We are just days away from Season 2 of HBO’s “The Gilded Age,” and the excitement — at least on IndieWire’s TV team — is palpable. Julian Fellowes’ period drama about New York socialites in the late-19th century returns on October 29, sure to promise more scenery chewing and backstabbing from Christine Baranski, Carrie Coon, Cynthia Nixon, and the rest of the cast.
“The Gilded Age” Season 1 premiered in January 2022, so it’s been some time since viewers caught up with the old-school Upper East Side crew. Who hates whom, who stole someone else’s servant, who accidentally-almost slept with a maid, and who’s hiding their sexuality while pursuing a marriage? Some of it matters, some of it doesn’t — but all of it will be a treat to watch as both high and low drama (both literally and figuratively, with the “Downton Abbey” upstairs-downstairs dynamic in full swing) unfold in Season 2.
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Before that, here’s everything to remember about “The Gilded Age” Season 1.
The War of 61st Street
“The Gilded Age” Season 2 trailer declares that whatever is happening in this late-19th century New York society is war — so let’s refresh ourselves on who’s at the front, shall we? There’s Agnes Van Rhijn (Baranski), a proud old-money widow who hates nothing as much as she hates change. Unfortunately her new neighbor, Bertha Russell (Coon), is ostensibly change personified, a woman who married up financially and resists every constraint forced upon her by society because of her gender and class. Agnes controls everyone around her, including Nixon’s unmarried sister Ada (who she treats like a child) actual child Oscar (Blake Riston) — who she can’t treat like a child because he’s an adult man — and niece Marian (Louisa Jacobson), newly arrived from Pennsylvania.
Not My Mr. Raikes
Whether or not it’s in the rearview, it’s worth remembering what went on with Marian and Tom Raikes (Thomas Cocquerel), her dead father’s lawyer. He moves to New York shortly after she does and the two quickly fall in love. Agnes becomes the de facto villain for disapproving of of their connection, but she judges Raikes better than her niece does, convinced that his position in society matters more to him than being with Marian — and she’s not alone. The couple plan to run away together, a decision condoned but not strongly supported by Ada or by Mrs. Chamberlain (Jeanne Tripplehorn).
Raikes is seen out with another woman the night before he’s supposed to elope with Marian, late to meet her, and then has cold feet when the time comes. Poor Marian — but at least she’s spared an “I told you so” from Aunt Agnes.
The Russell Men
Railroad tycoon George Russell (Morgan Specter) appears to be on top of the world when the series starts, but midway through Season 1 a derailed train on one of his railroads leads to the death of five people. It’s all but forgotten by Season’s end, when the main point of contention in this man’s life is that his son Larry (Harry Richardson) wants to be an architect. Ah, perspective.
The Age of Gladys
The youngest Russell and character on the show made her society debut (after some hubbub with a quadrille and the Astor family). She’s the prize of the Upper East Side — depending who you ask — but she’s “had enough of being told what to do,” as she tells Oscar during her ball. Don’t expect this young woman (Bertha’s daughter, after all) to go gently into a marriage of appearances or settle for anything less than her parents’ love.
The best part of “The Gilded Age” is Denée Benton’s Peggy Scott, the woman Marian meets as they both journey to New York for a fresh start.
Before New York, Peggy was married, but her father disapproved so strongly that he manipulated the husband into signing paperwork to void the marriage. Peggy was then taken home and told to forget all of it — including her infant son who died (a story that illustrates Fellowes’ storytelling in a microcosm; most characters are dealing with problems like what spoon to use at dinner and Peggy has been through the worst things imaginable!).
A gifted writer, Peggy ends up working as Agnes’s secretary, and takes on a fledgling reporter role by the end of the season. She also learns that her son is alive and well — but her father has been hiding it for years. Peggy and mother Dorothy (Audra McDonald) can’t forgive him, and they set out to find her boy.
The Rise and Fall of Miss Turner
Like “Downton Abbey”s Ethel (Amy Nuttall) before her, Mrs. Russell’s maid Miss Turner (Kelly Curran) decides she wants a better life via a better man — unfortunately, that man is Mr. Russell, who does not take kindly to finding a naked woman in his bed who isn’t his wife.
Funnily enough, assaulting the boss isn’t what gets Turner fired from her gig at the Russells, but a believed tryst with Oscar Van Rhijn because his aunt witnessed an arm touch in broad daylight. Agnes asks Marian to ask Bertha to fire Miss Turner — woof — and she does!
“Perhaps we’ll meet again,” she tells George flirtatiously on her way out.
“I doubt,” he replies.
(By the Way)
Oscar and Turner did not have an affair, because his interest in women is at least minimal if not nonexistent. His interest in marrying a woman is however very high, and Turner was his spy in the Russell household leading up to Gladys’s debut.
The False Frenchman
This is arguably completely trivial, but a very fun Season 1 tidbit is that the Russell’s French chef Baudin (Douglas Sills) turned out to be from Kansas and had been faking his background and accent for years even before they met him. Way to commit to the bit, monsieur!
“The Gilded Age” Season 2 premieres October 29 on HBO and Max.
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