Calling It A Great Series Doesn’t Do It Justice
At the climax of the seventh episode of The Gilded Age a group of New York’s elite are gathered at a picnic to witness the young Thomas Edison’s first public display of electricity. The streetlights and all the candles go out and silence fills the crowd. Then the world sees the first real example of the light bulb in action. McAllister, the aide to Nancy Astor, looks towards Bertha Russell and tells her: “We are witnessing history.” In addition to being true of the scene, it is also true for those of us who have watched the first season of HBO’s new masterpiece.
To try and sum up what has made this series so remarkable is one of those things where I, who consider myself a consummate wordsmith, seem lacking for the right language. So I’ll focus on just a handful of the performances and examples of the writing that have convinced me that The Gilded Age may very well represent a landmark for television and certainly for HBO.
The landmark dramas that put HBO on the map were fundamentally focused on the White Male Antihero. There were, of course, key exceptions on all of them — Edie Falco on The Sopranos and Molly Parker and Robin Weigert on Deadwood — but by and large the make up HBO series for the first decade of its life focused on male protagonists. During the second decade, there have been signs that HBO has been branching out that vein — Big Little Lies and My Brilliant Friend in particular — but by and large they have remained male oriented. The Gilded Age is the first drama I’ve seen on HBO — and indeed in almost every other example of Peak TV for a very long time — where not only the women the dominant characters, in most cases the males seem almost ornamental.
Christine Baranski, who for nearly thirty years has been one of television greatest actresses, reaches a new peak as Agnes Van Ryan. It is impossible to watch her work and not being astonished that this is the same character that for almost fifteen years has portrayed Diane Lockhart on The Good Wife and The Good Fight. As pragmatic as Diane is, she is the textbook progressive and feminist, doing everything in her power to bring change about. Agnes is her polar opposite, a woman who can barely stand society as it is, but things that anything that might potentially improve it somehow makes it worse. Agnes has the same tart put downs that Diane would occasionally give out but hers are angrier because she is not content with either her lot in life but doesn’t see it changing.
Carrie Coon has been nearly as revelatory an actress as Baranski the past decade, ever since she burst onto the scene in The Leftovers eight years ago. Mrs. Russell is determined to serve as a hallmark for the new world, a woman utterly determined to shatter the hallmarks of ‘Old New York’ which wants her money but considers her an interloper at best. Her marriage to her husband is that rarity in any television form, a true partnership where the two are determined to support each through whatever travesties may come, and there have been a couple which might have ruined a lesser man. George doesn’t fully understand why his wife is so determined to break in, but he remains fully supportive to Bertha’s ambitions and is utterly faithful to her. When a maid tries to seduce by saying he needs a woman who will worship him, we know that this is absolutely not what George needs or wants.
There are many remarkable things in The Gilded Age but perhaps the most daring that took place was that creator Julian Fellowes took these two powerhouse characters and has not even had them in the same room until last night’s season finale, despite the fact that the Van Ryan’s live across the street from the Russell’s. Even then, Bertha had to basically force Nancy Astor, whose good graces she’s desperately been trying to win since the beginning of the season to make them come. It’s been fascinating watching the struggle through proxies for the first season — the last equivalent I can think of came nearly two decades before in the first season of Deadwood when Al Swearengen tried desperately to get a hold of Alma Garret’s gold claim without the two even speaking. When they finally talked in Season 2, it was a series highlight; I can’t wait to see what happens in Season 2.
And Baranski and Coon are merely the low hanging fruit of the amazing displays of female talent. Louise Brook Jacobson has now become the third daughter of Meryl Streep to demonstrate that she is as gifted an actress as her mother is in the field of television. A lesser talent would have flinched from being the crux of the action as Marion but she has been bold, audacious and often heartbreaking. Similarly Talissa Farmiga, sister of Vera, has been just as remarkable as the Russell daughter, pushing hard to find her own way of freedom but not old enough or worldly enough to be able to understand so many of the machinations going on around her. Oscar Van Ryan, Agnes’ homosexual nephew, has set his sights on her purely to win her family fortune. Will the group of women around him be able to get to the Russell child in time to save her?
And all around them are so many of the greatest female actresses in history, some so far in mere recurring roles: Jeanne Tripplehorn plays Mrs. Chamberlain, a woman who dared flaunt society rules for the sake of love and has been ostracized from it ever since. Debra Monk as Armstrong, Agnes’ loyal maid who has a love of gossip and who does will do anything to protect her position. Audra MacDonald, Baranski’s Good Fight co-star, cast as the mother of another strong woman trying to fight for her place in the world — understandably at an even greater imposition because of her race. And the always remarkable Cynthia Nixon as Ada, Agnes’ younger sister who spent much of Season 1 seeming the weaker and more naïve sister, but in the end has more steel in her spine and is just as protective of her niece that Agnes is. I don’t think there’s been as great an assemblage of female talent on the screen since Orange is the New Black debuted.
Let all of this be said the series is also utterly magnificent to look at it in every detail, the sumptuousness of the setting, the detail of the costumes, the brilliance of the cinematography and hell, the lusciousness of the catering. Yes food is a vital part of this series in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen on any television show before. Mainly because everyone cares for style and cooking and how things are done. Appearances matter above all us, which is why a critical story in the final episode emerged when the Russell’s French chef had to reveal to his employers that he was actually — horrors! — from Wichita, Kansa. This made no difference to the staff, or indeed to George Russell, but because Bertha was so desperate for appearance she had to have him sacked. Then at the climax dinner of the episode, when a real French chef utterly disgraced himself, Russell called for ‘Gordon’ and he saved the day. He has agreed to return, though Bertha is still trying to save face: “Can’t we say he’s from the Middle West?’
Everything about The Gilded Age is a treasure — from the wonders of the performances to the greatness of the writing (and its great without profanity; I don’t think I heard a single four-letter word uttered in the entire first season) plus the fact that the series does what my favorite historical dramas do, put in real life figures without being fussy about it. In addition to Edison and Astor, a major storyline centered on Clara Barton beginning her work for The Red Cross and when we met her, she was utterly unfazed by the money around her. Like so many charity workers, she doesn’t care if the money’s new or old as long as she gets funding. Will we meet more of the ‘New money’ in subsequent seasons — the Rockefellers, the Morgans, the Carnegies, all people this century still remember long after the society that disdained them has forgotten them? I hope so.
How do I praise a series like this adequately? The first great series of the year? Not nearly good enough. The first great show of the 2020s? Closer, but still not adequate. No I’d go so far as to call this the first series in broadcast or cable to potentially be ranked as among the all time greats since This is Us premiered on NBC in 2016. (I don’t include streaming because that’s an entirely different medium; if I did I would The Crown would be the nearest equivalent, a period piece that in quality and style mirrors Gilded Age.) And yes, I know the other contenders and this was outranks them fully. It is far superior to Succession even though the subject matter is similar, but its tone and wit with neither the ridiculous profanity nor utter depression that cemented the former series place among the elites among television. Other potential heirs to the title from streaming — Ozark and The Handmaid’s Tale — are both too dark and too erratic to be considered.
The Gilded Age is a better series that HBO’s biggest critical success Succession and far superior to its current popular success Euphoria. And for those young viewers who no doubt treasure the latter, I know this may not seem hip or cool but The Gilded Age is an infinitely better series than Euphoria will ever be. I urge you to watch. Your parents won’t find any reason to object to it even though its rated TV-MA, as there is no violence, nudity or profanity. You may blanch at the idea of watching privileged people flaunt their wealth, but that’s basically what everybody in Euphoria is doing already. It’s ultimately more optimistic than that series is, and there are just many secrets. And the women are just as bad ass as Zendaya seems to be. Indeed, as you watch the struggles of Peggy, the African-American woman trying to be a career woman and deal with struggles that are far worse and yet basically the same as the present, you might find far more to admire in her than you ever will in Rue. She knows the odds against her are immense, and yet she is determined to find a place in the world. I think that’s infinitely more admirable than a high school girl on a suicide run.
This series is a far cry from what HBO called ‘Not TV’ but The Gilded Age is as much a call back to when it burst onto the scene nearly a quarter of a century ago. We are witnessing history in the making, and there will be nothing gilded about the awards that are to come.
My score: 5 stars.