“The class which has the power to rob upon a large scale has also the power to control the government and legalize their robbery.”
– Eugene V. Debs
The Gilded Age opens upon the wreckage of a train derailment and, in the debris, both finds and loses opportunities to sharply critique the catastrophic system at the derailment’s core. Philanthropy requires disaster, hardship, and suffering. Without it, its entire raison d’etre collapses into nothingness and so philanthropists continue to support a system that creates those disasters, hardships, and suffering in the first place. Between the two players, Clara Barton (Linda Emond) easily has the moral high ground. Her taking care to describe the Russells as “grief stricken” makes all the sense in the world. She’s under no illusion as to why the Russells write her one giant check after another, but she’s in the mission to care for people and in a country where the government doesn’t, she needs all the money she can get. Her feelings towards the Russells, whatever they may be, are irrelevant when suffering people need help. The show understands this, but when it concerns the Russells themselves, Julian Fellowes can’t maintain that understanding or rather isn’t willing to do so.
Julian Fellowes loves the Russells but in a way that seems to be akin to parents who can’t really allow the consequences of their children’s actions to ever bring into question that their children must be inherently a beacon of moral goodness. Carrie Coon and Morgan Spector understand the immorality central to the brutal pursuit of capitalistic greed in their performances but Fellowes’s scripts at times seem to undercut their performances by insisting that no, George and Bertha are good rich people, dammit! Five people died in this derailment but even the number, which is five too many, seems specifically designed to make George look better than one of his rivals, whose train derailment cost over a hundred people their lives. We don’t see any of the bodies nor do we get a single moment with any of their family members. But Fellowes wants you to be really worried that George might go to prison.
I don’t want George to go to prison for the sole shallow reason that Morgan Spector looks HOT in that perfectly groomed beard and suit and I need that look intact to get me through another week. Or because prison really isn’t a solution to societal ills and American society’s love of incarceration is truly one of its most profound evils. But from a narrative and character standpoint, George’s business is responsible for five men losing their life and potentially for their families to be ruined. He should face some consequences for that but regardless of how that shakes out, I find it genuinely difficult to believe that George wouldn’t stop thinking about the five men dying because he cared about them. That he would be afraid of going to prison and losing his reputation, that I believe. But that he would be rattled about the men specifically feels less true to the character than Fellowes not able to commit to writing protagonists who don’t have to be loved (someone send him Succession screeners stat).
Nevertheless, the Russells are the true backbone of The Gilded Age. Their relationship, the strength, sensuality, and intricacy is Fellowes’s greatest accomplishment and even if nothing else worked (which thankfully isn’t the case), this marriage would still make the series appointment television. This episode in particular is the one where the show deepens and heightens their relationship beyond a couple who seemingly are never apart on anything. Bertha’s rising obsession with Mr. McCallister (a continuously delightful Nathan Lane) coming to her house for a luncheon, a major social coup, clashes with George’s worry about five men dying because of his trains and the potential of going to jail. It’s an understandable clash but even in that argument, Carrie Coon and Morgan Spector have established such a ferocious chemistry that not for one second did I believe they have anything but a deep and unconditional love for each other. They had an argument, their different priorities clashed in a way that was deeply uncomfortable, but at the end of the day they love one another and have each other’s backs no matter what the obstacle is before them. What more, from a partner, could you ask for?
– That red and black gown – DELICIOUS.
– “What an interesting moment for me to arrive.”
– “So money is the deciding factor here, yet again.”
– “You’ve just discovered injustice. I’ve been living with it my whole life.”
– “If I spent every minute of my life fighting with bigots, I’d never get anything done.” More on this exquisite moment next week.
– “Won’t the lawyer want to eat luncheon, or is he a fasting monk?”
– “Heads have rolled for less.”
– “Quite a demanding queen at that!”
– “To act on impulse is to make one hostage to ridicule.”
– You know who I miss the most in The Gilded Age? Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary Crawley, who would devour Louisa Jacobson’s Marian in about two seconds flat.
– While Emily Blunt is going to girlboss the horrific Pinkerton detective agency in an upcoming film, the agency’s real history is truly horrifying and you should read about it here: https://www.teenvogue.com/story/who-were-the-pinkertons
– Bannister (Simon Jones) skipping for joy at getting a massive pay bonus to head Bertha’s luncheon for Mr. McAllister was the show’s funniest moment, impressive because Bannister doesn’t have much of an internal life in this show at all
– More on Agnes’s (Christine Baranski) visit to the Russells’ household next week, where it fits more thematically