Friends! Thank you so much for taking this very entertaining journey with me this season. Recapping this show was so fun — you know how much I love to look up the inappropriate shenanigans of rich folks throughout history! — and these nine weeks have gone by in a flash. It has been a complete pleasure and I’ve also so appreciated and enjoyed hearing from people who work at so many of these historic homes. Go visit them! If you’ve missed any of our earlier recaps, you can catch up here!
Let us wait no longer. At last, Tom Raikes has….well, he hasn’t exactly met his comeuppance. And in fact I have hardly any more information about him emotionally than I did before. But! He has…not married Marian, anyway? I’m getting ahead of myself.
THE VAN RHIJN/BROOKS FAMILY:
Let’s start, as ever, with Oscar, because nothing much happens to him!
He gets his mother to admit at dinner that she’s sad Peggy is no longer in her employ, and he snags the coveted first dance with Gladys at her coming out ball, which was not a disaster thanks to the combined efforts of Bertha, George, and the very stubborn and kind of great Carrie Astor. (Oscar also happens to be the recipient of Gladys’s very first proclamation that she’s out in society now and she’s sick of being bossed around, a sentiment I expect her to repeat about six hundred times next season. It was hard to take seriously from a woman in Marie Antoinette drag.) After the ball, he comes home to John Q Adams and says, “I think I can do it, John. I think I can reel her in. And don’t worry. Nothing will change,” and then kisses him. I strongly doubt both of those statements. I fear Oscar is going to find himself in at least one big interpersonal mess next season.
With him sorted, please open your textbooks and turn to Marian. Phew! In short: Tom Raikes stands Marian up for their elopement, and she has to go to his office (!) to ask him what the hell is going on and he says he was trying to write her a letter (!) to explain?! But the actual explanation — sussed out by Aurora Fane, who proves herself to be a true friend and a real mensch who is even willing to take tea with Mrs “Scandal” Chamberlain and her HUGE shoulder pads to help a cousin out — is that Very Rich Cissie Bingham has taken a shine to him and now Tom thinks he can do better than Marian. The unfurling of this plot is much more complicated — and, I thought, well done, especially the bits where Ada figures out that Marian is eloping, and the caper-like aspects of it — but that’s about the size of it.
What I thought was not well done is that I still don’t totally understand Tom or Marian’s emotional POVs here. In their short and emotionally unsatisfying exchange at his office, Tom swears to Marian that he loves her very much and thinks she is marvelous, and basically semi-confirms that he’s with Cissie for the money — but not exactly. I still cannot tell if he does actually love her but he loves money more, or he just doesn’t want to go full heel. You could argue that he might be nervous she’ll find some way to ruin him in society, but she can’t really do that without outing to everyone that she was about to run off with him. (And if he’s not a total moron, he should have noticed Aurora giving him the hairy eyeball all over town already. He may, however, be a moron.) We have no insight into his internal dialogue about this at all — and I feel like this could have been accomplished with a few shots of him looking at her either with longing or schemingly over the last few weeks. It’s perplexing that the show seems to be hedging its bets even with the audience and I truly cannot tell if that’s intentional. Anyway, he has to gall to ask if they can part as friends, and Marian’s response as she leaves him is, “not quite. But not as enemies either. I don’t like bitterness.” My notes here read, “WUT. LET HER BLAST HIM” — but in truth the actual line Julian Fellowes is looking for is, “I cannot be friends with a man who has completely broken my heart,” and then her softly closing the door behind herself and bursting into tears. The entire emotional throughline here was so muddled. Let her have a feeling here! She should be heartbroken or mad or something! She does some low-key crying and staring at the ceiling but, like, where is the scene where she stares at herself in the mirror and sobs, or throws a vase in a rage? Truly, you could even have this character burst out laughing at the absurdity that she was so roundly played a fool. This isn’t Louisa Jacobson’s fault at all; the writing seems to have been almost scared to truly break her heart. But you have to bring your heroine down in order to bring her up again.
And then, to once again quote my own notes: “That TOTAL FUCKHEAD Tom Raikes shows up at Gladys’s ball with Cissie Bingham!!!! Have the decency to stay home!” I was really mad when he showed up, clearly. But seriously!
When he shows up, the great and good Aurora Fane (who also looks beautiful; I love you, Kelli O’Hara!!!) goes over and warns Marian that he’s there, and then he comes over instead of having the decency to lurk by the punchbowl or whatever and they have another conversation that is basically exactly the same as the one they had in his office: He didn’t think she’d be there, and he meant it when he said he loves her. “Love is not always enough,” Marian says, although she means it in the sense of “you also needed to have money,” not in the sense of “our beautiful love could not overcome the pressures of society,” and then she sweeps off to sob in the corner of the ballroom until Larry rescues her for a waltz. Larry is lovely, but also, Marian. Go cry in a dark portion of the hall like a normal person, until a handsome and rich man who also happens to be antisocial/there against his will/smoking out a window stumbles upon you and makes you laugh.
Other Marian notes:
a) Larry is OBVIOUSLY endgame and he is very sweet, and I am glad that the show established that she ends up telling him everything about Tom; it’s a good sign for their relationship that she trusts him, but I also hate it when “if you’d only just told him!!!” is a sword hanging over a couple.
b) We were talking about this in the comments last week, but there is something ballsy and fun about having your ingenue make such WRONG-HEADED choices. Like, I’m not totally sure this Tom Raikes/Marian plotline really hung together at all, but on a theoretical level I love the idea of having a heroine who is low-key sort of stupid about stuff sometimes. For example, early in the episode, Marian actually says, “society means as little to [Tom] as it does to me,” which is just a fundamental misreading of a person who went up to the opening of a Red Cross chapter to pal around with the fancies, and crammed himself into a carriage with Ward McAllister to applaud electricity and who keeps going to the opera. I do not care about Tom at all and look forward to him perhaps meeting a comeuppance, but at some level he and Marian both deserve a spouse who sees them — like George and Bertha see each other. (George would never pull any of Tom Raikes’s total bullshit, though! George has the courage of his convictions!)
c) I thought all the scenes with Marian and Ada were nice, and this episode made it very clear that Ada is fluttery (for lack of a better word) but she isn’t dumb, and she also reads people very well. I know a lot of people dislike Cynthia Nixon in this role but I think her performance is interesting. I also really liked the scene where Ada — wearing one million cameos — gives Marian the very good advice that if she wants to marry Tom, she needs to pull it together and have the actual argument about it with Agnes instead of just running away, which is true, and in which she also points out that a gentleman would be willing to wait for Marian to get her aunts’ approval and not rush this marriage. I hope Ada finds love next season. I also loved her final words of the episode to Marian: “You still have most of New York to explore and all the people in the city to choose from.” Amen! Why tie your wagon to an emotionally perplexing, social-climbing weirdo the minute you get to a new town! You could at least find a sexy emotionally perplexing, social-climbing weirdo!
In other VR/B news: Agnes is forced by Mrs Astor to attend Gladys’s coming out ball and she doesn’t love it. Speaking of which:
Gladys’s big party is on, and this is of course the big set piece around which this episode revolves. I primarily know how debuts work during this time period in the UK, thanks to Julian Fellowes and a LOT of novels, but of course Americans do not have a monarch to be presented to as part of the ritual, so we just basically have a big party presenting the woman in question instead, and then she gets to wear her hair up and is officially open for marital business. (My notes say, “look this up,” and I did, and the Wiki page for the debutante system is LONG. Here’s the bit for America, and it’s quite interesting, but it doesn’t really get into the historical logistics. This, however, is a very interesting excerpt from Emily Post’s 1922 etiquette book, which also veers surprisingly feminist toward the end.)
Although episode was long — and honestly pretty fun! — nothing that happened was hideously complex, unlike the time I had to explain short selling. Basically: Bertha leaves the house in a fringed dress that is definitely designed to conceal Carrie Coon’s pregnancy but which is also delightfully over the top and pays a visit to Mrs. Astor, who is not “at home” to her….but she does let a Mrs. Randolph inside. So Bertha, deeply insulted (even though she spent last week crawling through Mrs. Astor’s fish guts after quasi-trespassing!) goes home and tells Gladys that Carrie Astor is out of their little dance routine, and also she’s uninvited from the ball. None of the kids in the quadrille can come if their parents won’t also come. Everyone, even George, is like…come on! (Including me: I thought Bertha was overplaying her hand here, but I was proven incorrect. I should never have doubted Bertha Russell. But this was a gamble!) You should also know Bertha makes this proclamation while she’s got a giant black loofah attached (intentionally) to the back of her dress.
But, as I noted, Bertha knows what she’s doing. Because when Carrie Astor — who Bertha knows has a contentious relationship with her loving and somewhat lonely mother — gets disinvited, this kicks off a war chez Astor, where Carrie refuses to come to dinner or go places with her mother and basically is absolutely miserable and simply plays her mother masterfully. (This seems true to life; as I’ve mentioned a few times, the real Carrie Astor basically willed herself into bulimia until her parents let her marry the son of a war profiteer.) You should also know that she is absolutely covered in ruffles when she hears Bertha’s terms for her attendance.
So MRS ASTOR ACTUALLY COMES OVER. I wrote this all in caps in my notes, and it requires them. Church is gobsmacked that she’s dropping in and so is Bertha, and so am I! (I need to sidebar again to note that Carrie Coon is so good in this role; her facial expressions when Mrs. Astor is announced are perfection.) Mrs. Astor assures Bertha that this whole thing is a misunderstanding, she simply didn’t receive her because Mrs Randolph is having MAJOR ISSUES!!! which required privacy. “I have paid a call now,” she says. “You have dropped by when no one else was likely to be here,” Bertha volleys. And in a delightful scene, they essentially negotiate: Mrs. Astor wants Carrie included in the fun, and the price for that is that she too has to come to the ball, period. And she has to tell everyone that she’s coming, and she has to make everyone else come, and in particular, she has to make sure Agnes and Ada come and I have to say, it was here where I worried that Bertha was really pushing it. “I’m tired of being cut on my own doorstep,” Bertha explains. Mrs Astor says, “well, at least we know where we stand,” and then she leaves. It’s a real stand-off!
Back at her place, Mrs. Astor then has what is essentially an existential crisis to Ward McAllister: “But if I don’t maintain standards, what is the point of me?” she asks. Ward — who likes Bertha and also really wants to go to a good party –manages to gently convince her that perhaps she needs to give way here. “You mean you don’t think I can beat Mrs Russell at my own game?” she asks. “My dear mystic rose, I fear if you try, it might be at the cost of your own dignity,” he says, and I think that is probably also true. So she does! She gives in! She writes to everyone else to make them come, too! Including Agnes and Ada! (Ada is stoked; she wants to go inside that house. Agnes, on the other hand, says: “You are glad to be ordered to march into hell and dance with the devil!?” Ada, in response: “I wonder sometimes if you don’t slightly overstate your arguments.”)
And while all of this is going on, George does a little finagling of his own.
Now that he’s not on trial for accidentally killing a bunch of people in a train crash, he’s gotten a request for a loan from Julius Cuyper, whose wife is apparently very fancy. (Julius Cuyper does not seem to be a real person.) And TAH DAH! George once again gets to elegantly browbeat people into being nice to Bertha, one of my favorite things about this show. He is so casual about it! He tells Mr. Cuyper that he’s happy to give them the loan, and looks forward to seeing him at the ball! “I will see you there, if you want the loan,” are his exact words, but they are delivered in a manner so congenial! No wonder this man is a train millionaire! “Don’t think you can go elsewhere,” he adds, when Cuyper starts making all kinds of noises about how he and the old lady might have other plans. Does Mr. Cuyper not remember what happened to poor Alderman Morris? If George Russell wants you to do his wife a solid, do it. “I have a list of reasons why not to invest in your bank and I will send it to anyone you approach,” George continues. “Isn’t that against the law?” Cuyper asks. “Let’s find out,” George responds. (I hooted.) “You are not a gentleman, sir,” Cuyper says. (YOU’RE the one making a big deal about not coming to a party, you big baby.) “That’s a subject for another time,” George says. (I love him.) So Cuyper finally says he’ll come but he can’t promise his wife, and George is like, pretty sure you can!!! And they do both show up, and when they do, Bertha shoots George a look that says, like, “I adore you for blackmailing these awful rich people for me.” Couple goals from episode one to episode nine, those two, and I’m not even kidding.
So, yes. This mythical ball happens, and it goes very well! EVERYONE comes. Reporters gather outside to cover it for the papers! George gets to say the name of the episode! Mrs. McNeil, Watson’s maybe secret daughter???? shows up and he makes pained faces in the background! The VR/Bs all show up dressed like the fairy godmothers in Sleeping Beauty, and everyone is stunned to see them and Agnes makes a series of pained faces of her own! (She has noted that she has plenty of time to quarrel with Bertha later, so don’t worry.) Ward McAllister has the BEST time! Everyone dances their quadrille in ridiculous costumes! In the middle of the entire thing, Mrs. Astor is like “PS, I could definitely destroy you after tonight” and Bertha is like, “you could, but you won’t.” She adds that she’ll be a good friend to Mrs. Aster, if she lets her, and I actually think the two of them would be unstoppable together and Mrs. Astor rather looks like this has occurred to her as well.
And that would wrap up the Russells, but we can’t forget Larry and his passionate love of architecture:
At one point, Larry and George have a tiny scene about how Larry LOVES ARCHITECTURE and George will appreciate him eventually for helping to build “a great city in a great country at a great time in our history.” (I think Julian Fellowes low-key likes Americans, which is rare and appreciated.) George just looks vaguely proud and amused and I feel like ultimately George is gonna be fine with this. It’s not like Larry wants to run off on a steamboat to be a professional gambler! Being an architect is a real job! There’s an “‘n’ More” right there in “George Russell Trains ‘n’ More”!
Peggy does a lot for Marian this episode, including being a good emotional support system when she is quasi-left at the altar (AKA the Julian Fellowes special), but the big development for her is that, as I predicted just last week, her baby is alive and well in Philadelphia. (This was not a huge jump to predict; I have watched many soap operas, and also Julian Fellowes loves a biological mother forced by society to give up her baby coming back to reclaim her child.) The way this comes out is that the Scotts’s maid finds a letter in Arthur Scott’s pocket and gives it to Dorothy (AUDRA!!!) and she opens it — this show depends a LOT on people reading other people’s mail — and of course it’s from the midwife (or someone; it’s a Mrs. Wade, and I assumed it was the midwife) reporting back that the baby is doing well.
Dorothy had no idea about any of this, and Peggy is of course rightfully WORKED UP about the fact that her father knows her baby is alive, and is intentionally keeping him from her. In a very emotional scene, Dorothy intimates that she’s going to help Peggy with this, telling Peggy that she’s always been on her side, and they hug, and I cry a little bit; when Arthur gets home, they tell him that they’re leaving for Philadelphia to get this baby back, and he’s defensive about the entire thing — and says some very unhelpful stuff about how he won’t help Peggy “ruin herself” — but he also raises a good point in a very irritated way when he tells them that the baby is happy and settled now. I do not blame Peggy for wanting to go get her son — I would feel the same way — but I’m also preemptively stressed for whomever has adopted him.
One other note: Who leaves such an incriminating letter in their coat pocket?! YOU BURN THAT!
OTHER RICH PEOPLE OF NOTE:
Let’s examine the rich people who were announced at the ball whom we haven’t already met:
Mr and Mrs Winthrop Chandler: There was a Winthrop Chandler who was an American artist in the 1790s and I hoped this was him and he’s a vampire. But I did some digging and I think the closed captions were wrong, and this is actually Winthrop CHANLER, no D, who was an Astor and who was known for pranking Oscar Wilde and whose Wiki is pretty interesting. Anyway, he’s eventually going to fall off a horse and die, and as soon as he’s dead, his wife going to write a bunch of novels and memoirs.
Mrs and Mr Anthony Drexel: Christine Baranski is distantly related to them through her husband and used this fact when she was trying to get cast in this role, although I cannot imagine she needed the help. He’s a VERY big-deal banker who was one of the founders of JP Morgan and he seems useful for George to know if nothing else. His daughter Sarah is Gladys’s friend Sally, whose Wiki doesn’t exist but whose husband has a Wiki that notes that she inherited thirty-five million dollars (in 1895 money!) when her first husband died and one of her sons got stabbed on his honeymoon and died and I decided I need more info about that. (A stabbing “accident” on a honeymoon cruise in Java? Feels sus.) This feels like the right place to note that the greatest part of having a New York Times subscription is that their entire archive are digitized and I can read all of it on PDF whenever I need to look up someone getting stabbed in Java under mysterious circumstances. Let me just tell you: She was the third wife, she was a Follies showgirl, they got married in secret, she was “too hysterical” to testify, and he had a table knife in the chest. Needless to say, this is NOT an accident! (Fun fact: He was previously married to the daughter of Mrs Randolph, who caused Bertha so much agita when she went in to see Mrs. Astor.) He also probably deserved this “accident” because, per the NYT, Wife #2 divorced him on grounds of cruelty and desertion and he once got arrested for beating up his butler, and trying to set him on fire, because the butler was aware that he used to set off fire alarms for fun!?! This man seems stabbable to me. Good for you, girl.
Ogden Mills: We discussed him briefly last week because Mrs Astor is friends with Mrs. Ogden Mills despite the fact that the man in question is a financier who loved race horses. Mrs. Ogden Mills’s son eventually marries the first wife of the dude who got stabbed in Java, who we were just talking about! She divorced him because he was drinking too much. This came full circle in a way none of us could have predicted.
Mr and Mrs Robert McNeil: She might be Watson’s secret child. Has Julian Fellowes ever done a piece where the valet doesn’t have a secret? Otherwise, they are not real but the actual Robert McNeil invented Tylenol, and collected presidential china! He seems nice.
THE VARIOUS DOWNSTAIRS FOLKS:
a) There is one very funny bit with the downstairs folks. Namely, it is revealed that Monsieur Baudin from France is actually Josh Borden from Wichita, a wily American who was originally a merchant seaman and learned the ways of French cookery in Cannes, and whose estranged wife has discovered he’s hit it big and now wants to get back together with him and plans to sell him out. (This reveal reminded me of the great moment in Center Stage where Debra Monk AKA Armstrong sniffs of Donna Murphy AKA Mrs Astor, “Who cares what she thinks, anyway? Juliet Simone? Please. Her name is Julie Simon, she grew up in Perth Amboy, her father managed a Walmart.”) George is SO AMUSED by all of this when Monsieur Baudin/Mr Borden confesses, and I must confess that I also hooted when he said that words “Josh Borden.”( Were people named Josh in 1896? I feel like I went to elementary school with a Josh Borden.) There is also a very funny scene where Church has to talk Monsieur Baudin/Mr Borden back into his Kansas accent, which keeps coming and going whenever he tries to talk about food. It’s good!
Anyway, Bertha makes George fire Monsieur Baudin/Mr Borden because she thinks people will be snobs about a chef from Kansas, and they engage (or the staffing people send over) as a replacement a Monsieur Charron, who is very snobby and rude and quite funny, and he ends up getting very drunk right before the ball and they have to have Monsieur Baudin/Mr Borden come back at the last minute to save everyone’s (perhaps literal) bacon, and then George insists on hiring him back for real: “I’m a man of simple principles. I reward loyalty. I punish traitors,” he tells Bertha. Who agrees, but with the compromise that they’ll say he’s from “the Middle West.”
b) Bridget and John the Sweet Footman are watching everyone go inside the Russell Manse for the ball, and he tells her, “maybe we will [be invited] one day. After all, this is America.” I have to say, as I noted upstream, I appreciate that Julian Fellowes is going to for the LAND OF OPPORTUNITY!!! stereotype about America here and not the Wow Americans ARE DOOFUSES!!!! stereotype that Peter Morgan went for on The Crown (ABOUT ASTRONAUTS AND JFK NO LESS?????? I mean, many of us are dumb but we did get our dumb asses to the moon!! I am apparently still salty about this).
c) Church and Bannister nod at each other from across the street to end the episode, as is tradition, and in a call-back to the premiere. I am excited for Butler Wars II: Fish Forks Return next season.
OTHER FURBELOWS OF INTEREST:
a) This is good, at the Wall Street Journal: What Happened to the Gilded Age Mansions of New York City?
b) This headline is perfect: I Said I Wanted to Eat Babka Off Morgan Spector’s Abs. He Responded. (He’s the best. I will never forget him, and Carrie Coon, endorsing these recaps; it meant so much to me!) The interview itself is also so thoughtful and smart; it’s really good.
c) Also great and smart, at Vanity Fair: The Gilded Age’s Carrie Coon on Bertha and the Real-Life Heiress Who Inspired Her
d) Super interesting, at T&C: How The Gilded Age, 1883, and Vienna Blood’s Costume Designers Marry “Magic” with Period Accuracy
And, finally, and most importantly of all, I leave you with this:
Ready? #BehindTheScenes #GildedAgeHBO pic.twitter.com/oaYOSbo9iL
— Carrie Coon (@carriecoon) March 22, 2022
See you next season! I hope Tom Raikes falls in a well! Don’t let anyone talk you into getting involved with the wrong people at the opera.
Photographs by Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO