HBO’s ‘The Gilded Age’ is off to an early success

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The Gilded Age / HBO / IMDb / Fair use

“The Gilded Age” is a period drama set in the 19th century.

*This article contains spoilers for the TV show “The Gilded Age.”

With the massive success of  the TV show “Downton Abbey,” it’s only natural for the creator of the show, Julian Fellowes, to create another period drama, “The Gilded Age.”

Set in 1882, and streaming on HBO, “The Gilded Age” follows the story of Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), a young woman from rural Pennsylvania who moves to live with her two aunts (Christine Baransky and Cynthia Nixon) in New York after her father’s death. Brook’s aunts, who are elite old-money members of society, have much against their new-money neighbors, the Russels.

The show also follows the story of Bertha Russel, whose husband acquired his money instead of inheriting it, unlike many of his other neighbors. Bertha Russel makes many attempts to break into the high society in which she is now living, but the other elite wives of the society reject her. 

The series has only aired five episodes and has already been renewed for season two, which speaks to its excellent plot, quality costumes, and character intricacy. 

“The Gilded Age” plot mainly focuses on Brook and the Russels, but there are also multiple subplots. One of these subplots follows Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), an aspiring writer who struggles to get published because of her race and has a difficult relationship with her father.

In episode three, we see Scott’s struggle with getting published, where the publisher asks her to hide the fact that she was the author to avoid controversy among readers. Subplots such as those of Scott add complexity to the story and discuss real-world issues, making the plot more compelling to watchers. 

Also, similar to “Downton Abbey,” “The Gilded Age” also explores the life of the servants from the two prominent elite households. 

Another aspect of the story that keeps watchers interested, is the romance. Brook has an established love interest and another hinted at potentially becoming her love interest in the future. The main love interest, Tom Raikes (Thomas Coquerel), a lawyer from Pennsylvania who helped Brook after her father’s death, moves to New York right after Brook and the two form a quick bond. Raikes even proposes to Brook but unfortunately, Brook’s aunt, Agnes Van Rhijn, does not approve of the couple and Raikes is left without an answer. This adds to the intrigue for the watcher by including the will-they-won’t-they trope, often seen in romantic comedies. 

Throughout the current episodes, it is also hinted that Brook and Larry Russel (Harry Richardson) may have a romantic relationship later in the series. This pairing would also cause issues because Brook’s aunts do not like the Russels. This idea of a potential love triangle hooks the watchers onto the show quite early on and keeps them on the edge of their seats. 

Another reason this show is so enjoyable is the aesthetics, mainly the costumes. Characters such as Brook have a clear color palette. At the beginning of the series, Brook wears only black because she is mourning. But, once she arrives in New York, all of her dresses are either pastel blue or yellow, showing consistency and well-thought-out character development, and showcasing her endearing personality with soft pastels, making the series pleasing to watch.  

A similar technique is used in HBO’s successful 2009 period drama “Emma,” where the main character, Emma Woodhouse, mainly wears pink tones to reflect her energetic personality, but another character Jane Fairfax wears blue primarily to show her calm nature.

Another enjoyable costume pattern is that many characters wear their outfits multiple times throughout the show. Bertha Russel, however, does not. She is always in a different dress. Her dresses are also particularly extravagant, showcasing her wealth and desire to be part of the elite New York society. The costumes of this show are not only aesthetically pleasing, but they also allude to specific character traits.

The series also includes complex characters that exemplify the quality of the series itself. Gladys Russel (Taissa Farmiga) and Oscar Van Rhijn (Blake Ritson) are two of these characters.

Gladys Russel is particularly interesting because she is a character who is old enough to be part of society, but her mother refuses to let her. This adds an air of mystery surrounding Gladys Russel and allows her character to develop by standing up to her mother. 

Oscar Van Rhijn is also an intriguing character. He is a gay man in a relationship with another man (Claybourne Elder), but he is also simultaneously looking for a rich wife. His character shows the struggle for queer people of the time. It is essential for mainstream media to include queer characters, and “The Gilded Age” has done just that. 

“The Gilded Age” is an exciting new series that explores elite life in the 19th century in a compelling way. It had hooked watchers from the start with intriguing subplots, romance, beautiful costuming, and complex characters. One can only hope that the rest of the season, and the series, will stay as marvelous as it currently is.