After spending last week in Newport, home of every single character’s summer home, The Gilded Age jumps back to the Upper East Side like it’s Gossip Girl: Victorian Era.
Agnes (Christine Baranski) reluctantly hosts a luncheon for her sister Ada’s (Cynthia Nixon) crush, Reverend Forte (Robert Sean Leonard). Agnes, blunt and proper, has zero tolerance for this burgeoning romance. Ada and the Reverend’s shy flirting is at best, adorable, and at worst, so gentle, you’d fear the other one might not realize the interest is mutual. Agnes’ frustration indicates an interesting layer to her otherwise fierce independence. If her meek, spinster sister were to get married, who would be left to care for Agnes?
What’s in a name?
Across East 61st Street, Mrs. Winterton (Kelley Curran) commits a grave scandal: referring to George Russell (Morgan Spector) by his first name! In public! George’s wife Bertha (Carrie Coon) is so scandalized, you’d think Mrs. Winterton confessed to murder. The intimacy of such a gesture —remember, this is an era when they get mad at you for using the wrong fork — sparks an argument between Bertha and George. George does have something to hide regarding Mrs. Winterton, but he pleads that anything he did, he did for Bertha. But it’s not enough. Coon’s best work is when Bertha is passionate, the argument isn’t about high society. It’s personal.
The importance of … maximizing your historical figures
There’s a historical figure in town to anchor this week’s big society gathering! Oscar Wilde (Jordan Waller) arrives in Manhattan to debut his play Vera. No one seems to like it — Marian (Louisa Jacobson) considers leaving after act one. (It was no hit in real life, either.) The bigger tragedy is that Wilde is a wasted figure in the Gilded world. Despite being the era’s master of wit, he has no opportunity to show it. Wilde’s minimal dialogue is largely devoted to pointing out coy gestures between exes Oscar (Blake Ritson) and John (Claybourne Elder). Their appearance, and restrained conversation, is more captivating than Wilde’s screentime. Ritson’s ability to convey pain through glances rivals Coon’s steely stares; Oscar’s broken heart remains evident under his sarcastic sheen.
Peggy Scott, journalist
If Vera flopping wasn’t enough real history for one episode, Peggy (Denee Benton) plans to head out of town. Her editor, T. Thomas Fortune (Sullivan Jones), wants to cover the opening of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Peggy is confronted by her mother (Audra McDonald), who begs her not to go. Peggy’s rebuttal is some of Benton’s best work here; covering the story isn’t just about growing as a journalist.
Everything else is ornamental
Despite the one-and-done plot of Vera’s premiere, “Head to Head” feels like an incomplete bridge between episodes. Gladys (Taissa Farmiga) and Maud (Nicole Brydon Bloom) are relegated to arm candy for the closeted John and Oscar. Larry (Harry Richardson) is still secretly seeing Susan (Laura Benanti). Jack (Ben Ahlers) and Adelheid (Erin Wilhelmi) continue their flirtation, which has totaled about ten sentences all season. This episode’s flirting consists of recapping Bertha’s drama even though the audience already knows about it. They’re as cute and chaste as Ada and the Reverend, but all they ever do is ask about one another’s employers. Go for a stroll or a glass of lemonade or something, already!
The serious business this week is saved for George’s meeting with a railway union representative, and Watson’s (Michael Cerveris) family drama. These scenes, while necessary — someone’s got to make the money to fund the warring opera houses, after all—don’t hold the same luster as their flashy society counterparts. (For one, they don’t have the ladies’ hats or bustles!) Scenery, and scenery-chewing, is the show’s strength. The best parts are the ones that depend on melodrama—a high point is the most casual use of the word “jejune” since Frasier’s original run. This is cotton candy served on fine china, and Gilded knows it.
The Gilded Age airs Sundays on HBO. Season 1 is streaming now on Max.
Featured image courtesy of Barbra Nitke/HBO
'The Gilded Age' 2x03 - 6/10