The Gilded Age, HBO’s gorgeous, splashy new period drama from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes arrived last night swathed in silks, buttressed by bustles and simmering with intra-class conflict. The series seems largely preoccupied with the struggles of the nouveau riche—robber barons like George Russell (Morgan Spector) and his social climbing wife Berta (Carrie Coon)—to be accepted by New York’s old guard, as represented by Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski).
But as any Downton fan knows, Fellowes loves to spice up his upper crust soaps with romantic melodrama that is intimately intertwined with the social status of his characters. No bodices were ripped in the premiere and no one’s fortune has yet been endangered due to an ill-advised tryst, but it’s clearly only a matter of time before a star-crossed, old money/new money pairing emerges to pull our heartstrings taught across the class divide. And while Episode 1, “Never the New,” mostly only hinted at the various nascent entanglements ahead, we’ve got some ideas about who should end up with whom.
Larry and Oscar
Literally the moment the Russells’ son Larry (Harry Richardson) appeared onscreen, I thought, “Oh, here’s the gay.” My initial read on the recent Harvard grad’s notable resistance to his mother’s overbearing interest in his romantic and social life, as well as a certain…delicate sweetness in Richardson’s performance, had me convinced that Larry was harboring secret desires. Then, the next time we see him, Agnes’s own son Oscar (Blake Ritson) shows up all louche and dandyish and witty at the same sunny garden party, and I figured these two Manhattan princelings are sure to torturedly bone at some point! That is the central romance we all want from this show, right?
Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure Sir Julian and co. are going in the more conventional direction, pairing Oscar’s cousin, country mouse Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), with the Russell scion across the street. Thumbs down to that chemistry vacuum.
Oscar and John Adams
Fortunately, Oscar is too charming to sit at home all lonely and bitter and sexless à la Downton’s dastardly footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier). He’s already got his own thing going on with none other than John Quincy Adams’s great grandson (stone-cold fox Claybourne Elder). As my friend’s therapist keeps telling him to tell me, two things can be true, and I am fully rooting for both Oscar and Larry and Oscar and John Adams. I want it all for Oscar!
Complicating matters is Agnes, who seems to be maneuvering the brokest Brook (a.k.a. Marian) toward John Adams with an eye toward a matrimonial alliance. Which, like…whatever. As long as the devastatingly dreamy Mr. Elder is on this show romancing someone, I guess I can live with it.
Marian and Peggy
Ehhh… I guess we want these two ladies to become the best of besties? I mean, despite their cringeworthy meet cute, when aspiring writer Peggy (Denée Benton) springs for Marian’s train ticket to New York. (Oh, thank heavens there was a saintly Black woman here to rescue this tearfully imperiled white lady!) Like, I guess their respective independent natures are supposed to inspire each other, and together they will achieve their dreams and learn about the experiences of people unlike themselves.
Actually, no, I’ve changed my mind. I want more for Peggy. I don’t want her wrapped up in Marian’s coma-inducing nonsense.
Agnes and Dorothy
Ooh, just get Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald together again. The two are phenomenal on The Good Fight, even when their characters are at odds. More! Of! That! Please! I’m imagining both Agnes and Peggy’s mother Dorothy (McDonald) as The Gilded Age’s versions of Maggie Smith’s character in Downton Abbey, just hanging out and launching bons mots from the sidelines like Statler and Waldorf.
Ada and no one
“You were allowed the pure and tranquil life of a spinster,” Agnes exposits to her sister Ada (Cynthia Nixon) at the show’s outset. “The pure and tranquil life of a spinster” is my new motto, or mantra or whatever. It sounds amazing, and it’s all I want for Ada. Contrary to what the right honorable Lord Fellowes did in the final season of Downton, every single character in a story doesn’t need to be paired off. Some people are more than satisfied just having their own lives to themselves; some don’t have a choice, and that needn’t be a tragic outcome. I’d love to see Ada’s storyline upend the myth of the lonely spinster not by giving her some treacly late-in-life romance, but by showing her as a fully realized woman with, perhaps with some regrets, but also with a full and fulfilling life of her own.
Alas, I fear milord Fellowes has some plummy old codger up his sleave to foist upon poor dear sad old Ada before The Gilded Ague comes to an end.
Bertha and a lit match
After being epically snubbed by New York’s society matrons, Bertha is ready to burn the place to the ground, and I am here for it!
More Gilded Age Matchmaking and Shipping New:
‘The Gilded Age’ Introduces Another Man for Marian!