The Gilded Age Season Two begins with hats. Lots and lots and lots of hats. It is Easter Sunday, and all the women of 1880s New York society are putting on their fanciest headgear before heading to church. And by far the most fabulous hat of all is the one you can see in the picture at the top of this review, a towering concoction of feathers and flowers, placed atop the head of the show’s richest woman, Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon).
This opening montage is Gilded Age creator Julian Fellowes recognizing on which side his bread is buttered. While there’s much to enjoy in the HBO drama, it’s hard not to first be gobsmacked by the wealthy time travel porn of it all: Stunning architecture. Lavish dresses. And, yes, magnificent hats.
But as I watched Bertha navigate this new season, once again plotting to conquer a New York social scene that looks down on her as a gauche representative of new money, a strange but unmistakable thought kept bouncing around my head: Bertha Russell is the new Walter White.
Hear me out.
When The Gilded Age debuted almost two years ago, it was hard at first to not view Bertha as one of the show’s most sympathetic figures. At almost every turn, the old money characters — chief among them Christine Baranski as Bertha’s across-the-street neighbor Agnes van Rhijn — smugly dismissed Bertha and her railroad tycoon husband George (Morgan Spector) as interlopers whose attempts to join their ranks were misguided at best, offensive at worst. That she was played by Coon (whose work on The Leftovers is one of the great all-time TV performances) only added to this feeling that, despite her vast fortune, Bertha was the underdog of this story. But over time — and especially throughout this new season — we see that her ruthless quest to outdo the blue bloods has led her to do some pretty cold and monstrous things.
So let’s recap. Character who at first seems like the understandable hero of the story, due to both their circumstances and to their being played by a fantastic and charismatic actor? Check. Character is gradually revealed to be an outright villain, regardless of how they’ve been treated? Check. Character wears a distinctive hat? Check.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Lady Heisenberg.
Among the more impressive aspects of the new season is how deftly Fellowes and his collaborator incorporate this antihero arc into the kind of soap operatics that have been the stock in trade on both this show and Fellowes’ Downton Abbey. The other characters are dealing with complicated love lives, financial peril, career ambitions, and more. And then periodically, Bertha and/or George will swoop in to absolutely tear one or more of them to shreds.
The season spans a few months in the spring of 1883, and largely revolves around what comes to be known as “the opera war.” Bertha, having been denied a box at the long-established Academy of Music, becomes the biggest supporter of the upstart Metropolitan Opera House, throwing both money and her rapidly-increasing social influence into making the Met into a palace that she hopes all but the most stubbornly patrician New Yorkers won’t be able to resist.
It is, like so many aspects of the series, a fight over a seemingly small matter that stands in for something much bigger. As George Russell points out at one point, Bertha doesn’t even like opera. But being barred from the Academy by the likes of Caroline Astor (Donna Murphy) has turned this into a vendetta, and as a chance to rebalance the scales of power in the city, so that money matters more than bloodlines.
Orbiting around this are a lot of stories. In Season One, Fellowes’ attempt to do the Upstairs, Downstairs/Downton Abbey approach with two separate households — plus various other groups, like the Black, Brooklyn enclave from which Agnes’ secretary Peggy (Denée Benton) comes — left too many of the subplots feeling underfed. But with the huge cast relatively well-established by this point, the new season is better equipped to jump from one story — and one world — to the next without anything seeming particularly rushed. The servants remain as subordinate in narrative priority as they are in position within each household, but there are solid and engaging stories among each group, like George’s valet Mr. Watson (Michael Cerveris) attempting to reconnect with his estranged family, or Agnes’ footman Jack (Ben Ahlers) dabbling as an inventor when he finds a broken alarm clock. Bertha’s son Larry (Harry Richardson) gets involved in multiple new relationships — one of them involving a widow played by Laura Benanti, the latest of the ensemble’s army of Broadway superstars — while Agnes’ closeted son Oscar (Blake Ritson) once again goes to extreme lengths to hide his sexuality from the world.
Fellowes, whose own family has an impressive bloodline in the U.K., ultimately can’t resist empathizing more with Agnes and her sister Ada (Cynthia Nixon) than the Russells. But he also is very much on the side of the characters who exist outside this power struggle altogether. Much of the best material continues to involve Peggy’s quest to become a writer, even as she battles the extreme racism and sexism of the 19th century. And when George has to deal with a strike at one of his steel mills — something also referred to as a war, and much closer to the genuine article than the business with the opera houses — the show spends just enough time with the union organizers to turn them into humans, rather than faceless obstacles to one of our main characters. And there are occasional emotionally potent sequences when the various strata of the city all experience the same moment at the same time, like when various groups gather in different places to celebrate the grand opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. It is a grand and complicated tapestry, and while Bertha is doing whatever she can to make Caroline Astor kneel before her, everyone else is dealing with their own, more palpable triumphs and tragedies.
With a world this big, everyone in the audience is likely to prefer some characters and stories over others. For me, the love life of Agnes and Ada’s niece Marian (Louisa Jacobson) occupies much more time than it needs, while I usually find myself wishing that the scenes involving the Russells’ servants would last longer. But many are balanced just right. Every Baranski line reading remains a delight, and the writing continues to find effective ways to show how Agnes isn’t always the obstinate traditionalist she seems. And the lightness of Nixon’s performance as Ada — who this year becomes very close to their church’s new minister, played by Robert Sean Leonard — is always so welcome to see.
And still, at the center of it all, is Bertha Russell, who will stop at nothing to get what she wants, and whose cold-bloodedness can spread to any corner of this recreated world. At one point, when a Bertha/Caroline verbal throwdown is followed immediately with an outburst by Oscar, one of the other socialites declares, “This is really thrilling.” She doesn’t mean it in a Heisenberg sort of way where Bertha is building homemade explosives to take out all her enemies, but the sentiment feels right for what The Gilded Age wants to do.
Season Two of The Gilded Age debuts October 29 on HBO and Max, with episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen all eight episodes.