There are women who live in New York City, who have money through means of old wealth or newly acquired riches, that don’t have much to do with their days and resort to petty drama to fuel their days. Bertha strolls down the sidewalk with her husband and daughter, Peggy rides into town with her parents who talk over her, sisters Agnes and Ada already at Sunday morning service where Bertha will soon arrive. The women have messy conversations, unnecessary confrontations, and outfits that will distract any audience member from the chaotic turmoil they’re watching unfold. MAX’s The Gilded Age finds its setting in 1880s New York City, approximately 125 years before the first episode of The Real Housewives of New York aired. Following the lives of the rich, both old money and new, the second season uses incredible production and costume design fused with subtle performances that might not reach the heights of other historical dramas, but has moments of genuine human struggle laced with empathy that can’t be overlooked.
Last season came to a conclusion at the ball that doubled as Gladys Russell’s (Taissa Farmiga) coming out, where revelations were abundant. Agnes Van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and her sister, Ada, (Cynthia Nixon) go to the party held by Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon), which is the most dramatic thing that happens in the entire nine episode first season. It’s mouthwateringly drawn out and the payoff for finally seeing brings instant catharsis. Peggy (Denée Benton) left the employment of Agnes after finally finding out the truth about her presumed dead child. Marian (Louisa Jacobson) was rejected by the man she wanted to marry and returned to the ball to dance with another. The entire season built to this finale, which brought the end to storylines as well as planted new ones. The problem with the continuation of the series is that, while still entertaining at times, it doesn’t have the same urgency as the premiere season. A slow-burn soap opera is always welcome, but The Gilded Age spends too much time on extraneous matters that muddle the episode lengths in unnecessary exposition.
The second season introduces a new conflict, one that seems petty but almost understandable when remembering that these rich folks had nothing to do every day. A typical day spent by one of these women is, of course, a day full of changing clothes every few hours, opening and writing letters, and telling their servants what to do. Why wouldn’t they have time for petulant drama? Bertha wants to see that the New Metropolitan Opera succeeds because she was denied an invitation to the Academy of Music for the Opera. It’s objectively hilarious to watch her attempt to realize her vision throughout the season due to childish insecurities of handling rejection, but almost brings a certain level of empathy to the general terrible that feeling left out brings. Peggy travels to Alabama and begins a new journey, while Ada’s storyline follows her on the path to self-actualization and branching off from her controlling sister. Ada’s story is terrific, thanks in part to a slow build on her character with an equally gripping performance from Cynthia Nixon. The season moves slowly, reacquainting the audience with these women over eight hour-long episodes. The episodes can feel bloated, however, with a relentlessly slow pace that can bog down the viewing experience when focusing on characters that seemingly don’t have as much at stake as the main players. While this could be to provide a three-dimensional view of everyone around, it can sometimes feel extraneous.
Carrie Coon is masterful, entertaining, and calmly furious in Bertha’s ambition. Coon is a reliable actor that always grips onto the work and makes it her own, allowing her to sink into the character and disappear. Christine Baranski can be depended on for the best line deliveries in the series; the dialogue given to Agnes is delicious and Baranski makes a meal out of each sentence. Denée Benton is the beating heart of the series, every scene she’s in feels lived-in and interesting, novel even. And even with less screen time than the other women, Audra McDonald is a force when she appears, drawing full attention towards her, demanding an audience. The performances on the series meld together to create an ensemble that exemplifies the necessity of great performances when the material lacks a certain weight. These performances are what keep a hold on the viewers when the episodes slow down in the middle exposition becomes the main source of information. Everyone in the cast brings exactly what they need to their respective roles, tying everything together.
Much of the show is reminiscent of Downton Abbey, the previous creation from Gilded Age creator Julian Fellowes. The sets themselves are a marvel to behold, as they’re extravagant, historically accurate, and beautiful. Every house, every set is a work of art. The New York City sets are incredible, particularly the homes of the rich. A closer look inside the homes forces the recognition that they are beautiful, yes, but empty. Not in the sense that there’s no decoration, but the size forces a certain level of vacancy in each room. The characters seem so small inside them in relation to everything surrounding them, giving a profound sense of insecurity and possible loneliness that reflects what these women feel. While having money can create comfort, solve many issues, and reasonably keep most everyday problems away, it cannot form a bond with another person, it cannot make another person attracted to someone, nor can it fill an empty void within someone. It’s clear when seeing Ada’s desperation towards companionship, Agnes’ inability to be seen as sensible, Bertha’s obsession with materialism. They might be surrounded by beauty and light, but most of them fail to stem that beauty internally.
The costumes are a stand-out this season, for better or for worse. Kasia Walicka Maimone brings to life some of the most perfect dresses imaginable for this series. Some of the cuts are extravagant and so well-tailored that it feels as if she pulled the dresses right out of the 1880s. Some of the dresses are so incredibly precise, so beautiful that you might think it could distract from the hats that are put on some of these characters’ heads. There are top hats so astoundingly wild that Willy Wonka might turn his nose up at them. Some look like actual sculptures sitting atop the heads of these rich women and form-fit to how their hair is positioned on their head, almost managing to take away from entire scenes. Some of these flower pot hats could have been plucked right out of your great-grandmother’s carefully tended garden, with a myriad of feathers on them that indicate avian life once resided in said garden as well. A live toucan perched on Carrie Coon’s shoulder would be less distracting than some of the headwear in season two. Some of them are so tall that the mere weight of them surely caused lasting damage. You know what they say: the higher the hat, the closer the God. Or, at least, Bertha surely thinks that.
As far as sophomore seasons go, The Gilded Age is far away from being a failure. There are many things to appreciate about this show, from the intricate production design to performances that manage to capture the low-stakes drama in a way that feels urgent. While the episodes can feel drawn out due to length, the series still has enough magic to keep audiences entranced during their time with these characters. The series would do better to perhaps slightly shorten runtimes to elevate the material, and could easily rectify that if renewed for a third season. For fans of the first season, everything will feel similar, and the genuine moments of sincerity will serve as a reminder as to how affecting the series can be. It’s nice to be back with The Real Housewives of The Gilded Age. If only we had catty confessionals.
All eight episodes of The Gilded Age will be on HBO and available to stream on Max beginning October 29.
Photo: Barbara Nitke/HBO