‘The Gilded Age’ Star Morgan Spector Says Show Would ‘Lose the Audience’ if Labor Strike Turned Violent

Season 2 of the HBO drama follows the tension between George Russell and the workers who manufacture his railroads

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

Note: This story contains spoilers from “The Gilded Age” Season 2, Episode 6.

The labor dispute between George Russell and the steelworkers who manufacture his railroads nearly reached the point of no return in the latest episode of “The Gilded Age.” But star Morgan Spector said it was smart for the HBO period drama to halt the tension before things turned violent.

The end of the sixth episode in Season 2 of HBO’s period drama followed as Russell witnessed the workers boycotting the factory, blocking its entrance from potential scab workers to the point where armed militia were ready to shoot down the protesting laborers. Russell ended up having the final call and saved dozens of lives by telling the militia captain to call off his men, in exchange for granting some of the laborers’ demands.

“These guys went really far in real life. Some of these robber barons had really not much compunction about their workers dying in these strikes, and they were assisted in that by the state… there were real massacres in these labor battles,” Spector told TheWrap. “I suspect that, if we went that far, that we would lose the audience. I do think we sort of tiptoe up to the edge of seeing how ruthless and how high the stakes are in these battles. These are really life and death, conflicts between capital and labor.

“I’m hopeful that, as much as we — to some extent — back away from the worst possible outcomes, that you do see the stakes in our show,” he added. “I think that’s about as close as we could come without spoiling the souffle.”

The actor also compared the show’s labor protest with the recently resolved WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, as the actors’ union waits for voting to end Tuesday to officially ratify the new contract negotiated with the AMPTP.

“I think it’s a tricky balancing act for me, for the writers. There’s a question of, ‘we’re living through this, obviously the actors were just out on strike and the writers were out on strike and those strikes were very successful — I think so — and there’s a very pro-labor mood in this country, which is sort of a new development in the last 10-15 years, and it’s really thrilling,” Spector said. “That’s one of the wonderful things about this show, we get a chance to explore this history of the development of worker power in America. George, he’s on the wrong side of that history, but for me it’s still an interesting way to engage with it.”

Spector hinted that, though the motivation of the strikes was similar in nature, it was different in methodology, given the evolution of worker rights that got started in the time period covered on the series.

“I’m glad that we don’t [go further] because, I think that everybody would go ‘Well, the show’s over now’ and maybe George and Bertha would have to get divorced or something. So I’m glad we didn’t go that far,” he said.

Bertha and George did hit a rough patch earlier on in the season when Bertha’s former lady’s maid Ms. Turner (Kelley Curran) resurfaced as Mrs. Joshua Winterton, now an equal to Bertha since she married an older, rich man. Turner tried to tempt George in Season 1 by slipping into his bed naked, but he banished her immediately from his quarters.

“From the point of view of somebody who could have committed adultery, George did not betray his wife. He had an opportunity and he didn’t. However, he did make what was something of an obviously questionable decision not to inform his wife that this event had taken place,” Spector said. “It’s one of those wonderful dramatic situations where both parties in the conflict have a pretty decent point. If this were me and I was having a fight with my wife about it, I’d be like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m so sorry. I f–ked up like, please forgive me.’ But for the period, it’s important to resist that temptation a little bit because I think a lot of the men in these marriages were not necessarily faithful to their wives. They had ample opportunity to go outside, and as much as that wouldn’t be part of George and Bertha’s arrangement at all, they are exceptional to the sort of mores of the period. George does know that he behaved very honorably from a certain perspective, so I didn’t want to make him too apologetic actually.”

Carrie Coon as Bertha Russell and Morgan Spector as George Russell in “The Gilded Age” Season 2 (Warner Media)

The actor, who also starred with Carrie Coon (though not paired as a couple this time) in “The Boston Stranger” earlier this year, felt relieved when he and his onscreen partner, who portrays Bertha, got to go back to their dynamic, united, power couple in the latter episodes of Season 2.

“It’s sad when you have to play a conflict like this. You’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t want you to be angry at me. We don’t want have to go through this rift.’ In the same way that I’ve seen some people online talking about the show like ‘We don’t like it when mom and dad are fighting,’ it’s like, mom and dad don’t like it when they’re fighting either,” he said. “But it’s fun to do because it’s fun to play conflict. Those scenes are juicy. But yeah, I have to say I will admit to experiencing some palpable relief when we got when it was like, ‘Okay, we’ve got this behind us.’”

Six of eight episodes in Season 2 of “The Gilded Age” are now available to stream on Max.


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