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‘The Gilded Age’ season 1 episode 3 review: 'Face the Music'

The Russells show what happens when they are backed into a corner.

Christine Baranski and Cynthia Nixon in The Gilded Age
(Image: © Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO)

Our Verdict

Bertha and George Russell pull focus and offer up a few surprises amid the more paint-by-numbers approach.

For

  • - Agnes isn't without heart or sentiment
  • - The Russells continue to be a highlight and offer surprises
  • - More of Peggy's story is revealed

Against

  • - Marian's romance lacks any fire
  • - The telegraphed ending

This post contains spoilers for The Gilded Age season 1 episode 3. Read our The Gilded Age season 1 episode 2 review here.   

The men of The Gilded Age would benefit from taking a page out of Mrs. Astor’s (Donna Murphy) book when it comes to assessing Mr. George Russell (Morgan Spector). “Someone to be reckoned with” is how she described the newest East 61st Street resident after he shut down the charity bazaar in reaction to his wife’s ongoing battle to gain approval. Men who are used to being in charge aren’t equipped to deal with someone like George and instead of viewing the railroad tycoon with caution they thought they could beat him at his own game. It is another lesson learned, but this one has bloody consequences in an episode that shows there is more at stake than etiquette.

George’s previous victory is swiftly ruined by the news the law that had been passed to aid the building of a railway station in the city has been revoked. Aldermen like Mr. Patrick Morris (Michel McGill) have taken the businessman by surprise with their sneaky tactics that will leave them rich off the stock George told them to purchase. Unfortunately, it will leave George financially compromised unless he bets big on himself, but the reason why the Russells scare legacy families is they are willing to risk it all. Having come from nothing means they are not driven by the same fears as those who have always had their family name to fall back on.

Carrie Coon in The Gilded Age

Carrie Coon in 'The Gilded Age' (Image credit: Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO)

It is also a benefit that Bertha (Carrie Coon) is as supportive of her husband’s endeavors as he is of hers; it's rather poetic when she notes they are “useless each without the other.” She is not concerned if he loses their fortune and actively encourages his choice to buy up all of his company’s stock so they don’t crumble into oblivion. Not only is this a real partnership, but the heat between them has not been extinguished as Bertha does not need to be asked twice when her husband asks to spend the night in her room. While Bertha’s maid is still making eyes at George — it would be such a terribly dull story if he strays from his marriage — for now creator Julian Fellowes is deviating from expectations with the stability of the power couple.

Oscar van Rhijn (Blake Ritson) is sniffing around the Russells as he thinks Gladys (Taissa Farmiga) is the perfect candidate to be his wife. It is a match that suits his desire for wealth, a nice companion and someone naive enough to not detect his heart lies with another. It isn’t entirely about money (as I speculated), but her riches are a big part of his wooing quest, and he is unhappy with these new financial developments. Oscar is in an awful position because he can’t openly be with the man he loves, however, the situation is also unfair to Gladys who won’t experience the kind of union shared by her parents. 

Harry Richardson and Blake Ritson in The Gilded Age

Harry Richardson and Blake Ritson in 'The Gilded Age' (Image credit: Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO)

There are a lot of dueling ideas occurring in “Face the Music” influenced by the “proper” way to do things. Duplicitous motives are a common theme, which sees Marian (Louisa Jacobson) meeting up with her lawyer at another notable outdoor spot — this time by the Statue of Liberty flame that was temporarily on display in Madison Square (opens in new tab). He is considered unsuitable and “an adventurer” by Aunt Agnes (Christine Baranski), but this is not enough to stop her niece. Even if she doesn’t say yes to his proposal, she doesn’t say no either. No doubt Larry Russell (Harry Richardson) will become part of this uninspired love triangle. 

Marian is the audience entry point, but unfortunately, this storyline follows an expected pattern as she gets to grips with this new social scene. Sure, she asks impertinent questions regarding new families like the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts trying to buy a slice of the action, but there is a lack of fire in the performance.

Meanwhile, Peggy’s (Denée Banton) story continues to captivate even though some of it remains a mystery. Her father swings by to ask Peggy to attend her mother’s birthday dinner, and she reluctantly agrees to this request. 

Though Peggy's father can’t understand her choices regarding her secretarial or writing work, Peggy gets good news as the Christian Advocate wants to publish her work, or rather they did until they found out she is Black. The only offer they can make is to pay her for this short story but she can never claim it as her own, which is not something she can agree to. “They’d kill to be in your position,” is the editor’s very Devil Wears Prada claim about the white men he rejected before her, and she is quick to point out that they will never be asked to sign away their work. 

Denée Benton and Louisa Jacobson in The Gilded Age

Denée Benton and Louisa Jacobson in 'The Gilded Age' (Image credit: Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO)

Ownership is a big theme this week in other respects, as Ada (Cynthia Nixon) thinks a guy from her past is sweet on her, but Agnes sees through his attempts at charm. Up until now, Agnes has only seemed concerned with the proper state of affairs. However, in revealing she knows the game at play here she also proves her instincts are sometimes right and she truly has Ada’s best interest at heart. After this chancer departs, Agnes sweetly tells her sister that she wants to spoil her, and thankfully, she is not just capable of perfectly deployed withering sentiments.  

Returning to the Russells who manage to fend off the scam that could have undone their empire, the couple both receive visitors begging for mercy. Neither falls for this about-turn and don’t hold back when pointing out that the Mayflower families didn’t offer them any kindness either. Pleasure is taken in these moments, but George tells his wife he has pushed them far enough and likes to “do the right thing.” However, even before Mr. Morris took the slow walk up to his office it was clear this night was going to end in bloodshed and a lot of The Gilded Age’s major beats continue to be telegraphed.

Emma Fraser spends most of her time writing about TV, fashion, and costume design; Dana Scully is the reason she loves a pantsuit. Words can also be found at Vulture, Elle, Primetimer, Collider, Little White Lies, Observer, and Girls on Tops. Emma has a Master’s in Film and Television, started a (defunct) blog that mainly focused on Mad Men in 2010, and has been getting paid to write about TV since 2015. It goes back way further as she got her big start making observations in her diary about My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase (and her style) at 14.