Not every television show needs to have a heroic protagonist, or even a likable protagonist. . Not every show centered around criminal characters, violent characters, unscrupulous characters is endorsing crime, violence, or the abandonment of scruples. These should not be controversial statements this far into the age of the anti-hero, but if it seems like I’m going out of my way to make an obvious point, please know that it is because I want you, dear reader, to understand that what I’m about to say is not evidence of my feeble-minded confusion about how fiction works. There’s something I’ve been feeling for a while now, and I need to say it. Against all odds, I think that George and Bertha Russell—the robber barons—are the heroes of The Gilded Age.
The new HBO show from Julian Fellowes is essentially an across-the-pond Downton Abbey set amongst old money and new in the New York of the 1880s. And the show has imported much of Downton’s romantic longing for an idealized, bygone past. Downton, of course, was about the slow decline of the British empire and the collapse of the landed aristocracy, a process both hastened and reverently memorialized by the arrival of young people with new ideas about how to do things. It was a sometimes melancholy, sometimes whimsical—and sometimes deeply unpleasant—culture clash of a show that, despite all of its will-they-won’t-they pair-ups and redemption arcs, was ultimately about endings.
The Gilded Age, however, is about beginnings. Rather than focusing on decline, Fellowes aims his weapons-grade nostalgia on the grotesque birth of modern American empire. It’s a bizarre moment in American history to romanticize. Famously filled with corrupt politicians, ruthless monopolists, horrific economic inequality, brutal strike-breaking, and rampant racial violence, the bygone world of the Gilded Age is not nearly so bygone as the world of Downton. Nor is it really an era too often romanticized by even the rosiest of Americans themselves. It’s a period remembered mostly with shame, or, at least, as the necessary precondition for the underdog triumphalism of the Progressive Era. The very name of the Gilded Age was coined by Mark Twain to mock its vulgarity. It seems strange to conjure nostalgia for a period whose excessive inequities, as Bernie Sanders recently reminded us, so clearly mirror our own.
Fellowes has always been as invested in portraying the preposterousness of the rich as he is their ultimate humanity. And, to its credit, the show clearly understands the failings of its luridly wealthy characters. But, because the tone of this particular series is so avowedly light, it’s committed to a project of rehabilitation for nearly all of them. The threat of ruination, financial and sexual, hangs heavy over the show, but, through these first five episodes, very little bad really happens to our main characters. Snare after snare is deftly, even improbably, side-stepped, even when the episode seems to go out of its way to worry us about them. And the most caustic and deplorable of New York’s high society are shown to have kindly humanity at their cores, even if their intentions are mislaid or the conventions of society force them into ugly acts. In one subplot, Mrs. Bauer, one of the maids of Agnes Van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) accrues a massive gambling debt. Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), Van Rhijn’s Black secretary, witnesses Mrs. Bauer stealing silver from the house in order to repay her debtor. What seems almost certain to happen is that one of the white servants in the house, who’ve treated Peggy with either ambivalence or racist malice, will witness Peggy embroiled in this fiasco, accuse her, and thus ruin an innocent woman. Turns out, though, that none of that happens. A variety of characters, upstairs and downstairs, all work together and pay off Mrs. Bauer’s debts. The Gilded Age, it seems, was an age of generosity and understanding after all.
The show seems indebted to the literary aesthetic of great Gilded Age novelists like Henry James and Edith Wharton, and advance press for the series made sure to acknowledge these literary forebears. But, despite occasional dark turns, The Gilded Age has none of Wharton or James’ invigorating mercilessness. Those novelists elaborately described the sorts of interiors, domestic and psychological, we see onscreen here, but they were never this gentle. The nineteenth century New York of the American realists and naturalists was a pretty nasty place, but, over and again, the New York of Fellowes’ show simply isn’t. In this, The Gilded Age takes much the same tone as Shonda Rhimes’ Regency era romance Bridgerton—down to its fanfic approach to literary influence—when it really ought to feel more like Succession.
And that’s where we get to the Russells. Played by Morgan Spector and Carrie Coon, George and Bertha Russell are as fiercely devoted to their family as they are ruthless in business. Especially with visions of private jets, dick pics, and Italian pools still, well, swimming in our heads, it should be easy to see the Russells as the proto-Roys. The vision of capitalism dreamed up by George Russell at the end of the 19th century is the same one Logan Roy practices with precision in the 20th and 21st. But the genius of Succession is not in rendering the Roys as either the heroes or the anti-heroes of their own story, but as the villains of their own story. Their spectacular boons and betrayals make for relentless drama, but the show itself beholds them with disgust. Their food is unappetizing, their clothes aren’t stylish, their sex isn’t sexy.
The Gilded Age has chosen a different approach. While we might understand the Russells—or George at least—as world-historical villains, their show seems to perceive them as scrappy upstarts, underdogs taking on a decaying culture, the equivalent of those young people arriving at Downton Abbey with their new ideas. This is partially because the actual young people with new ideas either don’t or can’t occupy the show’s focus the way the Russells do. Marian (Louisa Jacobson) is set up as the show’s primary point-of-view character, but both the actor and her plots have a hard time holding attention. And Peggy is immersed in a variety of fascinating side-plots, but none intersect with the ballrooms and bazaars of high society that obsess Fellowes. But the Russells’ centrality isn’t only about this lack of gravitational pull elsewhere. The Gilded Age’s primary passion is its distaste for the Russells’ antagonists, and George and Bertha benefit from this targeted revulsion.
Those antagonists are the old money families of New York society. There is nothing Bertha Russell wants more than to be accepted with these circles, to welcome the Astors and the Van Rhijns into the glorious ballroom of her palatial new construction mansion on East 82nd Street, to play lawn games at Rhode Island beach houses with families who trace their ancestry back to the Mayflower. But the Russells are new money, Bertha Russell is the child of Irish immigrants, and Old New York is firmly closed to them. This is the unwavering perspective of most established New Yorkers we meet in these early episodes. The Russells must be barred from society at all costs, not for the crime of monopoly capitalism, but for merely being … different? Christine Baranski—who is here victim of being criminally underused by her writers—has the primary job, on this show, of viciously refusing any intercourse with these people. No act of racism on in the first five episodes is performed with anywhere near the theatrical prejudice of old money New Yorkers rejecting the Russells from society.
So the Russells are unfairly persecuted by their peers. But did they do anything to deserve this? There is, indeed, the matter of George Russell mercilessly bullying the (old money) Alderman Patrick Morris until he commits suicide at the end of the third episode. But, even this, the show tells us, is less about Russell’s brutality than Morris’ corruption. The Russells are destroyers, but the people they destroy are positioned as ultimately deserving of their own ruin.
In the show’s telling, Russell cannily understands that the way to accomplish anything in New York’s halls of power is to throw money around. So, in order to get a law passed that will allow him to build a new train station in the city, Russell makes a deal with Morris. In what’s essentially an act of insider trading, Morris and his fellow alderman make a timely investment that will pay out generously once they pass their new law. But Morris decides to double-cross Russell, selling short in order to knee-cap Russell and make even more money. Russell fights back, putting himself at risk to inflate his company’s stock prices, thus bankrupting the aldermen. Morris begs Russell to relent. Russell tells Morris he must “face the music,” and the episode ends with Morris’ coup de grace.
This is the sort of thing we might ordinarily call “breaking bad,” the crossing of a hard line. But, as ever, the show seems still to be on the Russells’ side. The betrayal was not George’s but Morris’. His folly was underestimating Russell, disrespecting the tycoon’s good-faith bribery attempt. It’s not Russell who kills Morris; he’s a casualty of changing times. Two episodes after the conclusion of that nasty affair, George and Bertha Russell bankroll the American Red Cross—something the Rockefellers did in our timeline. As Bertha takes the stage next to Clara Barton, taking credit for this massive humanitarian endeavor and finally taking her place in New York society because of it, Patrick Morris’ widow skitters off like the Wicked Witch of the West.
But it’s not just the narrative framing that makes the Russells into unlikely heroes. Carrie Coon and Morgan Spector are the sole, and I mean sole, locus of any erotic charge the show has. The Russells, as Caroline Framke recently noted, are super-hot. And, not only that, but they keep it strictly monogamous. When a devious lady’s maid sidles her way into George’s bed one night, pitching herself as an Upper East Side Lady Macbeth, the railroad tycoon simply stands up, dons his luscious robe, and states, “the flaw in your argument is that I love my wife.” Not only are the Russells unfairly ostracized, not only are they generous, but they are a model of marital fidelity.
Carrie Coon—doing absolutely nothing to besmirch her claim as the greatest television actress of her generation—delivers every line as if her words are enrobed in velvet. There’s a scene in the third episode in which Coon glides into frame in front of an oil painting of herself that genuinely made me gasp. It’s as if Viggo the Carpathian were played by Lauren Bacall. Then there’s Spector, with his shock of curly hair, his noble posture, the youthful mischievousness with which he plays real-life Monopoly. It’s not inevitable, but Coon and Spector seem to have decided that the way to economically portray all they represent within the show—their brilliance, their outsider status, their desire to succeed, to be accepted—is by becoming a beacon of desire itself. Coon and Spector give viewers, above all, a textured and unmissable sense of their sexual chemistry. And that closed system they create when they lustily debate business strategies or scheme out dinner plans or even lock eyes across a table makes them, for lack of any other options, the beating heart of The Gilded Age.
This matters because it means that, within the framework of the show, the Russells are the only sign of life. They may have poor taste, and they may be corrupt, but the show forgives them. Tastes change, and corruption is simply the law of the land. Still, you don’t need to be a stickler for historical detail to find it bizarre that a television series in 2022 has such a favorable feeling toward the scandalous wealth and corruption of the people who created the economic world we now occupy. Not every protagonist needs to be likable, but, having said that, it’s awfully hard not to like the Russells. Like their real-life robber baron models, The Gilded Age has made sure they’re the only game in town.