Friends! We have only two more episodes left this season and this episode was an interesting one in that it had a MASSIVE and impressive set-piece, but it also was mostly moving various plot points into place so that they can presumably implode/explode over the next two hours. Let’s waste no time, shall we?
THE VAN RHIJN/BROOKS FAMILY:
I’ll start, nominally, with Oscar — although his behavior has bled into a variety of plotlines. Remember how Armstrong told Agnes that she thinks Oscar is banging the Turner, the lady’s maid with a heart of coal from across the street? Well, Agnes is SPIRALING about this. (I mean, as much as Agnes can spiral. It’s mostly dramatic proclamations and stomping.) Ada, on the other hand, is like, “eh, young men are slutty! What are you gonna do?” (Agnes is shocked that Ada even knows this much of the world.) And while you might think we would be in for a fun and exciting scene where Agnes confronts Oscar about this, you would be wrong. Instead, we get a scene where Agnes and Ada tell Marian that “Oscar has disgraced himself with Mrs Russell’s maid” on the tail end of Oscar storming out of the house. “How democratic,” Marian says. (This character has been given lines as if she has a sense of humor, but this one was delivered rather flatly. I have a theory that Marian is going to work much better next season, once the writers have a better sense of Louisa Jacobson’s strengths. For example, remember how frankly bad Jaime King was in the first season of Hart of Dixie? She was FANTASTIC the rest of the run, and I think she worked really hard at improving, but I also think the writers got a better sense of her strengths and wrote to them — which made for a better show in general.)
Anyhoodle, the reason we don’t get the scene of Oscar and Agnes having this out is because Agnes wants Turner sacked but doesn’t want to go see Bertha herself, AND doesn’t want to put any of this in writing, so she’s making Marian go over to see Bertha to make this happen. I understand that the writers were in a little bit of a logistical pickle here. If you have the scene of Oscar and Agnes talking about this, and THEN a scene of Agnes and Ada telling Marian about it, that’s repetitive; it’s also unlikely that Agnes would talk to Oscar about his behavior with Marian in the room. I might have had the scene with Oscar and Agnes and then cut to Agnes telling Marian to go across the street, coming into that conversation late….but I am a mere recapper.
Regardless of how this all got mapped out in the writers room, Marian goes across the street and gives Bertha the scoop in a sort of round-about convo that never – this is important — mentions Oscar’s name. And Bertha is very unmoved by the entire thing, but says she’ll talk to Turner and then changes the subject to ask Marian if it’s okay for her (Bertha) to invite Mr. Raikes to her Electricity Party (I’m getting to that) even though she doesn’t have room for Marian, because Aurora Fane is (I assume?) trying to set Raikes up with a Miss Bingham. (We later learn that Cissie Bingham is “supposed to be a niece of Henry Flagler, the fellow who set up the Standard Oil Trust with Rockefeller,” but no one can figure out how this works. They just know he gives her money and her mother is very respectable and they get invited everywhere. I’m fairly sure Tom is going to throw Marian over for Miss Bingham within the next two episodes. I just hope he doesn’t leave her at an altar. Julian Fellowes loves leaving people at altars. I am still mad at that large-toothed dingus who backed out of marrying Lady Edith, although that eventually worked out well for Edith. Except for that bit in the middle where she had a secret baby and farmed it out literally to TWO SEPARATE FARMERS and also her lover was killed by Nazis.) Marian looks mildly displeased by this turn of events, and when she runs into Tom Raikes on the way back across the street (and he makes some smarmy blah blah about how he just wanted to see her face), she almost immediately tells him about her plan for them to hang out at Mrs Chamberlain’s to find out if they’re really in love. His response to this is also smarmy.
If this were a Lin-Manuel Miranda musical, this is where we’d have a song called The Chamberlain Meeting. But alas!
Mrs. C leaves Marian and Tom alone in her drawing room, but the door is left open. And after rather a lot of yapping about this Cissie Bingham, Tom confesses his love for Marian. Her response is that he is a good man who was kind to her when she was in “desperate straits.” Which isn’t exactly love and also isn’t exactly true, or even if it is, him not being a total asshole when telling her that she is surprisingly poor is a pretty low bar? Anyway, he wants them to get married now, while they have the chance. (He has a weird speech that basically boils down to not wanting to lose momentum in their relationship but which is honestly slightly hard to follow.)
Before Marian can agree or really do anything, we have a break where Mrs. C shows them her Degas and she gets to explain Impressionism, waxing poetic about Le Salon des Refusés. (Which IS very interesting.) She also offers a little advice to them, and it is basically: Don’t turn your back on society unless you are VERY in love, because it’s cold out there in the dark dark night when no one is inviting you to watch the miracle of electricity and drink champagne in a carriage in front of the New York Times. (I’m getting there!) (Also, I feel like Mrs. C is not Team Tom but also wants to her mind her own business.) Once Mrs. C has drifted off again, Tom is all, “our love will be enough, I know it,” but Marian seems unconvinced. He asks if she loves him as much as he loves her, and her answer is “what do you think?” — which is not actually definitive — and he asks her to marry him now and then they kiss and I still don’t know what is happening here. ALL of those sentences are sort of noncommittal from Marian. These conversations with Tom always weirdly remind me of that time Kramer’s phone number was accidentally printed in the paper as the number for Moviefone:
Why don’t you just TELL ME whether I’m supposed to be IN LOVE with you?
(I tried to explain that clip in words before I remembered I could just embed it. Do you know how many things you need to explain to young people before getting to the gist, there? Yes, we used to call a number to get movie times and it was considered a great advancement over just looking them up in the paper, although it wasn’t really, it was basically just helpful for when you wanted to go to a movie but had already thrown out the paper, which was delivered to your home daily. Also, we used to just GO TO A MOVIE on a whim, you didn’t need to get seats in advance, or whatever, you just WENT. Anyway, I look forward to the debut of Moviefone being a set piece in an HBO series about the 90s that will come out in approximately 25 years.)
Later, Ada and Agnes talk about the whole Tom/Marian thing, and Agnes basically admits she wouldn’t “cut” Marian — i.e, in the meaning of not speaking to her, not that she wouldn’t physically stab her — but Agnes wants Marian to think she would, and also she points out that that it doesn’t matter if MARIAN would give up polite society, because TOM won’t. (a) Agnes is certainly right about that, and (b) respectfully, this plot is getting a little draggy. Marian was meant to figure out if she loves Tom after her ten minute solo meeting with him at Mrs. Chamberlain’s, and leaving aside that that is abjectly ridiculous, we also came out of said meeting with no further information about how she feels about him. I think we’re supposed to think that he’s a social climber and she’s…horny for him? I honestly don’t know. I feel very at sea with her motivations here.
Also: Eventually, Marian pops in and tells Agnes that Tom has really made incursions into polite society, and Agnes does NOT care, but she does think it’s weird that Marian is behaving so well lately. While I get the point of this small scene — Agnes is suspicious that Marian is about to run off — Marian’s “bad” behavior previously was like….slightly sassy at best.
George continues to have a LOT on his plate, from his wife’s psychotic lady’s maid waving her threatening short bangs in his face, to getting to present his designs for what they’re calling “Union Central Station” (which is definitely meant to be this show’s version of the original Penn Station, because at this point in history, Grand Central already existed. PLEASE do not get me started on my Penn Station rant, this recap is already so long), to hanging out with Thomas Edison, to the tiny detail of how he’s being framed for MURDER and TRAIN MAYHEM. He’s also preoccupied in dealing with Larry, who, much like George Costanza, really wants to be an architect.
I’ll start with Larry, because that’s the most straightforward plot. Morgan Spector and Harry Richardson have a really nice vibe together in their scenes, and I need to give Harry Richardson a shout-out for being able to deliver lines like “I love architecture!” (not a direct quote, but close) without being profoundly awkward, but all these scenes about Larry’s New Passion for Architecture are a little clunky. (Like, poor Louisa Jacobson actually has to say the words, “is this over architecture?” and even her mother could not make that line work.) I say that as a person who does have a passion for architecture! Short version: Larry wants to be an architect and Stanford White takes a break from designing George Russell’s Train Station ‘n’ More to offer to help, but George wants Larry to follow in his footsteps at the firm. Larry eventually points out that George is a genius — George gently acknowledges that this is true — and he’ll always be disappointing in comparison. We end the episode with George basically deciding to think about it.
George also has a meeting with his lawyers about this whole Getting Framed For Causing a Train Accident situation and, essentially, it’s not looking good for George, but it’s also a kind of he-said/he-said, and the key seems to be in figuring out where the excess cash went between George paying for new axles and someone buying the old ones. (Is someone laundering money? I just started watching Ozark.) Anyway, George comes home from this meeting and gives Bertha the scoop and she’s like, “UGH, if you’re on trial, this is going to ruin a LOT of my parties!” and he…does not take that super well, as you might imagine. (I would think Bertha might be more worried that, if nothing else, George going to prison might be a real issue for her socially as well.) They do seem to be fine later, though. By this point, George has surely come to a place of acceptance about Bertha being very laser-focused.
Later, in fact, Bertha comes to George and tells him that Marian wants her to dismiss Turner because she thinks Turner is having an affair, and as she is telling him this, it occurs to me that the oblique way in which Marian talked about Oscar’s identity in that conversation could ALSO have been her talking about GEORGE’S identity. This does not appear to occur to Bertha, despite my having a tiny heart attack about it, and she tells George that she thinks the mystery paramour is Oscar, and George is vague in response about whether he wants her to fire Turner over this or not. I want to scream. GEORGE, YOU HAVE TO GET THIS WOMAN OUT OF THE HOUSE! Before another member of your staff murders her, if nothing else.
Shortly thereafter, Bertha sees Turner flirting…WITH LARRY. (Larry is seemingly just being friendly in return. Larry is a bit of a golden retriever of a person. A golden retriever who loves architecture!) I have to admit, I did not predict this. And neither did Turner, who looks a bit surprised when Bertha turns to her as she’s getting ready for her big Electricity Party (AGAIN, I AM GETTING TO THE ELECTRICITY) and is like, “I think it’s time for us to to take a break from each other,” because they’re not getting along as well as they used to, and Turner is like, “well, YOU SET THE TONE” and Bertha is like, “SEE!” Anyway, Bertha says she’ll give her a good reference, “despite some misgivings,” under George’s recommendation. (There is some funny stuff about how Agnes then has to write and thank her Bertha for this; she tells Peggy to write the note “without a trace of warmth.”)
So of course Turner sneaks into George’s room again, and asks if he had her sacked; he tells her no. She asks about the train crash inquiry and then reminds him that SHE would have DEVOTED herself to HIM, unlike Bertha, who is concerned about her parties. “Perhaps we’ll meet again,” she cooes. “I doubt it!” George says. But once the door closes, he does look thoughtful. GEORGE. George, no. She’s the worst. Everyone who knows her wishes for her to fall into the Central Park Reservoir and take up residence with the plankton or whatever lives in the bottom of the Central Park Reservoir. (Fun fact, at this point in time, the Central Park Reservoir was the largest man-made body of water in the world.) You are a ROBBER BARON, stop being such a secret softie.
Finally, it’s time for ELECTRICITY. Literally! As you might know, Thomas Edison basically figured out the light bulb and that is honestly very neat and useful. (The actual invention of the light bulb is pretty complex in terms of credit.) He didn’t do this alone, as T. Thomas Fortune handsomely tells Peggy: There’s also Lewis Latimer, who “created a better carbon filament,” making much of Edison’s work possible. (Peggy says, “I am sure Mr. Edison will give Mr. Latimer his due credit at the ceremony.” They both laugh. I love Peggy.) Latimer’s Wiki is extremely interesting and he did a lot more than just make a great filament: He also drafted the drawings required for Alexander Graham Bell to get his patent on the telephone, invented something that eventually became the air conditioner (THANK YOU), and, to the great dismay of soap opera writers everywhere, also “pursued a patent on a safety elevator which prevented the riders from falling out and into the shaft.” He also “supervised the installation of public electric lights throughout New York, Philadelphia, Montreal, and London,” wrote the book about electrical lights, and was an expert in patent law. He was a very brilliant person. He also was working for Edison (also a rather brilliant person himself) at this point, and speaking of Edison, he’s about to really show off what he can do: He’s going to light up all of the the New York Times offices and everyone is going to come out and watch. This did actually all happen, although the contemporaneous piece in — obviously — the NYT notes that it happened at 5pm, so it wasn’t this dramatic, and I don’t think people actually came out to watch. That article is amazing, though, because the reporter has to explain how light bulbs and electricity work and what it literally feels like to work under an electrical light. (If you don’t have an NYT subscription and can’t access their archives, the piece is reproduced here.) Anyway, spoiler: They LOVE lamp.
I will say, it must have been amazing and astonishing to be alive for the invention of freaking electricity and the telephone. (I suppose I was alive for the invention of the internet, which was pretty cool — although of course it’s probably going to ruin humanity and the world as we know it, which is less cool.) And in this version of events, EVERYONE comes out to see the NYT get lit up. Most folks just stood around on the ground and watched, but Bertha and the rest of the fancies all parked their carriages outside and had picnics inside their carriages, which is a VERY fun logistical setup (although maybe not ultimately that comfortable.) Berta is wearing an amazing hat and everyone is in their very wackiest finest and the whole thing looks like a blast — no electrical pun intended.
Doesn’t that look fun? The aforementioned Miss Bingham also seems fun and she definitely wants to see Mr. Raikes when he comes up to Newport — and this statement HAS to be the nail in Marian’s romantic coffin. (The Fanes are eavesdropping on them chatting and they both look perturbed by this. “Somber music” even plays. Which confused because I thought they were inviting her with the expression intention of this happening. Perhaps not.) Speaking of Newport, Tom Raikes isn’t the only person with an invite: Ward McAllister invites Bertha, too, and everyone is visibly happy for her when this happens, which is sort of funny. There is something very complimentary to Bertha in the fact that everyone, once they get to know Bertha, decides to root for her success.
Oh, right, we have one more Russell left over and it’s Gladys: Carrie Astor comes over to practice their quadrille in the ballroom at the Russell Manse, which is actually the music room at The Breakers, which is sincerely INSANE as rooms goes. And Carrie notes that she plans to introduce Gladys to some more Fancy High Class People: Angela Schermerhorn and Sally Drexel, neither of whom are actual historical figures that I can tell, and Orme Wilson, Carrie’s future husband, who, as I mentioned last week, did have some….issues. (Carrie mentions that his father was a war profiteer but doesn’t tell Gladys that he was a CONFEDERATE war profiteer.) And now that Bertha has witnessed an enthused Astor in her ballroom, she is ready to set a date for Gladys’s debut. Gladys seems sad that Bertha is only doing this as a way to get Society Folk into her house but don’t look a gift debut in the mouth, Gladys.
BIG NEWS: T. Thomas Fortune continues to be hot and work on his printing press, and also brings Peggy with him to cover the Electrical Party for The Globe. She wears a great dress, and he brings her snacks and puts his hand respectfully on the small of her back when they’re moving through a crowd, and if he’s married — which he was in real life — I shall be most distressed. Look, this handsome man brought her a GIANT PRETZEL:
I need this to work out for her.
We do not check in with Peggy’s parents, but I assume her Dad is muttering things about writers while filling people’s prescriptions at his pharmacy, and AUDRA!! is shocking the children to whom she gives piano lessons with her glorious voice.
OTHER RICH PEOPLE OF NOTE:
Oh my god, get ready for a ride. Henry Flagler, the fellow who set up the Standard Oil Trust with Rockefeller, who is Cissie Bingham’s Not Uncle (I assume he’s actually her father), was a real person. He was VERY RICH!! and also seems like he was Very VERY Very Bad.
In addition to all the VERY BAD shenanigans he got up to in business and in his professional life — like, I’m talking using forced prison labor to build his empire bad, “you should probably take down that statue of him” bad — his second wife was declared insane (hmmm mmm) by his friend (!) and he promptly started having an affair once she was committed (hmmm MMM) and then I read THIS sentence: “In 1901, Flagler bribed the Florida Legislature and Governor to pass a law that made incurable insanity grounds for divorce, opening the way for Flagler to remarry. Flagler was the only person to be divorced under the law before it was repealed in 1905.” I can only assume Flagler and Henry VIII have A LOT to talk about in the afterlife. Did they ever let Wife Two out of the asylum?!?! This is some real Florida Man shit.
Anyway, eventually he fell down the stairs and died, and a lot of stuff in Miami seems to be named after him. And I figured I was done writing this section of this recap until I got to the end of his Wiki and read this: “After Flagler’s death, [Wife #3] married an old friend, Robert Worth Bingham, who used an inheritance from her to buy the Louisville Courier-Journal newspaper. The Bingham-Flagler marriage (and questions about her death or possible murder) figured prominently in several books that appeared in the 1980s, when the Bingham family sold the newspaper in the midst of great acrimony.” (a) There’s where they got Cissie’s last name, and also (b) !!!!!!!!! Mary Lily Kenan Flagler Bingham’s Wiki needs someone to go in there and flesh it out! She was exhumed by dead of night! I have a lot of questions.
THE VARIOUS DOWNSTAIRS FOLKS:
a) Agnes is not speaking to Bannister but Bannister DOES find out who wrote the letter to her ratting him out, and he plans to get his revenge on Church…eventually. (His source? Obviously Turner.)
b) Speaking of whom, Turner is a terrible person and it turns out that she also doesn’t even care about electricity!?!? What a weirdo. Every time she speaks, EVERYONE in the Russell employ stares at her like they’re imaging her death at their hands. She is that coworker you cannot stand. I continue to believe she is speeding headlong toward her own murder. Church even says, “get back in your cave” to her. Later, she tells Oscar she’s been sacked and she’s leaving, and then says something along the lines of “I’d be THRILLED if Gladys ended up with YOU instead of someone ACTUALLY GOOD.” She is very rude!
Oscar later tells JQA that it’s totally fine if people think he was banging a lady’s maid because it makes him seem less gay. I feel like JQA is constantly second-guessing this relationship. And he SHOULD BE.
b, part ii) Turner made a lot of noise about wanting to throttle Bertha and I predict that is, in fact, how she will die.
OTHER FURBELOWS OF INTEREST:
a) FYI, we’re informed that bustles are getting smaller…BUT NOT FOR AGNES.
b) Nathan Lane’s corn-ball southern accent as Ward McAllister continues to be so funny. His choice to really eat up the scenery in this was wholly correct.
c) Bertha waving at George when he was up there with Edison was very cute. The entire “Lighting Up the NYT” was a really fun set piece, with lots of cheering and waving of top hats and people making Fellowesian pronouncements about THE FUTURE. Fun fact: That NYT building is now Pace University.
d) Having said that, it doesn’t surprise me that Agnes thinks electricity is gauche.