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HBO's 'The Gilded Age': It's All About Family

| March 16, 2022 | By

HBO's The Gilded Age, the creation of Catholic writer Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey, Belgravia), has turned out to be one of those rare creatures -- a show about families that's actually suitable for families to watch (high-schoolers and up, that is).

What The Gilded Age Is Really About

Set in New York City in the early 1880s, the opulently produced drama drops us into a world on the brink of a sea change.

After many decades of an elite born out of the Colonial era ruling the growing city, the railroads and other new industries have created men of immense wealth -- whose wives want to be part of "good" society.

"Good" society, though, wants nothing to do with them.

On the surface, The Gilded Age is about the clash of "old" and "new" New York, but really -- as with Fellowes' other creations -- it's about family, especially the lengths to which parents or guardians will go on behalf of the younger generation.

And since this is Julian Fellowes, there's also the upstairs/downstairs element, diving into the personal lives of each family's household staff.

The New Arrivals Among the Old Guard

Representing "old" New York, on one side of the corner of 61st Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, are the Brook sisters -- haughty widow Agnes Van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and sweet, single Ada (Cynthia Nixon) -- and their newly arrived, penniless twentysomething niece, Marian (Louisa Jacobson, daughter of Meryl Streep).

Also new to the Brook household is Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), a young African-American writer who befriended the newly orphaned Marian on her journey from small-town Pennsylvania to New York.

Peggy has been working as a secretary to the normally acerbic Agnes, who has treated her with respect and come to admire her.

Peggy's well-to-do parents -- a pharmacy owner (John Douglas Thompson) and his piano-teacher wife (Audra McDonald) -- live in an elegant brownstone in Brooklyn.

Both the Brook sisters and the Scott parents worry about the young women in their charge. But, Marian and Peggy don't always understand or approve of their elders' rules or actions.

The Young Don't Always Know Best

Fellowes flies in the face of the current showbiz trope that the younger must always teach the older. 

Despite being utterly dependent on her aunts (without whose hospitality and generosity, she would be homeless and broke), the naive Marian has a stubbornly independent streak.

Combined with her ignorance of the world -- and tendency to dismiss her Aunt Agnes' sage advice -- this could get her in trouble.

A Father-Daughter Conflict Takes a Turn

Peggy's situation is more fraught and complicated.  It's admirable that she defied her father's lack of faith  to pursue (with some success) her dream of being a short-story writer and journalist.

But, it was ignoring his warnings, rightly or wrongly, that put her on a path that nearly cost Peggy her life.

Anyone who's watched Downton Abbey and Belgravia may not be entirely shocked at the turn that Peggy's dispute with her father takes.

It's not a fresh twist for Fellowes, and it's not one that has anything specifically to do with race.

While Peggy has faced some bigotry in New York, it's refreshing that her storyline is not about that. She has carried a secret pain, but it's a deeply personal one, of the sort that could happen to almost any young woman.

A View Into a Seldom-Seen, But Very Real, World

Peggy's story also opens a door to a world not often seen in entertainment --  that of prosperous black families building success only decades removed from the era of slavery.

We've also gotten to meet T. Thomas Fortune (Sullivan Jones), a real-life activist, journalist and publisher of the New York Globe newspaper.

The Tiger Mom Across 61st Street

On the other corner of 61st and Fifth, in a newly finished palace of a house, are the Russells -- self-made tycoon George (Morgan Spector), his powerful and ambitious wife, Bertha (Carrie Coon), and their children: spirited teenager Gladys (Taissa Farmiga), and good-natured recent Harvard grad Larry (Harry Richardson).

Bertha wants the world for her daughter, who has chafed under her control. And worry Bertha might, since one of Gladys' suitors is Agnes' charming but duplicitous son, Oscar Van Rhijn (Blake Ritson).

He wants to marry a wealthy heiress -- partly for money and partly to deflect attention from his amorous relationship with another man (Claybourne Elder).

The Value of Wisdom and Fidelity

This is not a show where parents are portrayed as weak or foolish or out-of-touch. Viewers may not always agree with what these guardians or parents want for the younger folk, but The Gilded Age constantly reminds us that knowledge and experience have value.

The show could spark some energetic discussions among teens and parents.

The Russells -- loosely based on the upstart "new money" William K. and Alva Vanderbilt -- have a marriage that is also unusual, both for its time in history (or at least how we think of marriages in that time) and for defying the often racy conventions of "prestige TV."

It stands out in its egalitarian nature and its fidelity. George may be ruthless in business, but he's loving and supportive at home.

When presented with an opportunity to commit adultery -- in the show's only flash of nudity -- he turns the would-be seductress down flat.

Beating the Elites at Their Own Game

Meanwhile, at the top of the heap is Mrs. Caroline Astor (Donna Murphy), the undisputed queen of "old" New York society (also a real person).

At her side is her chief social advisor and confidante, Ward McAllister (Nathan Lane) -- also based on a real figure -- who's become a secret ally to Bertha Russell.

In The Gilded Age, Mrs. Astor's love for her youngest daughter, Carrie (Amy Forsyth), may be the crack Bertha needs to force her way into society.

Mrs. Astor also represents a connection to Downton Abbey. Her only son, John Jacob Astor IV, died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic in April 1912 (his young second wife and unborn son made it to a lifeboat).

That event launches the first episode of Downton Abbey.

Is The Gilded Age Valuable for Modern Families?

On the whole, aside from some adult themes (which are handled in a generally low-key way), The Gilded Age is fine for teens and older.

While a bit slow, the show offers sumptuous production values, history lessons (especially in the official podcast, available via various podcast apps and on YouTube), soapy but decorous drama, and potentially much fodder for family conversation.

In an age where a new generation of freshly minted ultra-wealthy seems to rule the world, it's enlightening to know that we have been here before.

The Gilded Age season finale is Monday, March 21. At the end of that episode, some storylines are left hanging, but fear not, HBO has already renewed the show for a second season.

All the episodes of season one of The Gilded Age can be seen on HBO, HBO On Demand and on the streaming service HBO Max.

Here's a preview of the finale:


Image: HBO

Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Content Manager at Family Theater Productions.

Keep up with Family Theater Productions on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

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