Warning: The following contains mild spoilers for “The Gilded Age” Episode 5.
There is no shortage of complex female characters who stand up for their beliefs in the HBO period drama “The Gilded Age.”
Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) paves her own path as an aspiring Black writer and journalist. Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) rebels against the unspoken rules of old society and Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) steadily pushes through obstacles preventing her from joining old society — much like one of her husband George’s (Morgan Spector) railroad trains plodding along its tracks.
Gladys Russell (Taissa Farmiga), Bertha and George’s daughter, faces a different set of barriers in her storyline.
‘The Gilded Age’ Renewed for Season 2 at HBO
“This is a young woman who craves independence, she craves a chance to be her own person and establish herself and the biggest barrier between her and achieving that goal is her mother,” Farmiga said in a recent interview with TheWrap. “So we first meet Gladys, she’s kind of sheltered and happy to go along with what her mother says, but as we get through the next few episodes, and we get to episode four or five, Gladys really starts pushing back and pushing against her mother’s beliefs and desires.”
Farmiga originally auditioned for the role of Marian Brook, but she didn’t feel she fit quite right into that character. When she was asked to read for Gladys, she clicked immediately.
“I understand Gladys’ desire [for] freedom. She’s a teenager on the brink of adulthood who craves independence and a chance to experience the world and I remember what that’s like,” Farmiga recalled. “You kind of want distance from your parental figures and you want to sort of be able to have the distance and the freedom to formulate your own opinion. So I think that’s something that I was originally drawn to with Gladys was her desire to sort of break free of the powers that be, which is her mother and the society of the 1880s.”
Gladys — who is not yet ‘out’ in society — still meets young men where she can, corresponding with them since she cannot go on dates by herself yet.
“Gladys’ struggle at the beginning of the season is not wanting to have a governess. You know, governance is for a child and she definitely thinks that she’s grown past that, and she should be upgraded to a lady’s maid,” Farmiga described. “Gladys doesn’t really have very many opportunities for socialization. Part of wanting a lady’s maid is also wanting to have a friend in a way, she’s young and she doesn’t fully understand the differences in in class between the wealthy and then for people living in poverty. I think she’s looking for a friend where she can find it. I think that’s a beautiful part of her character.”
A scene in Episode 5 of the show plays out the consequences of Bertha exacting control over Gladys’ personal affairs. Bertha and George soon invite one such young man — investment banker Archie Baldwin — to dinner, and Gladys gets her hopes up that maybe finally they’ll take her opinion into account. But Bertha’s ambitions, cloaked in an aggressive business agreement George forges with young Archie, leave Gladys crestfallen.
“It was a big emotional moment for Gladys because I think she just felt really defeated,” Farmiga said. “As an actress it’s fun to get to play those sort of moments because it’s a more extreme version of an emotion and love diving into that.”
The young Miss Russell doesn’t quite realize the stature at which she already lives, much less the one her mother is trying to achieve. Gladys faces many problems opposite Peggy and Marian, whose independence gives them more agency, but also more responsibility and decision-making, while Miss Russell is lucky if she can get out from her mother’s clutches.
“Bertha and George, they’re new money in the sense that they’ve made all their millions really recently. They don’t have the lineage and the bloodline and established sort of thing that the old money families do like the Van Rhijn’s and the Brooks,” Farmiga said. “Bertha understand how it works. She’s not a part of it and she wants in, but it’s a very tactical game she has to play to even get the opportunity to potentially woo over Mrs. Astor, to potentially be able to set one foot in the highest society, and I think Bertha is willing to do whatever it takes. She’s protective over her daughter but, you know, it’s one of the themes of the show, love and sacrifice — is she willing to sacrifice her daughter’s emotional happiness of the current moment for future happiness of a good stable life?”
Gladys’ lack of social autonomy is evident in her costumes.
“If you look at Gladys’ wardrobe in the first few episodes, she pretty much looks like a doll,” Farmiga said. “She looks like a doll that her mother has dressed up, and her mother had money and wealth and I think, in a way, she’s able to flaunt that for Gladys’ wardrobe. It would be kind of rude to flaunt your money, but I think it’s a subtle way that Bertha can sort of show the world and show the society around her like, look what we have to offer.”
Even something as simple as a hairstyle can signify a young woman’s age.
“One stylization choice for Gladys is definitely she’s the only one who wears her hair down for the majority of Season 1, which shows that she’s not out in society. It’s not the style of a proper lady at that time,” Farmiga revealed. “But as for the clothes, I think there’s a lot of like pinks and bows and that sort of sweetness in the beginning that really shows the soft and naive side of Gladys, which kind of grows and changes over the course of the season.”
Even though Gladys is not yet officially on the marriage market, much to the confusion of both her brother and her father, Oscar Van Rhijn has taken an interest in her as a prospective wife.
“What’s interesting about marriages in that time period is that a lot of time they weren’t for romance or for love, they were almost transactional in a way. They were more for peace of mind for a family to know that their daughter or their son is going to be taken care of,” Farmiga said. “I think a bit of Oscar pursuing Gladys is not so much for his affection for her but more so of just doing what he needs to do to be able to live the life that he wants to live. And I think in Gladys’ perspective, I think she’s very excited to have somebody new to talk to that she’s not blood related to.
According to Farmiga, Gladys’ plotline is about to heat up in the back half of the season. As for Farmiga’s favorite scene filming as Gladys, it hasn’t aired yet.
“The thing is, they’re all towards the end of the season. [That’s] when Gladys gets to transform. I love the moments in the beginning even in the first episode, where Gladys keeps getting cut off or she’s not able to speak or have an opinion. Those moments are funny. As an actor, it’s fun to play,” Farmiga said. “The most exciting stuff is like seeing her arc go from someone who’s so sheltered and shy to sort of finding a voice for herself, and so my favorite scenes and some of my favorite wardrobe, which you’re going to be astonished —it’s really amazing what the costume department did, but the second half of the season is when it really gets juicy.”
“The Gilded Age” airs Monday nights on HBO and HBO Max.