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How ‘The Gilded Age’ Mines Conflict Between the Wealthy in Different Social Circles

As someone unreasonably fascinated with period dramas, I thought HBO’s The Gilded Age, created by Downton Abbey’s own Julian Fellowes, seemed the perfect show to break up the monotony of other current fares. Like many other period dramas, the premise is simple. It follows a particular pattern: a young woman, Miss Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), moves to New York City from Pennsylvania after her father’s death. She then navigates the social scene of the upper crust of New York’s old money society with the help of her aunts, the widowed Mrs. Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and the unmarried Miss Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon).  

However, unlike other high-profile genre entries, such as Pride and Prejudice or Netflix’s Bridgerton, The Gilded Age is set in the United States. Without the presumption of title or peerage, the show is forced to rely on the characters’ socioeconomic standing as the foundation for their status, relative positions, and opinions of the other characters. This makes The Gilded Age more easily compared to modern-set series like Gossip Girl: the audience is captivated by the enormous wealth of the principal cast of characters. The drama that ensues on The Gilded Age is a clash between characters of similar economic classes but different social ones (‘old’ versus ‘new’ money) in New York City’s nineteenth-century high society. 

Phoebe Dynevor as Daphne Bridgerton and Ruth Gemmell as Lady Violet Bridgerton (COURTESY: Netflix)

For instance, Mrs. van Rhijn’s obsession with maintaining old money families’ rule over New York society means almost every other member of her family must keep their new money relationships a secret or deal with the consequences of acting against her. Agnes’ son, Oscar van Rhijn (Blake Ritson), is poised to inherit the family fortune but still seeks to marry Gladys Russell (Taissa Farmiga), who will one day be a rich heiress. Gladys, of course, is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. George Russell (Morgan Spector and Carrie Coon), the new money family who lives across the street from the van Rhijns on 61st Street and who Mrs. van Rhijn considers distinctly unsuitable and seeks to exclude from high society. Mr. Russell makes most of his money from railroads, which sets him apart from old-money families who earned their fortunes before the Revolutionary War. Meanwhile, Mrs. van Rhijn’s niece, Marian, is cordially acquainted with Mrs. Russell and infatuated with Tom Raikes (Thomas Cocquerel), a young lawyer of no social standing she knows from Pennsylvania. Marian often chooses to conceal her meetings with both individuals from her aunt. Mrs. van Rhijn’s sister Ada also has a past suitor whom Mrs. van Rhijn, upon deeming him unsuitable, scared away herself.

In The Gilded Age‘s sixth episode, the conflict between old and new money comes to a head somewhat ridiculously in a flap over the use of butlers between the Russell and van Rhijn households. Mrs. Russell’s pursuit of high society membership finally makes headway when society’s arbiter, Mr. Ward McAllister (Nathan Lane), accepts an invitation to lunch. As Mrs. Charles Fane (Kelli O’Hara) instructed, Mrs. Russell needs to serve lunch in the traditional English style. However, her butler is only trained in the American style. (Gasp.) To solve this problem, Mrs. Russell hires Mrs. van Rhijn’s English butler to serve the meal – a fact that must remain hidden from Mrs. van Rhijn at all costs. Naturally, the two butlers clash during rehearsals, and the two households follow suit. 

Poaching a butler (or worse, a cook!) from one household is a classic period drama faux pas. Yet The Gilded Age 1.6 belies the legacy of conflict between old and new money families and, through its absurdity, reveals how the definitions of old and new money may have shifted since the Gilded Age. However, the division remains the same: paper-thin. The show’s obsession with the low-stakes, old-and-new-money drama only highlights the current socioeconomic realities. Part of the fun of a period drama is that it engages with the past; the new wealth established during the Gilded Age has only grown since. Take the Vanderbilts, who made their real-life fortune during the Gilded Age through railroads (Mr. George Russell, who?). It’s estimated that today, Gloria Vanderbilt and her son, Anderson Cooper, have a net worth of a little over $200 million. Unlike the escapism of Bridgerton balls and Pride and Prejudice proposals, The Gilded Age centers the American experience of capitalism and wealth in its plot. 

Cynthia Nixon as Ms. Ada Brook and Christine Baranski as Mrs. Agnes van Rhijn. (COURTESY: Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO)

Simply put, The Gilded Age is, at its core, a show about and for the upper class (by the way – everyone reading this, say thank you to my girlfriend’s HBO Max subscription). But like the rest of the show’s audience, I can’t look away. It’s pure escapism to watch Mrs. Russell obsess over every detail of home decor (almost like watching interior design TikTok) and plan her ascent into New York society. The Gilded Age holds the same allure as shows like Selling Sunset or Keeping Up With the Kardashians. These families’ wealth and their ability to spend it on virtually anything enriches our experience of family and workplace dynamics while leaving it fascinatingly out of reach to the average viewer.

Every Gilded Age character is obsessed with maintaining, obtaining, or spending money, as it is deeply interwoven with their status. And while new families try to spend their way into that society, the old families are increasingly paranoid about losing the prestige their dwindling wealth grants them. Mr. Russell’s head-to-head with the city aldermen to build a new railroad station crystallizes the distinction. In a classic double-cross, the aldermen first strike a deal with Mr. Russell to purchase stock in his company while passing legislation allowing construction of Union Station, then renege, re-pass a law preventing the same thing, and attempt to double their initial profits by shorting the stock. In the aldermen’s minds, Mr. Russell has no recourse since spending even his vast fortune on his own company’s stock might not be enough to keep its value high and bankrupt the legislators. However, for both Mr. and Mrs. Russell, spending whatever they have to makes perfect sense: it will ensure that the aldermen reverse their reversal and permit Union Station to be built, and it will set a precedent against any future double-crosses. Unfortunately, one of the aldermen, Mr. Morris (Michel Gill), confronted with the prospect of total financial ruin, commits suicide. The Russells were prepared to lose everything in order to win. The Morrises and their old-money contemporaries were not. 

While other period dramas turn on similar conflicts of social class, their discussions of money are much more subtle, expressed through either the decadence of their estates or of their attire. The Gilded Age is one of the few period dramas (in my imprecise memory) that pinpoints money itself as the catalyst for societal conflict. Given how the conflict is limited to the wealthy, though, the show’s stakes rarely feel high. As The Gilded Age‘s first season wraps up, and with a second season ordered, we shall see how the show starts to bring together its loose ends. The fireworks between the Russell and the van Rhijn households have finally begun, and the drama between their two matriarchs is far from over, assuming Mrs. van Rhijn continues to get her way.

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