From the creator of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, comes The Gilded Age (premiered on HBO, January 25), the period drama set at the end of the nineteenth century in New York, where misgivings, envy and feuding between old-money fortunes of the establishment and new-money blessed by the fortunes of business, the age-old clash between tradition and innovation which serves as a backdrop and context for this new story that connects with the same distinctive elements of the original Downton Abbey: the sense of class, the duties implicit in belonging thereto, and the clout of tradition.
The series has been recreated using meticulous attention to detail on the mansions and dream locations, this time in the Big City as opposed to the middle of the English countryside, and the luxurious dresses and ornamental jewelry to recreate the very best and most exclusive of NY’s high society at the end of the nineteenth century… And all this to accompany the aspirations of high society’s latest arrivals to occupy the station recognized by their peers and not only bestowed upon them on the basis of their vast, newly-acquired wealth, versus the dreams and ambitions of the voluminous legion of domestic staff servicing the different manor houses, and who are also eager to jump on the social elevator accompanying this new industrial revolution. In short, the life of high society we all yearn for, at least once in our lives, but which inevitably suffers many of the same troubles as the rest of us mere mortals. And with one fundamental issue, albeit a leitmotif, the need to marry well, regardless of feelings, to perpetuate a future that lives up to one’s family name and the status accustomed therein.
In United States history, the Gilded Age was a period of immense economic change, great conflict between old customs and new systems, and between vast fortunes gained and lost. The Gilded Age thus begins in 1882 with the move of young Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) from rural Pennsylvania to New York City. Marian has just been left alone in the world after the death of her spendthrift father and embarks on a fresh beginning, journeying to New York to live with her wealthy aunts Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon). Along the way, she’s joined by aspiring African-American writer, Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), who also seeks to start afresh in Manhattan.
Our protagonist, Marian, unexpectedly, and without fully understanding the in-and-outs of it all, becomes involved in a social war between one of her aunts, daughter of old-money, and her tremendously well-off neighbors on the opposite side of the street: George Russell (Morgan Spector), a railroad tycoon and robber baron, owner of ‘Russell Consolidated Trust’, and his fiercely ambitious wife, Bertha (Carrie Coon).
In short, a war of misgivings between those who consider themselves rightful heirs apparent to New York’s social elite with all the inherent privilege, and those who, with checkbook in hand, fight for elbow space at the table dominated by families of lineage and silver spoons. High society families hostile to accepting newly-arrived blow-ins at their parties, dances, opera outings or the typical women’s meetings to promote civic enterprise at charity thrift stores and Red Cross events.
The young Marian’s aunt, faithful guardian of the very essence of old nobility is pitted against her railroading neighbors, abruptly breaking with form, even in something as simple as importing new architectural tastes and contemporary fashions for the construction and decoration of her new mansion at the end of the street. The Gilded Age is a continuous succession of ugly contempt and humiliation between one and the other until the sign of the times puts each in their place. “I hesitate to teach the basics, but life is like a bank account,” Bertha declares to one of her opponents. “You cannot write a check without first making a deposit.”
In this battle of egos, the young Marian, with great determination and stubbornness, chooses to embark on her own path, in a show of character she shares with her writer friend, who as a black woman is not willing to let go of her identity and intends to carve out her own niche, fighting to overcome racial barriers, thereby allowing Fellowes to introduce the theme of race and racial inequalities, which was not present in Downton Abbey and which now plays another crucial role, handled with great sensitivity, in The Gilded Age.
Written by Julian Fellowes and Sonja Warfield and directed by Michael Engler and Salli Richardson-Whitfield, the nine-part series, The Gilded Age stars Carrie Coon, Morgan Spector, Denée Benton, Louisa Jacobson, Taissa Farmiga, Blake Ritson, Simon Jones, Harry Richardson, Thomas Cocquerel, Jack Gilpin, with Cynthia Nixon and Christine Baranski.