. The Gilded Age critique – it requires boldness to include Oscar Wilde in a cameo, only to give him unremarkable lines.
Every morning in Newport, Rhode Island, the elite of the gilded age gather to indulge in their luxurious lifestyles and spend another season in their opulent European-inspired estates. This also perfectly sums up the second season of The Gilded Age, with its extravagant parties and the sharp-tongued Agnes van Rhijn (played by Christine Baranski) delivering cutting remarks with her always pursed lips. The show also continues to explore the ongoing rivalry between the old and new elites of New York, this time centering on their battle for prime opera box seats.
There exists a true gilded age, similar to the television show The Real Housewives of New York City, but not quite the same. This term was originally used by Mark Twain as a satirical take on the unrealized prosperity that was supposed to follow the American Civil War. It’s the era that would have been ruthlessly mocked by the writers of Succession. However, let’s set aside that version and instead focus on Julian Fellowes’s lavish portrayal, 150 years later, of a time that cannot be improved upon even through excessive wealth.
As a nation, we are very familiar with romanticizing the past, especially when it comes to shows like Downton Abbey. It’s something we enjoy and it may be one of the few things we have left. We are well aware of how season two begins and what it sets out to do. The first episode is filled with close-up shots of hats being taken out of boxes, the upper class strolling down a perfectly recreated street, and new characters such as a kind-hearted reverend from Boston (although he may be too kind for the show’s creator, Fellowes, to allow anything positive to come from his character). We also meet Ada Brook (played by Cynthia Nixon), who may possibly become a wife in this season.
Nathan Lane’s Ward McAllister, known for his grandiose performances and comparisons to Scarlett O’Hara, has declared that the Russells have taken over New York City. The only obstacle is the box at the Academy of Music, which Mrs. Astor continuously denies to Bertha (played by Carrie Coon). Despite her husband George’s (played by Morgan Spector) reminder that she doesn’t even like opera, Bertha patiently explains that the opera is a display of society. The main question of season two, which takes eight episodes to answer, is: will Bertha obtain her box? She is determined to do so, even if it means overseeing the construction of a new opera house (which she successfully does and names the Met).
The significance of history pales in comparison to the intense struggles portrayed in this text. However, the second season is not as immature, for lack of a better word, as the first season. The direction is clear: towards the upper echelons of society. The lower layers, such as the 12 million immigrants who arrived in the US between 1870 and 1900, are given less attention. This is a missed opportunity, as the “gilded age” was characterized by extreme disparities. I may not be recalling correctly (as I am British), but Downton Abbey seemed to maintain a more balanced focus on both the upper and lower classes.
The story focuses on race relations, particularly in the northern and southern states of America. Peggy Scott, who now works as a journalist for the New York Globe, embarks on a dangerous journey to Tuskegee, Alabama to cover the opening of the first black college. She also reports on the struggles to keep “coloured” schools open in New York. However, the story briefly touches on the solidarity between the emerging black middle-class and Irish immigrant communities. The completion of the Brooklyn Bridge, the rise of labor unions, and the recent end of slavery are mentioned but not explored in depth.
Currently, it is the time of year for the Russells, and they are exceptionally skilled. They face the steelworkers, successfully capture a high-ranking individual, and prevent a potential disaster involving a dish of Jerusalem artichoke and truffle soup that was tampered with by a vengeful former servant. Whew! The chemistry between Bertha and George is comparable to that found in an Edith Wharton novel. However, their characters lack depth and are solely driven by ambition, mirroring the American ideal. Additionally, the dialogue is lackluster, failing to reach the level of excitement and wit one would expect. Even with a cameo appearance by Oscar Wilde, not a single memorable line is delivered.
However, Fellowes’ traditional views are balanced with enough perspective to avoid being a complete endorsement of the establishment. This perspective appeals to Americans, similar to how it once did for the residents of Fifth Avenue, which is why Downton Abbey remains one of the top PBS dramas of all time and why The Gilded Age will have millions of viewers. Even I was not immune to its calming effects. In all honesty, I initially approached the show with a critical mindset but ended up cheering for Aunt Ada’s unexpected fortune. As Mr. Darcy (or was it Andrew Davies?) from Jane Austen’s works famously said, I must admit that I enjoy The Gilded Age despite my reservations.
“The Gilded Age” is currently available for viewing on Sky Atlantic and NOW in the UK, Paramount+ in Australia, and HBO in the US.