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‘The Gilded Age’ 2×01 review: A city full of characters

By November 1, 2023No Comments3 min read

HBO’s The Gilded Age returns for season 2, upping its budget and bustles in Max’s soapy period drama. It’s impossible to discuss The Gilded Age without mentioning Downton Abbey; both are the brainchildren of Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes. Like Downton, The Gilded Age has servant romances, squabbling sisters, sardonic schemers, and enough characters to fill an opera house. 

Where The Gilded Age stands out from its English cousin is its Empire State-sized budget and cast of Broadway legends. If you thought Oppenheimer had a stacked cast, tune in to HBO on Sunday night. New faces this season include Robert Sean Leonard, Station Eleven’s Matilda Lawler, and Oppenheimer’s own Christopher Denham.

…And that’s what you missed on The Gilded Age

“You Don’t Even Like Opera” picks up in 1883, and we’re thrown into the deep end. Characters pile into churches for Easter services, and to catch up from where we left off, Fellowes crafts dialogue that’s about as subtle as everyone’s feathered hats. One character quips, “Mr. Borden pretended to be French to get a job,” reminding the audience of one of last season’s subplots.

If you’ve forgotten Mr. Borden and his fake French accent, that’s because the downstairs characters receive far less screentime than their upstairs counterparts. On Downton, the aristocrats and their servants were of equal interest to their writer. Who can forget the endearing but scheming Thomas, or proper Mr. Carson on Downton? Here, it seems Fellowes forgets that many of his downstairs characters even have names. A blossoming romance between footman Jack (Ben Ahlers) and lady’s maid Adelheid (Erin Wilhelmi) promises more attention to those below stairs, however. 

New York’s new money

Upstairs, as always on this series, Fellowes is more interested in his American aristocrats. Old-money matriarch Agnes (Christine Baranski) wants to teach her niece Marian (Louisa Jacobson) the ways of navigating high society. The new-money Russells (Carrie Coon, Morgan Spector) continue paving their own path through the Upper East Side, determined to earn the respect they feel they deserve.

While The Gilded Age hasn’t made the same cultural impact as Downton, it occupies the same cultural space. Plots typically resolve within several episodes, moments of levity are bookended by comic plots. It’s a step up from the soapy romances on Bridgerton. The Gilded Age engages with its New York setting and the cultural developments that emerged in the 1880s. It’s comfort food wrapped in an expensive pastry box.

In the early twentieth century, many American socialites traveled to England in search of aristocratic husbands. The Gilded Age feels like a reversal of that: Julian Fellowes revived opulent British melodrama with Downton Abbey, and now he has his own American version. Sure, it doesn’t have the seriousness of Succession, but it’s seriously fun.

The Gilded Age airs Sundays on HBO. Season 1 is streaming now on Max.

Featured image courtesy of Barbara Nitke/HBO

  • 'The Gilded Age' 2x01 - 7/10
Claire Di Maio

Claire was once asked in elementary school why her go-to question was always, "Watch anything good lately?" It's still her go-to question, because she loves hearing what other people are passionate about. She often sacrifices sleep in the hopes that she will one day clear her to-watch and to-read lists (a futile effort so far).

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