Within my soul, like flames of living fire,
I feel the burning heat of strong desire
And, speeding like full many an arrow’s dart,
Thought after thought swift courses through my heart,
I seize my pen with eager fond delight,
Breathe on, sweet Muse of song, that I may write.
– “Inspiration,” Olivia Ward Bush-Banks
Migration is a constant in human history and has been since our species’ beginning. But migration in the modern context is accompanied by an unrelenting variety of xenophobia and nationalistic fervor that can only be maintained through the politics of exclusion. That exclusion is sometimes obvious through verbiage and action – deliberately or otherwise. But that exclusion is often obvious only to those who are being actively excluded – a mark of privilege for those who simply walk through the barrier as if it were nonexistent.
The Gilded Age is an exquisitely designed and barbarous soap opera and, in that vein, it is often remarkably unsubtle. Julian Fellowes’ own dialogue vacillates dangerously between venomous wit and an inability to understand how people in the story would actually talk about themselves. But the subtlety often shows up beautifully through the performances and, unlike Downton Abbey, the active work done by Salli Richardson Whitfield, Sonja Warfield, and Erica Armstrong Dunbar to bring an honesty about the exclusionary dogma that has defined American society since its foundation.
The fissure that erupts through the thin friendship that had developed between Peggy (Denée Benton), who is Black, and Marian (Louisa Jacobson), who is white, is an experience many, if not most, BIPOC people have gone through. An experience where the friendship in question comes loaded with the dominating question “do they actually see me?” In this case, it’s clear that Marian doesn’t see her, not truly, and the difference in seeing the surface and bothering to take even a slightly deeper look is often profound.
Marian’s lack of personality is slowly shaping up to be a major problem for The Gilded Age, but in this opening scene, that lack of personality accidentally plays into the character’s profound ignorance of the social dynamism that separates her from Peggy. She treats her well enough, Marian thinks to herself, even kindly – but what true kindness is there when you don’t see your alleged friend’s discomfort coursing through her body? Marian walks right into an original Bloomingdale’s over Peggy’s quiet protest without even thinking to stop and ask her why she’s uncomfortable. That “why” is obvious to anyone with some sense in their skull, but still, at least do that. At least have the decency to understand that in an era where segregation was still explicit, that maybe, just maybe, Peggy as a Black woman would be harmed by stepping into an establishment where Black people are not welcome. Even in the store she is profoundly oblivious to the pointed looks and glares thrown Peggy’s way.
That ignorance then transforms, as it inevitably does, into a stunning display of condescension and patronizing behaviour. Marian shows up at Peggy’s house with a pair of old boots, which isn’t deeply shocking. Of course she thought that Peggy was poor because she’s Black. Of course she thought that her family was indigent. Of course she saw the old boots as a gift when anyone with common sense would find that gesture nothing but a profound insult. In Peggy’s silence, she made a number of racist assumptions and not once did she stop and think to herself about the validity of these assumptions and indeed why she made them at all.
Peggy’s frustration and anger is deep. She is a deeply talented woman whose writing adds richness and depth into the cultural understanding of the world around her but she is constantly boxed in and pushed around by whiteness and the patriarchy. Her so-called friend doesn’t see her as an equal in a way she would see, let’s say, a white girl like Gladys (Taissa Farmiga). Her father always assumes that he knows what’s best for her and sees not promise in her dreams, but rather a folly of a young girl whose transformation into adulthood he is committed to ignoring. She’s hemmed in again and again and again and Denée Benton does a beautiful job bringing Peggy’s simmering interior anger to the forefront.
In the midst of this turmoil, there is at least some brightness in the offering for Peggy. A dashing man named T. Thomas Fortune (Sullivan Jones) making his own way with a Black-run newspaper. Peggy is clearly smitten by his looks and wit – you can practically feel the radiant happiness lighting up the inside of Benton’s face and even if that alone was the case, lord knows that Peggy has earned some degree of desire and joy. But in this case, it’s even more than that. There is pure joy in Peggy’s eyes when Thomas doesn’t belittle her talent but instead champions it is worth more than all of the golden treasures built up in the Russell’s manor. Take that pen, Peggy, and turn that paper into your canvas.
– That GORGEOUS cascading red gown that Bertha wears to the opera? It took my breath away and then, to top that off, that intricately jewelled coat? Costume of the year so far and it’s not even close.
– Mrs. Chamberlain’s outfit to the store is how I aspire to look when I go to Trader Joe’s.
– The Bird Gown? Iconic.
– Marian is so boring but her gold and blue gown was anything but.
– While I was going to delve into the Great Northern Migration in this specific review, the historical period is usually dated to about 1910 and so I have decided not to go in depth into that specific movement of Black people from the Jim Crow South and into other parts of the United States as The Gilded Age is currently exploring its characters in 1882 – but it is a period worth researching in greater depth.
– Olivia Ward Bush-Banks is a phenomenal writer and poet of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who often drew Black and Montaukett Native ancestry in her writing, including her poetry. Her work is beautiful and you should check it out!
– Every time Audra McDonald is on screen, does it get better than that?
– Whenever I’m in New York, a city I love, I am also constantly drawn into stores to buy clothes–so, Marian, I relate.
– Louisa Jacobson’s line reading with “Hurrah” was the most tonal mismatch achieved on this show yet.
– While the scene where Turner tries to seduce George didn’t work for me as she’s a poorly defined character, the way this show continues to draw on the strength of the relationship between George and Bertha is remarkable (more on this next week)
– While I prefer The Gilded Age to Downton Abbey, the servant characters in this show are so thinly drawn they might disappear in a slight gust of wind.
– As someone who has gone through suicidal ideations and behavior, hearing multiple characters refer to Patrick as weak for committing suicide was sobering, in large part because that attitude towards suicide is still prevalent today.
– Morgan Spector is shirtless in this episode and I want him to ruin me physically.
– HBO has officially renewed The Gilded Age for a second season, so this means MORE GOWNS.