After crafting an international hit with the frothy period drama Downton Abbey, showrunner Julian Fellowes is at it again. In many ways, The Gilded Age replicates many of the elements that made his previous work such a success: It’s set in the past, bathed in luxury and excess at every turn, and it’s obsessed with the problems of rich white people. But where Downton Abbey sometimes felt as though it embraced the future only insofar that it served as a means to rescue the prospects of an ancient family, The Gilded Age has both eyes excitedly fixed to the future, with the progressive spirit of life in New York City in the late 19th century. The Gilded Age is compulsively watchable, with a deep bench of fascinating characters and endless drama over the entirely artificial divide of “old money” versus “new money.”
The heart of The Gilded Age lies on the corner of 61st Street and Fifth Avenue. On one side of the street is Agnes Van Rhijn (Christine Baranski, doing her best Lady Bracknell from The Importance of Being Earnest). Mrs. Van Rhijn is a severe widow whose most prized position is her pedigree; her much meeker unmarried sister, Ada Brooks (Cynthia Nixon). Mrs. Van Rhijn is very much opposed to the entire concept of social mobility, fighting to keep the founding families of New York at the pinnacle of fine society without the presence of interlopers. She soon finds a challenge to her beliefs, however, in the arrival of her recently orphaned niece from Pennsylvania, Marian Brooks (Louisa Jacobson), who has a much more open-minded view of the world.
On the other side of the street is an awe-inspiring new mansion, one that could only be built by those with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove. Inside lives the Russells: the ruthless industrialist George (Morgan Spector); his self-possessed, social-climbing wife Bertha (Carrie Coon); their good-natured, unpretentious son Larry (Harry Richardson); and their wildly sheltered daughter Gladys (Taissa Farmiga), who’s frequently delayed entry into society is a running joke within the family. Their (or, more accurately, Bertha’s) world revolves around breaking into the Four Hundred, a tight-knit Gilded Age community of only the oldest and most respectable New York families. There is not one society in this period, but many, and wealth and power are not always enough to attain entry to the most elite. You could be richer than God, and there would still be some aging socialite whose ancestors came over back when New York was called New Amsterdam who refuses to allow you into her drawing room.
So although The Gilded Age has all the glittering opulence that showrunner Julian Fellowes seems particularly drawn to, at its heart, it centers the narrative around two outsides. Marian has the pedigree that opens all the right doors but none of the breeding. Jacobson plays her as an earnest, intelligent girl from a small town, who doesn’t know all the rules of New York society, and probably wouldn’t be inclined to follow them even if she did. Bertha, on the other hand, has all of the money and drive to build herself a home in this community, but she and her husband are self-made millionaires who accumulated a fortune in the most disgraceful of ways: through hard work and determination. As Bertha, Carrie Coon does not take a step out of her bedroom each morning without first thinking of how it will serve her family’s ambitions. She is a force of nature, and her sheer bloody-mindedness is one of the most compelling elements of The Gilded Age.
These social-climbing antics define much of the show, but there are nevertheless other themes at play. It builds up, for instance, a lovely friendship between Marian and Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), an aspiring Black writer who comes from a wealthy family in Brooklyn. However, she has a somewhat contentious relationship with her parents. Peggy is interesting: She is allowed to exist as a character beyond just her racial identity, which is more than we can say of some Fellowes’ Black characters on Downton Abbey. But at the same time, when you see her at home amongst the handsome brownstones of Brooklyn, within a prosperous Black community, you start to wish that this was her and her family’s show instead.
Still, though, there’s plenty to admire about the version of The Gilded Age we do get. It’s led by a troupe of incredible female actors, Baranski and Coon chief among them. Despite the show taking place decades before women’s suffrage would become a reality, it’s clear that in this vision of New York, women are the dominant force in society. Therefore, The Gilded Age is a perfect opportunity to showcase powerful female characters, even if their political maneuvering is done from drawing rooms and charity events rather than boardrooms. It stands as a lovely companion piece to Downton Abbey, and one suspects that fans of the glitzy period drama will be unable to resist its charms.