‘The Gilded Age’ Season 1 Recap: What to Remember for Season 2

Social change was afoot in more ways than one in the HBO period drama

Carrie Coon and Donna Murphy in "The Gilded Age" Season 1 Finale (HBO/Max)

“The Gilded Age” is back for a second season, moving to the coveted Sunday night slot on HBO and Max. Creator and co-showrunner Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”) worked with co-showrunner Sonja Warfield to bring the American period drama to life, incorporating historical accuracy with the help of Dr. Erica Dunbar. Directors included Michael Engler, Salli Richardson Whitfield and Deborah Kampmeier.

Season 1 left off with the threat of an opera house battle — not one involving troops and guns, but socialites and wealth. “The Gilded Age” was peppered with historical events and landmarks, including the introduction of electricity by Thomas Edison, and the Bethesda Terrace in Central Park. The hand of the Statue of Liberty that holds the torch, which was delivered before the rest of the statue from France, served as a date spot, and Clara Barton and the American Red Cross made an important appearance. Fellowes also injected servant-class stories into the ensemble cast, just as he did with the “upstairs, downstairs dynamic” in “Downton Abbey.”

Several of the servants have secrets and drama in their own lives. Viewers learned that Bertha’s French chef (Douglas Sills) Mr. Baudin (really Borden) was not French at all, but a talented man from Kansas who had a passable French accent. Mr. Watson (Michael Cerveris) has a daughter in the upper class who didn’t know him well at all. John Treacher (Ben Ahlers) tried to take Bridget (Taylor Richardson) on a date to a moving picture, but it didn’t seem to go well. Church (Jack Gilphin) managed Bertha’s servers while Bannister (Simon Jones) managed Agnes’, each thinking they were the superior household.

Carrie Coon and Nathan Lane in “The Gilded Age” Season 1 (Warner Media)

Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) also dabbled in visits to Newport, the vacation destination for New York’s elite. At consulting with Ward McAllister (Nathan Lane), she invested in a home there as much of high society spent the summer season there. Her husband, tycoon George Russell (Morgan Spector) dealt with a deadly accident on one of his railroads, and remnants of the steelworkers union and the Knights of Labor were poking at his fortune last season. Larry Russell (Harry Richardson) worked for his father until he summoned the courage to pursue his true passion: architecture. 

Read on for the rest of the major plot points to remember from Season 1 of “The Gilded Age”:

Marian Planned to Elope with Mr. Raikes (Thomas Coquerel) Mrs. Chamberlain Was Involved

Season 1 opened with Ms. Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) moving in with her dead father’s estranged sisters Mrs. Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and Ms. Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon) on 61st Street in New York City. Left with little money or prospects, Marian moved in with her wealthy aunt Agnes, who sits on a small fortune left behind by her late husband. Ada convinced Agnes to let Marian move in. Throughout the season, the Marian befriended women in all places, including one Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) and Gladys Russell (Taissa Farmiga), the daughter of Bertha and George Russell.

Thomas Coquerel and Louisa Jacobson in Season 1 of “The Gilded Age” (Warner Media/HBO/Max)

Marian fell in love with the family lawyer Tom Raikes after he followed her to New York to attempt the social climb himself. He and Marian made plans to elope despite Agnes’ warning that Raikes was a social climber who only valued status. Raikes left Marian waiting for him in favor of marrying a wealthier, more upper-class woman in the finale of Season 1. Marian was heartbroken.

Peggy Scott Was Married, and Her Child Survived

Peggy Scott first met Marian at the train station when Marian was traveling to New York. Ms. Scott saved Marian a whole lot of embarrassment by buying her a train ticket when Marian’s purse and wallet were stolen. The two became fast friends, and Peggy eventually ended up working for Agnes as her personal secretary. Peggy also ventured into the world of journalism to work at the New York Globe with T. Thomas Fortune. 

The latter half of Season 1 revealed Peggy’s past was one of pain and turmoil. It turned out that she was previously married, but her father Arthur (John Douglas Thompson) pressured her ex-husband to dissolve the union after Peggy almost died in childbirth. Peggy was told that her child died after she gave birth to him, but later discovered her son was still alive. Her father deliberately covered it up, as he wanted her to leave her past take over his pharmacy one day. 

Bertha Russell Threw a Big Ball

Bertha worked hard to climb the social ladder in New York high society last season, and she faced many obstacles due mainly to the fact that she and her husband were new money while the rest of respectable New York socialites descended from old money. Bertha’s ball was centered around daughter Gladys’ coming out into society, meaning she could be courted and was eligible for marriage (like in “Bridgerton” when the ladies presented themselves at the marriage market). Bertha blackmailed Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy), who sits atop the social pyramid as the queen bee of old society, into attending her lavish fete.

Mrs. Astor then begged her important connections, including Agnes van Rhijn, to attend as well. The season ended with Berta vying for a prized box at the Academy of Music, New York’s renowned opera house, to add another symbol of her family’s high social status.

Mr. Russell Navigated a Similar Icing Out in Business

Morgan Spector portrays George Russell in “The Gilded Age” (Warner Media)

Mr. Russell, who supports his wife’s dreams at every opportunity, stood alone as a formidable businessman. Early on in Season 1, other magnates tried to cut him out of an important business deal, but he saw what was coming, and through a shrew stock-shorting plan, fooled his rival investors and turned the tables on them. Some, like Mr. Morris, were forever financially ruined, and he took his own life because of it. George also always manages to financially back random causes that his wife needs his help with, whether it be buying out a whole charity auction or the day-to-day hosting schedule that his wife keeps booked.

Even when presented the chance to be unfaithful to Mrs. Russell when her own maid Ms. Turner (Kelley Curran) tried to seduce him, George remained committed to his wife. He also often served as a buffer between Bertha and Gladys when Gladys was not out in society yet. Bertha has very high hopes for her daughter’s future husband, as does George, but he is a little more sympathetic for his daughter’s desire to date.

All the drama will play out when Season 2 of “The Gilded Age” returns Sunday. Watch the official trailer below:

Comments

One response to “‘The Gilded Age’ Season 1 Recap: What to Remember for Season 2”

  1. Cary D Cotterman Avatar
    Cary D Cotterman

    “Ms.” was not in use during the Gilded Age (or any rational age). Ada and Peggy would have been called “Miss”, and neither would have been offended by it.

    It’s worth mentioning (though the author of this piece failed to do so) that Peggy is black. It’s somewhat significant to the plot.

    A shrew is a small, mouse-like mammal (though not a rodent), or an unpleasant woman. “Shrewd” seems to be the word the author was looking for, and almost found.

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