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Guess What, I Hated "The Gilded Age"

The newest installment in HBO’s Sad Rich People Saga left me unexpectedly cold.

The opening credits of HBO’s The Gilded Age are a mismatched jumble of images and symbols. A train plows through grasslands that transform into a neat piles of money; the locomotive’s steam rises between the rows and suddenly we’re zooming through a factory yard, whose smokestack becomes a top hat, a round brush sweeping neatly across its brim.

The Gilded Age is Lord Julian Fellows’ latest vehicle for mahogany-paneled sneering and swanning. The Downton Abbey show-runner has evidently found a formula he considers winning, and he plans to stick with it. As in Downton, so in Gilded Age. As upstairs, so downstairs. Class politics play out in luscious draped gowns and expertly-tailored suits. Tense exchanges take place almost exclusively at the dinner table and are usually carried out in subtly veiled comments. A slimy man with floppy dark hair is closeted and quietly plotting his ascent, and, oh, please know his sliminess isn’t because he’s gay, but also, it kind of is. The show even comes complete with surprisingly jaunty orchestral scores and long tracking shots filmed from behind servants walking from room to impressive room. Downton Abbey — now with American accents!

For years I tuned in religiously to Downton. I streamed episodes on MegaVideo the second some kind soul dropped them. My Tumblr page was filled with Mary and Matthew Crawley propaganda (#OTP). My best friend and I periodically sent one another impromptu text messages that just read, “SHE WAS HIS STICK!!!!!”'

So why can't I seem to enjoy The Gilded Age?

Remember when Lady Mary killed a man with her vagina? I do.

Look, I want to like it. I want to care about the relationship between Rooster Hannigan and the character I presume is the product of some sort of union between John Adams and a Greek goddess. I want to fully enjoy the lush costuming and set design. I want to withhold my sigh of disappointment every time our aggressively boring protagonist, Marian, steps into the frame. After all, it’s really not her fault that she’s so boring.

And certainly the show is not without its charms. Christine Baranski is given a great deal of swanning to do, if little else, and Cynthia Nixon is given a dog to hold and a lot of very kindly lines to deliver in a breathy voice. I enjoy the dynamic between Carrie Coons as the social-climbing Mrs. Russell and her railroad magnate husband, Store Brand Oscar Isaac. There is genuine chemistry between them, and I am a sucker for a wife guy, which Mr. Russell most assuredly is. I mean, when he bought out that entire charity craft fair thing because the organizers had quietly rejected his wife’s offer to use their ballroom? Swoon.

This guy gets it.

Yet where I was invested in the fortunes and misfortunes of Downton Abbey’s Crawley family, I cannot quite summon the same enthusiasm for The Gilded Age’s leads, the dueling Russells and Van Rhijns. The quaint comfort of our close-knit family is missing, for one thing. So too was Downton’s serving class better integrated in family dynamics; the intimacy in the relationship between, say, Lady Mary and her maid, Anna, is nowhere to be found. See?, Fellowes seems to say, This show is different, I swear! It’s about dueling rich people politics! And also, the family has a spaniel instead of a lab.

The Gilded Age’s opening credits are an impressive feat of CGI, and are no doubt as expensively-produced as each episode’s remaining 48 minutes. Capacious sets drip with luscious silks and velvets. Diamonds dangle from the necks and ears of bustled, corseted women. Shots pan over tables laid with towering cakes and roasted poultry whose beauty far exceeds my willing suspension of disbelief.

Oh, just you wait until that smoke stack turns into a hat! Just you wait!

And yet, the imagery is as empty as the era itself. Pattern after pattern, jewel after jewel, presented to us carte blanche. With the show’s orchestral score and bright, clean colors, one might even read the items as the rightfully coveted status symbols our characters regard them to be. And herein lies problem with the production at large. There is a disappointing simplicity to the show’s new-vs-old money politics, and Baranski is criminally underused as a grouchy old aunt who exists seemingly to deliver prejudiced lines about the wrong people. The dirty money that lines the pockets of the New York elite is alluded to, but it hasn’t been of particular narrative import as of yet, and it shows not at all in the show’s aesthetic perspective.

Like its opening credits, the show at large is also far too dependent on CGI; I find I miss the unadulterated beauty of Highclere Castle, which served as Downton’s titular manor. Downton’s estate was a character in the story; its tiled fireplaces dimly-lit foyer gave the show a sense of lived-in authenticity. The Russell and Van Rhijn homes arguably hold greater significance to their show’s story than the Crawley estate did for Downton, and yet something about the sets feels superficial, most especially in the large sound stage of the Russells’ entryway.

Of course, there are ways that this affect might be read as a successful critique of an empty-souled New York elite. But it isn’t just that the sets are made to be inauthentic. Where Downton felt lived in, the world of The Gilded Age has the disappointing air of a scale reproduction or a living-history museum. Houses are too clean, too empty. Streets are spotless. Stationary and pens are positioned just-so for effect, making each room a simulacrum of a living space, as in a model home. The show’s elaborate sets and costuming do impress, but there is no personality to this particular depiction of wealth. No perspective.

This cleanliness is itself part of what irks me. After all, we’re talking about an HBO production in the year of our Lord 2022, and the closest we’ve come to sex is a few steamy looks between the Russells and some whispers about a side character who “knew” her husband before they were married. Maybe it’s just me, but I admit I was expecting something more, I don’t know, prestige-y? Something with antiheroes, or something that accurately depicts 1880s New York in all its dirty, resentful glory. After all, this is the network that gave us Boardwalk Empire, now bringing us a show about an era defined by commercialized sex and vice, tenement housing and Ellis Island. Yet with the exception of a scene or two in Episode 5, we’ve thus far seen little to nothing of the vast city beyond Fifth Avenue.

These linked arms are the only hint of sex in an entire hour of television on HBO.

I would be remiss not to mention that Fellowes does make an effort to right some of the Downton Abbey’s shortcomings. There’s an attempt at more diverse casting, though I find the attempt to shoehorn our lone Black character into the broader plot rather clumsy. Indeed, writer and secretary Peggy Scott’s presence is for me the most engrossing storyline in the show. The show’s glimpses into affluent Black life in 1880s Brooklyn are the scenes that feel most fresh.

Peggy’s journey makes the other plot-lines seem fatuous — and this is because, ultimately, they are. Yet Fellowes treats them with equal weight; we are supposed to care about whether or not Marian accepts a proposal from a lawyer who’s only marginally wealthy. We are meant to sit on the edge of our seat when Mrs. Russell finally garners an invitation to the opera. But when when Peggy is being told she must hide her identity as a Black woman in order to have her exquisite short stories published, do I really care about some squabbling between a bunch of perfectly boring rich people? The stakes are so low that I cannot quite invest myself. And when Peggy finally gives Marian what-for on the streets of Brooklyn, the score that weaves beneath their stilted dialogue feels frivolous and inappropriate.

The trouble is, the fluffy bourgeois issues of Downton Abbey and The Gilded Age strike me now as silly, facile in a post-Trump world. As more than a handful of economists and critics have pointed out, we're living in our own sort of Gilded Age now, albeit one where fortunes are made from silicone instead of iron. What, after all, is more representative than this year's Met Gala, whose attendees posed for photos in outfits they seemed to believe evoked the show's Gilded Age theme while the rest of us panicked over a leaked draft of the Supreme Court's looming anti-abortion ruling? Fellowes purports to be fascinated by the dynamic between lord and lorded, but I watch our characters scheming in silks and satins and wonder at the invisibility of the workers whose labor funds it all. Somehow, I find I no longer have patience for a narrative whose primary conflict is That old-money socialite didn’t invite me to her party!.

Which is not to say I am immune to the draw of stories about sad, rich white folk. I love Succession and tolerated The White Lotus. But Succession succeeds precisely because it is so keenly aware of its own emptiness; it’s a sentiment reflected in the sleek, empty interiors of the Roy family homes and yachts, in the desaturated ecru tones of their clothing. It’s an ironic perspective communicated not simply in the show’s dialogue but in its visual grammar, the quick pans and hand-held shots that situate the Roys within a comedic framework even as scandals are covered up, sons betray fathers, and a media empire hemorrhages money.

And here, perhaps is the greatest difference of all. While shows like Succession treat their leads with a knowing repulsion, The Gilded Age tries its best to make its heroes sympathetic, likable. It is imbued with nostalgia and admiration for a time when things were, supposedly, simpler. But it’s much easier to root for the landed gentry of Downton, whose familial relationships are deeper and whose blood money was seemingly garnered in a more distant past, as compared to The Gilded Age’s robber baron railroad-man and his wife. The new show lacks its predecessor’s sophistication, whimsy, and nuance.

This plot is as empty as Marian’s fathers coffers. (Which are empty.)

To present this wealth without commentary or perspective strikes me as deaf to the rhetoric of our current moment. It rubs the wrong way. I look at the ornate columns and cornices of the Russells’ towering townhome, I see the fine art and gilt frames that accent its hallways, and I can’t help but think of a certain Fifth Avenue penthouse, lined wall-to-wall with gold and marble. I imagine I’m not alone in this.

The Gilded Age is the name Mark Twain gave to the late 19th century, an era in America when stark income disparity and a rise in conspicuous consumption made for widespread class resentment. It was an era in which new people with new technologies and great gobs of money seemed to threaten the traditional structures of power, when companies seemed to hold local, state and national governments in the palm of their metaphorical hand. There is clear relevance in depicting this historical period as an analog to our own, and I have long waited for a drama to do just that, preferably with hearty helpings of sex and scheming on the side. Fellowes' show, it would seem, is unfortunately not up to the challenge.

The early seasons of Downton Abbey are almost ubiquitously recognized as its strongest. Fellowes’ best work on Downton hung heavy with the audience’s knowledge of the looming Great War, which imbued the show’s societal dramas with a sense of piquancy and doom. In Downton, the decline of the British aristocratic tradition — for which the Crawleys figure as a synecdoche — mirrors the decline of the global elite. If Fellowes has an understanding of how his Gilded Age protagonists function as a symptom of something larger, I’m happy to listen. But I haven’t yet seen it articulated.


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