The Gilded Age Shines on HBO

Downton Abbey's Julian Fellowes skips across the pond to deliver a lavish tale of high society upheaval in 1800s New York

Downton Abbey‘s Julian Fellowes skips across the pond to deliver a lavish tale of high society upheaval in 1800s New York

Old money clashes with the nouveau riche amidst the changing economic order of late-1800s New York, in a much-anticipated drama from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes.

In The Gilded Age, we open on 1882 and there’s a growing conflict between the old ways and the new. One side is represented by New York socialites Agnes van Rhijn and Ada Brook (Christine Baranski of The Good Fight and Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City), old-money sisters who take young niece Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson, Gone Hollywood) into their Fifth Avenue brownstone after the death of her father.

To their dismay, their new neighbours are George and Bertha Russell (Morgan Spector, The Plot Against America; Carrie Coon, The Leftovers), whom they regard as new-money riff-raff, despite the fact that he has made a massive fortune in railroads and she is a very capable woman in her own right; American Horror Story‘s Taissa Farmiga plays their naïve yet plucky daughter, Gladys.

As these interlopers redefine just what it means to be rich in America, it’s the orphaned Marian who’s caught between two worlds, forced to decide whether her future lies with the established order of her aunts or in going her own way.

The nine-episode first season was filmed in late 2020 and early 2021 around New York City as well as in Newport, Rhode Island, and Troy, New York. The turn-of-the-century architecture at these locations was a source of fascination for Spector, who embraced the chance to play someone from that era.

“You know, I’m married to a British actor,” Spector, the husband of Rebecca Hall, notes, “and when they start [their career], they do a lot of this type of drama, this sort of era, the sort of high-style, high-language stuff. I’d done it in school but never really professionally, so I was a little nervous about approaching it.”

“But I think it’s sort of a testament to Julian’s abilities as a writer,” he continues, “that you sort of slip into it quite easily, actually. But yeah, I really loved George. I love his combination of ruthlessness and deep love for his family and sweetness with his children. It gives you a lot to oscillate between.”

Coon, meanwhile, loved that Bertha was her own woman with her own mind, and thinks that had she existed in a later time, she could have been a senator or entrepreneur. “What I related to particularly with Bertha was an egalitarian marriage where her husband was not intimidated by her ambitions,” Coon explains. “That’s certainly something I share with my husband [actor/playwright Tracy Letts]… he’s my biggest champion. And I loved that Bertha and George have this passionate, equal, sexual relationship at the centre of this story.”

“I found that very relatable and very compelling—and very fresh and contemporary-feeling,” she continues. “You know, not some stodgy period piece. These are people with the flesh-and-blood compulsions, and I really appreciated that about them.” 

The Gilded Age airs Mondays at 8 p.m. & 11:45 p.m. on HBO Canada