‘The Gilded Age’ Season 1 Review: Generational Wealth vs. Social Climbers

The Guided Age Season 1

Spoilers Below

The Gilded Age Season 1, created and written by Julian Fellowes, is an entertaining historical drama that wrestles with gender, class, and race. The period drama takes place in 1882 New York City, documenting the fight between new money, a.k.a. the Russell family, and old money represented mainly by the van Rhijn-Brook family. Matriarch Agnes van Rhjin (Christine Baranski) desires to keep the status quo of high society only consisting of those with generational wealth. But, at the same time, the younger Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) uses her husband’s money and intelligence to move up in the world.

While this series doesn’t fit within the realm of radical social commentary, it partly deals with feminism since it’s the women with a lot of societal power. Peggy Scott (Denee Benton), the young upper-middle-class Black writer, pushes the boundaries of her race and gender to gain a position as a reporter at a Black-owned newspaper. The Gilded Age shows that some 19th century Black New Yorkers were business owners and professionals but doesn’t negate the struggles they all went through because of racism.

Similar to Fellowes’ Downton, Abby, this series also shows the life of the “downstairs.” However, uniquely The Gilded Age explores both the Russell and the Rhijn-Brooke household staff. Along with reveling in the all of white New York city elite rather than just one British-based estate. In this way, The Gilded Age feels like a portrait of late 1800s East Coast “blue blood” society.

Feminism in The Gilded Age Season 1

Julian Fellowes doesn’t usually write political pieces, and The Gilded Age Season 1 doesn’t appear to be the exception. However, there is a bit of a feminist bent to the series. In most cases, the women have the ultimate authority in their households.

The most prominent example is Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon), whose husband, robber baron George Russell (Morgan Spector), ruffles the feathers of the “blue blood” business world. Bertha acts as the foremost authority in her household, deciding everything from moving into an elaborate Stanford White-designed mansion across the street from snobby socialite Agnes to when her daughter Gladys Russell (Taissa Farmiga) comes out to society.

George sees Bertha as his equal partner in taking New York city society by storm and becoming one of the wealthiest families in the United States. He doesn’t even attempt to control her. All the older women in The Gilded Age series are powerhouses who don’t bow down to anybody.

The younger women in this historical drama bend the rules of society even further. Agnes’ niece Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) wants to work, but her aunts forbid her from seeking employment. Instead, Marian volunteers at numerous non-profits. If a socialite can’t work, she wants to help people. She speaks up for Bertha and Sylvia Chamberlain (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who are denied charity board seats.

Marian can’t fathom that a couple of scandals can keep somebody from doing good, especially if they are willing to donate lots of money. Sylvia’s affair with her now-deceased husband (when he was still married to his first wife) makes her a social pariah. Bertha’s only crime is being born into a middle-class household. She befriends the women against Agnes’ orders forming solid friendships.

Marian refuses to buy into the new verse old money battles. She sees everybody as an equal who should not be judged by petty standards like original class or profession.

Race and Womanhood

Peggy revolts against society’s constraints based on her race and gender. Against her father Arthur Scott’s (John Douglas Thompson) wishes, Peggy moves into the servant quarters of the van Rhijn-Brook mansion to work as Agnes’ secretary.

She needs the income to further her writing career, but Arthur wants his daughter to work for him at his pharmacy. He believes that women can’t make a living through writing. Arthur and her mother, Dorothy Scott (Audra McDonald), know that even upper-middle-class Black women can’t thrive in white society. Agnes could live in relative luxury at home with a maid who waits on her. Even with her education, Agnes lives downstairs with the van Rhijn-Brook servants, unable to enter her new residence through the front door.

She writes everything from articles to poems. She gains employment as a political reporter at The New York Globe, a prominent African American newspaper. Important people like the founder of The Red Cross, Clarissa Harlowe Barton (Linda Emond), treat Peggy with respect during their interviews.

Along with the fact, Marian and she form a genuine though complicated friendship. They listen to and help each other throughout the first season. Fellowes reveals the hidden history of New York, proving that some Black educated men and women gained real wealth by the late 1880s.

Racism in East Coast

Fellowes doesn’t pretend racism didn’t exist in America’s East Coast during that decade. Some van Rhijn-Brook household servants don’t even want to eat with a Black woman. The editor at The Christian Advocate refuses to publish one of Peggy’s short stories unless they can keep her identity as a Black woman secret.

White Southern readers might cancel their subscriptions if The Christian Advocate openly publishes an author of color. Even one of her closest friends, Marian, whose relatively progressive, attempts to be a white savior. She makes some racist assumptions about the Scott household. Marian brings some used boots to Peggy’s family home, believing that all Black people must be poor.

The fact that the Scott residence is quite large and luxurious shocks, Marian. Even an educated elite Black woman can’t fully integrate herself into white upper crest New York society.

Last Thoughts

The Gilded Age Season 1 is a fun, entertaining watch with some light social commentary for those who love Downton Abby or historical dramas in general. The creative team does a brilliant job creating costumes, styling hairs, and forming The Gilded Age’s art design in what appears to a novice as period accurate. In addition, both Fellowes, the directors, and the actors like Cynthia Nixon, who performs as Agnes’ sister Ada Brook, masterfully creates a way of speaking that transports audiences back in time.

So, what do you think of Julian Fellowes’ first significant foray into American television? Let us know in the comments below. 


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