(Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Gilded Age Season 2, Episode 5.)
If there’s one thing you don’t want to do in The Gilded Age, lore has it, it’s step on Bertha Russell’s bustle. The calculating, social-climbing wife of a thriving robber baron, Carrie Coon’s character is as indomitable as they come. See, for example, her recent efforts to squash her nemesis, Miss Turner (Kelley Curran), like a bug under her gloved thumb. This week, the pair’s long-simmering feud hit full boil when Turner (now crowned Mrs. Winterton, thanks to her quick marriage to a New York aristocrat) tried to sabotage Bertha’s first dinner with her new houseguest, the Duke of Buckingham (Ben Lamb).
The plan was simple: As seen in this week’s episode, Bertha hired some new chefs to cater the meal. Among them was Mr. Schneider, who it turns out also works part-time for the Wintertons. Turner links up with Bertha’s servant Peter Barnes (Michael Burrell) who is still working for Bertha and sends him and Sebastian on a mission: Spoil the dinner, and especially the Duke’s plate.
That might’ve been adequate payback for Bertha getting the Wintertons booted from the Academy of Music and stealing the Duke as a long-term guest, but then again, those moves were also both payback for the whole “trying to steal Bertha’s husband and then rubbing her nose in it” thing Turner pulled. These wily women could be like two peas in a pod, if only they could put aside their differences! That said: Although Turner’s plan burned to a crisp before the first course, I have to say that by now, I was… kind of rooting for her.
It’s not that I endorse women trying to seduce their boss’s husbands like Turner did before she got fired; I swear I don’t! Nor do I have any specific gripes against Bertha in particular. (Carrie Coon, please do not come for me!) Instead, my allegiance with the erstwhile Miss Turner is more about what these two women represent.
Turner might be a duplicitous witch, but also, isn’t Bertha? In the end, these women are cut from the same expensive cloth: They’re both willing to do whatever is necessary to get one over on everyone else and claw their way to the very top of high society, “old money” values be damned. Bertha might be better at playing the game, but Turner’s haphazard, cocksure swiping is way more fun to watch. Refreshingly, she also doesn’t seem to give a damn about whether she has the moral high ground—perhaps because she’s smart enough to know that in a world driven by money, that’s far adrift from the point. Also, Bertha’s husband George (Morgan Spector) might be charming as all hell, but he’s still a union-busting robber baron.
To cheer the Russells’ social ascent is like hooting and hollering for all those First Class folks on the Titanic who sat in their lifeboats and watched hundreds of people drown. Yes, Turner would be shivering right next to them in her big, fluffy hat, but you know what? I appreciate her absolute refusal to feign goodliness. She’s a monster, and she’s happy to let people know—and on some weird level, I respect that.
Like everyone else in her orbit, Bertha is obsessed with appearances, which is why she forced her son Larry’s older girlfriend, Susan—a zesty widow played by Laura Benanti—to break up with him last week. Now, Larry (Harry Richardson) is turning up at home drunk after long nights out, forcing his mother to banish him from their Newport summer home before the Duke arrives. Bertha also refuses to let her daughter, Gladys (Taissa Farmiga) dress herself for the occasion, where Bertha clearly hopes to use her as Duke bait. After all, what better way to rise in society than to marry one’s young, beautiful daughter off to someone with a title?
It’s unclear whether that set-up scheme is working yet, but the Duke does at least seem intrigued by the end of the dinner—which goes off without a hitch, thanks to an observant valet. When Turner’s new husband says that even she has to admit that it was a good dinner, she delivers a response suitable for the Pettiness Hall of Fame: “I wouldn’t admit it if they tore my fingernails off to make me!”
Over at the van Rhijn household, however, things are a little messier. Agnes (Christine Baranski) refuses to accept that her younger sister, Ada (Cynthia Nixon,) has gotten hastily engaged to the new local hot priest. She insists that she will not attend the wedding, and neither will her son Oscar (Blake Ritson)—the nephew Ada had hoped would give her away. Cousin Marian (Louisa Jacobson) protests as much as she can, but she has little to no power in this house, so it does little to sway Agnes—at least at first.
When both Marian and Reverend Forte (Robert Sean Leonard) hint to Agnes that her selfishness could lead her to lose Ada, she finally comes around and decides to show up at the wedding—albeit late, and by herself. It turns out, she was mostly terrified of losing Ada and winding up truly alone in her old age. Thankfully, she seems to have figured out that the best way to wind up alone is to alienate everyone around you by being stuck up. This does not, however, do much to ease the tension among the van Rhijns’ staff, who naturally worry about downsizing now that the household workload will presumably shrink with Ada’s departure. (The idea that Oscar could perhaps save their jobs by getting married and moving a woman into the house generates little more than a laugh.)
And speaking of Oscar… He’s still courting railroad heiress Maud Beaton (Nicole Brydon Bloom) who has been complaining about the way her father uses her to hide his stock purchases. Oscar seemed to delight in letting her business manager know just how much he’s gleaned about the family’s affairs. But is Maud for real? Oscar seemed very eager to help her out with an investment this week, but if there’s one thing that sets eyebrows a-raisin’ on The Gilded Age, it’s someone who comes out of nowhere and suddenly needs a lot of money. Best case scenario, Maud and Oscar are scamming each other—a fitting answer to Oscar’s search for an unwitting beard.
Bertha’s son Larry is up to far nobler things than the van Rhijn heir: This week, when his father sends him to check up on the field engineer behind one of his pet projects, the Brooklyn Bridge, Larry realizes that his wife, the pioneering Emily Warren Roebling (Liz Wisan), has actually been carrying on the work in his stead after a debilitating illness. Upon learning this news—and realizing that Warren Roebling will never be able to take credit for her work—Larry gasps that it’s “an unjust shame.” No kidding, kiddo! Now ask your sister how she feels about being pimped out to a duke in order to solidify her family’s status.
Once again, while everyone else has their parties and their obvious social revelations, Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) is dealing with far greater problems. She might’ve gotten to have fun learning to milk a cow last week, but now, it’s back to staring down the worst of humanity.
Peggy and her editor, T. Thomas Fortune (Sullivan Jones), spent the week reporting from Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. While covering its promise and pitfalls leads the two journalists to ask themselves difficult questions about what constitutes progress, the South’s profound lack thereof ambushes them at dinner, when a county commissioner and his pal stomp into a Black-owned restaurant to terrorize its owner. It’s implied that this is a regular occurrence, often involving sexual assault.
In a moment of horrified fury, Mr. Fortune lunges at one of the men, throwing him into a wall before he and Peggy flee. A mob comes for them with torches, but Washington (Michael Braugher) is able to hide them in time. Faced with a horrible danger and caught up in the adrenaline of having survived, the two kiss just after Peggy—who had previously been optimistic—asks Fortune, “Will things ever really change?”
Peggy is understandably eager to get back to the city, but the aftereffects of this trip will likely haunt her for a while, a regrettable turn of events for a journey she’d hoped would distract her from the devastating loss of her son. Hopefully, once she’s safely at home with her mother, Dorothy (Audra McDonald) she’ll finally get a little peace.