Amid a horrifying month in world news, it’s a relief to reenter the world of “The Gilded Age,” where problems are something to be gossiped about over lawn tennis in Newport. In Julian Fellowes’ opulent, HBO-funded take on 19th century New York, the recently concluded Civil War takes up a fraction of the real estate devoted to the Opera War, a brewing fight for patronage and prestige between the establishment-favored Academy of Music and the upstart Metropolitan. Can new money arriviste Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) go head-to-head with grande dame Caroline Astor (Donna Murphy)? Can Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) be gainfully employed as an art teacher and maintain her prospects as a marriageable young woman? Can Marian’s aunt Ada (Cynthia Nixon), much to the horror of her sister Agnes (Christine Baranski), serve soup at a luncheon? What a privilege it is to contemplate these questions, or even share for a few hours these deeply skewed priorities!
As alien as this universe may feel, though, it’s still technically our own, and Season 2 of “The Gilded Age” lets some reality into the show’s bejeweled bubble. By following Marian’s friend Peggy (Denée Benton) in her work writing for a Black-owned newspaper, the plot inevitably touches on the much higher-stakes matter of what emancipation does and doesn’t change; more surprisingly, the new season actually engages with how, and with whose labor, Bertha’s husband George (Morgan Spector) made his fortune. As Hollywood still reckons with the impact of a historic double strike, “The Gilded Age” takes on a labor dispute of its own — a sharp break from its previous MO of proudly out-of-touch escapism.
Such storylines are, in a sense, an admirable effort on Fellowes’ part to honor the implications of his setting. When people reference the actual Gilded Age, it’s mostly used as a shorthand for oligarchy and wealth hoarding; it would be unnatural for a show of the same name to ignore those implications entirely. As for Peggy, the character has never been meaningfully incorporated into the cast. (If Bertha, with all her money and whiteness, can’t simply will her way into high society, Peggy can’t transcend far deeper divides than different flavors of extreme wealth without blatant, “Bridgerton”-style anachronism.) Having effectively marooned her on a show-within-a-show, the least “The Gilded Age” can do is take Peggy’s concerns seriously.
But the more weight “The Gilded Age” gives these counterpoints to its breezy, feather-light way of being, the more it strains to work everything into one coherent narrative. A midseason episode sends Peggy on a reporting trip to Tuskegee, Alabama, complete with a cameo from Booker T. Washington (Michael Braugher), that results in a disturbing brush with racist violence. The same hour ends with a Manhattan matron throwing a fit over a rival poaching her star houseguest, a camp-adjacent tantrum — “I don’t want other dukes, I want this duke!” — that may be wasted on viewers still haunted by the less glamorous side of America’s past.
Other contrasts come still closer to home. The first season of “The Gilded Age” made clear that George Russell is a ruthless operator, but mostly illustrated that quality in maneuvering against his stuffy, hidebound new peers. Only in Season 2 is George finally given the unsavory label of “robber baron” and pitted directly against his own employees. Eventually, Fellowes works to soften George, making him slightly more receptive to workers’ demands for better hours and safer factory conditions than his more draconian colleagues. But where a union leader’s cause gets a fair hearing, Bertha’s staging of a pivotal dinner party gets an entire dramatic arc, with the string-laden score hitting a crescendo as a fleet of servants rolls out a soup course. (Yes, there are multiple story beats hinging on fancy broth.) In lieu of a proper climax, the clash of labor and capital trails off, making space for a finale dedicated entirely to the less urgent tug-of-war between two well-funded music halls.
“The Gilded Age” puts its budget where its heart truly lies: with the extravagant trappings of its characters’ dynastic fortunes. This season, filmmakers are no longer forced to conspicuously cut around Coon’s pregnancy, allowing for glorious, full-body shots that put the work of costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone on full display. (I’m especially fond of a gown with asymmetrical trim in an accordion-like fabric. This isn’t a fashion review, but the millinery alone demands acknowledgement.) Meanwhile, Bertha’s son Larry (Harry Richardson), a Harvard-educated architect, agrees to help a rich widow with her home renovation. Sparks fly between them, but “The Gilded Age” has always found a spacious sitting room more erotic than actual sex.
In theory, Fellowes conceived of “The Gilded Age” because of his interest in social change, at least compared to the rigid aristocracy of his native United Kingdom. Yet with hindsight, we can see that the clashes between the Russells and their neighbors on East 61st Street amount to the narcissism of small differences. (To the average New Yorker, both Stuyvesant and Rockefeller are just names on the side of a building.) To Fellowes’ credit, he seems to understand that statements like “This is America — you can be anything you want!” must be earned by more dramatic forms of class mobility. Indeed, Season 2 delights in a bit of role reversal, putting Bertha in the same position as her scandalized gatekeepers when a former servant reenters her life in an unexpected new capacity.
But just because “The Gilded Age” knows it has to broaden its horizons doesn’t mean it pursues all its elements with the same passion or aptitude. It’s clear which story points come from enthusiasm and which from obligation; while “Downton Abbey” was more evenly split between upstairs and down, “The Gilded Age” has never paid as much attention to the help as those hiring them. (The biggest servant subplot this season is a minor tale about repairing a clock.) It’s also unlikely “The Gilded Age” will ever fully shift its gaze from the rich to the systems that enable their affluence. What we get instead is a paradoxical, probably unsustainable mix of lighthearted distraction with historical education, where etiquette and inequality receive equal weight.
Season 2 of “The Gilded Age” will premiere on HBO and Max on Sunday, Oct. 29, with subsequent episodes airing weekly.