SPOILER ALERT: This story contains spoilers from the Season 2 finale of HBO’s “The Gilded Age,” now streaming on Max.
Bertha Russell, who never really cared for opera, can now watch Verdi from the best seat in the house.
Polite society’s battle royale ended with the New Money triumphing over the Old Guard, as “The Gilded Age” wrapped up its second season on Sunday. Mrs. Astor’s attempt to steal Bertha’s thunder by getting the Duke of Buckingham to attend the opening night of the Academy of Music instead of the Metropolitan Opera House ended in disaster. After Bertha made the cash-starved royal an offer he couldn’t refuse, he showed up box-side with her at the Metropolitan, gazing at her daughter Gladys as New York’s elite looked on. That left Mrs. Astor gazing down at row upon row of empty aisles at the Academy.
And that’s not the only big moment from an action-packed finale (well, by “Gilded Age” standards, where everything unfolds in the Julian Fellowes HBO drama at the frenetic pace of a leisurely stroll through a botanical garden). The van Rhijn family was saved from social ruin by an unexpected financial windfall, Peggy Scott was forced to sacrifice her dream job, and Marian Brook called off an ill-considered engagement, only to draw closer to the Russell’s son, Larry. Are wedding bells in their future?
To break it all down, and get some hints at what might come in a third season, Variety convened a roundtable of “The Gilded Age” stars Morgan Spector (George Russell), Carrie Coon (Bertha Russell), Louisa Jacobson (Marian Brook), Denée Benton (Peggy Scott), Cynthia Nixon (Ada Forte) and Christine Baranski (Agnes van Rhijn).
Has Mrs. Astor been deposed at the end of this season? Is Bertha the new queen bee of society because the Metropolitan Opera superseded the Academy of Music in popularity?
Carrie Coon: Yes. The opera war was a fierce battle, but Mrs. Astor always knew that she was going to have to yield at some point because the new money Bertha represents comes with such ungodly wealth. It’s just that Mrs. Astor wanted to yield in her own time, and in her own way. And somebody like Bertha is going to just keep pushing until those doors are thrown wide open for her.
And so I think Bertha recognizes that as long as she keeps this up, she’s going to get everything she wants. And it’s true. If you look at history, the people with the most money did get what they wanted. They still do.
This season ends in a moment of triumph for Bertha, just as the first one ended with her successfully luring Mrs. Astor to her ball. But this victory feels like it comes with a troubling undercurrent. By promising her daughter to the Duke of Buckingham, has Bertha crossed a moral line?
Coon: Morgan is very upset right now.
Morgan Spector: I just find it very disturbing, because I think in the next season, we’re going to go to war basically over this. I guess I’m hoping that Gladys [Taissa Farmiga] actually likes the duke.
Coon: Well, of course, the inspiration for Bertha is Alva Vanderbilt, who did this exact same thing to her own daughter Consuelo, marrying her off to this duke who she didn’t love, only to turn around a decade later and become a suffragette. That was infuriating for her daughter, to have her mom suddenly become a feminist.
Now you have to remember, in my eyes, Bertha is no villain. She’s looking out for her daughter in a world that is not built for her daughter. Bertha is going to make sure that her daughter is safely married and ensconced and supported financially. With his social position, her son is fine no matter what he does, but her daughter doesn’t have that freedom.
Christine Baranski: The same thing is true of Agnes in terms of [her obsession] with marrying off Marian. It’s why she’s so insistent that she play by the rules and find the right man or she will slip through the cracks. The stakes were very high for women in that society. If you got into that social circle, you held on for dear life. I mean, read “The House of Mirth.” It’s just a study of a woman’s position, and how it can start slipping away as you get older and you lose those opportunities.
In the finale, the roles of Agnes and Ada are dramatically reversed — Agnes’s son Oscar has been conned out of the family fortune, just as Ada comes into an unexpected financial windfall following the death of her husband, Rev. Forte. Where do you think their relationship goes from here?
Baranski: That is up to the writers, but it’s just the most delightful twist. That final scene with [the butler] Bannister deferring to Ada as the mistress of the house instead of Agnes. The ramifications of that are so huge.
Cynthia Nixon: We did have a lot of fun supposing what might happen with Ada in the driver’s seat. She would throw open the doors of their mansion and make it a home for unwed mothers or stray cats or Bohemian artists or overseas missionaries.
Baranski: Agnes will never leave her bedroom, and there’s the smell of cats all over the house.
Would Ada have been able to assert herself like she does in the finale if she hadn’t married Rev. Forte? How did that relationship change her?
Nixon: At the age that she is, the idea that she would find a man to love her is really startling to her. His love and belief in her, and his choosing of her out of all the women that were possible for him made her trust herself.
Peggy also has a very dramatic arc this season, where she falls in love with her boss, T. Thomas Fortune, who is a married man. What led her to sacrifice her dream job at the New York Globe?
Denée Benton: Peggy starts the season in such deep grief [over the death of her son], and she’s running away from her pain through her work. But that work forces her to run deeper into the grief of the country. Her time in the South [reporting on Booker T. Washington], it shapes her for the rest of the season. She experiences a life or death moment down there, and that centers her in a way.
So, instead of seeing her as walking away from her dreams at the Globe, I think she’s walking toward them. A lot of her life has been derailed by men — from her dad’s decisions about what to do with her son, to her husband leaving her. And now here’s T. Thomas Fortune, who she has strong feelings for, but who is married and unavailable. Only she’s not going to let her life be derailed by this man. It’s actually a step toward herself, even though it’s a step away from that gig.
Do you think Peggy was naive about the extent of the problems and violence in the South before she made that trip?
Benton: I think so, but it’s a naivete that came from a passion. You always want to think that your personal power is bigger than the oppression you’re walking into. And I think it was really easy for Peggy to be in New York with her ideas about how to solve things. And it was very humbling to be with Booker T. Washington and be like, no, no, no, these are not the same strategies for survival in your parts.
George obviously embodies this new kind of wealth and this harder-hitting type of businessman. It’s weird because as an audience member, we find ourselves really rooting for this rapacious capitalist. Why is he so seductive?
Nixon: I mean just look at Morgan!
Spector: The show offers a variety of fantasies in which the audience can immerse themselves. One of them is the fantasy of having nearly absolute power. That’s pretty seductive just on its face. When George has a problem, he solves it by dint of his own indomitable cleverness, as well as his seemingly bottomless bank account.
But he’s also honorable. He’s certainly not a leftist or a humanist in any way, but he has a code of ethics. It’s an honor among thieves approach, but that’s better than amoral corporate capitalism.
There’s a pivotal moment when George decides not to have the troops fire on the striking workers. It’s later revealed that there’s also a business strategy behind that decision. But in that moment, was he responding emotionally because he wanted to avert a tragedy, or was he just thinking about it in terms of dollars and cents?
Spector: It’s a little bit of both. He’s more farsighted than some of his business peers. And I think he sees that he’s going to have to come to some sort of sustainable truce with union power. And there’s also that scene where he goes to [the union leader] Henderson’s house, and he sees his family and starts to understand the conditions that his workers are living in. So when he sees the troops start to aim and he’s looking at that little kid who is standing with the strikers, he realizes that killing a child is a step too far.
Marian calls off her engagement to Dashiell. When did she realize he wasn’t the right person for her to marry?
Louisa Jacobson: It wasn’t love at first sight by any means. But after what she went through in Season 1 with Tom Raikes, she’s more open to the possibility of something that just makes sense and that is safer. And I think she tried a little bit to fall for Dashiell, and she got in too deep with his daughter and she didn’t think things through. So she has deep regrets about it when she breaks things off with him. But Dashiell, as she saw over the course of the season, he didn’t take her employment seriously. He didn’t want her to continue teaching watercolors when they are married. And that’s actually a big passion for Marian. It’s not just a flippant thing. So for him to be like, “Oh, it’s not serious,” is frustrating. And it made her realize, OK, I don’t feel good about this.
Why is Marian so drawn to Larry Russell?
Jacobson: She sees a similarity. Larry is also artistically minded, and has this interest in architecture. He wants to pave his own path. He doesn’t just want to follow in a family business. He’s sort of a free spirit. There’s an equality of interests there that’s really attractive to Marian.
Spector: They’re both searchers. They’re both still looking for the thing that’s going to be like their big purpose in life.
Would Marian be welcomed into the Russell family?
Coon: Marian would be a really good fit for the family. She’s ambitious like Bertha. Bertha has always liked Marian, and she’s stylish and modern in her thinking. She’s not afraid of this meritocracy that the Russell family is espousing.
Would Agnes be all right with that union?
Baranski: I can’t imagine how long it would take me to get down that aisle.
But Agnes seems changed by her experiences this season. In the last episode, she has this revealing monologue about how her social connections will soon vanish now that her money is gone. She’s very aware of the tenuous nature of her power and influence.
Baranski: This season, you begin to see the cracks form in her rigidity. With both her niece and her sister, she comes to understand that she cannot stop the tide of change. And that’s a wonderful thing to play as an actor – to see the emotion coming through, and realize that this woman is not necessarily made of stone. But you have to set up that strong sense of what her history is and what her purpose is and what her worldview is, and then you can let the water to start seeping through the cracks.
Many of your characters are based on historical figures. Does that give you a sense of where your story might end?
Coon: When I was presented with the possibility of doing the show, there was an accompanying document that Julian Fellowes had written up about where Bertha was possibly going. And because she’s very closely tied to Alva Vanderbilt, we know that Alva married her daughter off to a duke. And we also know eventually she became an advocate for voting rights for women and divorced her husband. I hope the writers don’t do that to this amazing marriage we have created with George and Bertha, but I think that’s a really interesting arc for Bertha.
Benton: And sometimes our biggest dreams can be limited by the history. Because originally the writers were really hoping that Peggy and T. Thomas Fortune would have a longer love story. But he was a real person with a wife, so there wasn’t as much runway. That was disappointing.
Baranski: His wife could die.
Spector: People got run over by carriages all the time.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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