Welcome back to week two of Rich People With Problems: Old Timey Americans For Once!, in which the title of the episode, “Money Isn’t Everything” is proclaimed multiple times. (Eventually, Marian — whose performance is inching toward the level of moxie the writing demands; I think she’ll get there eventually? It must be emotionally challenging to be an Acting Streep sometimes — wisely notes, “it is when you haven’t got it.”) Also in which our main plot points twist around the use of a ballroom, and begin to delve into arguably the number one question of a woman’s life in 1886 or whatever: Who should she marry, and why? I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last week, and I sometimes wonder if the men who reviewed this show as being low stakes didn’t really grasp that for women throughout almost all of human history, social power was often the only power they had, if they had any at all. The question of whom a character ought to marry isn’t just foofy romance — although, let it be clear, foofy romance is ALSO important — it was, for many women, the fulcrum upon which her entire adult life pivoted. So….there’s some stakes for you, if you want them.
And we certainly get into that this week, as the question of Whom Shall Marian Wed gets brought into the forefront, and we get a lot more character background on Aunts Agnes (Baranski) and Ada (Nixon.) I have a lot of complaints about Julian Fellowes — primarily that he never wants to accept that he is writing a full-on soap opera at all times! You had a man accused of TWO MURDERS in the last one, Julian! TWO! — but I appreciate that he is a man who is very sincerely interested in the personal and internal lives of women, including older women, which is disappointingly unusual across TV. One of the things I loved about Downton was how all the elderly women were fully-formed characters with rich inner lives, and that’s true here too. He’s never going to advocate eating the rich, but Fellowes’s work always passes the Bechdel test. I’d also like to publicly thank him for giving me so many Wiki Deep Dive opportunities, an activity I truly love.
Let’s see what our Upper East Siders are up to this week:
THE VAN RHIJN/BROOKS FAMILY:
Remember Marian’s cute/flirtatious lawyer, Tom Raikes? Well, he “might” be moving to New York (obviously he is for purposes of plot), and he says a lot of stuff like, “if I see something I really want, I take it if I can,” albeit not in a creepy way. I think he’s just meant to be ambitious and feisty; he’s definitely got a lot more zip than he did in the pilot. (Although I suppose it is rude to be too zippy when you’re telling the recently bereaved that they are also poor now.) He’s clearly very hot for Marian, who manages to finagle him an invite to tea with The Aunts. As you can imagine, Aunt Agnes [Baranski] is NOT impressed and in fact warns Aunt Ada [Nixon] not to encourage this match, pragmatically pointing out that Marian has no money and she (Agnes) can’t leave her any because it all has to go to Oscar, and ergo Marian needs to marry someone with cash. “What will happen to me?” Ada wonders, and Agnes sniffs, “oh, do not worry about that. I will outlive you,” in one of the several, several times that Christine Baranski made me laugh in this episode. (I am sincerely concerned about the people who do not think she is funny in this? She is so deadpan.) Anyway, Agnes explains that she wouldn’t call this marrying for money, but instead for “security, support, and god willing, affection.” In the late 1880s? Yeah, this is good advice. (I am, in matters of the heart, someone who would have been an Agnes and not an Ada during this time period. Let’s be pragmatic about this, girls.)
Marian also talks Tom Raikes into meeting with Peggy about a matter that Peggy is secretive about and about which the show itself is also secretive; Tom and Peggy walk off together to discuss it and the camera does not follow, going instead with Marian as she runs into Gladys Russell (the younger sister played by Taissa Farmiga) and her family’s Definitely Bad News Lady’s Maid, Turner. I get why the show doesn’t want to reveal Peggy’s secret yet, and there is something unexpected and clever about maintaining lawyer/client privilege even from the viewer, but it better be a good one with all this build-up. Peggy herself even tells Marian that “everything always comes out in the end,” which I assume shall prove prophetic. Peggy didn’t have a ton to do this week, but Louisa Jacobson is at her best in scenes with Denèe Benton and I’d like to see more of them running around New York. (Denèe Benton is good in all her scenes.) They meet up with Tom at the still-glorious Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, which at the time was fairly new, and Tom teaches all of us that the sculpture at the top of it was created by Emma Stebbins, the first female artist to be commissioned by the city of New York for a public piece. Fun fact: She was also [fairly] openly gay, and had a lover’s triangle with her wife [an actress] and another female sculptor when they all lived in Rome. Where is this movie? Her Overlooked piece in the New York Times is an excellent read. Tom does not get into her personal life, which was probably wise on his part when talking to unmarried women at this moment in history
Marian has a lot on her plate this week, in fact: She gets herself embedded with some charity that’s helping (Civil, presumably) war widows and orphans that Agnes dubs “dull enough to be respectable, at any rate.” They’re holding a fundraising bazaar in the Regiments Room at the 7th Regiment Armory, which is now the Park Avenue Armory and which one of the most amazing buildings I’ve ever been inside. (They still have all sorts of to-dos there; I’ve been there for fashion shows when we used to cover Fashion Week. This NYT piece about its restoration is extremely interesting.) Marian tries to agitate for the Charitable Upper Crust Bazaar Ladies to add Bertha Russell to their mix and I’m not totally sure why. I think she maybe just feels sorry for her. She’s also very sassy to said Charitable Upper Crust Bazaar Ladies when they pooh-pooh this idea, noting to them, “[w]e still want [Bertha’s] check, though. We just mean to insult her first.” It is a measure, I suppose, of Agnes’s power that none of these CUCBL snap at Marian that she’s new and she’s not even married, so maybe she should shut up. (I agree with Marian but she’s showing a lot of cheek here.)
As far as the other Youthful Van Rhijn/Brooks personage goes, Oscar is also all-in on the Russells; he brings Larry to tea, both because he likes him (I can’t tell if he likes him likes him) and because (I suspect) it deeply annoys his mother to have so much New Money rattling around her house. Oscar is also very interested in Gladys Russell, who isn’t even out yet (!!!!) but who does seem sort of hot for him in return. We talked about this a bit in the comments last week, but what do we think is going on there? Does he think she’s too young and naive to ever clock that he’s gay? (He definitely could be bisexual, obviously, but I don’t think his interest in her is sincerely romantic.) He even offers to give Marian $50 if she’ll invite Gladys to luncheon, which is like $1500 in today’s money, a move that Ada calls “selling Gladys Russell to a fortune hunter.” But my understanding is that Oscar has a fortune coming to him. So I’m interested in where this is going. (Bertha, for what it’s worth, seemed very unmoved by Oscar’s charms and I think she is aiming higher for her daughter.)
THE RUSSELLS: I deeply enjoy how much these two social climbing almost-con artists continue to be super hot for each other’s drama and seem to be sincerely in love and I’m gonna be UPSET if Definitely Bad News Lady’s Maid Turner’s extremely fresh come-ons to George work. So far, he is not into her putting her hand on his arm. (I’m not totally sure what her game is yet, either. Do we think she’s aiming to blackmail him out of some ridiculous amount of money so she can leave service?)
STEP OFF, TURNER.
But the Russell family’s main plot this week also revolves around this bazaar; Bertha wants the ladies to have it in her Stanford White-built ballroom (which is, in real life, the ballroom at the Breakers in Newport) if the Armory falls through, and so it does. The ladies do not, however, take her up on this and go over to the Russell manse, but instead move the bazaar to the 5th Avenue Hotel, which used to take up that entire block of 5th between 23th and 24th, across from Madison Square. (Its Wiki is mildly juicy.) This is such a blow to Bertha that she goes full Bertha Smash and literally throws her entire breakfast tray to the ground in a rage. (I love Bertha but she has got to learn to regulate her emotions!)
And hold that thought, because her issue with the ballroom intersects with what George is getting up to and those issues meet very entertainingly at the end of the episode. George is trying to talk Alderman Morris into approving the construction of a new railroad station to house his line going to and from Pennsylvania, and I’m sorry but I fear this means you will soon have to hear my rant about the destruction of the first Penn Station. I’ll hang on to that, but please know. I have it on deck. They have this discussion after a dinner with the Morrises which Mrs. Morris was terrified to attend — because of SOCIETY — and which Alderman Morris knew he had to, because of MONEY. (I will note that the Morrises also seem to truly love each other, which is nice.) This convo between George and Alderman Morris happens after dinner, over a game of billiards, with George’s de riguer Flames of The Devil Money flicking behind him, and in a room SO GORGEOUS that I literally said, “WOW!” aloud when it popped up. (It is also a real room at The Breakers. I clearly need to go on a tour of these Gilded Age mansions immediately.) George coolly notes that theoretically the aldermen who need to vote to approve this new train station could buy stock in the railway on margin and then, when the law passes, the stock prices will go up and they’ll never have to make the margin call because they’ll be $$$$$$$. As I understand it, this is basically insider trading. “I repeat, I am not giving you any kind of instruction,” George says very calmly, but Alderman Morris gets it. They’re about to have a more in-depth convo about this when Bertha comes in, dressed like Scarlett O’Hara at Ashley Wilkes’s birthday party, and announces that Mrs. Morris is tired and wants to go home. “They’re very snobbish,” she notes after the Morrises have left. NO KIDDING, BERTHA. George notes that maybe they’re right to be. “[Exciting Music],” says the closed captioning.
Soon, the day of the bazaar arrives and we learn that the Charitable Upper Crust Bazaar Ladies have set up a variety of stalls selling all manner of useless fancy shit like dried flowers under glass and feathery fans and many other things I would have definitely bought myself were I a rich gilded age lady, because I am a hoarder who loves stuff. Freshly incensed from learning that said bazaar is NOT at her house, Bertha arrives in a beautiful and on-the-nose gown covered in a peacock pattern, and watches calmly as George upbraids Mrs. Morris and Aurora Fane (that’s Kelli O’Hara) and their insane hats about how they decided his wife’s ballroom was not good enough to raise money for their charity and then he buys LITERALLY EVERYTHING with CASH and demands to have it all delivered to his house immediately and thus every stall has to close because they’re out of stock and this three-day bazaar is over like fifteen minutes after Mrs. Astor (I’ll get to her) opened it. My notes read: “This is hot?????” Mrs. Morris says, “This sort of stunt will not impress the people you want to win over,” and Bertha responds, “Mrs. Morris, this sort of stunt impresses everyone.” Marian loves it. Mrs. Astor ALSO loves it. And Alderman Morris is now REALLLLLLL stressed that George might be mad at him for this because of how George knows he’s a lil’ bit of an insider trader!
THE SCOTTS: As I noted earlier, Peggy didn’t have a ton to do this week other than be of service to others (I’ll get to some of that when we get to the staff) and keep her secrets from the camera. She also is really getting along with Agnes, who clearly thinks she’s great, and her job is very interesting to her. She does accidentally let it slip that Marian met with Lawyer Tom at the Bethesda Fountain to Mrs. Armstrong, the Van Rhijn/Brooks’s racist Mrs. Hughes who I hope falls INTO said fountain and cannot get out.
She also wears this great dress:
OTHER RICH PEOPLE OF NOTE:
FINALLY we get to meet Jeanne Tripplehorn By The Window and she is not by a window, she is at this bazaar and Marian is, of course, nice to her, even though her hat is HIDEOUS:
I can’t wait to find out what dumb thing she did to be shunned by polite society. I assume it’s something rather large like having a baby out of wedlock or using the wrong fish forks, but she’s definitely rich and she is sort of funny. Agnes is obviously IRRITATED TO THE BONE to see her there, but the really shocking thing is that Agnes is wearing a lampshade:
Finally, as I mentioned, Mrs. Astor comes to the bazaar to open it and all the ladies lose their collective shit about her. Donna Murphy is, as you might imagine, a hoot, and she too is absolutely covered in tassels. (That’s her in the header photo with Aurora Fane and Mrs. Morris. That photo owns a collective FIVE TONY AWARDS.) After George buys the place out, she promptly leaves, to the dismay of Aurora Fane. “There’s nothing to stay for. The lion has roared,” Mrs. Astor says, prompting me to write in my notes, “Is Mrs. Astor ALSO hot for George Russell?” I mean, who could blame her? I’m for sure hot for him. Although it could certainly be just the flames of The Devil Money. We follow her back to her house and she continues drooling for George, telling her younger daughter, “yesterday, I would have said he was nobody. But today? I’m obliged to concede that he may be someone to be reckoned with.” If not yet befriended, she admits. She then sails past a giant portrait of herself to go take off her coat and enjoy her morning off. (I hope Donna Murphy gets to keep the version of this portrait that they made with her face.)
THE VARIOUS DOWNSTAIRS FOLKS:
There are way too many characters in this show, so most of these folks are still just quick sketches, although:
1. the Van Rhijn/Brooks’s footman (a) has a face like a non-weaselly Pete Campbell and (b) his accent might be all over the place.
2. Mrs. Bruce is the Mrs. Hughes of the Russell household and I think that she and their French Cook, Monsieur Baudin, are gonna hook up. They had this whole convo about her life in the butler’s pantry — which I hope is the new boot room, but hopefully not as consistently disastrous as the Downton boot room was — in which she calls herself a “spinster housekeeper” and mark my words: that means these two shall fall in love. I know your ways, Julian Fellowes!!
3. The big downstairs plot is that Mrs. Bauer, the Van Rhijn/Brooks’s cook is a STREET GAMBLER who is $50 in the hole to some bookies who keep trying to beat her up in the streets. She’s pretty upset about this, but also decides to steal some family silver to pay off her debt. However, she’s very inept at thievery and Peggy stumbles upon the entire enterprise. I was VERY concerned that somehow Peggy was going to get blamed for stealing the silver, but instead she goes and tells Marian what’s up, and Marian fixes it. (This is why Marian was taking $50 from Oscar for inviting Gladys to luncheon, but in the end, Ada covers the debt.) The kitchen maid on whom I do not yet have a read — the Daisy — knows about all of this so we’ll see if this story is over or what. I wish Peggy didn’t have to deal with these dinguses!
Other furbelows of interest:
a. I thought the conversation where Ada tells Marian that she was the baby of the family and thus sheltered from the drama between Agnes and Marian’s father was very well done; Ada is VERY kind. Although I do think she is underselling how Agnes had to marry a rich nightmare to save them both, so Agnes has a good reason to be angry with Marian’s father. I’m sort of concerned that no one realizes that Agnes is such an uptight bitch because she had to take her youthful tenderness and sell it to the highest bidder so they weren’t all destitute?! TEAM AGNES.
b. The Morris/Russell dinner is funny. Everyone makes SCANDALIZED!!! faces the entire time about various architects and French chefs and the chip on Bertha’s shoulder is so big that I fear she will need chiropractic assistance. In case you’re keeping score, the Morris house was built by Morris (no relation) Hunt. Richard Morris Hunt did such tiny little things as the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty and the front of the Met, as well as the aforementioned Breakers. It’s a sweet little Easter egg that he’s name-checked in an episode that is actually filmed in a home he designed.
c. Morgan Spector gave an interview to W magazine where he noted that he has “resting period face,” to which I say: WELCOME TO FUG NATION, MORGAN SPECTOR. I’ll discuss this with you at the Meeting of the Morgans this quarter.
d. This is SUCH an interesting piece from the National Trust for Historic Preservation about the logistics of the show filming at Lyndhurst, a Gothic Revival mansion in Tarrytown that I need to visit immediately. (We haven’t seen those episodes yet, but Jeanne Tripplehorn No Longer at a Window lives there, I think. Presumably making shocking choices in napkins or something.)
e. And speaking of visiting places, a reader wrote in last week to let me know that she works at the Driehaus Museum in Chicago — a restored mansion from this period — and that all of their programming at the moment is Gilded Age-centric and very likely of interest to many of us! If you are in Chicago, you should go, because it looks AMAZING.