For the series premiere of THE GILDED AGE, I wrote: Upon initial viewing, I stopped watching on my 49-inch television and resumed watching on my 120-inch projector screen. Despite not being special effects-heavy or containing any action sequences, The Gilded Age takes full advantage of the production values seen on premium cable. But does the story (thus far) deserve the same admiration? The answer was a resounding yes to that question. Likewise, the sophomore debut of THE GILDED AGE is a cinematic experience. One would think that the costumes, set pieces and cinematography could not be improved. Wrong. The aesthetics of the second season of HBO’s period piece are sublime; so much so that the freshman season was the oyster and now we have reached the pearl. Only the finale of season two will answer if the story keeps up with the production values. However, “You Don’t Even Like Opera” is a promising start.
“You Don’t Even Like Opera” is set one year after the events of season one. The episode opens with a church service conducted in two cities. Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) and Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), our conduits into the series, are in Philadelphia and New York City respectively. Peggy is accompanied by her loving yet terse parents, while Marian is joined by her two posh aunts Agnes (Christine Baranski) and Ada (Cynthia Nixon). The sermons are conveyed to two seemingly different audiences. In Philly, the middle-class to upper-middle-class black audience hears a message centered on hope. In NYC, the upper-middle-class to wealthy white audience hears a message of being thankful for God’s graces. The juxtaposition of these scenes shows that human beings all go through trials and tribulations. When the services end, we view two heartbreaking moments:
- Peggy visits the grave of the son she was forced to give up for adoption.
- Oscar van Rhijn (Agnes’s son, played by Blake Ritson ) is badly beaten while being a patron of a local bar
Peggy’s parents have tracked down the family that adopted their daughter’s son. Peggy is devastated to find out the child died of scarlet fever. Peggy is given toys and clothing items that were her son’s. Arthur Scott finally admits he was wrong in forcing Peggy to give up her rights as a mother. Peggy forgives her father but firmly states their relationship will never be the same. Needing purpose and inspiration, Peggy meets with Marian and the duo decides that Peggy’s return to work for Agnes would benefit all parties involved.
Although the circumstances leading up to the altercation are unclear, clearly Oscar van Rhin was in the wrong place at the wrong time. When the badly beaten man stumbles into his mother’s home, he hides that his pass at a man went awry; Oscar is a closeted gay man in the late 19th century. Time will tell if his interest in the beautiful yet naïve Gladys Russell is genuine, or is it Oscar’s way of suppressing his true desires.
Peggy and Marian are our windows into this illustrious yet pretentious world. But the most dynamic character is one Bertha Russell. She desperately wants to be in the circle of the elites, but is shunned due to her new-age style and wealth that comes from innovations from the industrial revolution. When Bertha is denied seating at the Academy of Music, her supportive but sarcastic husband states she doesn’t like opera. The astute George Russell is wrong in this situation. Bertha is a fan of drama, the medium that the drama occurs in is not relevant. Bertha hatches a plan that will certainly vex the Rhijn family and their ally the Astor family. She decides to give a hefty endowment to the newly established Metropolitan Opera House. Now we have new money giving a sizable donation to a new establishment. The old money families Rhijn and Astor will certainly do everything in their power to keep the Academy of Music the elite theatrical establishment in Manhattan.
THE GILDED AGE remains promising however the servants and butlers remain rather mundane. This is somewhat expected of a show with such a large array of characters. Hopefully showrunner Julian Fellowes and his team have storylines that give the secondary character more purpose. One good use of a secondary character is the shifty Miss Armstrong, the woman who spied on Peggy during her tenure with the Rhijn family.
THE GILDED AGE returns November 5, 2023 on HBO at 10pm ET.