‘The Gilded Age’ Takes Its Time. That’s a Good Thing.
Before you ask, here are the answers to your four questions about The Gilded Age, which runs Monday nights on HBO.
1. Yes, it will remind you repeatedly of Downton Abbey.
2. No, it’s not action-packed. Like Downton, it’s a leisurely stroll through the garden, not a gallop around the track.
3. Yes, it’s a visual feast.
4. It’s good. Watch it.
To recap briefly, The Gilded Age is the new, lavish and long-awaited production from Julian Fellowes, who created Downton Abbey. He began talking about it in 2012, first as a prequel to Downton and later as its own stand-alone story.
What finally emerged is a tale that explores the upper peaks of entitled society in 1880s New York. A pedantic reading of its core drama, which happily does not summarize the whole show, would be that entrenched Old Money devotes much of its energy to keeping vulgar New Money from tainting high society with its unwashed presence.
The main event in that showdown has Old Money Agnes Von Rhijn (Christine Baranski) employing her many wiles and insults to keep New Money Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) out in the cold, nose forever pressed against the glass.
Downton was also, of course, about Old Money, and Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess Violet maintained a high standard of entitlement. But the Crawleys of Downton never felt under siege from the lower class, even when their rebellious daughter Sybil married into it.
Agnes and her peers fear the whole fabric of society will disintegrate if the likes of Mrs. Russell and her husband George (Morgan Spector) are invited to tea.
Fortunately, The Gilded Age quietly yet firmly becomes about more than the social machinations of rich people, which aren’t as interesting as rich people assume.
Darker and edgier are the financial machinations of George Russell, a composite of the late 19th century Robber Barons who made themselves unimaginably rich by foreseeing the country’s industrial expansion and servicing that expansion, ruthlessly eviscerating competition along the way.
George builds the railroads that opened up the heartland for commerce. He’s good at it and almost by definition he’s not a nice man. Still, Fellowes makes him more complex and engaging than the two-dimensional rich-guy villains from soaps like Dallas or Succession.
The same holds true for Agnes Von Rhijn, who is perceptive enough that her scorn extends to many of her peers. Agnes also uses the security of her social standing to do some things you would like to think the rich can afford to do, like reject racial prejudice.
She shocks some of her friends by hiring Peggy Scott (Denee Benton), a young black woman and aspiring writer with a troubled family backstory, as her personal secretary. Peggy is given a room in the servants’ quarters, which lends some perspective to the situation while correctly suggesting that The Gilded Age has a downstairs as well as an upstairs. Okay, okay, and a butler not entirely unlike Mr. Carson.
We also have Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), niece of Agnes and Agnes’s sister Ada (Cynthia Nixon). Marian’s father was estranged from Agnes and Ada, but when he dies penniless, Marian has no other place to go and so her aunts follow the rules and take her in.
Marian in some ways is the Lady Mary of The Gilded Age. She’s smart, willful and the perpetual object of attention from young men. But where Mary was a force of nature, Marian treads more softly. And wisely so, since her innocence leads her into at least one terrible mistake.
Peggy and Marian become core stories of their own, and they don’t explode off the screen only because that isn’t Fellowes’s style. They realize their ambitions for their lives place them at odds with a society — high or low — that still sees women as appendages to the menfolk and colored women as, at best, the help.
In Downton Abbey, we came to like most of the rich people. They had oblivious and obnoxious moments, like all of us, but as time passed we rooted for them. We were happy when they were happy. We want them to be happy again in the Downton Abbey movie that comes to theaters May 20, even as we wonder whether we will say goodbye to Violet.
The Gilded Age generates less warmth for several of its central characters, perhaps suggesting the self-absorption of the American rich has a more jagged edge than that of their British counterparts. Compared to Britain, it should probably be noted, all American money is new money.
The Gilded Age lets George Russell make his case for reaping the rewards from the free-wheeling American capitalism of his age, hewing to the original blueprint that capitalism runs on “enlightened self-interest.” If he gets his railroads built, he tacitly argues, commerce thrives and everyone wins.
That’s the backdrop. The heart of The Gilded Age lies in poking through the more immediate, personal, direct and indirect impact of George Russell’s entrepreneurship.
Accordingly, plenty of things happen in The Gilded Age. They just don’t all come with thunderclaps.
In the age of superhero movies and loud television shows, understatement is a concept the biz doesn’t seem to think works any more.
In the right hands, it does.