly cutting in its consideration of the work philanthropy does as a stage on which the very wealthy can preen. Charity is the one way Bertha might force her way into the circle in which Ada and Agnes move, in part because when she offers money, it's churlish not to take it when it's for the needy. At the same time, even that principle has its limits, and Team Old Money will still find its ways to snub, led by Mrs. Morris (Katie Finneran) and Mrs. Fane (Kelli O'Hara). There is a moment in the second episode when George manages to make his money into a very blunt instrument, and it has nothing to do with wanting to help anyone, either for him or for the women who are involved in "charity."

And an entirely different social dynamic is taking place in parallel, where Peggy finds Agnes, who's impressed with Peggy's education, open to hiring a Black secretary. But Peggy also needs a place to live, and when she moves in, she lives on the same floor as the servants, with the clear implication that were she not Black, she would live up in the house with the family. At first, Peggy is on her own in this very white cast, but she does eventually develop a larger story with room for other Black characters, including her father, played by John Douglas Thompson, and her mother, played by Audra McDonald, as well as a newspaper editor played by Sullivan Jones.

A cast that's almost too good to believe

Some of you, by now, are perking up at the wealth of great actors in this cast — including very specifically theater actors. Finneran, O'Hara, Thompson, McDonald, Keenan-Bolger, and Donna Murphy — Donna Murphy! — who shows up as Mrs. Astor, the queen of Old Money New York. There is a wealth of wonderful performers here it is always delightful to see — Debra Monk! Jeanne Tripplehorn! — and that's before you get to the leads.

Christine Baranski as a sharp-tongued snob might seem like a slam-dunk, but it's critical that Agnes not be just hateful. She is an expression of another of Fellowes' favorite themes ("change is bad and we must resist it at every turn") set against Marian's expression of another ("we must not fear the future"). And Baranski, who can certainly swan it up with the best of them, finds a balance between dry, comedic barb delivery and the cool, patrician reserve that someone like Agnes must have. Ada, thus far, is a gentle underminer of some of Agnes' inflexibility, and Nixon gives her a combination of sweetness and a very, very restrained resentment. Louisa Jacobson (whose mother, Meryl Streep, has her own HBO history) doesn't have quite as much to do as Marian as some of the other actors do, at least not yet. But she's certainly got the charm and the genteel mischief the ingenue in the story needs.

It is Bertha, though, who gives the new money/old money element here its heart. It's remarkable that she's as compelling as she is as a striver, given that she arrives with servants, with money, and with the ability to build herself a palace on Central Park so glorious that she can't wait to entertain there — if only any of the people whose acceptance she so craves were willing to accept her invitation. She is herself quite merciless, particularly with her daughter Gladys (Taissa Farmiga), whom she is determined to marry to a man who will provide the family with the right connections. And yet, when she takes a blow from Mrs. Morris or Mrs. Fane, when she senses from them that they would not be caught dead in her beautiful home, with her charming family, it is wrenching.

How many shows about messed-up rich white people does television, and specifically HBO, need?

Making the life of the rich feel emotionally rich

At times, Downton Abbey suffered from a failure to develop emotional stakes around its central questions about the future and around the estate. Whether the Crawleys would get to continue on as they had could feel like an abstract question with mostly ceremonial significance. But this battle between these women — and it is mostly women — over access to the narrow kind of social power that they enjoy? That is interesting. There is complexity in the way they manipulate the idea of philanthropy, the way they observe tiny rituals that situate them relative to each other, and the way they work in tandem with the husbands who rely heavily on them to forge business connections and then send them out of the room when business is discussed.

There's an emotional center to this series' considerations of class and status that allows it to rely a little less on overtly soapy plots like scheming and love affairs and, well, dignitaries dying in bed. It still has some of those things (I don't think a Fellowes series would be complete without a dastardly maid and a secret affair that could ruin its participants), but the ideas it is ostensibly about have a little more heft.

Denée Benton plays Peggy in HBO's <em>The Gilded Age</em>.
Alison Cohen Rosa / HBO
Denée Benton plays Peggy in HBO's The Gilded Age.

The continuing adventures of messed-up rich white people

We come inevitably to one final question that has, really, nothing to do with how enjoyable and entertaining, how brilliantly cast and beautifully shot, how addicting and juicy this show is. The question is this: How many shows about messed-up rich white people does television, and specifically HBO, need?

As Peggy's story unfolds, it shows off fine work from fine actors, and Black women contribute to both the writing (where Sonja Warfield works with Fellowes) and the directing (where Salli Richardson-Whitfield shares the directing with Downton vet Michael Engler). It's a solid story that eventually does find time for both plots that specifically address race (whether Marian and Peggy can really be friends, how it's different to be a rich white person and a rich Black person in this version of New York) and stories that don't (Peggy's career, her strained relationship with her family, her potential love life). But it's also a reminder that the series could have just been a show about Peggy's family. If HBO is committed to period pieces, swirly dresses, family sagas, soapy love stories, changing times, and so forth, none of that required another show about messed-up rich white people.

It's not a knock on the quality of this show, which is really good, to point out that it's a choice to keep doing this — Big Little Lies, Succession, The White Lotus, The Undoing — rather than other things. Even though all of these shows critique or undercut white wealth in some way, and even if you believe they're all good, the sheer volume of stories that pick up these little clumps of people and turn them over and pick them apart to see how they work communicates a centrality to them and a disproportionate interest in their humanity (or lack thereof).

It's natural, by which I suppose I mean expected, that HBO would want the next Downton-ish offering from Fellowes. It makes business sense, just as it makes business sense that they would want the next from Mike White or the next from David E. Kelley or what have you. When Succession ends, will they not want the next from Jesse Armstrong? They will, and every one of these individual decisions can be defended, one by one. But it's a vexing thing, because enough one-by-one defensible decisions make a discouraging pattern that it will take specific commitment to overcome.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.