Television

In Its Season Finale, The Gilded Age Did the Unthinkable

How can a show with this much talent be this flat?

Carrie Coon in The Gilded Age
Carrie Coon in The Gilded Age. HBO

The Gilded Age’s first season wrapped up its razor-thin plots with a finale so pretty and uncathartic that I thought it was surely a filler episode. Julian Fellowes’ new show, which gave every sign of being another soap opera in the luxe spirit of Downton Abbey, could not rise to that melodramatic genre’s heady heights. It suffered instead from a peculiar if relaxing commitment to anticlimax, a determination to let crisis collapse and resolve into inconsequentiality. Pumpkin the dog may have run into the street—multiple times, perhaps plagued by boredom, or a death wish—but he is more than fine in the end and everyone has forgotten it happened. His storyline is not unique. The Gilded Age is a little like those podcasts people listen to if they’re having trouble sleeping.

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Take what I suppose counts as the most tragically terminal event in the season: You might have thought that Mr. Morris’ suicide would cost the Russells socially—that George Russell’s petty refusal to take mercy on a ruined adversary was the kind of error that would be punished (or at least noticed) by the aristocrats whose acceptance his wife craves. You would be wrong. That decision cast no shadows, whether moral, narrative, or otherwise. If anything, George’s ruthlessness was celebrated as pragmatic and furthered the Russells’ social progress. The same is true of the railroad accident: The show hinted often that the Russells’ fortunes were fragile and that such an accident was inevitable and might ruin them. Nope! The Russells are neither legally nor economically imperiled by the deaths of several men. Bertha Russell’s cynical donation to Clara Barton’s Red Cross—made not for charity but in order to climb up the social ladder, which Barton perfectly understands—was more than timely and pays dividends in positive press. The couple isn’t even narratively spanked. Sure, George is accused of safety violations and building on the cheap, but his extensive corruption, which includes bribing politicians, turns out not to extend to his infrastructure projects. He’s the nice kind of robber baron who only cuts corners when building in his own home. If anything, he’s the victim, framed by an ungrateful underling! So sure, some people are dead and that’s regrettable, but within the sphere we’re taught to care about, all is well.

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Other plot points don’t so much resolve as dissolve. You might have expected Bertha Russell’s decision not to accompany her husband during his legal troubles, which he resented, to widen some hitherto unseen fissure in their otherwise perfect marriage. Nope! The Midwestern chef who passes himself off as French is fired for the deception but rehired in the end. Turner, the evil maid who tries to seduce George Russell, is mysteriously spared—a mistake that would surely cost the Russell marriage in the long term, or further our understanding of it—but then she’s fired before that bomb can go off, and for something she didn’t actually do. (Sure, she’s causing some delightful intrabutler drama, but that hardly seemed to be where her plot was going.)

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And there’s the bland but comely Marian Brook, played by Louisa Jacobson. To the extent that she’s supposed to be a protagonist (and Phillip Maciak has made a watertight case for Slate that she just structurally isn’t—that distinction belongs to the nouveau riche Russells), all signs pointed to her being an at least temporarily tragic one. Spunky with sympathetic origins, Marian clashes gently but consistently with the rich folk in ways we’ve learned to associate with the point of view character in a show. She’s our sympathetic fish out of water. That she isn’t particularly compelling is true but beside the point. Marian’s small-town origins were supposed to code her, somewhat improbably, as free from prejudice. Hers is a voice of enlightened modernity naïvely resisting an antiquated system that will oppress and eventually break her indifference to its outdated norms.

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Or not.

The long wait for Marian to finally do something that matters is badly frustrated. Given an arc that contains an aborted elopement, it’s striking that Marian’s most dramatically significant decision—with repercussions that characters we care about have to work through—concerns her disastrous attempt to give Peggy’s wealthy family her old boots.

That’s honestly pretty weird. The mistakes Marian was bound to make were as heavily hinted at as they are familiar. It is a truth universally acknowledged, after all, that a bright young woman who thinks she understands more than she does about the world must at some point be taken in by an unworthy suitor. And so Marian is, by a man almost literally named rake. The romance is not convincing, but the absence of any real connection between them could be forgiven because we know the precedents for this arc so well: He’s either a Darcy or a Willoughby. (There were hints in both directions.) Somehow he turns out to be neither, and since their story barely existed, its dissolution collapses like a passionless soufflé. The initial attraction was absent: Marian seemed not to like Tom Raikes at first for reasons that are kept from the viewer; he seems perfectly pleasant and does her a good turn by not billing her after her father dies, so we’re left, at least in the beginning, wondering whether she detects some flaw in him that we can’t see. She eventually changes her mind about him for reasons that are no less clear than her earlier dislike—this, as he skyrockets upward into the upper echelons of New York society through mechanisms no one ever bothers to explain. (Bertha should really consult with him!)

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As for Tom Raikes, his rise was so mysterious and swift (in a milieu that had explicitly labeled him a hopeless outsider with no prospects) that it suggested something deliciously soapy and sinister. Fans theorized that he’d stolen Marian’s money and told her there was none, or that he planned to marry her for a fortune he knew she had. None of that turned out to be true. He was a nice enough guy who made some scummy but unremarkable choices and resorted to ghosting Marian out of cowardice. End of story. Even Marian seems to think he’s not that bad. She’s just disappointed.

OK, fine. Maybe there are no fireworks to speak of during their courtship or their parting, but this is a show about reputational management, not social ruin. Maybe Marian’s socially risky decision to elope—frustrated through not one but two plot devices—will at least result in a slight hit to her status, bringing her a notch closer to the terrible position Mrs. Chamberlain occupies. Nope again! Everyone concerned agrees to keep silent to protect Marian’s reputation … except for her. She tells obvious future love interest Larry Russell all about it and it’s fine. Blurting out the giant secret doesn’t matter at all.

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Maybe Marian isn’t that upset about Raikes because they barely got to know each other, even in-universe. But this reflects another strange thing about the way The Gilded Age approaches melodrama. It’s not just that people don’t change; it’s that the show suffers from an almost wild inability to portray pain. By the time we learn about Peggy’s horrifying personal history, the character’s resilience, composure, eloquence, and sunny demeanor all make it difficult to reconcile what she’s gone through with her extraordinary polish—and her tendency to sulk at rather than reject her father. We know she’s upset, because this show runs on exposition, and so Peggy has repeatedly explained that she is upset to her mother and to Marian. But the closest the show comes to showing (as opposed to narrating) human misery is when the wretched Mrs. Armstrong goes to visit her mother, a dead ringer for Livia Soprano, who throws a perfectly good pie on the floor. Mrs. Armstrong characterizes this as a pleasant outing to her coworkers when she returns home—and despite her sourness, it’s frankly so refreshing for one character on this show not to robotically announce exactly what’s on his or her mind that I found myself warming to her.

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Because here’s the worst thing about The Gilded Age: It isn’t gilded! The title implies social dishonesty—people trying to pass off gilding for gold. But there’s virtually no deception in this show, not even (forgive me) a surface attempt. (Well, there’s Oscar, I guess, but he’s so brutally honest to his lover about his plan to deceive Gladys into marrying him that the whole arrangement feels more coldly strategic than thrillingly dishonest.) Everyone bluntly says exactly what they want and mean all the time. And what they want doesn’t change. Marian wants to socialize with Mr. Raikes and resents her aunt Agnes. Agnes resents the Russells and wants them kept out of society. She says this so loudly and often, with so little variation, that not even the glorious Christine Baranski can imbue it with layers or texture, let alone character development. Agnes also repeatedly states how much she respects Peggy. This could be interesting—I’d love to learn how Agnes, a person with more than the usual helping of social prejudice, is somehow immune to racism. But no light is shed on the question. Instead, we get several scenes in which the aristocrat solemnly reaffirms her admiration for Peggy and—advancing neither of their characters—warns her of the struggles ahead.

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Other characters pop up with choruses that remind us of what they want too: Bertha Russell wants to belong to high society. Gladys resents her mother and wants to be allowed to see people. Oscar wants to marry Gladys. None of these desires change, or develop a dramatic situation, or build to a consequence. Gladys’ desperate, long-standing resentment of her mother, for instance, is much too easily pacified by the ball. Everyone’s desires are so uncomplicated and imparted so didactically that even implied internal contradictions don’t seem to matter. For instance, I was pretty sure we saw Oscar and John Adams break up over dinner—there’s even a pun about them finishing their meal as well as their relationship—but when Oscar turns up at John’s in the finale, reassuring him that nothing will ever change if and when he woos Gladys, who (in case you forgot) he badly wants to marry, it doesn’t feel like a reconciliation. More like the earlier conversation never happened.

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It would be particularly rewarding to better understand Bertha, the true protagonist of this show, given that the finale focuses on her triumph: why she wants what she wants, what friends she dumped in order to make her bid for the 400, what exactly her hopes are for Gladys and what of her soul or past self she has sacrificed to her unquenchable social ambition. I enjoyed the spectacle of her staring mutely at Mrs. Astor’s servants as they beat rugs and plucked chickens in Newport; it’s great to see Carrie Coon out of countenance, off balance, coping. Instead, we get so many scenes in which she coolly reminds her husband or children that she wants a better guest list that it starts to feel like a joke. We know, Bertha. Here too, there’s less conflict than attenuation. She wins, pretty easily, and it never seemed like a fair fight.

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But if the heroes aren’t developed, neither are the antagonists. Mrs. Astor, the über-villain blocking the Russells from social success, barely exists. Agnes got all the color and verve that might have made Mrs. Astor memorable, but none of her social power. As for Astor’s lackey, Ward McAllister (played by Nathan Lane) he’s so hammy and unctuous—but has been advertised as a snarling Cerberus for so long—that you long to see his two-faced machinations and social savagery in action. That desire is frustrated. This much-discussed wizard of the social scene has no fascinating plans to speak of beyond an injudicious romp to visit Mrs. Astor’s Newport home in her absence—a move that would have been more interesting if he’d (just for example) humiliated Bertha Russell on purpose. But no: It was an accident. Nothing he says approaches a double meaning, let alone a scheme. It turns out Ward McAllister just wants to go to Bertha’s ball. As for Astor, the Big Bad the whole season has been building up to? Maybe it would have helped to see her successfully sabotage Bertha a time or two by doing something more dramatic than getting her butler to say “not at home.” As it stands, she folds so completely and so earnestly that it’s hard to understand how she was ever an adversary. As with every other conflict on a show that confuses unfettered triumph with catharsis, the villain barely registers—not just as an obstacle, but as a character at all.

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