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‘The Gilded Age’ Star Denée Benton on Episode 4 and the Peggy Storyline That Didn’t Originally Exist

Benton breaks down the episode’s big character reveals

Spoilers follow below for “The Gilded Age” Episode 4.

Peggy Scott’s character truly blossoms in “The Gilded Age” Episode 4, which shines a greater light on Scott’s home life and in turn Black American life during the titular era. The HBO drama series hails from “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes, but actress Denée Benton previously told TheWrap that as early as the audition process she was asked for her input on the show’s portrayal of Black characters.

In the show’s first episode, Peggy makes the journey from rural Pennsylvania to urban New York City, extending charity and resources to Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) along the way and in turn, Marian offers Peggy the chance to stay with her aunt’s in a well-to-do neighborhood marked by Old Money. Peggy subsequently takes a job as a secretary to Marian’s Aunt Agnes Van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) in order to fund her passion as a writer — something of which her parents disapprove.

The fourth episode of the series not only finds Peggy going to her parents’ house for the first time in the show, but also sees Marian secretly following her. It’s here where the show further tackles racial relations during the late 1800s, as Marian — who thinks of herself as Peggy’s friend — assumes Peggy’s family lives in poverty. An assumption that makes her look foolish when she’s discovered outside a nice residence holding a bag of shoes she intended to give away as charity.

As the scene between Peggy and Marian was fleshed out, Benton says she and co-star Louisa Jacobson pushed the confrontation even further than what was on the page. “That shoe scene always existed,” Benton told TheWrap. “But [Louisa and I collaborated on] really leaning into the friction of it, leaning into the boundary crossing, leaning into Marian having like the defensive white fragility response instead of immediately understanding and being this sort of white heroine who just isn’t touched by racism.”

Peggy is understandably upset by Marian’s intrusion, and Benton says the two won’t be so quick to get over the incident — another change that they pushed for. “Another big part that we fought for was making sure that the recovery wasn’t too smooth in the following episodes,” Benton revealed. “If they are truly going to be friends, you can’t sell some fairy tale. We have to honor the time and the boundaries that it would actually take for them to develop that trust and we can’t undermine Peggy’s dignity in the process or elevate Marian on some pedestal that undermines the truth of even today what it’s like for Black and white friendship to have true trust.”

Directly preceding Peggy and Marian’s confrontation, we see Peggy having lunch with her parents, played by Audra McDonald and John Douglas Thompson, and Benton singled the experience out as her favorite scene to shoot during this first season. “It was just like I understood our family dynamics so well, and I understood what they were holding because it’s like what my own parents are holding and us trying to see each other and they just brought so much humanity,” Benton said. “John plays this man who could just be seen as a villain, and he plays him with so much humanity and I just have so much grace for him even inside of my rage. And same for Dorothy, it was just like, you sat down with them and every part of the world came to life because they’re acting in your humanity.”

While Peggy and her mother Dorothy butt heads, Benton says there’s a beauty in their relationship as two Black professional women. “It’s a part of her character that I relate to so deeply,” Benton allowed. “It is simply her existing in spaces that weren’t designed for her, and it’s something that I relate to as a Black professional woman — I am often in spaces where I am the only Black person and that I’m often in spaces where I’m the only woman. So where does my intersection go where I can feel fully seen? Truly that’s one of the most beautiful parts to me about Peggy and Dorothy’s relationship as it develops over the season and as we find out what the fracture was. As they get deeper in understanding it, you also get to see these two Black women where it’s like we are actually the only ones in many of our worlds who fully understand each other’s experience.”

Peggy’s professional life gets a boost in Episode 4 with the introduction of the New York Globe, which was one of the most prominent newspapers of the time period. As it turns out, The Globe storyline was added thanks to series consultant and co-executive producer Dr. Erica Armstrong Dunbar. “T. Thomas Fortune and the whole Globe storyline was not in the original script,” Benton revealed. “That was an incredible additional thought that Dr. Armstrong Dunbar had where it was like, okay, she could work in a white publishing office, but the Globe existed at this time. So why not take the opportunity to show another part of Black professional life that is largely erased from our history?”

That expansion of Peggy’s story — the depiction of a Black character living a dimensional life — was something Benton related to deeply in the series. “We get to see this Black family playing the piano and living a life that is not only a reaction to their oppression,” Benton said in reference to the scene with Peggy’s family. “Which is I think is the most human part of it, because it’s what we all do, Black people in this country.”

“The Gilded Age” airs Mondays on HBO and HBO Max.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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