Movies & TV

The Gilded Age Thrives As Downton Abbey's Snobby American Cousin

The conflict of wealth is so decidedly American that it feels almost like the antithesis to the genteel manner of Downton Abbey.

The Gilded Age is now streaming on HBO Go in the Philippines.

Downton Abbey’s social-climbing American cousin has arrived in town, and its gauche decadence would have Violet Crawley apoplectic. Julian Fellowes’ The Gilded Age is the American successor to the hit period drama from across the pond, and it certainly succeeds in depicting the outlandish snobbery and shallowness of the era. HBO’s latest period drama is as glitzy as the gilding in New York’s Millionaire Row mansions, but as its title suggests, it hides an unexpected depth and understanding of the complicated era it’s trying to represent. 

Where Downton contrasted the lives upstairs and downstairs, the central conflict of The Gilded Age takes place between the Old and the New—the old money of New York City whose families can trace their lineage to the Mayflower, and the nouveau riche who are disrupting every corner of New York’s carefully structured high society. Taking place in 1882 just after the American Civil War, The Gilded Age centers on two neighboring families: the old money Van Rhijns, who are led by the proud and sharp-tongued Agnes (Christine Baranski), and the new money Russells, who are led by ruthless businessman George Russell (Morgan Spector) and his wife, the strong and ambitious Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon). The season begins with the Russells moving in next door into a sprawling marble mansion that embodies the threatening new wealth trickling into New York. What ensues are subtle social moves between the two factions of the city as the Russells seek to break into society while the old families desperately try to keep them out. 


George and Bertha Russell were based on the real-life Vanderbilts.

Photo by HBO.

From the plot alone, you can expect The Gilded Age to be a spectacle of pure snobbery and near gauche displays of wealth. We can almost see the Dowager Countess of Grantham raising one perfectly groomed eyebrow at such a show, yet that’s precisely where the appeal of The Gilded Age lies. The conflict of wealth is so decidedly American that it feels almost like the antithesis to the genteel manner of Downton. Subtlety and humility have never been American traits, so for fans who sought more fun and drama from Downton, The Gilded Age might be the Julian Fellowes show for you. 

But don’t let the shiny gilding distract you. The show’s plot develops itself slowly to give viewers an understanding of the intricate rules of the time. While the slow nature of the plot might not appeal to everyone, the visual of New York pre-pollution will certainly keep viewers captivated, and the unique characterization of New York’s old and new families will encourage them to come back for more.

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The sets were built from reupholstered European furniture.

Photo by HBO.

Despite its potential, The Gilded Age’s weakness is most evident in its first few episodes. Its struggle lies in weaving its storylines together. Unlike the seamless storytelling of upstairs and downstairs in Downton, The Gilded Age is faced with characters and plot lines that are still making their way to each other. And where Downton’s greatest strength came from its deep familial connections and community, The Gilded Age seems almost cold and isolated in comparison.

Still, The Gilded Age shows plenty of promise, and its time period and New York setting have the potential to set up exciting and dramatic storylines. The Gilded Age is an era of American history that’s only been depicted on television a handful of times, yet it’s perhaps one of the most fascinating periods to study, and now, watch. Beneath all the decadent upholstery and showy dresses, the HBO drama makes sure to stay loyal to its title. There’s a reason the Gilded Age wasn’t called the Golden Age—it was an era of gold-plated copper that hid the rust and grime underneath. A time of immense and exploitative wealth, the Gilded Age marked the birth of the worst of American capitalism, when monopolies ran amuck and the elite were called “robber barons.” The era is the very reason business regulations were put in place to avoid the level of chaos that existed at the time.


We can expect to see more of the untold side of this era as The Gilded Age progresses, as nothing is ever unintentional in Julian Fellowes’ productions. Soon, we’ll see beneath the gold and discover more of what the show has to offer. 

The Gilded Age is now streaming on HBO Go in the Philippines.

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Anri Ichimura
Section Editor, Esquire Philippines
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