The Gilded Age (Review): A Rich and Well-crafted New Series

I’m a big fan of these posh upper-class period dramas. So The Gilded Age excited me. But did it live up to my expectations? Read on to find out.

The year is 1882. Marian Brook is a recently orphaned young woman who goes to live with her rich aunts in New York City. But here she finds a society at war between “old” and “new”– where exclusionary attitudes abound, and where great wealth doesn’t always mean entry into “society.” Marian must contend with new social rules for herself, and remain in the good graces of her aunts. For she has nowhere else to go. Can she be happy in this stifling world (or any of the characters, for that matter?)

The main draw of this show is its melodramatic fight for the “soul” of New York’s upper-class life. On one side are the old guard: wealthy families who’ve maintained control of society since the founding of America. And on the other side is the “new money” of New York: business tycoons of unremarkable upbringing who make their own fortunes and wish to be a part of upper-class culture. The old rich families disrespect the new, yet fear them because they are wealthier and growing more powerful by the day.

These tensions are largely shown from the vantage of two families: the van Rhijns and the Russells. One an old family, the other new– living on the same street.

And I was surprised how evenly split this story was between both sides. I would have expected The Gilded Age to vilify the elitist and old-fashioned establishment, but it gave everyone their fair say. Although, it was a bit biased towards the “new money” families. Or, at least, it pities them more.

Anyway– this conflict provides the backdrop for (most) all of Season 1’s story-lines. You’d think it’d get stale fast. But it never did. The ongoing pettiness remained powerful enough to carry all nine episodes. I was fully invested in finding out whether the Russells could bully their way into making friends.

Speaking of the bullying: those were arguably the best scenes. I loved when the Russells were angry and threw their wealth around to make the other rich folks look like paupers. It happened multiple times and was oh so satisfying. Their occasional ruthlessness felt justified and earned.

I also found it refreshing that George Russel (Morgan Spector) in particular wasn’t painted as an evil rich prick. Our world is down on uber-wealthy capitalists nowadays, so it would have been easy to make Russel the villain. But he’s actually an empathetic and kind man, who resists impulse, and has a strong moral code. The most sketchy things he does are to make his wife happy.

Let’s talk about Mrs Russel (Carrie Coon) now. She was The Gilded Age‘s standout character! Her tenacity was, at first, desperate and off-putting. But she quickly grew into someone I admired for their never-quit attitude. Her political maneuverings were my favourite parts of the series! Though she’s not without her flaws, specifically when it comes to her daughter, Gladys (Taissa Farmiga).

That reminds me: the younger members of these families are generally constrained by their older relatives: Marion (Louisa Jacobson), Oscar van Rhijn (Blake Ritson), Gladys and Larry Russell (Harry Richardson), and Peggy (Denée Benton). Each of them wrestles with the expectations placed on them by their parents. And they all form an unlikely bond over their mutual youth and struggles– in spite of their parents’ problems with each other. This was one of the show’s more uplifting subplots.

Though I ought to mention that, despite some tough love, the members of these families do genuinely love each other. And that’s always clear, even when they’re being harsh towards one another. I’m glad The Gilded Age opted for idealistic complexity within family structures, and not “Parents bad” or “Young adults know nothing.”

Peggy Scott earned the second-most interesting story-line of the season, next to Mrs Russel’s. I found her story to be the most educational for me. Through her we learn what a hard-working young black woman could accomplish in late 19th century New York, and what obstacles she faced. Not-so-much-a-spoiler-alert: there were a lot! Yet I admit, she had access to more opportunities back than then I would have expected from my incomplete knowledge of history.

Christine Baranski in The Gilded Age as Agnes: AKA the show’s most entertaining character
(Credit: HBO)

The last of the characters I’ll mention (positively) is Aunt Agnes (Christine Baranski). She was a blast to watch! The writers gave her all the best lines. She was a great character because she could easily have been a one-note antagonist– but she was multi-layered and maintained a complex moral code.

I noticed that most of the servants in The Gilded Age (particularly Mrs van Rhijn’s) were 1:1 American counterparts to the Downton Abbey staff. They’re more ambitious, and more money-conscious. Some of them even hope to get rich one day. I hope they play those ambitions through going forward!

But I was sad to see most of the servant cast got shafted. We get hints of their intriguing lives, but most never play out. The two most egregious were the guy who has a mysterious connection to some woman (which we never learned anything about), and the nosy, racist woman who never received more depth.

The Gilded Age features exceptional production design, from its lavish residences down to the city sidewalks. Everything was beautiful, and immersive. The crew truly made New York and Newport look and feel properly period (so far as I can tell, anyway).

I must also shout out the costuming department, because WOW they did an excellent job! The lady’s dresses were stunning, and I want suits like the men’s. Heck, I’ll even take the servants suits!

The Gilded Age Season 1 is a great start to a series which I look forward to watching again next year! Everything it did, it did well. Though it didn’t blow me away by any means. I believe there’s potential in here for an even better follow-up.

All in all, The Gilded Age is Pretty Darn Good.

Did you find this series independently, or did you watch Downton Abbey first (like I did)? What did you think of The Gilded Age? Please share your thoughts in the comments (no spoilers please). If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!

Till next time,

Joe Morin

By Joseph Morin

Joe's passion for film and entertainment began at 7 years old when his younger brother demanded to watch Duel of the Fates every day for weeks (on DVD). Joe admired the sequence so much, he decided to dedicate his life to film-making and storytelling. He has a degree in Cinema and Media Studies from York University. Joe loves DC superheroes (especially Superman), the first six Star Wars movies, and arguing about media with anyone who will listen.

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