In its first season, The Gilded Age was a ludicrous trifle of a series. Julian Fellowes’ follow-up to Downton Abbey wanted to say things about the last gilded age versus the one we’re living through now, but half the time, it was too caught up with the spectacle of New York’s nouveau riche versus old money to be taken seriously. It didn’t help that the HBO show was trying to do too much, attempting to apply Downton’s upstairs-downstairs dynamic, which was a bit of a lightning-in-a-bottle formula that few PBS shows had managed to recapture, throughout multiple households, creating a cast of nearly impossible proportions.
If the real-life Gilded Age had a motto, it would have been “more, more, more.” Fellowes certainly has taken that to heart for Season 2 of his series: more hats, more plots, more dresses, more characters, more dinners, more dances. But all this abundance leaves the show just as superficial as it was in its first season, and takes away space from the ones that might have given the series the gravitas it clearly wishes to have.
And this is an issue because in between the silliness, the shallow soap-opera dramas, and the ghastly Newport accent coming out of Nathan Lane’s mouth, there is so much the show seems to want say about older women in this era, the trauma of the LGBTQ+ experience of this era, and most importantly, the Black experience, stuffed between all the dresses and hats. It’s there in Cynthia Nixon’s Ada Brook, who spent Season 1 as the dutiful charity case wallflower to Christine Baranski’s Agnes van Rhijn, subsuming her entire life to Agnes’ wishes. Season 2 sees her awaken for the first time in decades, suddenly aware that life doesn’t have to end at 21. It’s a story that could have powered an entire 10-episode season of a period drama and instead only gets to be the A plot for exactly one hour out of eight.
The more substantive stories are there in the unhappy tale of the closeted Oscar van Rhijn (Blake Ritson), madly in love with John Adams IV (yes, of those John Adamses), and forced to become engaged to a perfectly lovely young lady in whom he has little interest, other than the size of her pocketbook. It’s not the first time Fellowes has dabbled in the reality of the fortune-hunter marriages of the era — the entire backstory of Downton Abbey was predicated on it, and the unlikely outcome that Lord and Lady Grantham had fallen in love despite their less-than-romantic reasons for marriage. However, these marriages often did not lead to love, and more than a few times at least one party was quietly known to be queer, if not to their marriage partner, until it was too late. Again, this idea could fuel an entire season and remains mostly a D plot here.
But perhaps the most frustrating of the serious plots given short shrift remains that of Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), who should have been given her own series from the start. One could argue (and people probably have) that a period piece drama focused on the journalist daughter of a Gilded Age-era upper-class New York City Black family probably would have trouble getting greenlit, let alone budgeted anywhere close to The Gilded Age. However, Season 1 merely gave folks tantalizing glimpses of a world that television has utterly overlooked, sandwiched between endless stuff that could have easily been excised as unnecessary.
Season 2 only makes things worse, not because it reduces Peggy’s story, but because it attempts to expand it and add more of the Black experience in America during this period outside New York City while also not giving her plot any more time than it had the last go round. Peggy chooses to leave New York and heads south despite the warnings of her parents. To its credit, the series does not cut corners or flinch at the reality of what she finds there. However, the result is almost bizarrely incongruous, with this genuine horror and trauma existing shoulder-to-shoulder with stories about rich women fretting that people will find out their fathers are working as butlers and who owns what box in which opera house.
The denouement of Peggy’s story in Season 1 felt a little bit of a cop-out, with the trite revelation of her having given up a baby out of wedlock, considering all the racial dynamics the series could have chosen to focus on. But at least it was of a piece with the broader story, which saw Marion Brook (Louisa Jacobson) fooled by a social climber and Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) worrying whether or not Caroline Astor (Donna Murphy) would show up to her ball. Peggy’s experiences in Season 2 do not feel like they fit with Marion’s becoming a governess or Bertha’s fight to start her own better opera house to punish those who won’t let her join theirs. These stories are not even remotely equivalent, and watching them treated as such feels deeply strange.
That’s not to say that the show isn’t utterly delightful if you’re willing to meet it where it lives. The Gilded Age is basically the American version of Downton Abbey, which showed the working class clamoring and fighting for the right to serve the royal family. This series is made mostly by British people, and while there’s definitely room for improvement, that they get any of the Black American history correct should probably be treated as a small miracle.
And yet, The Gilded Age is still hilariously entertaining, both deliberately and sometimes accidentally. If you are willing to fully invest in the deeply felt drama of having to keep making new batches of souffle every 10 minutes, or how much claret to decant, or if the invitation from across the street is worth being turned down or taken up, this show can be utterly riveting. (There is an unboxing of a hat sequence tailor made for costume buffs.) PBS has more substantive period dramas, but viewers more interested in seeing a gold silk bustle with a diamond choker of seven layers up Carrie Coon’s neck or if Mrs. Astor will take a box in the new opera house or the old will find plenty of such confections and “dilemmas” in The Gilded Age.
The Gilded Age Season 2 premieres October 29 at 9:00 PM ET on HBO and Max. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Ani Bundel is an entertainment writer covering everything from celebrities to movies to peak TV when she's not tweeting or Instagramming photos of her very fuzzy cats. Her other regular bylines can be found at PBS/WETA's Telly Visions, where she co-hosts a weekly podcast by anglophiles for anglophiles, CNN Opinions, and MSNBC Daily.
TOPICS: The Gilded Age