Note: this post contains spoilers for The Gilded Age season 1 episode 8, “Tucked up in Newport.”
Bertha Russell’s (Carrie Coon) social climb has hit a few snags on the way up in The Gilded Age, but even with the train crash scandal, she has avoided any major missteps. A trip to Newport alongside the established New York figureheads is another jewel in her crown, yet certain barriers are impossible to overcome when old rules are fixed in place.
“She has come from nothing,” sneers the ultimate gatekeeper Caroline Astor (Donna Murphy) when her daughter Carrie (Amy Forsyth) asks her to give Bertha the desired seal of approval. It doesn’t matter how much change is taking place or whether George Russell (Morgan Spector) is a force to be reckoned with when their lineage lacks name recognition.
It’s curious Carrie is allowed to socialize with the Russell children but her mother is adamant she won’t bend the rigid structure for the Russell matriarch. Money can buy a lot in this world but not respect it turns out.
Ward McCallister (Nathan Lane) is more than happy to have Bertha on his arm, and yet his influence is not as solid as Bertha expected. Doors have opened to board positions, fancy dinners and the forthcoming ball, but the incident at the end of “Tucked Up in Newport” is a reminder that Bertha’s triumph is far from complete. In some respects, she is considered to be as inconsequential and invisible as the servants that run these lavish homes.
Everything is going swimmingly before Bertha experiences a level of indignity she hopes to have put behind her. Bertha holds her own in conversation with socialite Mamie Fish (Ashlie Atkinson) and bats away every comment about her husband’s legal battles that are intended to cause an uncouth rise. Mamie calls Bertha “tenacious,” which she takes as a compliment because it is a step up from being ignored. Once again, the Russell children are favorably treated in comparison to the disdain toward their mother.
The torrid incident in question occurs when McCallister takes Bertha and Aurora Fane (Kelli O’Hara) on an unscheduled tour of Mrs. Astor’s palatial new $200,000 (about $5.5 million in 2020 terms) Newport mansion, because he believes Mrs. Astor is not due until the following day. Of course, Mrs. Astor arrives while they are in the middle of this visit, so to save himself from social banishment he pushes Bertha toward the servant entrance so she can make a swift unseen exit.
Bertha’s bold white and red dress looks instantly out of place among the servants going about their chores and cigarette breaks, which further dials up the horror fixed on her face. It’s an over-the-top and farcical moment this series has been dishing out regularly and here helps to avoids unnecessary stuffiness. This change in setting also delivers more lavish locations, which the HBO series is not short of.
Bertha’s quest for greatness has been felled by her name rather than George’s legal issues. It is noticeable this couple doesn’t share a scene this week — not even to say farewell. Whether this is purposefully pointing to strife (they were back to a solid unit the last time we saw them) or is simply an oversight is unclear.
Either way, George is saved from a jail term thanks to some good fortune when Marian (Louisa Jacobson) catches his stenographer Mable Ainsley (Zuzanna Szadkowski) in a lie at Bloomingdale’s. Or rather, Mable leaves her purse behind by mistake after using the charge account belonging to the same Mr. Dixon who is the key witness against George.
The reason why his memo about cheaper materials sounded like the railroad tycoon is that he did write it, but it was in reference to office renovations — Mabel gave the memo to Mr. Dixon. The only reason Marian knew Mabel is George’s stenographer was that she happened to be saying goodbye to Larry (Harry Richardson) when Mabel dropped off a message at the Russell house. George points out how fortuitous this all is, which can’t quite negate how contrived this whole setup is.
One element worth noting here is Marian and Larry are still engaging in light flirtation. This pairing is significantly more interesting than the ongoing romance with Mr. Raikes (Thomas Cocquerel). Aurora warns Marian that the lawyer “seems to be everywhere.” Rather than putting her off, this causes Marian to accept Raikes proposal. She references a new chapter, but even this step forward doesn’t liven up this storyline.
Elsewhere in the Van Rhijn household, there are bigger plots at play, as the malicious Armstrong (Debra Monk) continues her racially motivated quest against Peggy (Denée Benton). She dresses it up as concern for the reputation of this residence when she intercepts Peggy’s mail, but Agnes (Christine Baranski) is not swayed by this reasoning.
As a result, we find out Peggy’s secret is that she married the man her father disapproved of and had his baby. Sadly, her child was stillborn — and she almost died in labor — and Peggy has been searching for the midwife so she can find out what happened.
Peggy’s father forced her husband to make up a lie about being previously married so he could have the union legally annulled, underscoring the huge rift in the Scott family. I’m calling it now that Peggy’s child did not die and this is why no information is forthcoming.
Agnes is empathetic, but she cannot bring herself to fire Armstrong because it would be too disruptive. She is honest about her cowardice but it doesn’t make it any better and Peggy returns home to Brooklyn.
Denée Benton has been excellent all season as Peggy and she is equally terrific both in telling Peggy’s traumatic story and refusing to reside in a home with Armstrong.
Heading into the final episode there is still much at play including Oscar van Rhijn’s (Blake Ritson) calculated play for Gladys’ (Taissa Farmiga) heart, which has been disrupted by his now-bitter ex. The big ball is the likely centerpiece, which will bring together the new and old wealthy denizens fighting for relevance and status — and our attention.