The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —
Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —
I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —
“The Soul selects her own Society”
~ Emily Dickinson, 1862
The study of America is a study of contradiction in its most absurd and caustic form. Its founding was molded into a song of freedom and a rebellious right to self-determination for all. In reality America selected its society and empowered that subset at the expense of everyone else and continues to do so. The parameters occasionally change but that central dynamic is ever-present.
American history is therefore often defined in moments and not in its entirety; in moments American history can be encapsulated in narratives of golden courage. Growing up one heard glamorous tales of the Boston Tea Party, Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, and how America stood against the Nazis in World War II. In its entirety, one has to ask the questions of a) why the settlers whose quest for freedom is defined in the Boston Tea Party robbed Indigenous people of their land, lives, and freedom, b) why there was any slavery in this country in the first place, and c) why in this fight against fascism did America build concentration camps of its own?
As a historical period, the Gilded Age represents this dichotomy and the American habit of practicing selective history. Sandwiched in between the Civil War and World War I, the Gilded Age often gets lost in the historical conversation but the period deserves a deep analysis in popular culture of its own. It is an age where the industrial class chose to become the titans of industry on the backs of underpaid workers. It is an age of both robust labour activism and the exploitation of immigrant labour to line the pockets of robber barons. It is an age that illuminates the many hallmarks of what defines American society and in doing so, likely accidentally, questions what the worth of such a societal project really is.
The Gilded Age arrives on American shores with a distinct set of expectations, created in large part by its spiritual predecessor, Downton Abbey. That show, with its gorgeous costumes (truly a work of cinematic art), slowly abandoned class commentary for the genteel familiarity of a soap opera and the warmth of a fantasy where the British upper class isn’t actively hostile and terrible and the servants are mostly content with their lot in life. But Carrie Coon’s promise that The Gilded Age was edgier than Downton proves true—a low bar perhaps, and in part because it revels in spite that was never a part of Downton.
The Gilded Age is closer in spirit to Julian Fellowes’ masterpiece Gosford Park. There’s no familiar coziness and warmth from the grandeur, which instead presents itself as a mixture of cold and austere. In the Van Rhijn Manor, you would expect a coziness and warmth but instead it feels dark and claustrophobic. Its closed curtains keeping the light from brightening and opening up the space to either the outside or the future. It is closed onto itself, a microcosm of a world who had picked its society and was resolved to ignore every chariot, emperor, or majority bustling outside of its walls. They were insignificant and as long as the pretence was maintained, the reality could never break the illusion held fast.
The Russell Manor in contrast is airy and spacious, a testament to the Russells’ belief in the wide openness of the world before them, a world whose erudite aristocracy had fallen into complacency and left their empires ripe for conquest. There was everywhere to go, everywhere to grow and even the largesse of luxury in their manor is dwarfed by the empty space of promises, promises, and yet more promises.
That largesse of wealth is most opulently displayed by Bertha Russell, embodied by a terrific performance from the indomitable Carrie Coon. She has picked her own society and in doing so finds no trouble with discarding the friends she has made before with the casual flick you or I might use to throw away a teabag into the compost bin. That society has no room or space for her, she is well aware, that members of that society will take her money but not her presence, she is well aware. The dinner party she throws as an opening soirée is a fiasco but in that fiasco she finds a relentless hunger to show the old rich of New York that Bertha Russell is not a woman to be fucked with.
Hierarchies are a curious thing. Bertha’s relentlessness to join the ranks of a society that is clearly, in more ways than one, beneath her is, in a sense, odd. Why would she want to be a part of a cadre of women who do little more than sneer upon her? But while the specifics of Bertha’s circumstances do not apply to most of us (the wealth alone), there is a relatable trait in wanting to either be a part of a group that is excluding you – or, as Bertha’s fieriness at the end of the episode suggests – proving to them that their exclusion was a mistake and they would pay dearly for it.
Of course, in either situation, Bertha is centring the very society rejecting her. Not that most characters on The Gilded Age are doing anything much healthier in that regard. Agnes (a sharp Christine Baranski) centres that very society as she dictates to her family the strict rules by which they must govern themselves lest shame mar their historical grandeur. That the grandeur has faded considerably is less relevant. The opening of the proverbial door is a terrifying thing, lest it expose the old New York for having less power than it believes itself to have. Ada (a delightful Cynthia Nixon) imparts upon young Marion (Louisa Jacobson) the necessity of holding onto her values and not falling into the dogma that surrounds her. But Ada herself seems unable to throw off the gauntlet of the society around her and express herself in the way she truly may want to.
But throwing off society’s gauntlet is difficult. That tension reverberates throughout The Gilded Age and the drama mined from that tension has, is, and will forever remain irresistible. Whether Marion is able to chart her own way forward is perhaps the least rewarding plot as it, for now, comes across as the most conventional with at least a significant journey a foregone conclusion and a woefully dull character at its centre. But while the throwing off of social gauntlets is difficult in its entirety, several characters are doing what they can to fracture those gauntlets and there are two characters in particular whose stories demand particular attention.
Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) is a young Black woman who meets Marion as they are both about to depart for New York. An act of kindness from Peggy intertwines their fates and she finds herself accepting a post to become Agnes’s secretary. She is constantly faced with the realities of being a Black woman in a country built upon the forced labor of her ancestors, from boarding the train to New York last to how a servant in the van Rhijn household is aghast that she would be living on the same floor as them, even if for a night. The same servant remarks with ire that Peggy was just another Black woman escaping the South after the end of the Civil War to “take their jobs way” and while the wording may be on the nose, the sentiment underpins the American tradition of harming the very people upon whom its shaky edifices are constructed. Yet another servant asks her, as if she were an extraterrestrial of some sort, if she drinks coffee.
Peggy’s mother Dorothy (a simmering and formidable Audra McDonald) suggests some sort of dark secret in her past and there is a hint of some truly deep tension between Peggy and her father. But Peggy, while truly and relatably exhausted, is determined to select her own society by prioritizing the path she wants for herself. She is fully aware of the difficulties that await her, especially in a sea of wealth and whiteness, but her ferocity in being true to herself overrides her exhaustion, anger, and the unjustness of the society around her. Marion may be the script’s protagonist, but Benton does a beautiful job in creating the most dynamic, relatable, and intricate performance for Peggy.
Oscar (a devilish Blake Ritson) comes into The Gilded Age as a sharp breath of fresh air, bursting with an irresistible energy lined with an undercurrent of cunning. With an eye for seeking the winds of the future and fortune, he sees in the Van Rhijns a demise and in the Russells the future. And in this future he wants the stability that allows him to retain the companionship of his handsome strapping lover, who also happens to be a direct descendant of John Quincy Adams. Discussions of homosexuality sometimes take the form of “it was all illegal then and it’s alright now” when it comes to the history of homosexuality in the United States and while the reality was significantly more complicated than that, it is safer to say that for Oscar to be openly gay would be frowned upon in a social strata obsessed with the sustenance of family fortunes and bloodlines. He has one step in choosing the society in which he must repress himself and one step in a society where he truly belongs. It remains to be seen what gilded path he chooses for himself.
– I loved the little touch of Bertha noting all the various trappings of their home that once belonged to European aristocracy
– The next time someone asks if I’m gay, I’ll just say “I’ve just spent some time in Europe”
– More on the Great Migration to come in my review for episode three
– More Audra McDonald, please!
– Honestly, it was difficult to pick between pretty much anything Carrie Coon wore, but I’m going to have to pick the GORGEOUS black and white number Bertha wears for the ill-fated dinner party. Her orange and light blue gown with the swaying feathered neckline is a close second.
– “Revolutions are launched by people with strong views and excess energy.”
– “Defeat is not your colour.”