It’s old money vs new in The Gilded Age’s society wars

By Bianca Coleman16 May 2024

It’s old money vs new in The Gilded Age’s society wars

The Gilded Age is the Downton Abbey of New York City, circa 1882. It has similar household divisions of upstairs and downstairs, with the affairs of the servants running concurrently with those of the masters and mistresses of the lavish homes, and sometimes overlapping,

It also has a snooty and aloof dowager with a scathing tongue, in the form of the widow Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranksi, The Good Fight). She lives in New York City with her spinster sister, Ada (Sex And The City’s Cynthia Nixon).

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Cynthia Nixon (left) as Ada and Christine Baranski (right) as Agnes

The story begins with two events: the arrival of pretty young Marian Brooke (Louisa Jacobson), their niece, following the death of her father, their brother; and that of the Russell family who are finally moving into their palace – yes, they call it that and it is quite magnificent in a Palace of Versailles kind of way – across the road. (The road being 5th Avenue, at the intersection of 61st Street. The higher the street number, the better the address.)

The Russells are new money, meaning it has been earned rather than inherited, and Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon), or Mrs George Russell as was the normal way of introducing women in those days, is determined to enter New York society at any cost. The old money, the ruling class if you will, want nothing to do with her.

Mrs Russell is ambitious and relentless in her pursuit, supported by her husband because of his love for her, although it means little to him whether they are received or not. In any event, he does whatever he can, using his powerful business connections to further the cause, and he’s not above a bit of grandstanding or even blackmail.

Mrs Van Rhijn is deeply opposed to these upstarts in her neighbourhood, determined only to quarrel with her new neighbour. Breaking into the ranks of the rich and powerful proves to be quite the test. However, as George Russell (Morgan Spector) says to his wife at dinner: “There is no challenge you are not equal to, my dear.”

How Mrs Russell in The Gilded Age rises to the occasion in Season 1

These are the most shameless scenes where Mrs Russell activates her social-climbing mode.

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Carrie Coon as Mrs Russell

Episode 1: Mrs Russell lets everyone know she’s in town, to a chilly reception. “We have our old friends,” says Mr Russell. “I don’t want my old friends, I want new friends,” replies Mrs Russell, now they have moved up from 30th to 61st Street. The big thing the Russells have going for them is their money, and the ladies who support charities have no shame in using that – even if afternoon tea in their homes is not on offer. Upon receiving an invitation to one such event, Mrs Russell says, “It’s beginning, I knew it would. Persistence is the key to everything. Patience and persistence.”

Her son Larry (Harry Richardson) attends a party where he talks to Carrie Astor (Amy Forsyth) and points out she may laugh but as his mother never tires of pointing out, “our future success in New York depends entirely on the support and approval of [Carrie’s mother, famed New York socialite] Mrs Astor.”

Easier said than done; this is the holy grail that Mrs Russell desperately wants. She is convinced people will want to come see the house, at the very least, and their curiosity will win them over. To this end, she invites them all. Very informal. Cater for 200, she suggests. Later, she vows to her husband that she’ll never give up.

Episode 2: Mrs Morris and Mrs Fane are married to aldermen with whom George Russell has business dealings. The ladies are planning a charity bazaar, for which Mrs Russell offers the use of her magnificent ballroom. Instead, they decide to hold it at a hotel. On the first day of the three-day event, Mr and Mrs Russell swan in, and Mr Russell buys everything for much more than it’s worth, and tells them to pack up and go home. “Your party’s over, Mrs Morris. You are to be congratulated; it’s been a great success,” says Mr Russell. In the carriage on the way home, he smiles that he rather enjoyed himself. Mrs Morris warns Mrs Russell that “this kind of stunt” won’t impress those who matter. “Mrs Morris, this kind of stunt impresses everybody,” replies Mrs Russell.

Episode 3: The business deal between Mr Russell and the aldermen turns sour; Mr Russell retaliates, putting them on the verge of ruin. Mrs Morris calls on Mrs Russell to beg for mercy, but Mrs Russell refuses. After all, what has Mrs Morris ever done for her? The consequences are tragic.

Episode 4: Mr Russell offers to rescue the Fanes in return for Mrs Fane introducing his wife into society, pledging her support. Mrs Fane accepts with due diligence and Mrs Russell is invited to the symphony.

Episode 5: As much as Mrs Russell wants to climb that social ladder, she still has standards and boundaries. Her daughter Gladys (Taissa Farmiga) is well overdue to make her debut but Mrs Russell is holding out until she can be sure they will be able to fill their ballroom. Both parents wield iron control over her suitors, too. Mrs Van Rhijn’s son Oscar (Blake Ritson) has his eye on her but his intentions are not pure. They have young Archie Baldwin over for dinner, but he is not deemed suitable. Meanwhile, Mrs Fane sets up a luncheon that is attended by Ward McAllister (Nathan Lane), effectively the highly esteemed socialite Mrs Astor’s gatekeeper. Win him, you win her. 

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Nathan Lane (second from left) as Ward McAllister

Episode 6: The lewd amount of money Mrs Russell donated to the fledgling Red Cross sees her voted onto the board. To court Mr McAllister (and thereby Mrs Astor), Mrs Russell hosts a luncheon, which is not without drama.

Episode 7: The Gilded Age, whose characters are largely fictional, does draw on real life events of the time. For example, the illumination of New York City, an event featured in this episode. Mrs Russell hosts a picnic in carriages, where she and Mr McAllister talk about Newport, where the wealthy spend their summers. She’s only just beginning to make inroads in New York but Mrs Russell also has her eye on the resort town.

Episode 8: In the penultimate episode, the rich are indulging in tennis and cocktails in Newport. Mrs Russell expresses a strong desire to see inside Mrs Astor’s holiday house. No problem, says Mr McAllister, she’s not here yet, we can sneak in and take a peek. I know the butler. Obviously Mrs Astor arrives unexpectedly, leading to a most humiliating exit for Mrs Russell, which can only go to show she still has a long way to go.

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From left: Carrie Coon as Mrs Russell, Donna Murphy as Mrs Astor, Nathan Lane as Ward McAllister

Episode 9: Finally, it’s Gladys’s coming out ball. Mrs Russell calls on Mrs Astor but is told by the butler she is “not at home”. Moments later, another friend is admitted. Mrs Russell is furious and immediately bans Carrie Astor from the ball. This brings Mrs Astor and Mrs Russell nose to nose. “The trouble is,” Carrie tells her mother, “you assume she is weaker than you.”

Who will win? Stream all episodes now and find out. Both Seasons 1 and 2 are ready to binge on Showmax.