‘The Gilded Age’: Romances Are Broken and New Journeys Commence in Season Finale

HBO’s “The Gilded Age” is one of those shows where the term “refined” is more than appropriate. The fate of its characters hang on society balls and marriage proposals. No one gets shot in the season one finale, but plenty of fates seem sealed. Creator Julian Fellowes has again found a way to make the lifestyle of the wealthy from ages past somehow relatable to contemporary viewers. His crown jewel remains “Downton Abbey,” where the old European aristocracy proved it could build a major fan base. “The Gilded Age” is about New York City’s elites in 1882 yet rings well in a new century dominated by hunger for status. That latter word is the name of the game in the conclusion to its inaugural season.

After struggling to cement a reputation among the city’s inner circles, Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) is now flexing her own power. She’s busy planning a grand soiree where “Old” and “New” New York will come together (meaning all the rich people). This gives her instant control of the guest list. When Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy) decides she won’t attend, Bertha simply cuts out her daughter from the dance. This inspires Mrs. Astor to compromise. Of course, throwing a shindig is never easy. Bertha’s husband, tycoon George (Morgan Spector), hears a startling confession from their prized French chef, Monsieur Baudin (Douglas Sills). It turns out Baudin is not French at all but an American farm boy from Kansas. His cover is blown now that his estranged wife has appeared and is demanding compensation. Matters of the heart are also stirring elsewhere in the glitzy clans. Marian (Louisa Jacobson) was planning to elope with Tom (Thomas Cocquerel). That plan falls apart when Tom admits he would like to find a wealthy wife. A penniless couple just has no chance in this world. A truly wrenching journey will commence for Peggy (Denée Benton), who earlier this season revealed she had once been married and lost a baby. Now, she has discovered her father lied about the child’s death. She too is moving out of the large home that had welcomed her, in order to find the child.

What “The Gilded Age” has most in common with “Downton Abbey” is in how the audience can’t help but be pulled in by the personal intrigue. The world of Russells and the circles they inhabit is fascinating enough. But it is in all the micro or major dramas that we become hooked. It’s melodrama but of a classy sort devoid of too many fireworks. Words cut deeper than knives in a series like this. As far as season finales go, this one provides enough closure to certain characters, while leaving someone like Peggy in a virtual cliffhanger. What also gives “The Gilded Age” a sense of fun is in the way its drama brings out the themes. Marian and Tom become the perfect example of doomed love affairs in this gilded world. When Peggy asks where she and Tom are going to live, a clueless Marian is confident they will stay at his apartment. It takes her aunt Ada (Cynthia Nixon) to point out that if Tom truly cared for Marian and “wanted to wait,” as Marian claims, then it’s not being shown in his actions. One can sense audience members’ teeth grinding at how Marian’s predicament gives some validity to the icier ideas of her other very class-conscious aunt, Agnes (Christine Baranski). Our sympathies won’t stay with Tom, however, because later he gets caught by Aurora (Kelli O’Hara) attending a performance at the Academy of Music with the very established Miss Bingham. By the end of the episode, Marian begins to get a little closer to Bertha’s son, Larry (Harry Richardson), who seems like a welcoming choice. In these shows, of course, you never know.

The big crescendo of the finale is the soiree. Lush music frames various developments. Oscar (Blake Ritson) invites Bertha’s daughter, Gladys (Taissa Farmiga) to dance with him. Prior to that, she performs in a colorful little number with other ladies in French ancien régime style. Later, we learn Oscar is hoping to secure a proper, public relationship with Gladys so he can continue keeping his true, gay identity secret. There are other subtle standoffs as when Tom shamelessly arrives at the party with Miss Bringham as Marian watches. Those old-fashioned aristocrats could still conjure some stinging comments with the smallest amount of acid. For example, when Larry asks Marian about Tom, she basically brushes it off as someone she used to know. Other glances and moments can also tell many stories. A butler’s gaze at a specific guest or two men sharing a look across the room, all say so much without too much expository dialogue. By the end of the night, the soiree has been a success and the Russells are firmly a part of the New York City jet set circa 1882. Peggy, meanwhile, has gone off to search for her child. How her journey will turn out, and how Marian and everyone else will settle their affairs of the heart is an enticing prospect indeed for another serving.

The Gilded Age” season one finale airs March 21 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.