What’s the story?
Set in 1882, The Gilded Age takes us inside the elegant homes and dynamic social lives of New York City’s highest echelon. Representing the old-money faction are Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon), a pair of well-born sisters who’ve agreed to take in their niece, Marian (Louisa Jacobson), after the death of her father (their estranged brother). Their status is the envy of their ultra-rich neighbors—railroad tycoon George (Morgan Spector) and his ambitious wife Bertha (Carrie Coon) Russell—who made their fortune rather than inheriting it. Bertha in particular craves the respect and status of society, but finds it difficult to make inroads with the snooty upper crust. Meanwhile, Marian and her friend Peggy (Denée Benton)—an aspiring writer who takes a job as Agnes’ secretary—struggle to learn the rules and find their own places in this particular and mannered world.
But what’s it really about?
The era leading up to the turn of the 20th century was one of dramatic economic and societal change in America. The rift between old money and new money serves as a proxy for greater fears and tensions on the brink of the modern age. As NPR’s Linda Holmes puts it, The Gilded Age is also a treatise on “the myth of meritocracy.” Americans are taught to believe in the American dream: that anyone can come from nothing and make it big in the land of opportunity. Class rigidity and snobbery is for the English and other Old World societies, not for a democratic country with values like freedom and equality. But, as we see in this series, that wasn’t the case for every American in 1882, any more than it is today. If this series has the kind of longevity that Downton Abbey enjoyed it will be interesting to see the storyline move through the decades and trace the rising and falling fortunes of the characters. It might even encourage modern viewers to make connections to our current neo-gilded age.
How is Downton Abbey connected to The Gilded Age?
Both shows come from creator Julian Fellowes, whose work frequently explores the clash between classes and social codes (he also wrote the screenplays for Gosford Park, The Young Victoria, and the adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair). Other themes that often crop up include affairs, snobberies, philanthropies, and wars. But this is not a prequel series. Other than a similarly opulent aesthetic (so many beautiful gowns!) there’s no obvious or direct connection between the noble Crawley family and the Americans depicted in The Gilded Age, which is set three decades before Downton‘s story even begins.
Fellowes has said that he isn’t currently planning a crossover between the two shows, but that hasn’t stopped people from speculating. “I can’t see it really,” he said in an interview with Creative Screenwriting. “Someone asked if you would you see any of the Downton characters, but most of them would be children. They said that Violet wouldn’t be a child, and I replied that, ‘Yes, I suppose you could see a younger Violet,’ and this became a newspaper story. ‘Violet comes from Downton to appear in The Gilded Age!’ It might be fun, but I doubt at the beginning, because I want it to be a new show with new people.”
Viewers should also expect less of the upstairs/downstairs dramas that drove much of the stories in Downtown Abbey. While some of the characters are servants, they don’t get as much of the focus here. There is more diverse representation, however, at all levels of society.
What about the cast? Where have I seen them before?
In keeping with HBO’s knack for attracting great talent, The Gilded Age boasts quite the ensemble. Besides Christine Baranski, Cynthia Nixon (whose other HBO show is simultaneously airing), and Carrie Coon in prominent roles, look for recurring and guest appearances by the likes of Jeanne Tripplehorn, Nathan Lane, and Bill Irwin. Theater fans especially will appreciate the parade of beloved stage actors, including Kelli O’Hara, Audra McDonald, Katie Finneran, Patrick Page, and Donna Murphy. In the lead role, Louisa Jacobson may not be instantly recognizable, but you might notice a resemblance to her more famous mother, Meryl Streep.
Watch it weekly or better to binge?
HBO is rolling out the episodes weekly, so if you want to keep up with the conversation you’ll have to be patient and take it one week at a time. Or you can wait until March when all nine episodes have aired and binge the whole thing all at once.
The Gilded Age airs Mondays on HBO at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT and can also be streamed on HBO Max.