(Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Gilded Age Season 2, Episode 3.)
Bertha Russell might be out to supplant the Academy of Music with a little opera house called the Met, but this week on HBO’s The Gilded Age, Carrie Coon’s indefatigable social climber faces an even bigger challenge—getting over the fact that her husband declined to mention that her maid once crawled into bed with him while naked.
From the moment Bertha’s ex-lady’s maid Miss Turner (Kelley Curran) showed up at that party in Newport last week on the arm of a major potential opera donor, we all knew trouble was coming. The Russells fired Turner after her scheming got out of hand—including attempting to seduce Bertha’s husband, George (Morgan Spector) into making her his mistress. The Russells foolishly did not cut off Turner’s access to their home immediately upon firing her, so who knows what kinds of information she might’ve dug up in George’s office.
For now, however, Miss Turner mostly seems content to torture Bertha at her own fundraising lunch by implying that she and George had an affair. She also leaves Bertha with a pointed threat: “If you make trouble for me, I will respond in kind.”
When Bertha confronts George, he denies that anything happened—which, to his credit, is the truth. At the same time, Bertha can’t get over his “betrayal” in declining to mention Miss Turner’s advances. “So you allowed me to be waited on, to have my hair arranged, my clothes chosen, my bath run by a woman who’d been naked with my husband?” she spits out through tears. “It’s disgusting!”
It’s unclear where the Russells will go from here. George seems crestfallen that Bertha is not ready to let him make amends just yet. When he asks how long things will “be like this,” she coldly replies, “I don’t know, George—betrayal is not like a case of influenza.”
“No,” he replies. “It feels more like a death sentence.” And if that wasn’t enough, George also meets with a union leader who refuses to be bought. Those pesky workers might just be the end of him one day.
As if that wasn’t enough heartache for the Russell house, their valet, Mr. Watson, aka Mr. Collier (Michael Cerveris) must now decide whether to let his son-in-law buy him off.
Socialite Flora McNeil (Rebecca Haden) was aghast during one of Mrs. Russell’s parties to notice that the man serving her dinner was actually her father. It turns out, he was a banker when he married her pregnant mother, only for the woman’s father to force them to divorce. He faced financial ruin soon after, and because he’d declared bankruptcy, he could no longer work in business—leaving few options beyond becoming a valet. Rather than take pity on his father-in-law, however, Flora’s husband offers him a large sum of money to move to San Francisco and never contact them again. Ouch!
At least Bertha’s son, Larry (Harry Richardson), still seems to be having fun. After hooking up with his widowed client Susan Blaine (Laura Benanti) last week, he’s beyond smitten—even if she does insist that they keep things discreet. (Covert make-out sessions on a Julian Fellowes program? Color us shocked!)
Speaking of romance, Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) is also hitting it off with her not-cousin, the widower Dashiell Montgomery (David Furr). When he asks to skip the after-party for an Oscar Wilde play to care for his daughter—who is upset over an upcoming mother-daughter tea—Marian, who also teaches the girl watercolors, offers to go with her instead, much to Dashiell’s delight. After the romantic woes Marian endured last season, she deserves a win, and frankly, she couldn’t have found a better-looking one.
Also, yes—Oscar Wilde does show up this week, as Aurora (Kelli O’Hara) invites Marian, Bertha’s daughter Gladys (Taissa Farmiga), and Oscar van Rhijn (Blake Ritson) to attend his new tragedy Vera; or, The Nihilists. That said, Wilde’s presence is shockingly ho-hum; actor Jordan Sebastian Waller mostly just swans around and drops a forgettable line shading the Academy of Music, which, OK then!
And speaking of the Academy, it looks like Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy) has finally come up with a plan to stave off Bertha and the Met before they poach all of the famed opera house’s best donors. During a lunch with Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and her sister Ada (Cynthia Nixon), Mrs. Astor suggests that Agnes spread a “rumor” that anyone who signs up for a box seat at the met will automatically lose their coveted box seat at the Academy, where such privileges are far more limited.
Partway through the meeting, the socialite Ward McAllister (Nathan Lane)—who has been quietly helping Bertha—stops by to share the news that the Met is planning to open on the same day as the Academy—which should only light more of a fire under Mrs. Astor’s bustle.
Meanwhile, Ada is starting to feel a little fire of a different variety. In case it wasn’t painfully obvious last week, she’s crushing hard on the church’s new rector, Matthew Forte (Robert Sean Leonard). Evidently, the feeling is mutual; after the van Rhijns throw him a little luncheon, Forte asks Ada out to an art gallery. Marian covers for Ada to stave off Agnes’s suspicion, allowing Ada and Matthew to bond over the watercolors. Could this spinster be on her way to true love? If it’ll get her out of her sister’s house, let’s hope so!
While everyone else worries about things like opera and naked ladies’ maids, Peggy (Denée Benton) is once again struggling with an entirely different league of problem: She’s planning to travel with her editor, T. Thomas Fortune (Sullivan Jones), to interview Booker T. Washington about the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Beyond the potential scandal of a single woman traveling alone with a married man, Peggy’s mother Dorothy (Audra McDonald) is also terrified for her safety. “You don’t seem to understand,” she tells Peggy, “that once you cross that line, you are no longer human.”
It would be a mistake for The Gilded Age to pretend that racism did not exist, or that Peggy’s trip South could be uneventful, and yet I must admit, this season has me wondering if this poor woman will ever know peace again. After losing her son, Peggy is doing whatever it takes to get her mind off the pain, and in this case, that means pursuing her passion for journalism into hazardous territory. Fair enough! Let’s just hope that Booker T. Washington receives more consideration in next week’s episode (or whenever he appears) than Oscar Wilde did in this one.
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