The other day, Heather noted to me that The Gilded Age making us wait for the first interaction between Carrie Coon and Christine Baranski is the show’s version of sexual tension, and she was extremely correct. Well, dear readers, at last we have achieved… if not full social intercourse, at least a searing kiss.
Let’s check in on our favorite Upper East Siders. I have many a Wiki Deep Dive for you today!
THE VAN RHIJN/BROOKS FAMILY:
As usual, let’s kick this off with Oscar, who has barely anything to do but what he does do looks like it’s about to get interesting: Namely, he meets up at Central Park with Turner during the opening in her schedule between when she’s pushing an old lady off a bridge and when she’s supposed to torture some puppies, and he chooses to do so wearing some sunglasses that make him look like an opium addict. (I cannot wait for this show to eventually make someone an opium or morphine addict. It was not uncommon in this time period.) He’s still apparently hot on the concept of marrying Gladys, and Turner tells him that he needs to forget about convincing Bertha; what he really needs to do is convince George, who, she says, is feeling very vulnerable right now due to BIG PROBLEMS at George Russell Trains ‘n’ More — problems which I will get to shortly, but which are indeed major. I do not know if I actually believe this in terms of Gladys, but I do believe that Turner is trying to mess with George. Oscar pays her off, and she happily takes the money while making it once again very clear that she’s not doing this for money, but for revenge. REVENGE!
Last week, I noted that it was very likely these two would hook up — and I still think that would be interesting; one of Julian Fellowes’s flaws is that he generally does not have enough people banging in his shows — but that line of thought has taken a turn. Armstrong (Agnes’s lady’s maid, who is awful to Peggy and who also has Larry David in a wig as a mother) happens to see Turner and Oscar take their leave of one another and their body language is VERY intimate. She tells Agnes this — well, the closed captioning calls it “whispering indistinctly,” so who knows what she actually said. But Agnes is distraught, so I think we can assume it was something along the lines of, “I think Oscar is nailing Bertha Russell’s maid.” Poor Agnes, in fact, is really going through it this week. Where even to begin?
Well, first of all, Marian continues to be recalcitrant about Tom Raikes (which I’ll get to shortly) and does not seem to buy Agnes’s (probably correct) take that he is “an adventurer” who is “worming his way into every ballroom in the city.” She also does not take it well when Agnes tells her that Tom won’t need her (Marian) much longer if things continue as they have been, as he will move on to more “glittering prizes.” Both Marian and Ada think this is very mean and it sort of is but also… this seems accurate? I have a couple of thoughts: (a) is it possible that Tom has embezzled Marian’s father’s money and is under the delusion that once he tells her this, she will be delighted that they’re not actually poor? And (b) as Heather pointed out to me, if Agnes is so anti-Tom Raikes, why isn’t she working harder to introduce Marian to more suitable men? She had half a cup of tea with John Q. Adams and that’s been the size of it. I think the actual reason for this is because this show cannot introduce any more characters without capsizing, but it doesn’t make sense from a plot perspective. If Agnes is so hot for Marian to marry well, shouldn’t she be parading Marian in front of all sorts of other young men, and vice versa?
But WORSE than Marian falling into sexual thrall (or something????) to Tom Raikes is the fact that Agnes has suffered the ultimate betrayal. Her butler, Bannister, accepted $100 — this is like $3500 in today’s money — to cross the street and buttle for Bertha Russell. Can you bear it? THE SCANDAL. THE BETRAYAL. THE NERVE!
With the caveats that (a) this was all very funny and you should watch this episode if you like old men sniffing about forks (I do), and (b) I sincerely would watch six continuous hours of Butler Wars this fall on A&E, how this actually came about was not terribly complex: The promised luncheon with Cornpone Society Gatekeeper Ward McAllister has finally come to pass at Casa Russell, at least in part because Ward really wants to get inside that house. (Who can blame him?) Bertha is informed that this lunch must be in the British style, because Ward McAllister will have her banned from polite society henceforth if lunch is insufficiently British. And of course, as we learned two weeks ago, the VR/B’s butler Bannister IS British and keeps British ways, while the Russell butler, Church, is American and knows nothing of these customs. (They both, however, have a surname that is also an object.) Bertha starts with having Bannister come over to give notes — which is, again, highly entertaining and very heavy on fork trivia — and ends with paying Bannister to just actually pretend to be her butler for the afternoon. (Over at the VR/Bs, Jack, the Joey Tribbiani-talkin’ footman, amusingly steps in for Bannister, who does not take Bertha’s advice to be honest with Agnes and instead spins a poorly constructed tale about having to go see a lawyer, which then gets hugely misunderstood by Ada who decides, with sincere interest, that said lawyer must be Muslim and observing Ramadan.)
At first, of course, it seems this secret will be outed because Marian is a guest at said lunch (also to Agnes’s irritation), but she isn’t going to squeal. What does happen is that the Russells’ embarrassingly American butler, Church, is SO AGGRIEVED and SO OFFENDED by being replaced in his post that he sends a note across the street to Agnes to tattle! And then she STORMS across the street in a COMPLETE rage — as Tom and Lorenzo pointed out, she didn’t even put on her hat! — and she bursts into this lunch to yell at Bannister. It’s quite thrilling. (And very well shot.)
However, when Agnes arrives, she is taken aback by the rest of the luncheon eaters: Ward McAllister (DELIGHTED to see her); plus the Fanes (she is their Aunt somehow in a way I feel like I never fully absorbed); Marian; Tom (ugh) Raikes; and the Russells — and Marian and Aurora completely jazzhand this entire thing, all, “Ooooh hello!!!! Aunt Agnes, HELLO! HELLO! You must have read the clock wrong, you’d never burst into a luncheon, isn’t that right??? Aren’t you just doing a little neighborly popping in?” and Agnes lets them save face for her. (George is very suave and smooth, naturally, in inviting her to stay; you can tell Agnes is of the sternest stock because she is able to turn down George Russell when he’s got the charm turned up.) As she leaves, though, Agnes turns to Bannister and says, “Heads have rolled for less,” as she leaves. (Agnes almost ALWAYS gets to say the title of the episode). I sincerely hooted. This is going to be my new ringtone.
Later, Marian compares Agnes at this lunch to Custer at Little Bighorn and Peggy is like (internally) CALM DOWN, and (externally) suggests Marian maybe help Agnes “find a place for herself in the new world.” Both Marian’s face and my notes say the same thing: I’m so sure.
Just to wrap things up at the VR/Bs, a few other Marian bits of note:
Peggy and Marian have a discussion about living life to the fullest, carpe diem, etc etc in case we all die shortly in a big train crash, and Peggy notes, “We need to make the most of what’s happening now,” and Marian responds, “Sometimes it’s hard to be sure of what IS happening now,” and, like, no kidding with regards to her plotline here. I spent a lot of time earlier this week thinking about how issue with Marian’s character is that possibly she, but certainly we, do not know what she wants. A million years ago Lainey wrote a post about that other elegant drama about Upper East Siders, Gossip Girl, in which she noted that Blair Waldorf’s character always works better than Serena’s because it is so clear what Blair wants at all times. It’s one of the best character notes I’ve ever read: It is very hard to write (and surely to play) a character when you don’t know what that person wants. DOES Marian want Tom Raikes? Does she just want to be independent? I think the issue is that what Marian wants is to know what she wants, and it is very very difficult to play that kind of liminal space as an actor. Peggy’s response is to point out that while she likes Tom Raikes because he’s a good lawyer who has been kind to her, “he didn’t seem to have much of a plan, that’s all.” I am almost always on the same page as Peggy, but I actually think he does have a plan. He’s just not telling it to Marian because it’s not flattering to her.
And the show actually addresses my note about Marian not knowing what she wants because later she goes to see Mrs. Chamberlain to talk to her (at Clara Barton’s behest) about joining the board of the Red Cross. Mrs. Chamberlain — who, it must be noted, has a VERY symmetrical decor; every vase on a table has a matching vase on an opposite table — kindly does not laugh in her face but notes that this will never happen. She also confirms to Marian that all the rumors about her are true: “I broke the rules,” she says. “I’m on the brink of breaking them myself,” Marion confesses. My notes just read: ARE YOU????????????????????? This would be totally different if she and Tom Raikes had any sexual chemistry but they do not. I cannot believe that Marian is about to throw it all away to maybe bone that guy.
Marian tell Mrs. Chamberlain her whole tale of woe, and Mrs. C has great insight when she sums it up by saying, “In other words, you hardly know him and the aunts are against it.” She then tells Marian that it was different for her, because she knew a great love, and Marian almost cries when she says that she doesn’t know how she’s supposed to know if this is a great love or not when she never gets to hang out with the dude, so Mrs. C offers to host an assignation at her house so she can find out. (a) I feel like if you don’t know, it’s not; (b) This is gonna go BADLY; (c) I suspect Tom Raikes may make another disrespectful overture and Mrs. C shall rescue Marian, thus improving her own place in the social structure or at least with Agnes; (d) Louisa Jacobson did well in that scene. Poor Mrs. C really needs a friend. “When [my husband] was buried, so was my life in this town,” she says — and I think I speak for all of Southern California when I say: COME OUT WEST, MA’AM! We’re very interested in your cash money and also the roses I just bought from your estate are thriving beautifully at the moment, thank you. (Mrs. Chamberlain is based on Arabella Huntington.)
But a solution to Tom Raikes — and a much more interesting conflict, honestly — may already be in sight for us all. Marian and Peggy are coming back from the Lennox Library — which was destroyed in 1912 but the collection of which eventually became the New York Public Library, while its geographical location now hosts the Frick — and Marian is complaining that everything there is behind glass, and you cannot touch it. (This is where Real Housewife of New York Sonja Morgan should whirl in from the future and screech that you’re not allowed to touch the Morgan Letters, anyway.) She also says, “Of course it’s wonderful to find a Gutenberg Bible, even behind glass.” I did hoot aloud when she said this; Julian Fellowes is OBSESSED with a Gutenberg Bible. As you may recall, Lord Grantham on Downton famously misplaced theirs, and I spent several years at this very publication ripping on him for it. I do think it’s wonderful to find a Gutenberg Bible! (Fun fact, the Huntington Library also has one.)
ANYWAY! They run into one Mr. Larry Russell emerging from of the offices of McKim, Mead, and White, the preeminent New York architecture firm of the era, which was profoundly important in the annals of American architecture and which deserves its own limited series, like Mad Men for architects. Peggy gives Marian and Larry some privacy and he confides that he really wants to be an architect rather than go into the family business at George Russell Trains ‘n’ More. (Maybe architecture can be the “‘n’ More”!) Larry is so nice and seems slightly entranced by Marian in a sincere way. Harry Richardson has a much more gentle, believable chemistry with Louisa Jacobson than Thomas Cocquerel does, and Larry and Marian have to be end game, right? Her falling in love with a Russell is so much more complex and deliciously angsty than her falling in love with Tom Raikes. Also, they have a great portmanteau: LARRIAN. (Although it’s weird that Tom and Larry look so much alike.) Peggy clearly agrees with me about Larrian because when she joins back up with Marian, she’s all, “He seems nice.” Denée Benton is so good in this part; her facial reactions to things feel incredibly honest. She is subtle but you always know what Peggy is feeling.
Well! You’ve heard about the luncheon, which went quite well — in addition to everything else, Ward McAllister believing that Agnes Van Rhijn pops in without a hat on the regular cannot hurt. Bertha’s also officially joined the board of the Red Cross, much to the very dramatic dismay of Anne Morris, who is like… super not fun now. Anne: “She is the wife of a murderer who has more blood on his hands now than when he killed my husband!” Clara Barton very nicely tells Anne that the Red Cross isn’t the place for a society squabble, and Anne says it isn’t a society squabble, since Bertha isn’t IN society. Bertha, arriving: “What an interesting moment for me to arrive.” I laughed out loud.
But naturally, Clara Barton shames all the ladies into voting Bertha onto the board and Anne is like HOW SAD AND HOW VULGAR and Clara Barton has to gently scold her again. I can’t wait for the spin-off web series, Clara Barton Gently Scolds Society Bitches. “I am to be JETTISONED while she is ENTHRONED?” Anne says, and then sweeps out. (Bertha, dryly: “How thrilling you make it sound.” As if you are not thrilled, Bertha!)
Sidebar to look at this bustle!
Now, let’s take care of Gladys, and then close with poor George, who has REAL BIG PROBLEMS right now. Gladys did in fact get a letter from Archie Baldwin explaining what happened last week with George, who does feel bad about this entire thing. Gladys cannot believe he won’t stand up more to Bertha, but like… Gladys knows Bertha, so. It’s not honestly that surprising if you think about it, babe. Bertha’s a tough cookie and also George is obsessed with her.
The real crux of Gladys’s plot this week is that Larry talks Bertha into letting her go to a completely BONKERS party that Mrs. Fish has thrown, where everyone is assigned a doll, and you have to have tea with said doll. I am not just randomly typing words here. The real Mrs. Fish did host absolutely wacky events and this was a real one; it is totally unhinged and IRL I believe everyone also had to speak in baby talk. It’s very funny, and there is no way a staff of writers would resist including this once they saw it in their research. Whilst there, Gladys bonds with Carrie Astor over how horrible it is to have a control freak mother, and yadda yadda yadda, these two making friends appears to be moving Gladys closer to being allowed to come out in society than anything else thus far. It’s noteworthy, also, that Carrie Astor is wearing a hat that appears to be several sea shells on top of each other. I truly hope she manages to get Gladys a hot oil treatment if nothing else.
OVER TO GEORGE. As you can imagine, having a disastrous train crash kill five men is not great for George’s business, nor for his mood! Which darkens further after he has the Pinkertons — a VERY worthy and long Wiki Deep Dive for you; talk about another subject that calls for a TV series! — do some digging and they discover that (a) the lead of the team that built his engines used old axles instead of new ones, stealing George’s money and endangering all his passengers, and that (b) ummmmm, this dude is also somehow framing George for this and claims he has proof in writing that this was all George’s idea. It is not an exaggeration to say that George is getting upset! When he finds out this last bit, he is standing several feet away from his fireplace, even — the source of all his strength! Go stand back in your fireplace, George! You are Samson and its flames are your hair!
In fact, the conflict between Bertha being focused on her luncheon and George being, you know, distracted because he’s in the middle of a MASSIVE WORKPLACE SAFETY ISSUE actually causes our two favorite lovebirds to have a full-on argument mid-episode, one in which he tells her that he “doesn’t give a rat’s ass” about her luncheon. I gasped, then immediately went to research if people were talking about giving rats’ asses in the late 1800s. (The internet was not able to definitively tell me and I am fine if we all just decide that George Russell invented this phrase.) He immediately apologizes for this, but he notes that he’s also mad that Bertha is reading Gladys’s mail. (Oh, right: Bertha is reading Gladys’s mail.) And Bertha’s response is that she hopes he’s not going soft. “Who am I going soft about? The dead in the train wreck or your only daughter?” George snaps, and truly I could watch hours of these two interacting. “Just… please don’t be soft,” Bertha pleads with him. (I will not make the joke we all just thought at this line.) “No one could accuse you of that,” George snaps back, and while they definitely seem like they’re on better terms by the end of the episode, I am slightly worried about this relationship. I am actually concerned that this contretemps is going to lead Bertha to eventually believing that George was unfaithful to her with Turner, when we all know that George would never. In summary: I hate it when Mom and Dad fight.
Three bits of note for Peggy:
a) Good news: Mr. T. Thomas Fortune of The Globe is still very hot, and Peggy’s good work has actually increased their subscriptions. “My agents along the eastern seaboard report strong sales and quite a bit of chatter about your piece,” he tells her. So Peggy went viral! One of my favorite things about these scenes is how Denée Benton plays it like she low-key wants to giggle whenever TTF talks to her, as a reaction to his hotness, but still manages holds it together professionally. It’s very subtle but good.
b) There is a scene where AUDRA! gets to play the piano while we all gaze at her adoringly for a while:
This is the main point of that scene, other than to reiterate that Peggy’s dad does not want to encourage Peggy’s writing career, and Peggy does not want her mother to discuss their personal issues with Marian. This scene is emotionally stressful because these actors are so good, and clearly there is a very wrenching rift in this family, but I also feel like we need to get to the meat of Peggy’s secret sooner or later because they’re also a little vague on the details in a way that I feel like is impeding some forward motion here. The fact that Peggy’s secret is still secret means they can’t really talk about it to each other in the way that you want.
c) There was a good scene where Marian yells at a cab driver who won’t agree to drive Peggy and Peggy is just like, whatever. “Aren’t some fights worth having?” Marian asks. “Not if it’s going to make me late for my meeting,” Peggy tells her, then expands to say, “You’ve just discovered injustice. I’ve lived with it my whole life. If I spent every day fighting with bigots, I’d never get anything done.” Some of these small scenes with Marian and Peggy are doing interesting things (from my perspective as a white woman) with the idea of the well-meaning white woman, and the emotional labor unfairly expected of Black women to navigate those women’s intentions.
OTHER RICH PEOPLE OF NOTE:
a) Carrie Astor, who hit it off with Gladys because she was crying about her mother at that chilling doll tea party, is a fairly interesting character in her own right, who ends up marrying the son of a Confederate war profiteer (but only after she allegedly gave herself bulimia to make her mother agree). His family was infamous for marrying extremely rich and fancy folks. Now their house is the residence of the Consulate General of India in New York, and it’s a beautiful building.
b) I know I already mentioned this, but I cannot stress enough how loony and dramatic Anne Morris is being. Maybe my prayer that Bertha will somehow get her committed will be answered! At the very least, her screeching and storming out of places seems like it’s not going to help her desire to remain in polite circulation.
THE VARIOUS DOWNSTAIRS FOLKS:
A LOT happened with our downstairs folks this week, and it mostly was very entertaining. In addition to everything that we already covered:
a) Miss Armstrong is PROJECTING on Peggy that Peggy thinks she is “an old sad creature who is too old for the work she’s meant to do,” as if Peggy wants her job, even though Peggy has never given this impression. Peggy is an up-and-coming journalist, ma’am! She tries to throw Peggy under the bus to Bannister and Bannister is not here for it. She ALSO tries to throw her under the bus to Agnes, and Agnes very coolly says, “I hope this doesn’t have to do with your prejudice against Miss Scott” and tells her to control herself and lay off. (They patch it up when Armstrong tells Peggy about Oscar carrying on with Turner.)
b) Mrs Bauer is giving Ada back a dollar a week from her street gambling debt and Ada is very chill about it. Perhaps too chill?
OTHER FURBELOWS OF INTEREST:
b) It just came to my notice last week that Carrie Coon has been doing this entire season while seven-to-eight months pregnant! GIVE IT UP FOR CARRIE COON. (Also, this explains her wearing that lampshade last week.) Now that you know that, you’ll see how carefully they’re shooting her; the choreography and blocking her for has been super adept. Bertha is not, like, walking into rooms whilst holding a giant fern or anything.
c) This is a very interesting piece about the jewelry on the show, over at The Adventurine.
d) Finally, but of utmost importance, I gotta go drink this!
Rumor has it that the mysterious Mrs. Chamberlain in #GildedAgeHBO is based on the real-life Arabella Huntington, so in her honor, we’ve created the “Arabella” cocktail, now at The Tap Room! Shoutout to @fuggirls for the tip on the cool connection to our very own history. pic.twitter.com/WvhJHNmfDM
— Langham Pasadena (@LanghamPasadena) February 28, 2022