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'The Gilded Age' season 1 episode 4 review: 'A Long Ladder'

The old money set realizes they have to accept the new in order to survive.

The Gilded Age
(Image: © Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO)

Our Verdict

'The Gilded Age' still has too many competing elements, but characters like the Russells remain compelling to watch.

For

  • - Avoiding an affair storyline
  • - Lived in relationships like Oscar and Aunt Ada
  • - Denée Benton is terrific and more time spent with her (and her family) is welcome
  • - A show-stopping costume moment from Bertha

Against

  • - Marian's naivety is not charming
  • - Packing this many storylines into one episode means some are glossed over

This post contains spoilers for The Gilded Age season 1 episode 4. Read our The Gilded Age season 1 episode 3 review here.   

In The Gilded Age, it can be hard to climb the social ladder when those at the top have greased the rungs and set the rules. However, Bertha (Carrie Coon) is finally getting a boost to her calendar even if it was preceded by the tragic circumstances of Mr. Morris's death. George (Morgan Spector) is worried that he will be blamed for the alderman's suicide, but Bertha is on hand to give her husband a pep talk and it turns out people will forgive a lot when financial ruin is on the table.

As husbands make backroom deals, their wives have to play along, which is why Bertha gets an invite to the symphony as Aurora Fane’s (Kelli O’Hara) guest. Mr. Fane (Ward Horton) isn’t ready to be best buds with George but he concedes that he and his fellow aldermen played the game badly, and they are in a bed of their own making. Knowing how important Bertha’s happiness is to George, the invite seems a simple solution to the Fane's debt woes. Aurora, however, demonstrates the depths of her snobbery when she takes a beat to decide between losing their home and being seen in public with the supposedly tacky Bertha. 

Carrie Coon in The Gilded Age

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

Ongoing negotiations in the Russell home place Gladys (Taissa Farmiga) in a losing position when Bertha fires her governess after discovering Gladys secretly met a young man, Archie Baldwin. The governess had accompanied Gladys to this social appointment, which Bertha sees as a betrayal. This storyline is as intriguing as it is puzzling with regard to Bertha's motives for preventing her daughter from entering the adult world. 

Oscar van Rhijn (Blake Ritson) stopped his attempts to woo Gladys when he thought her fortune was no more and his renewed interest leads to a skeptical senior Russell. Oscar rues his decision to listen to Mr. Morris (Michel Gill) about the Russells losing everything. He goes so far as confide in his Aunt Ada (Cynthia Nixon); the two share an effortless back-and-forth that makes the relationship feel lived in. 

Oscar isn’t the only one whose timing is miscalculated. One of the soapier elements comes courtesy of Turner’s (Kelley Curran) late-night visit to George’s chamber. Since the first episode, she has been making eyes at her mistresses' husband and has made it clear she has little regard for Bertha. If she had a mustache she would have twirled it by now. Instead, she slips into George's bed and tells him she is ready to “make a sanctuary” in a cringe-worthy bid for his heart. 

Except George isn’t lacking in any department when it comes to Bertha (as last week’s episode showed) and he dismisses Turner outright. A "wife guy" who cannot be tempted solidifies this power couple, however, it is a mistake keeping this from Bertha. No doubt this lie will come back to bite him.

Cynthia Nixon and Christine Baranski in The Gilded Age

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

For now, Bertha is finally experiencing a taste of the world she wants and has dressed the part in a stunning scarlet dress paired with a dramatic beaded gown. Once again, costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone showcases Bertha’s desire to stand out in a crowd — “Heavens! What a vision,” says George with hearts in his eyes. Bertha's dress is a tip of her figurative hat toward the charity being showcased at this event, the Red Cross, following Last week's introduction of Red Cross founder Clara Barton (Linda Emond), another example of real figures furthering the storyline. 

One area the Russells are still having no luck in is with their neighbors. Agnes (Christine Baranski) is convinced they took Ada’s (Cynthia Nixon) beloved dog Pumpkin so Bertha can swoop in as the hero. There was no dog-napping, but when butler Bannister (Simon Jones) is sent to retrieve the pooch from the Russells he delivers some withering comments his boss would find pleasing. Soup for lunch, colored glasses and the way the cutlery has been set all draw remarks, which causes panic downstairs because they are doing things the American way. What happens if Mrs. Astor comes to dinner and they set back relations with a salad fork? Yes, these are pressing concerns. 

Meanwhile, in the other kitchen, it becomes clear that Bridget’s (Taylor Richardson) hesitation with footman Jack (Ben Ahlers) is because she has been abused in the past. Unfortunately, there is so much going on in each episode that moments like this get lost amid the upstairs drama.

Audra McDonald and Denée Benton in The Gilded Age

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

Marian (Louisa Jacobson) is at the center of several conflicts, including ongoing conversations with Mrs. Chamberlain (Jeanne Tripplehorn), whose big crime is she was the other woman in her husband's previous marriage, only making it legal when her husband’s first bride died. Oh, and they also had a child together before it was official. 

Marian’s naivety is dialed down when dealing with the social pariah but is dialed up in her interactions with Ada — she accidentally insults her aunt regarding her spinsterhood — and Peggy. 

First, she doesn’t clock that Peggy (Denée Benton) is uncomfortable entering Bloomingdale Brothers because Peggy knows she will get stared at by everyone in the store. Later, Marian thinks she can cheer Peggy up by surprising her at her parents’ house. Suffice to say this ill-judged visit is compounded by Marian’s assumption that Peggy is poor. “I loaned you train fare,” Peggy rightly points out. This clumsy attempt by Marian to do something good shows how little attention she has paid — and points to ingrained racism regarding wealth.

Before Marian shows up and ruins everything, the birthday lunch for Peggy's mother (played by Audra McDonald) has been somewhat tense because Peggy’s father is still giving her a hard time about her choices. He takes some satisfaction upon finding out that she is writing for the Black publication The New York Globe (as he predicted) rather than the white-owned Christian Advocate. Marian’s arrival gives Peggy a reason to leave. 

After four episodes, The Gilded Age is struggling to make Marian happen and the real movers and shakers are either across the avenue or residing in one of the bedrooms above. 

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.