Since the success of “Bridgerton” in 2020, the amount of period dramas on television each year seems to have increased tenfold. Almost every streaming service has given it a try, with some failing under the weight of trying to achieve the success of Netflix’s global phenomenon. Then came Max’s “The Gilded Age” in 2022. The show was created by Julian Fellowes, the mind behind “Downton Abbey,” a period drama predating the success of “Bridgerton” and its legacy. Trading in the early 20th century for 1880s New York City, Fellowes' new creation focuses on various socialites of the age, mainly Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon), who comes from new money, and Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski), whose wealth predates Bertha herself.
Season One ended with almost every dramatic point of contention solved, under chandeliers and false camaraderie. Bertha had just gotten a leg up in the war between her new money-oriented family and the old guard of New York, as even her fiercest critics gave in to her theatrics and attended a ball at her gorgeously crafted home. The drama immediately picks up in this second season, and it becomes clear from the first episode that just because Agnes was apt to lick her wounds after the initial battle doesn’t mean she won’t persist in the war to come. Agnes becomes the least of Bertha’s worries as another antagonistic contender for her suffering emerges from the shadows, one that audiences will find familiar and delightful.
They slink through Bertha’s home like a serpent, using her insecurities and worries to get the best of her. Both conflicts make for a stunning performance from Coon, who, while not the show's protagonist, is its most entertaining aspect. She shines as Bertha Russell, back poised tight even when she’s taking a slight, each conflict bouncing off of her in public until she finds herself alone where her shell is peeled back to reveal a more complicated center. While she wants her family to succeed and be respected in New York, it becomes clear that, at her core, Bertha is simply someone who desires to be liked.
Bertha's eyes gleam each time she meets someone she admires and when she gets what she wants. The desire to be respected comes from an insecurity, which Coon expertly plays into. As her relationship with her husband, George Russell (Morgan Spector), becomes strained from their advantageous desires, Coon and Spector mirror each other beautifully. The two are a testament to what largely makes “The Gilded Age” work: remarkable performances that make the show feel bigger than it is. The undeniable chemistry between each performer adds to the charm that Fellowes so eagerly strives for, giving us in-depth glimpses of even background characters who, in other shows, would simply stay in the background.
There’s more drama between family members this season, making up for many plotlines in the previous season being dropped before it even had a chance to wrap. Marian (Louisa Jacobson), our de facto main character, now works at a school teaching children to paint, which makes her aunt Agnes furious, as she should be pursuing marriage instead. The two find themselves arguing more than they trade pleasantries this season, with Agnes slowly moving her niece along like a pawn in her own game. Fan-favorite Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon) also has more to do this season. She even gets a love interest, which, like Marian’s pursuits, causes Agnes to falter. Ada’s agency blossoms thanks to this new love, quickly turning her into a woman of merit.
This new season sees the van Rhijn family removing themselves from under the foot of their matriarch, allowing Marian, Ada, and even Oscar (Blake Ritson) to become fuller versions of themselves. A revelation involving the van Rhijn heir in episode seven threatens the family’s status, which unfolds fantastically, blowing every other scene with dramatic contention out of the water. The camera hones on the gazes of him and his mother as they quarrel, and the music swells intimidatingly beneath their words. By breaking away from Agnes’ control, her family must make their own decisions, even if those decisions can potentially break them as a family. Each time Agnes’ resolve breaks, it's impossible not to compare her to her rival, Bertha. Both characters attempt to move their family members like pawns in a chess game, not realizing that their pursuits could ultimately lead to their downfalls.
With fantastic performances and drama that rivals the best of cable’s soap operas, “The Gilded Age” returns with some well-needed character tension, proving that critiques from the first season have been listened to. Fellowes focuses on what made the first season so successful but allows the show's sprawling cast to shine with the introspection each of their characters must face. Though it may never live up to the global success of “Downton Abbey,” this new series has made a name for itself on its own. The costumes and the luxurious sets are bigger and more intricate than the previous season, pointing to a creator who loves this period as much as his viewers. Thanks to the care of Fellowes and the series' writers, "The Gilded Age" is a standout show amongst Max’s slate of other heavyweights.
All episodes were screened for review. The second season of "The Gilded Age" premieres on Max on October 29th.