‘The Gilded Age’ Kicks Off Season 2 with a Devastating Twist
(Warning: This post contains spoilers for the Gilded Age Season 2 premiere.)
The Gilded Age Season 2 might kick off with a delightful parade of new hats, but make no mistake: Life is as cutthroat as ever in Julian Fellowes’ take on 19th Century New York. As seen in Sunday’s premiere, Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) is on a mission to replace the Academy of Opera—a prestigious but stodgy organization that refuses to create new box seats to accommodate the city’s growing nouveau riche—with a scrappy new organization called The Metropolitan Opera. (Maybe you’ve heard of it?)
As “new money,” Bertha, her rail magnate husband George (Morgan Spector), and her family are locked in an ongoing battle against the snobs who would see them shut out of organizations like the Academy. During the premiere, Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy)—Bertha’s mentor in all things high society—urges her not to rush things and reminds her that plenty of people have been waiting in line for a box seat much longer than her. Rather than heed this advice, however, Bertha chooses to beat those snobs at their own game. That’s what they get for making fun of her fake-French chef from Kansas behind her back.
It’s always a blast to watch Carrie Coon scheme, but this premiere really belongs to Denée Benton’s Peggy Scott—whose journey to find her long lost (formerly presumed dead) son ends in tragedy. As we learned last season, Peggy’s father put the baby up for adoption to avoid a scandal and told Peggy the infant was stillborn. In a tragic twist, however, the Season 2 premiere reveals that the baby, whose adoptive parents named him Samuel, recently died from a scarlet fever outbreak, along with his adoptive mother.
We begin this season on Easter morning, as all our favorite ladies unbox their new headgear and set off for church. Bertha is making plans to head to Newport and check on their new (gargantuan) home, which her son Larry (Harry Richardson) is working to refurbish. Honestly, kudos to Larry—not only is the place huge, but his taste is impeccable and features absolutely no gray laminate flooring.
At the same time, Peggy and her family are headed to a different church for a memorial; Samuel’s family in Philadelphia has asked them all to join them in grieving their young boy. While Peggy seems mostly numb during the journey, her mother, Dorothy (Audra McDonald) is furious with her husband, Arthur (John Douglas Thompson), whom she blames for the loss of a grandchild she never got to know. The Spring family eventually invites the Scotts back to their home, where Peggy grows tearful looking at her son’s room and holding his favorite teddy bear. “We share a child,” Samuel’s adoptive father says. “A bond no one could even try to understand.”
None of this fixes the rift that’s clearly grown within the Scott family; once they return home, Dorothy can’t help but lash out at Arthur in sadness. All he can do is apologize, but it’s not enough. “We have been trapped in this trio of regret for too long,” Peggy insists. She’s decided that she wants to go back to working as Agnes van Rijn’s secretary, like she did last season. As fate would have it, that seems bound to work out just fine—how convenient!
The Peggy twist is both abrupt and a little disappointing. By skipping straight to the memorial, the show has left us in the dark as to how the Scotts first first found out that Samuel was dead and how they reacted in that moment. What has this “trio of regret” actually looked like, and why are we only finding out about it now?
Meanwhile, the old-money one-liner-machine Agnes (Christine Baranski) and her gentler younger sister, Ada (Cynthia Nixon) are staring down a familial fracture of a different kind. Their niece, Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), moved in with them last season after her father’s death tanked the family fortune. She’s not the best at honoring her aunt Agnes’s rules about who is and is not worthy of her company (meaning, she hangs out with people Agnes would consider “beneath” her) and she’s still feeling that heartbreak from that whole “the man I was going to elope with married a rich heiress instead” thing. Now, Agnes comes to find out that her niece has done the unthinkable and become a teacher—a teacher!!!
To most of us, teaching watercolors might sound like a nice hobby (and way to earn a little money) but as far as Agnes is concerned, her niece’s decision is tantamount to joining the working class and dragging their family’s good, expensive name through the mud. (As in, she literally shrieks, “Is it ‘cruel’ to mind it when you stamp on our name and drag it in the mud?!”) Ada tries to smooth things over, but it’s not looking good.
It doesn’t help that Agnes’s son, the ever-entitled and villainous Oscar van Rhijn (Blake Ritson) is back to his old tricks and still trying to seduce Bertha’s daughter, Gladys (Taissa Farmiga). In spite of his own wealth, he spent all of last season trying to trap her in a marriage while continuing a secret affair with his lover, John Adams (Claybourne Elder).
That quest continues this season after a man Oscar had planned on hooking up with beats him up instead—leading him to decide that it’d be better to be a family man than continuing on like this. And so, once more, Oscar does his best to charm Gladys—this time, at a quickly arranged welcome party for Agnes’s widowed nephew Dashiell Montgomery (David Furr) who just moved to New York with his daughter. Although Oscar promises Gladys that he’ll be a good husband and won’t push her around like other men would, she still seems pretty unconvinced—but perhaps enticed enough to at least give him another shot.
Don’t tell Agnes, but while her family stock is apparently on the decline, Bertha’s is going up, up, up. (Never mind those pesky union organizers who’ve begun to pester George and his fellow robber barons; the tophat-wearing fat cats are confident they’ll squash this little resistance soon enough.) While Agnes is stuck teaching Marian the value of not having to earn a dollar, Bertha is staging a full-on coup.
Step One: Invite Mrs. Astor to her home for a party of opera lovers. Step Two: Leave a few key people off the guest list, including the Met’s main fundraising man. Step Three: Convince Mrs. Astor not to leave the party for fear of making a scene and winding up in the gossip columns tomorrow morning. Step Four: Watch Mrs. Astor’s horrified face with delight, as Mr. Gilbert reveals that the Met is already well funded enough to operate at a loss for years, and that it’s poached some of the Academy’s most loyal performers—including real-life opera royalty Christina Nilssen—for its opening night.
But even that wasn’t quite enough for Bertha. If there’s one thing she loves, it’s proving everyone who doubts her wrong and rubbing their silly little faces in it. And so, after a wonderful dinner in her new (it cannot be said enough—just fucking palatial) home, she treats her guests to a little after-dinner surprise: While they were eating, her staff was hard at work converting her entryway and its grand staircase into the perfect flower-covered stage for a surprise performance from none other than Nilssen herself. Poor Mrs. Astor never stood a chance.
The whole production is so shocking that it’s almost easy to forget the other big reveal: It turns out that high society queen Flora McNeil’s (newcomer Rebecca Haden) father has fallen so far from aristocratic grace that he’s now working as a servant—in Bertha’s home. Gasp! Naturally, she and her husband are very eager to squash this revelation before anyone finds out. How they’ll do that, however, remains to be seen. Let’s just hope they figure out a way before Bertha finds out.
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