It’s called The Gilded Age, not The Romantic Age. Marriage is currency and social status for everyone in 1881 New York City. Depending on who you ask, love is a perk, a necessity, or frivolous. “Some Sort of Trick” examines the possibilities.
Love and money
TV’s richest wife guy, railway tycoon George Russell (Morgan Spector) plots to surprise his wife Bertha (Carrie Coon) in Connecticut. Romance! Quips have been made before about George’s surprising romanticism, but remember Season 1, when he rebuffed his wife’s maid? He loves money, but he loves love more. He’s not so busy with travel and business that he can’t field proposals for his daughter Gladys (Taissa Farmiga), either. George advises her not to marry without love. Money isn’t immaterial, but status isn’t everything.
If George is TV’s richest wife guy, his own wife is TV’s biggest schemer. Yes, Bertha loves George, but she might love status even more. The Russells divide their parenting responsibilities in this episode, meaning George takes on their daughter. Bertha supervises their son Harry (Larry Richardson) as he secures a job redecorating for wealthy widow Susan (Laura Benanti). Susan seems as keen to bring a youthful eye to her living room as she is bring to a young man to her bedroom. Noting Susan and Larry’s flirtations, Bertha freaks out: what will society say? Chemistry be damned!
Across the street, the Van Rhijns weigh the possibilities of love and status, too. Oscar (Blake Ritson) is determined to marry well, but still pines for his secret lover, John (Claybourne Elder). Shy, docile Ada (Cynthia Nixon) takes a shine to the new reverend (Robert Sean Leonard). Marian fields interest from two suitors, including her student’s father (David Furr). Of course, this is an ensemble drama about wealthy, warring Upper East Siders. It’s only natural that love will occur between the two families. Larry Russell and Marian Brook have been exchanging banter since the pilot, but it’s no fun if there isn’t drama before they fall in love. This is a Julian Fellowes series, after all — the man wrote two seasons’ worth of will-they-won’t-they for his Downton Abbey protagonists! The many threads between the families and their associates makes The Gilded Age a fun, if thematically complicated, watch.
The romances — and Christine Baranski’s quips — dominate the screen in “Some Sort of Trick.” Explaining it all feels like that Charlie Day conspiracy theory meme — too many threads seem complicated without a visual aid. But showrunner and writer Fellowes continues his efforts to give the downstairs folks some time, too. A plot about Jack’s alarm clock goes nowhere, but brings levity to the other big dramas downstairs. Peggy (Denee Benton), back after a family tragedy in Brooklyn, returns to the Van Rhijn household, but Armstrong (Debra Monk) continues her racist tirades against Peggy.
It’s uncomfortable to watch Agnes (Christine Baranski) fight for Peggy without actually allowing Armstrong to face repercussions; this argument already happened in Season 1. Peggy’s work as a journalist for T. Thomas Fortune (Sullivan Jones) also continues here, but so far, her story feels like a retread of what came before. Benton, one of Gilded’s best performers, deserves a better arc for kind, determined Peggy.
All is not well on the Upper East Side
“Some Sort of Trick,” for all its revisiting of Season 1 arcs and its soap opera-level love shapes (triangles, squares, you name it) is an opulent episode that largely feels like what came before.
However, that won’t do for the progressive Russells. The return of a familiar face from the past threatens the marriage and the social status of TV’s richest wife guy and TV’s richest schemer, and they’re going to need more help than money can buy. Fellowes sticks the landing on the final scene, and you’ll find yourself begging for more.
The Gilded Age airs Sundays on HBO. Season 1 is streaming now on Max.
Featured image courtesy of Barbra Nitke/HBO
'The Gilded Age' 2x02 - 8/10