‘The Gilded Age’ Season 2 Episode 4 Recap: Duke It Out

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The Gilded Age

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Why is it so fun to watch a prim and proper, tightly-corseted woman lose her shit and throw a completely unhinged tantrum? We’ve seen Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) do it time and again, Aunt Agnes (Christine Baranski) has made an art form out of zinger-filled outbursts, and now Mrs. Winterton (Kelley Curran) might just have given us the biggest tantrum of all, a huffy, stomping-up-the-stairs meltdown that’s petty perfection. What a way to end an episode!

From the moment that Mrs. Winterton/Turner (whose first name is Enid! Great to know) arrived back in the Russells’ orbit on The Gilded Age, you just knew that she was setting up some serious drama to come. The question I keep asking myself is, did Turner always have it out for Bertha, even before she tried to seduce George Russell? Or did she just learn how to creep into high society by watching Bertha do it herself while she was her ladies’ maid, and now she’s trying to usurp the title as most interesting and powerful new woman in town? I hope we get to understand Turner’s motivation more as the season progresses, because she deserves a richer backstory, I don’t want her to just be a kinda crazy single white female. As this week’s episode begins, Mrs. Winterton has joined Bertha, Aurora Fane (Kelli O’Hara), and several other Met-curious wealthy people for a tour of the new opera house. Bertha is still trying to convince the Fanes and the Wintertons to secure a box at the Metropolitan, but it turns out that even more than their moral support, she needs their money because construction has stalled on the building. Mr. Gilbert (Jeremy Shamos) tells Bertha he’s worried that they won’t be able to open for the season on time, which jeopardizes the whole plan of competing directly with the Academy of Music.

Mrs. Winterton is not there to show support of any kind however, she’s still just trying to rub her new position in Bertha’s face and deliver cool but crushing insults along the way. But that’s the least of Bertha’s problems this week: her real issue is with her son Larry and the rumor that circulating around Newport that he’s been shacking up with hot widow Mrs. Susan Blane (Laura Benanti). A gilded-era TMZ reporter asks Bertha for her thoughts on the blind item that places Larry and Mrs. Blane together and though Bertha denies a romance, she is furious that Larry’s dalliance would become so public, so scandalous! While George Russell only wants his daughter to find true love and happiness, Bertha can’t say the same about her feelings toward her son’s love life, so she invites Susan Blane to her house to have a chat.

Bertha had suggested that she wanted to discuss Mrs. Blane’s support of the Met, but she doesn’t waste time explaining she’s actually lured Mrs. Blane there under false pretenses, and she wants to make sure Blane backs the fuck off of Larry. Larry and Mrs. Blane have been rollicking around Mrs. Blane’s sheets all summer (again, I’ll repeat how nice it is to have some actual old-timey sex on this show, and by that I mean being shown 3/4 of Laura Benanti’s right leg), but their relationship is more than a fling, they’ve actually said “I love you.” So when Bertha lays into Mrs. Blane’s age, she doesn’t mince words, “What is it that you want from him? You can’t give him an heir. In 20 years when he is in his prime, you will be walking with a stick. Even if he feels too guilty to leave, part of him will be waiting for you to die, you must remember what that was like when you were married to your husband,” Bertha says, and this is truly the most withering insult I’ve heard since Brittany Murphy told Alicia Silverstone “Cher, you’re a virgin who can’t drive” in Clueless. Way harsh, Tai. Susan is stunned and angered by the callousness and she walks out, but Bertha doesn’t feel bad, and she’s only getting started when it comes to steamrolling over the women of New York this week.

Once upon a time, Miranda Hobbs blew up her comfortable life in a Brooklyn brownstone for a passionate, fiery affair with locally famous orator (of terrible observational comedy), Che Diaz. Then, once upon a totally different time, Aunt Ada blew up her comfortable life in an Upper East Side brownstone for I guess what would qualify as a passionate, fiery affair in 1883 with a locally famous orator (of sermons), Reverend Forte (Robert Sean Leonard). Though the passion here has been limited to one brushing of their fingers, there was honestly more heat in their little pinkies than in Miranda and Che’s entire relationship. My point here is that, even though Cynthia Nixon is playing two very distinct characters on And Just Like That and The Gilded Age, her motivation is the same for both, and also, New York is a character on both shows. (Honestly though, how great would it be if New York really were a character on either of these shows? Bertha Russell walked so Tiffany Pollard could run.)

Ada has been increasingly more involved with the Reverend, even though she knows Agnes disapproves. (After Ada receives a bouquet of peonies from him, Ada asks Marian to take care of them, saying, “I don’t have the strength to explain them to Agnes.”) Agnes can tell Ada is sneaking around, but at dinner, she explicitly tells her sister why she’s so opposed to the idea of Ada falling in love. “It would seem a poor return after all these years if you were to desert me now,” she tells Ada, and the dinner grows increasingly more uncomfortable until they’re literally saved by the bell. The ringing of valet John’s alarm clock that he’s been tinkering with interrupts the moment and brings the discomfort to a halt… for now.

Is this why we have a stereotype of old spinster sisters who live and die alone? Because one of them won’t ever let the other one fall in love? That hardly seems fair. Which is why it’s so shocking when not only does the Reverend propose (!) to Ada, she actually accepts! Heads gonna roll at the van Rhijn house, let me tell you.

But Ada’s not the only van Rhijn-adjacent person to find love. Marian can’t seem to get rid of Dashiell Montgomery (David Furr). While she’s happy to pose as a mother-figure to Dashiell’s daughter Frances at a school tea, Frances makes it awkward when she proclaims that the three of them make a “neat little family unit.” I see you parent-trapping, Frances! Marian has always seemed open to getting to know Dashiell, but you can’t help but feel a slight resistance from her when Frances says this. (But perhaps now that Larry and Susan Blane are broken up, albeit against their will, Marian and Larry might finally explore whatever flirtation they’ve enjoyed in the past.)

Oscar, too, has found a woman who might provide him with suitable companionship, Maud Beaton (Nicole Brydon Bloom). Maud is worldly and wealthy and enjoys Oscar’s company, so he’s putting all his energy into her (so much energy in fact, that Gladys Russell isn’t even in this episode). They attend a dinner for the Duke of Buckingham that the Russells and the Wintertons are both also attending, and Oscar is truly surprised to see Mrs. Winterton there. The last time he saw her, she was Turner the ladies’ maid, and so he tells her, “You have till the next to course to explain your ascension.” I love that for all of the class divides on this show, Oscar and Turner have a unique relationship where they somehow meet in the middle. While their relationship was transactional at first, it seems like they’re actually quite kindred spirits.

At that dinner, Bertha cozies up to the Duke, hilariously swapping out seating place cards so she is seated next to him (love when this show leans into hijinks!) as her plan to befriend him and make him like her more than he likes Mrs. Winterton is put in motion.

This scene is yet another opportunity to lean into drama based around the way flatware is laid out, a callback to last year’s French Vs. English-style table setting scandal. I shudder with delight at shrimp-fork-related drama.

It turns out, the Duke very much prefers Bertha’s company to the Wintertons, so Bertha invites him to stay with her in Newport. He was already planning to stay with the Wintertons, but bunking with Bertha seems so much more fun! When Bertha tells George – who she has finally forgiven for not telling her that Turner showed up naked in his bed that one time – that the Duke is to be their guest, he asks her, “What will Mrs. Winterton think of all this? Or don’t you care?” and Bertha, classic Bertha, simply responds, “Should I care about the feelings of a former ladies maid who attempted to seduce my husband?”

As a small reminder that the gilded age itself did not exist exclusively in New York among the wealthy, Peggy (Deneé Benton) and her boss, T. Thomas Fortune (Sullivan Jones) head to Alabama this week to visit Booker T. Washington. 1883 Alabama is not as progressive as 1883 New York, so the trip is not without its risks, and it brings up a lot of resentment for Fortune, who was once a slave himself. Fortune argues with Washington over the fact that his school, the Tuskeegee Institute, is only teaching free Black people to do hard labor, jobs that are menial compared to what white people do. Washington takes issue, explaining to Fortune that Fortune asks Washington how he can stand to live and do business with the same white people “who bought and sold us,” and Washington explains that he has to make nice so that he won’t get killed. Though Peggy tries to defuse the situation, the meal is awkward and uncomfortable, and Fortune is unmoved by what Washington is trying to do for the Black population in Alabama.

While we’ve seen plenty of Mrs. Winterton so far, it was a thrill to finally see Mr. Winterton getting some screen time in. Mr. Winterton (played by Dakin Matthews, better known to me as Headmaster Charleston on Gilmore Girls), having been invited to Mrs. Astor’s house, is told that his membership to the Academy has been revoked on account of his new wife’s past. Just how Mrs. Astor came across this information is anyone’s guess (cough, Bertha Russell?) but not only does it serve as a wake-up call to Mr. Winterton, who is shocked to learn that his wife has a past, but it prompts him to throw his support behind Bertha’s opera house too. Mr. Winterton tells Mrs. Astor that he’ll happily join the crowd at the Met now, and he’ll take all of his old rich friends with him.

When Mr. Winterton confronts his wife with the vague information Mrs. Astor fed him about her former job, she says that at one time she was Mrs. Russell’s “companion,” because back then, this was a thing. She never says she was a ladies maid. As the episode concludes, everyone in New York learns the news that Bertha Russell will be entertaining the Duke of Buckingham at her home in Newport and hosting a dinner in his honor, it’s such big news that it’s in the papers. This is brand new information to the Wintertons though, who thought that they were hosting the Duke. When Mrs. Winterton reads the news, she is shaking with rage, while Mr. Winterton jovially says “Perhaps we’ll be invited!”

Mrs. Winterton throws her newspaper in the fire, and her husband tells her not to upset herself. “I will upset myself!” she tells him. “And I will upset Mrs. George Russell, if it’s the last thing I do!”

Kelley Curran as Mrs. Winterton
Photo: Max

“Enid! There will be other dukes!” Mrs. Winterton calls her as she angrily stomps up the stairs of her house.

“I don’t want another duke! I want this duke!” she screams, just having attended the Veruca Salt School Of Entitlement course on “How To React When You Don’t Get Your Way.” The way Kelley Curran’s voice breaks a little when she says this is comedy gold. “We found him, and he’s mine, but that witch has stolen him from me!” And the episode ends with her running off, and it looks almost as if she’s about to break the fourth wall and glare at us, too. I kind of wish she did. I have nothing else to say about this moment other than, it is utter perfection, an incredible encapsulation of all the wonderful, petty tomfoolery that this show wrings its high drama from.

Stray Thoughts:

  • Watson (Michael Cerveris) is still debating whether or not to take Mr. McNeil’s offer to move to California and estrange himself permanently from his daughter, Flora. All Watson wants is a conversation with Flora to confirm that that’s her own wish, and not her husband’s but her husband is being a real dick about it.
  • Am I the only one who absolutely didn’t have a Chef Josh Borden (Douglas Sills) and Mrs. Bruce (Celia Keenan-Bolger) romance on my Gilded Age bingo card? I’m all for servant romance, but this one feels straight out of nowhere.
  • John’s still working on his clock! Never give up, John.
  • You know who’s not working? George Russell’s railroad workers, they’re on strike!
  • I’m embarrassed that it’s taken me four episodes to recognize that The Metropolitan Opera’s head “money-grubber” Mr. Gilbert (Jeremy Shamos) is the same actor who played Dickie Glenroy on Only Murders In The Building, which leads me to the fact that there is no corner of this show that doesn’t have some Meryl Streep connection. Marian, played by Louisa Jacobson, is Streep’s real life daughter, Mr. Gilbert, played by Shamos, has played her fictional son, Carrie Coon played her employee in The Post, and Christine Baranski is her best friend in the Mamma Mia! films. Don’t mind me, I’m just over here playing six degrees of Streep because that’s what makes me happiest in life.