The first season of “The Gilded Age” has drawn to a close, but not without leaving some loose threads to pick up in Season 2.
Starting in 1882, “The Gilded Age” focuses mainly on two young women coming of age in a generation different from that of their parents’ — Marian Brooke (Louisa Jacobson) and Peggy Scott (Denée Benton).Marian, who is white and recently lost her father, has to move in with her old money aunts in their New York apartment, which is right across the street from a new money family headed by railroad tycoon George Russell (Morgan Spector) and his ambitious socialite wife Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon).
In the finale episode, Bertha throws a lavish party attended by everyone who’s anyone in New York high society. It stands in stark contrast to the pilot episode, in which Bertha throws a party that no one attends. Speaking with TheWrap about the finale episode and the first season as a whole, creator and co-showrunner Julian Fellowes said he based Bertha’s party on Alva Vanderbilt’s iconic 1883 ball.
“I did feel that the whole first season would be about Bertha’s struggle, and I very much wanted to use Alva Vanderbilt’s ball, because I love the fact that she had blackmailed Mrs. Astor into coming. That seemed to me a good finish for her vaulting ambition up to that point,” Fellowes told TheWrap. “One can take a sort of 21st century moral viewpoint as to whether or not to achieve a great ball with a lot of people there — is this a worthy moral ambition for a life well lived? There was a very limited field for them to operate in. She wasn’t allowed to do much. And so given what she was allowed to do, she has achieved an enormous amount in my book. I’m entirely on Bertha’s side really.”
At the heart of the first season, the Russells rival old money society, and Bertha faced many obstacles to get accepted into society. Everything comes to a head in true period style at the huge ball Bertha hosts to announce her daughter’s debut into society.
“The whole season is building towards this ball — Gladys’ coming out ball. [Bertha’s] strategizing to make sure that she can get the right people to the ball. In the pilot when she has the at-home, and nobody shows up, [it foreshadows] how are we going to get to this ball?” executive producer and co-showrunner Sonja Warfield told TheWrap in the same interview. “[Bertha] takes the necessary steps and deals the blow to Mrs. Astor and Caroline that she’s not going to be able to come and then that forces Mrs. Astor’s hand.”
Though the finale centers quite heavily on some frivolous “champagne problems” and an excessive party, the display of wealth does connect to the actions of many millionaires today, and other layers of the show make it all the more meaningful.
“The new money in the Gilded Age, their opulence was just crazy,” Warfield said, comparing the Russell house to Versailles in France. “While we were filming the show, Jeff Bezos and others were racing themselves to the moon in rockets […]. They are the new money of our time, right. And that’s what they’re doing. And it’s similar to what they were doing back then.”
Much like in creator Julian Fellowes’ other popular series “Downton Abbey,” “The Gilded Age” plays on the upstairs-downstairs dynamic between wealthy upper class and middle or lower servant class. One obvious difference between Fellowes’ two creations is their locations, with “The Gilded Age” set in America in the late 1800s and “Downton Abbey” taking place in England.
“I think the servant class in America at that time, particularly on the East Coast […], was rather different from Britain, that it was very largely immigrant,” Fellowes said when contrasting the class dynamics in the two shows. “The Americans themselves seem to have been more reluctant to work as servants for other Americans. That’s not, you know, the American dream really.”
Viewers might also be familiar with certain historical elements sprinkled throughout the series, like the development of Clara Barton’s American Red Cross, the Statue of Liberty’s arrival in the United States and Thomas Edison’s revolutionary harnessing of electricity.
“You find the [events] that lend themselves to you for your own dramatic purposes. I don’t think there’s anything very unique in that,” Fellowes said. “I did love the electrical thing because I thought it was so symbolic, as indeed Edison meant it to be, that we were entering a new age, that we were entering the age of electricity, […] and it was going to change a lot of things and as the servants said, in one conversation, it was going to make half their jobs redundant more or less overnight.”
The seventh episode, titled “Irresistible Change,” incorporates Thomas Edison’s newfound use of electricity with a public gathering to watch The New York Times building lit up completely with electric lighting versus the gas method that preceded it.
“What I loved about it, a huge cross section of New York went to see it. So there were carriages and there were, you know, middle class people and there were street vendors and there were pickpockets and, you know and the footmen — I love all that — when it all gets mixed up in a common purpose,” Fellowes said of why he chose to depict the event in “The Gilded Age.”
“There were great changes coming and they weren’t all great for the people thinking about them. I like with any period drama, actually, to pepper them with true events and references to true people and sometimes appearances by true people so that one has a reasonably strong argument for saying this is how it really was,” Fellowes continued.
Viewers may not have been as familiar with the experiences of the Black elite during The Gilded Age, which is chronicled through the arc of Peggy Scott and her family.
“What was so great about Julian’s idea is that he wanted to show this Black elite family 17 years post-emancipation, and their story is not told in relation to being enslaved because the father is a professional, he owns his own business,” Warfield said. “Peggy was educated at the Institute for color and youth which is now one of the HBCUs. And we have the Black press, and people didn’t know — we don’t see that depicted in film and television, especially for people of color, but people didn’t know that that existed.”
More specifically, the fates of the characters expand throughout the first season, some triumphing in the finale like the Russells, and others whose storylines are just getting started.
“As a writer of television, serial drama, you always like to drop a bit of a handkerchief at the end so that they will come back to see how it plays out. One of the things that interests me about American society, then or now actually, is the way people’s lives can change,” Fellowes said of setting up the already ordered Season 2 in the finale. “I wouldn’t say you don’t get [this] in other countries because of course you do, but you get a lot of it in America, where people can change who they are,” Fellowes said. “They can rewrite their own story and come to a different place. […] I tend to rather mine that and see what I can get out of it for my dramatic purposes.”
While the first season was shot during the pandemic, Fellowes praised the series’ production design and doesn’t think viewers can tell once they immerse themselves into the story.
“I was very impressed by the scale of the whole production — these palaces, these great houses, these balls, these races. All of that I thought was marvelously well done. And I love the cast. I think we assembled a terrific cast of all played very well together,” he said. “There’s always a thrill when it becomes three dimensional and it takes on life and these lines that you’ve thought of while you’re lying in the bath, or waiting for the traffic lights to change as suddenly really being said. And you’re there and you’re watching it. I mean, I don’t think the excitement from that ever goes actually. And that was very thrilling.”
The entire first season of “The Gilded Age” is now streaming on HBO Max.