Hello! Once again it is I, your official Rich People With Problems correspondent here to recap this particular edition of People Having Personal Issues in Olden Times! The Gilded Age was, as far as I could tell from Twitter, divisive in terms of whether people enjoyed it and I’m very interested in hearing if you did. But as for me: One of my favorite genres of pop culture is Rich Women Being Bitches Throughout History, and that, my friends, The Gilded Age has in excess. I am always going to be here for ladies in expensive outfits who hate each other, and other people in Olden Times who are beset by Personal Problems. And thus this was always going to be extremely my jam — as indeed it was. I enjoyed it very much, and also, much as I did with Downton, I look forward to complaining about bits of it occasionally. Was it fairly predictable? Yes, but that’s Julian Fellowes, and it’s also a pilot. They are by nature about moving people into place and setting the scene, and this show has about ten thousand characters; there were a lot of people to move and not a lot of time for complex plot machinations. Did I hoot aloud at Christine Baranski several times? Also yes. Will I watch all of it? Absolutely.

I love this time period in American history. I feel like very few movies and even fewer TV shows have even attempted it,  although there are tons of books, obviously. The Scorsese Age of Innocence will emotionally destroy you if you are middle-aged (when I saw it as a teenager, I thought it was boring; when I rewatched it a few years ago, IT RUINED ME). There’s otherwise a weird dearth of Edith Wharton adaptations, although it’s my understanding that the Gillian Anderson House of Mirth was good. As far as the other big contemporaneous Rich People With Personal Problems Gilded Age novelist goes, I think Henry James can be difficult to satisfyingly adapt because his books are generally very internal and tend to ambiguity, which is hard to translate in film. (Turn of the Screw notwithstanding.) (I say this as someone who loves Henry James, a novelist who never wrote a sentence using 50 words when he could use 685.) But it’s such a rich time period for historical pieces and there are loads of non-contemporaneous books and stories ripe for adaptation! People have money and are spending it! Cities are being built! The World’s Fair! (I long for the adaptation of The Devil in the White City to be good.) This period offers tons of grifters and con-men and phony mediums! You love a scammer? The Gilded Age was chockablock with them! And I just read a really enjoyable book about witches in New York in this time period that would make an amazing mini-series, The Witches of New York. This period’s got POTENTIAL, is what I’m saying.

So shall we dive in?

This first episode was quite long, but, as I noted, also primarily is introducing us to people/setting things up/spending huge amounts of money on sets and costumes rather than getting too much plot under way. I’m going to break this up by family:

THE VAN RHIJN/BROOKS FAMILY: Listen, I gotta be real here: I could listen to Christine Baranski be snooty and Cynthia Nixon act like an early iteration of The Californians, only about railways, for literally ten hours. Anyway, they’re sisters whose black sheep, spendthrift brother has died, leaving their niece Marian penniless and they’ve taken her in. The Penniless Heroine of Genteel Birth is, of course, a CLASSIC trope — as is Two Middle-Aged Aunts, One of Whom Is Stern and One of Whom Is Nice. But tropes are satisfying because they are comforting. (Also how apt that one of them married Dutch money, in old New York.) I look forward to seeing who Marian ends up romancing; obviously she has a flirtation with Tom, her Kind Lawyer, but I assume she will possibly fall for New Money Larry Russell Across The Street, who literally saves the family’s King Charles Spaniel (Pumpkin!) from certain death. Certainly this will cause GREAT agitia for Christine Baranski, who wants to marry her off to an Astor or an Adams — of the QUINCY ADAMSES, perhaps you’ve heard of them!!! — little knowing that the Adams she wants to marry Marian off to is BANGING HER OWN MUSTACHIO’ED SON, Oscar! (I shrieked, “I knew it!! when they started making out.)

As far as Marian herself goes, her moxie in sneaking across the street to Bertha’s party is appealing, but she’s still a bit of a blank slate and I’m not sure that she’s got quite enough zing yet. Louisa Jacobson is, yes, Meryl Streep’s daughter. (She doesn’t use Gummer as her surname the way her sisters do, presumably because the I’m Related to Meryl Streep jig is up on that one.) I’m not sure if she’s quite up to the trifecta of Baranski/Nixon/Coon but…who really could be? Hopefully she’ll get there, and she’s not bad by any means. She might just be a little flat?

THE RUSSELLS: The New Money upstarts/social climbers/Robber Baron household (who have of course hired Stanford White as their architect. If you want to read a truly wild Wiki, head over to his. Trigger warning for….basically everything. He did, however, design some real bangers.) I could also watch ten hours of tracking shots of the great Carrie Coon in a huge hat walking through very fancy rooms telling people where to put her portraits and informing them they haven’t sufficiently gilded things. (She is also fortunate in that she has escaped the dreaded Ringlet Bangs of this period. I saw one of you note on Friday that you were excited to complain about the hair of the Gilded Age because you think it’s so hideous and I do think that’s one of the reasons that this era isn’t hugely present in film. [See also Restoration England.]) Will they ever get the approval of Mrs. Astor, one of America’s premiere bitches of history?!  (This woman had a petty fight that literally led to a five-star-hotel-off! She’s the worst! Donna Murphy is gonna tear this part up!) Bertha is a grasping social climber extraordinaire and as such, she is fun. Will anyone EVER come to Bertha’s parties? SHALL SHE EVER BE RECEIVED? Will she make everyone pay? (I mean, Mrs Astor’s son died on the Titanic — is it possible Bertha sent that iceberg?) Is her extremely nefarious-seeming ladies maid going to attempt to murder her? Julian Fellowes loves a nefarious ladies maid and a downstairs murderer, as we all know.

Also: Is it wrong that I think George Russell is very sexy even if he is a Robber Baron and has probably done all manner of terrible things to people/the environment? It’s not very subtle that all his mean wheeling-and-dealing office scenes involve him sitting in front of a roaring fire like he is the literal devil. But he’s awfully nice to his wife.


He also has a lovely beard.

THE SCOTTS: Peggy is a Jo March Without The Temper-ish young writer coming back to New York from being educated at The Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, a real historical place. She and Marian strike up a friendship after Marian gets pickpocketed at the train station, and Peggy takes pity on her and buys her a new train ticket, then Marian talks her aunts into letting Peggy stay overnight during a storm, and then Peggy and Christine Baranski hit it off and Christine Baranski hires Peggy to be her secretary and decides she should live with them because she’s obviously not interested in going back to stay with her parents. Denée Benton and Baranski are great in their scenes together and I hope we get more of them. (I hope and assume Peggy gets more to do in future episodes in general.)

Audra McDonald (!!!!!) is Peggy’s mother; Peggy is avoiding her father because he Doesn’t Believe In Her Writing and because (I theorize?) he might have put the kibosh on an engagement. Anyway: She has secrets! She also has a very sympathetic vibe and I already am desperate for her happiness. I was concerned that Julian Fellowes might not have a nuanced grasp on the history of Black Americans, and he almost assuredly does not, but the show hired Dr. Erica Armstrong Dunbar, a Black historian and writer, as co-executive producer and historical consultant. There’s a great piece at History Extra that’s a good primer on the time period and it mentions Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City, a book about “elite Black New Yorkers in the nineteenth century” which they say she used, among, I’m sure, many other things, as reference for the Scotts story, in case this is something you’re interested in reading more about.

Late edit: Thanks to commenter Jargon for alerting us to this really good piece in the Washington Post about the Black women who work on the show; it’s so interesting.

OTHER RICH PEOPLE OF NOTE: The younger Miss Astor seems surprisingly nice and un-snobby, which seems low-key unrealististic. And I enjoyed Mrs Fish, the bossy hostess up in Newport, who was apparently known for throwing totally wild parties and being generally mouthy.

THE VARIOUS DOWNSTAIRS FOLKS: I can’t really tell any of them apart yet. The Russells have a discontented and amusingly crabby cook with a French accent and, as I mentioned, a Potentially Evil And Definitely Snobby Ladies Maid Who’s Meant For More In This Life Than Service And One Of Those Things She’s Meant For Might Be Mr. Russell. I would not be alone with her in the boot room. Over at the Van Rhijn/Brooks manor, we’ve got some racists on the payroll, and I hope they all fall into whatever the New York version of a well might be — I presume also a well? At least their Carson — whose name is Bannister — seems nice, and they have a footman who may prove delightful but who at the very least Understands The Wave of the Future. (As ever, Julian Fellowes remains obsessed with the changing of the times.) Did you notice Zuzanna Szadkowski — AKA Dorota from Gossip Girl — in a small role? Also in the employ of the Van Rhijn/Brookses is Debra Monk, AKA the mother of the Best Goddamn Dancer In the American Ballet Academy in Center Stage. Wow, that family’s been in New York a long time!

Other furbelows of interest:

a. Daniel Fienberg at The Hollywood Reporter pointed out in his review that almost everyone in this cast either has a Tony or has been nominated for one. (Including the aforementioned Debra Monk, and also this seems like a great time to remind everyone that Denée Benton wore a really great dress to the Tonys the year she was nominated.) And it is true that EVERYONE IN THE WORLD is in this show, which is fun. We haven’t even gotten to Nathan Lane yet! I truly expect Lord Grantham to scamper in at some point, perhaps looking for his lost Gutenberg Bible. (Will a rich person lose something famously priceless in this show? May I suggest a Faberge egg?) Anyway, I appreciate that Cynthia Nixon is hedging her HBO Max bets and has also gotten into this one, in case And Just Like That doesn’t work out. I decided her character is actually Miranda Hobbs’s ancestor. She’s quite good in this, though, as you might imagine, and it’s fun to see her do something so radically different.

b. This is important: WOW, there are some INSANE bustles and hats on this show. As my friend Morgan noted, she would like to see some of the historical precedent for some of these skirts! Carrie Coon, in particular, is storming around plotting to break into high society whilst wearing absolutely WILD skirts and completely OTT hats.


That one is actually fairly restrained. She wore another one with what looked like dueling unicorn horns. Regardless, they are, as the kids used to say, giving me life. (I assume the youths are now saying, like, “those skirts are planting my crocuses!” or something else instead.) Anyway. I live/plant. Likewise, I am also here for the amazing wood paneling in basically every space. George! Russell’s! Office! Ceiling! HELLO. Thank you for spending what appears to be a totally insane amount of cash on those sets/for taking the show on the road for some of these interiors, HBO!

c. The Los Angeles Times review (which disliked the show) worried that The Gilded Age was insufficiently funny, but I thought it was quite funny in parts. Perhaps you have to be a middle-aged woman to laugh at the line, “You were allowed the pure and tranquil life of a spinster. I was not,” although of course we find out that Christine Baranski’s husband, whom she married out of financial necessity, was a monster. Her character to me feels like the Dowager Countess in that she is old fashioned and snooty but not actually a villian, and she is clearly very fun to write for.

d. My new indie band is called Jeanne Tripplehorn By a Window. (That’s the only thing Jeanne Tripplehorn did in this episode.)

e. Finally, and to me very important: If you were a rich woman in 1886 New York, social maneuvering was the only power with which you were generally entrusted and ergo this whole thing is GOSSIPY AS HELL. Christine Baranski is giving the Cut Direct to people all over New York! Folks are constantly bitching about which streets are fashionable! Charities are CUTTHROAT. People are being PETTY. And I say: GOSSIP AHOY.

[Photos: Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO]