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'The Gilded Age' season 1 episode 5 review: romantic obstacles and Bertha gets a win

A trip out of Manhattan is an eye-opening experience in the latest episode of The Gilded Age.

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

Our Verdict

On the surface it is entertaining, but some elements are becoming repetitive.

For

  • - Nathan Lane hamming it up in the best possible way
  • - Finding out more about Peggy
  • - Clara Barton's eyes are wide open
  • - It is nice to get out of New York again

Against

  • - The Russells experience yet another crisis that could ruin them
  • - Marian and Mr. Raike's romance is still rather bland

Note: this post contains spoilers for The Gilded Age season 1 episode 5, Charity Has Two Functions.  

Charity fundraisers are a cornerstone to the social activities in The Gilded Age. Each of the five installments that have aired so far feature a discussion of, or participation in, a philanthropic event. But, as the cynical Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) points out to her niece Marian (Louisa Jacobson), "charity has two functions."

This idea, which gives episode 5 its title, is a reaction from Agnes to Marian's explanation of why she feels strongly about going to a Red Cross meeting in Dansville, New York. Agnes states the first reason is wholly good, as it is to “raise funds for the less fortunate.” The second is “to provide a ladder for people to climb into society who do not belong there.” Without mentioning names it is clear the latter reason refers to Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) and Mrs. Chamberlain (Jeanne Tripplehorn). 

Bertha had been unsuccessful in her attempts to contribute to charitable causes, beyond her checkbook, until last week’s episode when Aurora Fane (Kelli O’Hara) finally opened this door of possibilities. Of course, Aurora welcoming Bertha was guided by self-preservation to ensure mercy from George Russell (Morgan Spector). Bertha not only gets given entry into this elite club but Red Cross founder Clara Barton (Linda Emond) also publicly thanks her for her sizable donation.

Linda Emond as Clara Barton in The Gilded Age

Linda Emond as Clara Barton in The Gilded Age (Image credit: Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO)

Clara is fully aware of the “charity ladder” and is using it to her fundraising advantage. Her eyes are wide open and she has zero qualms about the tactics these women are employing. However, I wonder what her reaction would be if she knew that Bertha’s husband also intends on benefiting from this cause. 

It turns out George will be using this connection sooner rather than later as a train derailment outside Millbourne, Pennsylvania, requires the services of the Red Cross. George notes it is another incident that “could bring us down” and we note that the regularity of these "empire-ruining events" is becoming a tad repetitive. 

When Agnes listed off the two functions of charity she could not have foreseen the third or fourth option. She instructs Marian to take Peggy (Denée Benton) with her because she doesn’t trust Aurora, but both her niece and secretary have an ulterior motive. Peggy uses this opportunity to further her journalistic pursuits and is reporting on Clara’s work for the New York Globe. 

Meanwhile, Marian invites Mr. Tom Raikes (Thomas Cocquerel) in a bid to get some time with him, away from her aunt’s disapproving gaze. Marian still has not answered Tom’s proposal but she does kiss him goodnight. Even with this sneaking around their romance fails to ignite any interest. It doesn’t help that both characters are pretty bland — Peggy’s interruption is a welcome relief. 

Carrie Coon and Morgan Spector in The Gilded Age

(Image credit: Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO)

Though the Dansville venture is a success, the recently widowed Mrs. Morris (Katie Finneran) makes sure Bertha is in earshot when she calls her “the murderer’s wife.” Her grief is raw and she is also processing losing everything — including her friends — so this reaction is hardly surprising. Mrs. Morris spits that Bertha is a “potato digger’s daughter” (which highlights her ingrained prejudices) then doubles down with racist comments directly aimed at Peggy. It is hard to sympathize when she comes out swinging in such an ugly fashion as the show's unsubtle writing rears its head once more.

Back in New York City, Gladys (Taissa Farmiga) is trying to assert her position as an adult who has found the man she wants to marry. Unfortunately, while Archie Baldwin (Tom Blyth) is from a wealthy family, he isn’t what Bertha wants for her daughter and George shows his continual devotion to his wife by backing her in the fight. Bertha's experience in this judgemental world has made her a tough critic of eligible suitors but, if she continues down this path, she is at risk of alienating Gladys. Archie loves Gladys, but George threatens to ruin his career beyond repair — leaving him with no option other than to stay away. 

Nathan Lane in The Gilded Age

(Image credit: Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO)

Bertha is racking up a list of enemies so her daughter has several options if she does want to get back at her. They include Mrs. Morris, who seethes, “I won’t let her beat me.” 

There's also a threat within Bertha’s own home in the form of Turner (Kelley Curran). In retaliation for George rejecting her advances, Turner is now assisting Oscar van Rhijn (Blake Ritson) in his bid to woo Gladys — and is getting paid for her insider knowledge. 

This love match is motivated by Oscar’s desire to marry well in a world that won’t allow him to publicly be with the man he loves. Gladys is unable to make her own choices because of her mother’s tight leash and, unless she successfully rebels, she will end up in a loveless union.

One successful relationship is founded in “Charity Has Two Functions” though. Bertha meets Mrs. Astor’s (unofficial) social gatekeeper, Ward McCallister (Nathan Lane) and is practically vibrating with happiness about this encounter. Unsurprisingly, George is thrilled by this. Everyone else is less enthused by the role McCallister plays and Agnes quips that Mrs. Astor is “a fact of life we must live with.” Lane is a fantastic addition to the cast which is bursting with Broadway stars and he fully hams it up during the luncheon. Hopefully, this is not the last we will see of the Southern gentleman. 

Everything is coming up Bertha until the final moments. As we reach the halfway point of the series it is clear that more obstacles and petty squabbles lie ahead.    

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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.