Never the New
Episode 1 of The Gilded Age begins in New York, 1882. It’s all hustle and bustle as the Russell family move into their new home.
At the front and center of this family are the ambitious and rather ruthless George and Bertha. This causes quite a stir in the neighbourhood, with two aunts across the road watching through their window as the Russell’s move in to their lavish new home.
It doesn’t take long for George to stamp his authority at work, where he makes bold changes to the railroad. As he says himself “you can’t make an Omelette without breaking a few eggs.”
Those two aunts we mentioned earlier are that of Agnes and Ada, who have their own issues. Bound from Pennsylvania, Marian contacts them both following the loss of her father, learning she’s been left with a measly $30 to her name since his passing.
That doesn’t exactly please Agnes, who sees Marian as a leech that just wants their money. Ada is more optimistic and understanding, suggesting she could be put to work as a governess.
At thee train station, a fight between two men breaks out. In the ensuing scuffle, Mariam’s purse is stolen. Her ticket and everything else she has left to her name is gone, leaving a kindly woman called Peggy to pay for another ticket. Of course, it’s not a free ride and Penny decides to show up at her aunts’ place to be reimbursed.
When Mariam reveals what transpired at the station, Agnes is incredulous to the whole story. Nonetheless, Peggy is brought in and allowed to stay for the night. The thing is, Agnes has a condition. She wants her parents’ address just incase anything untoward happens.
While Peggy leaves, Agnes immediately throws Mariam into the thick of the rich society. She doesn’t want her wearing black, despite being in mourning, likening her to a crow. She’s also not happy about her suggestion of heading off to work.
Marian is quick to be reminded that she’s part of “old New York”, the proud, rich society that sniff at the idea of others invading their space. This immediately sends ripples of tension between Mariam and Agnes.
In the morning, Agnes offers Peggy a job as a secretary after being impressed by her handwriting. Given the latter wants to avoid her parents, Agnes quashes that immediately, likening her to a fugitive and urging Peggy to call home to let her parents know where she is.
Peggy refuses to see her father, whom she has a long-standing grudge with, and meets her mother instead. Peggy wants to pay her own way but her mother drops off some cash to see her through her time in New York nonetheless.
Mariam’s intent on heading out to work sees her take Agnes’ place during an invitation to help train orphans to be servants. Ada encourages her to take up this offer, pointing out that there will be people her own age there.
Meanwhile, Bertha and her daughter Gladys show up at a gathering, where Ada and Mariam also happen to be. The subject of the charitable gig is brought up, while Mariam breaks down the walls between the two families as she happily chirps up, expressing interest in the palace the Russell family are staying in.
When Bertha heads home and talks to George about the day’s events, George worries that these women are vultures and just want their money. The Russell’s are essentially “new money” and intent on shaking up the current foundations in town. That, of course, is not going to sit well with Agnes.
Nevertheless, Bertha arranges for a soiree to be held at their home and sends out a number of different invites. Ada and Agnes scoff at theirs when they receive it and decide not to go. Mariam though ignore her aunts’ suggestion and sneaks out that night.
Very few people show up at the soiree, with the few attendees there clearly after her money. Namely that of Mrs Fane, whose intentions are outed. Bertha immediately narrows her gaze and tells the stuffy old woman to leave.
In fact, Mariam leaves too, especially when she realizes she’s been lingering too long and she doesn’t want her aunts finding out. When she heads back home, Agnes decides to give her an allowance.
Following the failed soiree, Bertha takes herself to bed. George follows and encourages her not to give up. Bertha is livid though, and as she lies with her eyes wide open, she promises to make them sorry one day.
The Episode Review
The Gilded Age gets off to a rather tepid start as Julian Fellowes’ new period drama whisks us back to the 1880’s. The episode is thick with expository-laden dialogue and the 80 minute run-time does feel a tad too long.
The characters themselves are pretty archetypal too, at least so far, and while I appreciate this is a show all about class and there are always gong to be these sort of characters, beyond Marian everyone else just sort of fits comfortably into their allotted character classes.
Another intriguing element of this show, alongside Marian, comes from Oscar van Rhijn. Toward the end of the episode we learn he’s gay and that could help to shake things up.
When fireworks do ignite between the old and new money, it should be enough to really kick things into high-gear. For now though, The Gilded Age feels like a cup of weak tea. There’s potential, and the flavour is there, but it’s not quite struck the right balance to really make your taste buds zing.