The start of Sunday’s episode of The Gilded Age looks different than usual. Firstly, there’s the ripe testosterone—a pack of roaring men is a far cry from the impeccably dressed dandies that have populated our TV screens. But it’s also the drabbest that the HBO period drama has looked all season, so grayscale that it seems more like the MCU than the Baranski Cinematic Universe. There’s not a bustle or corset or vaguely vaginal hat to be found in this crowd of angry gents, the unionized workers striking against George Russell’s big hot beard and his big hot mill.
Those fellas end up bookending our episode, but we graciously segue quickly to our regularly scheduled programming: fantastically festooned women bitching about rich-people problems. We’re at Chateau Russell, where Bertha (Carrie Coon), Mr. Gilbert (Jeremy Shamos), and Mrs. Winterton née Turner (Kelley Curran) are discussing—what else?—the opera wars. The Wintertons have agreed to join the Metropolitan opera house and bring their deep-pocketed pals with them but there’s a catch: They want the central box in the first tier, a.k.a. Bertha’s box.
Bertha is seething at the very idea, but she needn’t seethe long: In between besmirching workers’ rights, her hot-bearded husband (Morgan Spector) strong-arms Mr. Gilbert into securing that coveted opera box for Mrs. Russell and Mrs. Russell alone. If he doesn’t, Gilbert will have to pay back that hefty check George signed over a few episodes back to resume construction on the opera house—and in full. Take that, Turner.
And though we’re disappointingly short on Bertha content this week, it’s at least mostly good news for our nouveau-riche queen. The Duke of Buckingham writes to say that not only will he be visiting New York City for the grand unveiling of the Met but he will also be joining Bertha in her box on opening night. When word gets to Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski), Mr. McCallister (Nathan Lane), and Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy), however, it’s clear we’ve got a fresh battle in the war between the new money and the old guard.
While one feud is heating up upstairs, another is lowering to a simmer down below. After catching a very drunk Church (Jack Gilpin) stumbling into the Russell residence one morning, Bannister (Simon Jones) aims to exact revenge on his rival butler by sending a letter to Mr. Russell alerting him of the matter. However, when the rest of the Van Rhijn staffers inform him that Church was merely mourning the thirtieth anniversary of his wife’s death, Bannister’s conscience kicks in and he scrambles to retrieve the letter before it can get to George. After some strategic fibbing to Church, he’s able to rescue the damning post, and the two officially put their butler beef behind them.
Speaking of snail mail, the newly minted Mrs. Forte (Cynthia Nixon) is sending her sister missives from her honeymoon with her dashing reverend (Robert Sean Leonard). However, Agnes isn’t too keen to hear Ada “bleeding on about her untold happiness.” She is happier, however, to receive news that Dashiell (David Furr) is throwing a party in support of the Botanical Gardens and has invited her and, more excitingly, Marion (Louisa Jacobson).
Alas, Marion holds fast that her teaching schedule conflicts with the party date, a commitment to the cause that pleases her newfound Uncle Luke and Aunt Ada, who have returned to New York to find a cordial but curt Agnes. However, when it’s revealed that the reverend is suffering from a bad back, made worse by carrying his new bride across the threshold (“By night I hope. It’s not really an image for public consumption,” Agnes snarks), Agnes offers up her doctor to aid her new brother-in-law. Small steps!
The whole Van Rhijn lot attends Dashiell’s garden party—including Marion, whose boss basically tells her to slack off work to go get that D—where the bubbles are flowing, the flowers are blooming, and Oscar is getting his smooch on with Maud Beaton under a pergola. (But more on that in a minute.) “This is quite a to-do for the unveiling of a plaque,” Agnes jests, but, of course, this shindig ain’t about a sign. It’s about proposing to Marion, which Dashiell does in front of everyone, much to her unease and her aunt’s glee. (Seriously, Agnes is applauding before the poor guy can even get to the “me” portion of “will you marry me?”) It doesn’t look like Marion is going to accept until she catches sight of young Francis’s sad dead-mom face and so she offers up the decidedly unromantic response of, “If you really want me to.” Girl. That’s what I say to my OBGYN when she asks if I want to schedule a pap smear.
Things are decidedly more amorous over at the rectory, with the newlyweds sweetly waltzing to “The Blue Danube” in the middle of the day and uttering toothache-inducing lines like “You make me feel as if I were 16 again!” into each other’s faces. That is, until Reverend Forte receives word from the doc that it’s more than a bad back—it’s cancer. I swear to Andrew Scott, if the TV gods kill off Ada’s hot priest the second she’s finally experiencing real happiness, I will riot. Though she’s strong to her husband’s face, the minute Ada sees that her older sister has come to care for her in her time of grief, she breaks down right in her arms.
And George has his own griefs over in Pittsburg: the strikers. The railroad magnate visits Mr. Henderson (Darren Goldstein) at his home, hoping to talk the unions down from violence, but because he won’t budge on pay, the labor leader won’t budge on the workers’ demands. The union moves forward with the strike, which culminates in a tense standoff between the workers and the mill’s gun-toting security. When shots threaten to be fired, however, Hot Beard calls it all off…because he just now remembered that the workers have families? Sure, Jan. Take us back to bitchy opera business, stat!
- Six episodes in, it finally happened: The endless alarm-clock tinkering has a point! Yes, that whole tedious plotline was allegedly meant to signal that young Jack Trotter (Ben Ahlers) is an inventor wunderkind who, after devising a new escape wheel to fix the broken timepiece, is urged by the downstairs crew to patent his finding. Alas, the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office refuses to certify his invention because he officially doesn’t belong to a horological institute or society. Trotter is suffering from some Barry-Keoghan-in-Banshees-style crushed dreams, but it is heartwarming to see the whole Van Rhijn staff, and even Agnes herself, pool their dollars together to help him pay the application fees. (“Thanks to all-a-youse!” he cried.)
- Speaking of, there were several seasons-best line readings in this episode that made me spit water out all over my laptop. Nathan Lane’s “Hhh-what? Hhhh-ow?” in that exaggerated Colonel Sanders twang. Mrs. Bauer’s German-accented “What is hor-or-or-ilogical?” And I’ll be chuckling at the way Christine Baranski bit straight through the word “hobbledehoys” until next Sunday.
- Peggy (Denée Benton) and her hunky married editor are working on a new piece together for the paper—on the unjust closing of Black schools in the city—but the fact that she’s in love with him is definitely complicating matters. “I don’t want you to be hurt,” Marion tells her upon her return to Manhattan, but Peggy is resigned to the heartbreak: “The only thing we both know for certain is that I’m going to get hurt.” Oof.
- Oh right, that business between Oscar and Maud Beaton (Nicole Brydon Bloom). Yes, things are moving quickly with the couple, with Oscar forking over a good chunk of change as an investment in Maud’s railroad pursuits. “She’s innocent…she does not deserve to be used,” her business manager worries about Oscar’s intentions. But what if it’s Oscar that’s being used? Is the supposedly wealthy Maud just out for his money? This is starting to stink of a scam!