When I think back to my enjoyment of Julian Fellowes’ marquee series, Downton Abbey, the primary memories that light up regard the show’s costuming, the swirling score, the exquisite settings, and the actors of course, from veterans of the English scene to newcomers. It all melds together in a placidly pleasant way. But if I really start thinking about the plots… oh no, not the plots. The plots we must really not speak of.
So for The Gilded Age, Fellowes lowered the stakes plot-wise to the point where the entire first season came down to: Will Mrs. Russell have a successful ball? Which is to say, there were almost no plots at all. And yet, The Gilded Age did an excellent job of making me care just enough about whether or not Mrs. Astor would show up that when she did, I was just as smugly pleased as dear Bertha.
Throughout the entire season, I’ve wrestled with the idea of whether The Gilded Age is actually any good. It’s a period piece on HBO with a big budget, excellent actors, and a recognizable writer. It’s also 100% pure soap. It’s entertaining, but not in a guilty pleasure sort of way (which shouldn’t exist with TV watching, anyway). Despite moments like Jack saying in the most New Yoik accent pahssable “after all, this is America!”—or less romantically, a place where you can buy your way into anything—The Gilded Age has really become must-see TV, perhaps exactly because it asks very little of us. In return, it provides pretty clothes, occasionally snappy dialogue, and minimal anxiety.
Still, there were a few genuinely compelling moments in its Season 1 finale, “Let the Tournament Begin,” foremost among them being how Peggy discovered that her son did not die at birth. This (perhaps not-so-shocking) revelation led her to finally team up with her mother, and saw the pair heading off to Philadelphia to find him. While the series has struggled to give Peggy her own story connected to the uber-rich goings on that also didn’t feel shoehorned into making her a Walking Lesson to White People, I am still excited to see her strike out to find her son and potentially reunite her family. It was a nice win for a character who is easy to like and root for.
Less meaningful but nevertheless quirky and fun was the discovery that Monsieur Baudin is just a regular guy from Wichita who faked an accent (but not his cooking credentials!) to get a good gig in New York. And ultimately, it was a rare opportunity for Mr. Russell to defy his wife’s wishes, although with a pure intent that she saw and agreed with. But it’s also an example of the kind of fun, low-key nonsense stories that highlight the best and worst of The Gilded Age. The idea works, but the execution (with five seconds of screen time for the “replacement chef” before he just… laid on the table and babbled incoherently? How was this the best the agency had?) left something to be desired.
The same was true with the “heartbreak” between Marian and Mr. Raikes, a relationship as cold as Mrs. Astor’s snubbing of Mrs. Russell. There was a glint, in the show’s first episode, of Mr. Raikes’ interest in Marian. But after she seemed to have zero interest in him, he follows her to New York and… they’re in love? There was literally not one single scene that showed any natural rapport or chemistry between them enough to make Marian throw everything else away to marry him. Further, that he received no comeuppance once his scheme was revealed? (Not even one slap?) A very weak scheme, by the way, that he would not show up to marry Marian and instead just… stay in his office? Marian, why would you care at all about this man when Larry Russell is right there being handsome and personable? And someone with whom you had an instant connection? The mind boggles.
In any case, despite the flatness of this particular subplot (I thought there was a chance that Marian might go through with it, but the show would never be that daring; it might raise our heart rates), Mrs. Russell’s societal triumph did land—even if it felt rushed. I mean, Mr. Russell’s soft blackmail of a banker wasn’t even necessary, at this point he just enjoys toying with the elite because he likes supporting his wife’s plans and desires (also, when will we get their rags-to-riches origin story?) In its greatest success, the show has me cheering for a robber baron, for goodness sake.
Speaking of those who came from nothing, just like Downton Abbey, Fellowes includes the servants in this story but doesn’t really like spending too much time on them—and the finale really highlighted this. When something has to get cut so we have time to watch a quadrille, it’s going to be servant storylines. His interests lie in the grandiosity of Upstairs rather than Downstairs, even though the majority of The Gilded Age’s most interesting narrative possibilities came from the staff (all of whom seem to have devastatingly bleak pasts).
Does any of this add up to anything though? Perhaps not, but I was enamored nevertheless. It’s TV that offers a light, glittering escape. But with the Russells finally being accepted into society (seemingly, even if the outplayed Aunt Agnes isn’t happy about it), the servants might need to step up a little more to provide us with some kind of plot. Otherwise, will we sit through the entirety of Season 2 wondering if Mrs. Russell will indeed continue to serve soup at luncheon? And I suppose if we do, would it be so bad? As I sit here turning my nose up at The Gilded Age in Astor-like fashion, the truth is, I still want to see inside its gaudy house.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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