The Gilded Age Episode 1.07 Review

“There must be vistas flying out beyond, that promise more than present conditions yield.”

– Lewis Howard Latimer

The central sense of disconnect within The Gilded Age is perhaps an unintentional mirroring of the conflict between American mythology and American reality. On one hand, director Salli Richardson Whitfield and co-executive producers Sonja Warfield and Erica Armstrong Dunbar afford the show a level of honesty when it comes to the experiences filtered through Peggy (Denée Benton), a Black woman trying to find her way through a society that actively excludes her because of her ethnicity and gender. On the other hand, having Julian Fellowes as the sole credited writer may prevent The Gilded Age from achieving its full potential. His writing harbours an intense respect for the American project and is therefore unable to critique it with the viciousness with which it should be lampooned.

Much like Peter Morgan’s The Crown and anything that Aaron Sorkin has ever written, Fellowes treats systemic problems as aberrations. They’re some bad apples in a barrel of organic fruit, if you will. The racism entrenched in the American project is not an aberration. It is a featured building block of the country from its foundation till now. Black people still cannot catch a cab in New York City, a well-documented example of anti-Black racism that could potentially be dangerous for Black folks trying to get to one place from another. It’s not surprising that carriage cabs don’t stop for Peggy. That Lewis Howard Latimer’s contributions to the technological revolution of the 1880s would be actively erased in favour of elevating white men like Thomas Edison isn’t surprising. So why is The Gilded Age’s chief scribe reluctant to lampoon his characters who actively uphold and benefit from such a society?

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There are consequences to the old guards’ nonsense, which is important. There are consequences to the Russells’ climb up the social ladder, which too is important. But in each circumstance, Fellowes pulls back from the depths of critique he could reach. Instead, he delves into the romantic mythology that obscures the reality he presents. One of the promises of The Gilded Age is that it is edgier than Downton Abbey and it is. However, that, for one, is a low bar. Moreover, the series is reluctant to move away from the sharpness of a bread knife, a blunt bread knife struggling to cut through even a wheat loaf. It’s a harsh assessment, but with every scene where the show’s potential isn’t realized, it is difficult to ignore the series’s self-inflicted weaknesses.

Every era in human history has its fair share of catastrophes and wonder, every single one. Fellowes, however, is mostly interested in the wonder. That’s the self-inflicted weakness that keeps The Gilded Age from achieving its full potential. The catastrophes are not entirely equal to the wonder and therefore the critique he sometimes delves into can feel detached and shallow. And it feels like this because the wonder is beautifully captured. That sense of propulsive movement is an integral component of the series, be it in Bertha (Carrie Coon) and George (Daddy Morgan Spector) barreling through old money society, every opulent display of costuming, and especially the lighting ceremony ending the episode. So perhaps I’m looking for something different and should lower my expectations for what The Gilded Age is comfortable being, but that in and of itself is a disappointing thing to do.

“We must go where history takes us” says a breathless Bertha as the wonders of electricity illuminate the breathless crowd. It is rare to experience moments where the sense of history overwhelms the realities of now but that moment was just that, a transcendence from the screen where I felt a fraction of what it would be like to see the darkness transform into light. But in that transformation, what we ought to also remember is that history is not a passive occurrence. People make history, for better and for worse, and it is incumbent upon us to remember both the best and the worst. History repeats itself, as the clichéd phrase goes, but it does so often because reality tends to be overtaken by mythology, legends, and romanticization. Julian Fellowes ought to remember that.

Best Quotes:

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– “You are forcing me to reevaluate your character.” / “I can’t help that.”

Worst Quote:

– “And remember, I’m a rich man, which means I’m a villain.” Ugh, give me a break

Best Gown:

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– The gown Bertha is wearing when she fires Turner (Kelley Curran) is simpler than a lot of her usual fare but is beautiful

Worst Gown:

– It had to happen eventually, but the dress Carrie Astor (Amy Forsyth) wore when Gladys introduced her to the Russells’ ballroom was truly hideous

Notes:

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Lewis Howard Latimer wrote the FIRST text on electric lighting, but even aside from that incredible achievement, he was a towering figure who deserves to be remembered in his own right.
– The lighting sequence is truly a beautiful sequence to behold and I mean it when I say that the historical nature of that moment is expertly captured
– I am looking forward to season two, but I do kind of hope that Julian Fellows does not remain the sole credited screenwriter on the series
– I apologize for the delay in this review, but life has been a lot
– The shot of Turner waltzing in to see George was beautiful
– The subplots quality of this series so far is wildly vacillating, but so far the slowly developing social climbing of Mr. Raikes (as observed by a concerned Aurora (Kelli O’Hara)) is the most promising



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