The Hollow Narrative of HBO’s “Gilded Age”

The Hollow Narrative of HBO’s “Gilded Age”

The Hollow Narrative of HBO’s Gilded Age

The TV show is guilty of the greatest crime any fiction about the 19th century can commit—not getting it wrong, but making it dull.


There were about a million people living in Manhattan in the 1880s, of whom more than half resided in the one-mile stretch between Canal Street and 14th Street. As historian Richard White notes, many of these people lived 11 or 15 to a room in “filthy tenements” surrounded by “overflowing sewers” and were dependent for their barest sustenance on aid dispensed not by the government but by the Tammany Hall political machine. Even those who lived in less crowded neighborhoods uptown were surrounded by piles of garbage, stray animals, throngs of beggars, and an endless roster of street gangs such as ”the Gophers, the Dead Rabbits, [and] the Gorillas.” Neighborhoods had names like Rotten Alley, Cockroach Row, and Satan’s Circus. Those in crowded immigrant suburbs still farther uptown had to contend with streets that “stank from gasworks, stockyards, and tar and garbage dumps.”

A few thousand out of these million-odd residents lived in far better circumstances, either in the quieter brownstone neighborhoods of what is now Midtown or the half-developed street grids that ran along either side of Central Park. The old-money families subsisted on inherited wealth from ancient trading families and the new-money families on the proceeds of industry. There were disadvantages to both: Old-money families often lacked the cash flow to maintain their lavish lifestyles; new-money families could lose their fortunes in market crashes and banking panics of which there were at least eight in the 50 years between the Civil War and World War I. Still, things were pretty good: As historian Edwin Burrows puts it, dinner parties featured “black pearls in oysters, cigars rolled in hundred-dollar bills, lackeys in knee breeches and powdered wigs.”

The Gilded Age, a new historical drama from HBO, attempts to revive this bygone sliver of Manhattan society for the high-color age of prestige television. Written and produced by Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, the show follows a group of families in the New York of the 1880s as it transitions from an economic powerhouse to a global cultural and financial capital. We get glimpses of the tenement proletariat, but the show dwells firmly among the upper classes, which probably made the show a lot easier to research since most surviving literature from the period adopted a similar point of view. In its effort to depict a glittering society, though, the show mangles the relationship between that upper class and the chaotic world around it. The result is a hollow narrative, a sock-puppet affair buried underneath a high-caliber costume budget. It is also guilty of the greatest crime any fiction about the 19th century can commit—it doesn’t so much get the period wrong as it makes the period dull.

The Gilded Age takes place uptown, in the Sixties, where the orphaned Marian Brooke has just come to live with her aunts, members of a distinguished but destitute New York family called the van Rhijns. Along the way, Marian meets a Black woman named Peggy Scott, who takes a job as Marian’s aunt’s secretary in exchange for room and board in the van Rhijn house. The two women do the things that women in their respective positions would have done at such a time. Marian attends charity balls, commits faux pas, and is reprimanded by Aunt Agnes for so doing. She also falls for an out-of-town lawyer. Meanwhile, Peggy tries to write articles for local newspapers and contends with the suspicious looks of the uptown white people she passes on the street.

The broad-brush fidelity of this narrative to historical reality is perhaps its only redeeming quality. Both women’s stories are so devoid of pathos that it can be difficult to believe. When Marian’s aunt forbids her from patronizing an outcast woman or bans her from seeing the middle-class lawyer, Marian is, we are supposed to deduce, experiencing repression and alienation that were typical for people in families like hers, but her emotional response consists of an occasional wince. A Black woman in Peggy’s position, even one who had middle-class parents in Brooklyn, would have likely been subject to racism of the most vile and polymorphous kind, but Peggy’s response to being turned away from newspaper offices or shops because she is “colored” consists most often of looking at the ground. As if to enforce the emotional vacuity to which the show appears to aspire, the same upbeat violin score plays the entire time, rushing the viewer from scene to scene as if to say: “But never mind that, what about this!”

The real motor of the show’s plot lives across the street in a massive mansion designed by the architect Stanford White. The mansion is the domain of the new money, in this case embodied by a railroad tycoon and would-be monopolist named George Russell and his wife, Bertha, who is desperate to make an entrance into New York society. When Mrs. Russell is snubbed by the wives of old banking families, the ruthless Mr. Russell wields his money to drive them all into penury, forcing them to welcome Bertha into the acquaintance of luminaries like Caroline Astor and Ward McCallister. Even as his wife conquers the social scene, Mr. Russell himself tries to conquer the nation’s railroad market, sealing his victory with the opening of a grand new train station powered by—gasp!—electricity. The Russells are the prime movers here, straining against an immobile social hierarchy and an ossified economy with varying degrees of success—and one feels sympathy for Bertha, since she’s no duller than any other leading lady. But it’s not hard to understand why the city’s bankers might not take kindly to a railroad monopolist whose trains suffer fatal derailments. (Perhaps the next season will feature a cameo from John Sherman.)

Anyone who stayed awake during high school American history will remember that textbooks refer to the Gilded Age as a “time of change,” and Fellowes’s show certainly drives that point home, albeit by telling rather than showing. Characters pontificate aloud about how a given house’s architectural style is new and daring; businessmen roll out blueprint maps on tables and announce their plans to change things; and every family that steps on scene is labeled by Aunt Agnes as either old and acceptable or new and intolerable. When Thomas Edison unveils a lightbulb, one character says, “This is a turning point in history!” The name of an protagonist is “Miss Brooke,” an obvious reference to the moralizing protagonist of Middlemarch, another story of a society undergoing profound economic changes, but it is also a reference the show fails to earn.

The social changes in the Gilded Age are rendered with even less art than the economic ones. The story is nominally about the Russells’ attempts to force themselves into the redoubt of Old New York, but the motivations on both sides are monochromatic: The Russells want in because they’re new, the van Rhijns are exclusive because they’re old, and ne’er the twain shall meet. The lives of the two families’ children are of even less interest, each child being the vessel for a single emotion or characteristic—curiosity, unrequited love, homosexuality, what have you. Aunt Agnes’s superfluous spinster sister, meanwhile, played by a confounding Cynthia Nixon, is almost unwatchable.

The stifling hierarchy inherited from the English Puritans and the Dutch and the new strain of social laxity that accompanied the arrival of the industrial era appear here in the dumbed-down vernacular of an animated Disney film. The stories of the downstairs servants, meanwhile, are downright atrocious, failed retreads of tales that Fellowes tried before in Downton Abbey. If the show were not already so baggy without them, one would think they had been written to fill space—one of the butler’s names is “Banister,” a choice that gives the suggestion of having been thought up at gunpoint.

Those who have seen Downton Abbey may be surprised at these shoddy narratives given that the story of Downton often shines and always manages to hang together. In adapting the framework of his former show to 19th-century New York, though, Fellowes has committed a devastating conceptual error. Downton paints the manorial house of Grantham as a self-contained universe, using the countryside estate as a microcosm of British life. As the camera moves up and down between the cramped servants’ quarters and the splendid dining halls, the viewer shuttles back and forth between the mundane lingo of the waitstaff and the repressed Victorian evasions of the Crawley family itself. The personalities of the show are the people who live in the manor, the people who live in the town, and whoever comes to visit either place.

This gambit does not work in 19th-century New York, a chaotic society where the friction between people and things was constant and violent. For the show to restrict the frame of its narrative to the affairs of two houses, and only bop downtown or to Brooklyn when the story demands it, is a mistake—not so much because it’s a misrepresentation of what old New York was like but because it misses exactly what is interesting about its 19th-century iteration. Think of the virtuoso opening chapter of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, wherein the broughams of New York’s elite scramble through the cluttered Fifties on their way to a glittering ball, or of the social constellation depicted in Henry James’s Washington Square, in which we can sense that the household of the Slopers is just one planet orbiting the central bourgeois gravity of the titular neighborhood and whenever the rake Morris Townsend enters the drawing room, he brings the stench of this outer world with him. (The cast of the show reportedly read these authors before filming, but to no apparent avail.)

Downton Abbey succeeded in its microcosmic depiction of Edwardian society, albeit one clothed in the primitive emotional language of contemporary television, precisely because it depicted the relations of class as essential rather than incidental to the operation of the manorial household. But The Gilded Age insulates its characters from the broader economic reality of the metropolis they live in. In attempting to depict one of the most schismatic and calamitous periods of American history, it somehow ends up with something flat and unaffecting, a rendering of the past that settles for accuracy in its costumes and stage sets rather than trying to capture the emotional life of a moneyed elite in uncomfortable proximity to a gargantuan underclass. This narrow frame again is not a matter of historical inaccuracy so much as artistic laziness, and it makes the show feel not only less true but also much less fun.

Given the number of economic and social dissimilarities between the globalized and gentrified New York of today and the rambunctious port center of the 19th century, it might be too much to say that today’s New York has entered a second Gilded Age. But there is perhaps one similarity between the elites of the present and those of the past. No less than in the Gilded Age, the aristocrats of today’s New York go to great lengths to achieve physical and psychological distance from the underclass that sustains them. An industrialist like Russell would have tried to ignore the gangs of Hell’s Kitchen as he drove downtown in his brougham the same way a financier in Hudson Yards averts his eyes from the homeless shelter he passes in his Uber. Back then, though, even more so than now, it was impossible to effect a full separation: The truth of the relationship always lurked beneath the surface. The task of art that depicts the period is to foreground that reality rather than smoothing it over.

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