5 Things I love About HBO’s The Gilded Age (And one thing I’m on the fence about…)
I binge-watched HBO’s The Gilded Age (created by Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame) over the past couple weeks, and I have thoughts: I LOVED IT! Since I’m seeing some mixed feelings about this show from other period drama fans, I thought I’d share what I loved–and the one thing I’m a little weird about.
- The Story is Set in America
As much as I adore British settings in period drama, it’s fun to have a “Victorian Era” drama set in 1800s New York. It takes place about a decade after Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (also set in New York), so it’s got a lot of the same vibes. Even in the refined parts of town and society, there’s an untamed roughness to 1880s New York that was long gone by that era across the pond.
- Old Money vs New Money Conflict
Whereas Downton Abbey centers mainly around upstairs vs downstairs, as well as the changes to upper class British life in the early 20th century, the primary conflict of The Gilded Age is “old money” vs “new money.” On the one side, you have old prominent American families like the Astors, Fishes, McAllisters, and other members of the infamous “Four Hundred.” On the other side, you have the wealthy upstarts, industrialists and railroad tycoons who are extremely wealthy but lacking in pedigree. Which isn’t to say that the “downstairs” doesn’t play a part in the story. It just takes a bit of a back seat to the sociopolitical intrigue of the nouveau riche Russells versus Mrs. Astor and her courtiers.
- Drama without Misery
Look–I love Outlander, Poldark, Downton Abbey, etc., but there is just SO MUCH MISERY in these shows. You can’t get through a single episode without somebody being murdered, abused, or violated. Pain, grief, and death lurks around every corner, and it’s just exhausting to watch sometimes. I think that’s one of the reasons I enjoyed Bridgerton so much, and even Sanditon, both of which were on the lighter side. In much the same way, the first season of The Gilded Age has plenty of exciting drama without resorting to extremes. I found the sociopolitical intrigue to be plenty dramatic on its own, without main and secondary characters having to experience constant physical trauma of some kind.
- Inclusion without Tokenism
The Gilded Age is far from perfect (like many period dramas), but it’s trying. We have a main Black character (Miss Peggy Scott) with her own story, who isn’t just there to support a white character’s story. She is a young woman making her way in the world, pursuing a career as a writer, but she’s at odds with her middle class family and that story unfolds as the season goes on. We also get a glimpse into a real Black-owned newspaper (the New York Globe, owned by T. Thomas Fortune) which I hope we’ll see more of next season. There’s a little bit of LGBTQ+ representation with two male characters, and I like that they address the complexities of being a gay man in a society where young wealthy men are expected to marry well–not to mention the toll that can take on relationships. I hope we’ll get to see more of that next season, too. Finally, I like that we get to see the breadth of challenges faced by women in the many different roles forced upon them by society, from Mrs. Russell’s obsessive mission to get her family on the high society radar, to Miss Marian Brook’s travails with being in love with someone deemed not good enough by her high society aunt, and the Countess Olenska-ish disrepute of Mrs. Chamberlain, whose only crime was being a normal human being. With so much to cover in the first season as we got to know the characters, none of these stories were given enough time, but it seems likely we’ll see these complex stories develop in season two.
- The Magic of the Era
I’ll never forget watching The Age of Innocence for the first time–probably the exact moment I fell in love with period drama–and feeling that sense of wonder at the everyday magic of this bygone era. I felt like The Gilded Age did that very well, from the grandeur of the Russell home, to the mystique and charm of Newport and the wonder of moments like Edison lighting up the New York Times building. While the show doesn’t quite reach the “eye candy” magnificence of The Age of Innocence or even Downton Abbey, there’s still plenty to ogle with the beautiful sets and unusual costumes. Which brings me to…
The One Thing I’m on the Fence About
I think all period drama fans can probably agree that costumes are one of the best things about a period drama, but now and then you come across a show or movie that tries to buck the system costume-wise. Sometimes it works, like in Bridgerton, which had a beautiful alternate historical sensibility to it, and other times it just feels anachronistic. At first that’s how I felt about some of the costumes in The Gilded Age. The colors seemed too rich, the styles seemed bonkers compared to what I’ve usually seen depicted for that era. I was definitely feeling weird about a lot of the costume choices. But then I looked at some of the V&A collection for that era, along with some fashion plates, and videos like this one, and it turns out the costumes weren’t as out there as I thought. In fact, in terms of style and color, many of the colors and styles were spot-on. Others were a bit outdated, but that seemed to be an intentional choice. The actual inaccuracies (things like back-closing day bodices) were things I didn’t know enough about to notice.
So, if you’re a period drama fan and enjoy things like Downton Abbey and The Age of Innocence, I definitely recommend checking out The Gilded Age on HBO. And the best news is it’s already been renewed for season two!