Note: this post contains spoilers for The Gilded Age season 1 episode 9, “Let the Tournament Begin.”
Gladys Russell’s (Taissa Farmiga) official debut into society set has been long overdue, but her mother Bertha (Carrie Coon) wanted to wait until she could fill the mammoth ballroom in their East 61st Street mansion before sending out the invitations. The grand event is finally here, but it’s uncertain at the start of the episode whether Bertha tipped her hand too early.
Last week’s Newport incident has caused some uncertainty regarding who will attend and if any of the old money names will deem this celebration-worthy. The Gilded Age has been lavish from the jump, but the last two episodes have found the sweet spot between emotional drama and humor, and the first season concludes on a high.
Everything is also at stake for Marian (Louisa Jacobson), who has chosen to elope with Mr. Raikes (Thomas Cocquerel) despite the red flags about his intentions and the rift it could cause with her aunts. Regular readers will know I favor Mr. Raikes as much as Agnes Van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) does, waiting for him to show his true ladder-climbing colors. He was a little too chatty with Sissy Bingham during the Thomas Edison electricity demonstration and at the opera he is openly flirting — despite declaring his heart to Marian.
Marian’s cousin Aurora Fane (Kelli O’Hara) witnessed both displays from the man whose surname lives up to the definition of a Rake. It is a race against time, or so we think, as Aurora spills her concerns to Aunt Ada (Cynthia Nixon) about the lawyer. Luckily, Ada knows enough pieces of Marian’s plan to send Aurora to stop her niece before its too late.
One of the most satisfying arcs of this first season has been Ada’s shift from a simpering spinster to a woman who’s clued into her surroundings. It’s as if this character is a reverse of Nixon’s And Just Like That… turn from wise to naive. In fact, Ada is the MVP of the finale for her smarts, compassion and later her glee at attending Russell’s ball.
Before we get to the ball, Aurora does make it to Mrs. Chamberlain’s (Jeanne Tripplehorn) before Marian has departed. The reason for this is Mr. Raikes has not arrived yet. Aurora’s opera observations all but confirm he has stood up his betrothed and rather than slink into the shadows, Marian heads to his office where she finds out the devastating (for her) truth. Mr. Raikes announces he still loves her, yet his desire for the finer things is far greater.
Aunt Agnes may have a habit of looking for the worst in people, but in this case, her initial assessment proved correct.
One more dash is required as Marian asked Larry Russell (Harry Richardson) to give letters to her aunts spilling the gory elopement details. Luckily, she arrives home in time to stop him from fulfilling this task. Humor is injected into this sad tale by Ada’s joy and Agnes’ confusion at what is playing out in front of her.
The light flirtation between Larry and Marian is evident in this scene, during a later waltz and when Larry says farewell the following morning after the all-night rager that is Gladys’ coming out. Yes, this group knows how to party until dawn.
The lead-up to the party sets a different countdown clock pitting Bertha against Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy) in a game of society chicken to see whether new or old money blinks first. The issue is that Mrs. Astor publicly snubbed Bertha and while Mrs. Russell is used to being slighted for her lack of pedigree, she now has some leverage.
Carrie Astor (Amy Forsyth) is part of the rehearsed quadrille dance, as she has helped this ball into fruition using her connections. In part, this is so she can spend time with the man she loves, but Carrie and Gladys are very close — and knowingly using this event to best their respective mothers. Bertha withdraws Carrie’s invite and in turn, Carrie refuses to talk or spend time with her mother.
It is all rather ridiculous, but it’s these kinds of manipulative games that make a show like The Gilded Age sing. Bertha has the power of daughters on her side (as well as Aurora Fane and Ward McCallister in her corner), making Mrs. Astor crumple at the last minute.
It doesn’t take much to get the elite to RSVP; even Aunt Agnes can’t turn down Mrs. Astor’s request (okay, demand) to attend. At least she doesn’t have too far to travel, but she makes it clear she reserves the right to quarrel with Bertha in the future.
George Russell also pulls some strings to aid his wife’s dream when he makes it clear that a hefty loan extension is contingent on attendance at the party. After a few fraught weeks, George Russell is wearing his “wife guy” badge with pride and the Russells are a fortified unit once more.
The one area in which George does refuse to bend to his wife’s wishes is with their chef Monsieur Baudin (Douglas Sills), who studied in France but has been keeping his Wichita, Kan., origins (and accent) hidden. This could be a great humiliation for Bertha, but the recently let-go chef does come to their rescue when his replacement gets drunk and George is quick to reward loyalty. The ball is a huge success and the dance performed by Gladys and her friends in their Marie Antoinette-inspired costumes is a theatrical wonder.
One person absent is Peggy (Denée Benton), who cannot be persuaded to change her mind about her recent departure. Her relationship with her mother has improved, but Mrs. Dorothy Scott (Audra McDonald) is horrified to discover her husband has deceived them both.
As predicted, Peggy’s son is still alive and Dorothy stands with her daughter when she discovers this unforgivable secret. They will receive no financial help from Mr. Scott (John Douglas Thompson), but perhaps Agnes will be more accommodating. The moment Peggy finds out her son did not die is quietly devastating, which demonstrates The Gilded Age’s ability to pull back the frivolity when necessary.
It is a strong finale bolstered by the performances, secrets revealed and unresolved tension to be built on further when The Gilded Age returns for its second season.