The Gilded Age Season 2 Review: Jullian Fellowes’ Period Drama Won’t Interrogate Its Subjects

HBO's glamorous period drama suffers from deep dramatic inertia.

In Julian FellowesThe Gilded Age, the wealthy are benevolent. It’s not a politeness that one reasonably expects from their colleagues, nor even a professional friendship where you remember to ask if they’re recovering well from a surgery. It’s a deeply benevolent care, where the wealthy robber barons care for their servants and the servants care for their employers. They’re invested in each other in a way that denotes some sort of friendship and it creates a real sense that Fellowes, now on the lavish period drama’s second season, is simply incapable of telling this story with the gravitas and truth it requires.

Fellowes is not the only credited writer this season (executive producer Sonja Warfield shares co-writing credits on a few episodes) but his vision overwhelms everything. It makes complete sense that a showrunner’s vision is the guiding one, for it creates a sense of cohesion. However, Fellowes’ cohesion is so shallow, inept, and narratively dumbfounding that it robs the story of the tension, drama, and emotional heft it is capable of achieving.

The Gilded Age was an ironic misnomer, not an aspirational one, and this is the fundamental misunderstanding of Fellowes’ approach. There was the old moneyed aristocracy, who held their grip on what was considered a society worth acknowledging. There was the robber baron class, the new money, who created staggering quantities of wealth that challenged the old aristocracy. And then there were the people off of whose literal backs the robber barons built their fortunes.

Of course, the stars of The Gilded Age are the old money and the robber barons, but that in and of itself isn’t the problem. Succession and other shows of a similar vein have proven that it is more than possible to create layered, rich stories from perspectives that are immoral and abhorrent. Fellowes simply doesn’t think that the wealthy deserve to be skewered, the source of their wealth interrogated, their place in society untethered.

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George Russell (Morgan Spector) is a robber baron, whether the show wants to acknowledge that or not, and, for a brief moment, it looks like the show is going to interrogate the source of his wealth – the conditions of his factories, the health of his workers, the safety of their families. However, it backs off at just the moment it ought to have moved forward and maintains its position that anti-union George isn’t that bad of a guy after all.

Fellowes has a deep discomfort with interrogating the souls of wealthy white folks. His creations must be pure of heart and intent, people who always manage to find themselves off the pathway of abhorrence even though reality would place them there. That affable nature of his characters, people who have everything while others have almost nothing, lends itself to a deep inertia of dramatic tension between other characters and even within themselves. If these characters aren’t complicated, their stories have no weight and, without that weight, The Gilded Age renders itself perfectly pleasant background noise while you’re doing laundry and nothing more.

It’s a shame, and not necessarily because the show needs to be a gritty drama along the lines of Boardwalk Empire or Deadwood. It’s a shame because the trappings of a glamorous period period interrogating the cyclical nature of wealth, class, and racism that is the American story are right there. The Gilded Age, synonymous with the brutality of wealth, never truly ceased to exist, but the disparities appear smaller and therefore less outrageous. But the moniker of that era has become ubiquitous once more and the series, neglecting to understand how deeply it resonates in contemporary times, leaves that rich canvas blank.

There are some elements that work. The show’s forays into the Black histories of this era – anchored by the always fabulous Denée Benton and Audra MacDonald – have weight that the rest of this show lacks. The performances, barring Louisa Jacobsen (see note), are fabulous. The art and production design is splendid and the score is gorgeous. But there is no ambition. There are no real consequences. There is no significant change to the status quo. So there is, simply, inertia, and inertia does not craft a compelling drama.

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Notes:

– Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence is a much better waltz through Gilded Age New York aristocracy than this show ever becomes capable of, so give that masterpiece a whirl instead.

– The little bits of history in the show, from Booker T. Washington’s schools in Tuskegee, Alabama to Emily Warren Roebling (The Woman Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge), are a nice touch and, indeed, a window into a better show than the one we receive.

– Louisa Jacobsen hasn’t improved at all – nepotism casting is hardly a phenomenon of note (see the nepo baby discourse) – but she simply doesn’t possess the acting talent or screen charisma to fend that criticism off.

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– There are bits and pieces that pierce the genteel veneer of some of the show’s more beloved characters but if they’re just mentioned and never really explored, what’s the true impact?

– The marriage between Bertha (Carrie Coon) and George is rendered really beautifully – a true partnership, even in moments of turmoil.

New episodes of The Gilded Age premiere Sundays at 9 PM ET on Crave.



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