Warning: SPOILERS for The Gilded Age Episode 1 – “Never The New”
Although Julian Fellowes created both period dramas, HBO’s The Gilded Age is very different from Downton Abbey, but that’s also a very good thing for audiences. Set in 1882 New York City, The Gilded Age is Fellowes’ long-awaited follow-up to Downton that’s ostensibly set in the same universe. Back in 2012, Fellowes originally conceived The Gilded Age as a Downton Abbey prequel, showing the courtship of Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), the future Lord Grantham, and Cora Levinson (Elizabeth McGovern), who would become his wife, the Countess of Grantham. After years of research, Fellowes waited until Downton Abbey‘s TV series ended in 2016 before he could concentrate on The Gilded Age, which was originally greenlit at NBC before it received a straight-to-series order on HBO in 2019 just months before Downton Abbey became a hit movie.
Downton Abbey was a global sensation that aired on BBC in the United Kingdom and on Masterpiece PBS in the United States. Beginning in 1912 on the same day the RMS Titanic sank, Downton Abbey focused on the Crawley family, who lived in a splendid estate in Yorkshire, United Kingdom (which is the real-life Highclere Castle), and their loyal servants. Downton Abbey ran for six seasons from 2010-2016, which explored the highs and lows of the Crawleys in the post-Edwardian era from 1912-1925, with the Downton Abbey movie continuing the story in 1927. Lord and Lady Grantham, the Dowager Countess Lady Violet (Maggie Smith), and the Crawley daughters, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), and Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay), and their servants endured marriages, deaths, tragedies, and celebrations as Downton Abbey spanned World War I, the Spanish Flu, and even a visit from King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James). The sequel film, Downton Abbey: A New Era, arrives in theaters in March 2022.
Obviously, The Gilded Age hopes to catch Downton Abbey‘s lightning-in-a-bottle and achieve the same level of success on HBO. At first glance, The Gilded Age appears to be a Downton clone, with its lavish costumes, eye-popping displays of extravagant wealth, and a tart exploration of a bygone society that still reflects the realities of modern life. Much appears the same, including the upstairs/downstairs intrigue between the servants below toiling for their wealthy employers. Look deeper, however, and it becomes clear that The Gilded Age is markedly different from Downton Abbey, which is inevitable from its decidedly American setting and sensibility. While The Gilded Age does contain many familiar Downton touches, the HBO series’ differences from its British predecessor is where The Gilded Age‘s true strengths lie.
The Gilded Age Is A Clash Over Power In New York Society
The Gilded Age and Downton Abbey have very different themes despite their surface similarities. The HBO period drama is a deep dive into the power struggle between “old New York,” which is embodied by Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski), and her lot, versus the rise of “new money,” epitomized by railroad tycoon George Russell (Morgan Spector) and his ambitious, social-climbing wife, Bertha (Carrie Coon). This is an intriguing central conflict for the series. By contrast, Downton Abbey centered on the Crawley family but was really about how they and their servants must continually adapt to the fading ways of Edwardian life in the face of the rapidly changing modern society, which was easier for the Crawley daughters than it was for their parents and grandmother.
Downton Abbey’s Crawley family didn’t have a competing clan out to supplant them. But, in The Gilded Age, which also could also be seen as a forerunner to Succession and the outrageously wealthy Roy family, Agnes van Rhijn, Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy), and the powerful scions of Old New York gatekeep “new money” like the Russells and the Vanderbilts out of their strictly enforced social circle, known as “The Four Hundred.” In a way, The Gilded Age is about the futility of holding onto tradition in the face of modernity because the rapid rise of multimillionaires like Russells in New York represents the inevitable future. George and Bertha Russell, who erected an opulent 5th Avenue palace in tribute to their own splendor, are a clear and present danger to the rigid power structure of Old New York, who fear their centuries-old rule over the city’s high society is on the verge of collapse.
The Gilded Age Has A Very American Perspective
Unlike Downton Abbey’s celebration of the manners and traditions of the Edwardian era, The Gilded Age is distinctly American in its perspective. The second half of the 19th century after the Civil War was a time of sweeping political, societal, and economic change that would shape the United States in the 20th century into the present day. The Gilded Age revels in the ostentatious wealth of the super-rich of the era, and the ways in which the Russell live set the tone for today’s billionaires and one-percenters. The Russells and van Rhijns’ servants are mostly American pulled from the Irish working class. Downton’s loyal servants like Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), and Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt), take pride in service, but many of The Gilded Age‘s servants like Turner (Kelly Curran), Bertha Russell’s Lady’s Maid, are as ambitious as their employers and intend to get their piece of the pie.
The Gilded Age also crucially explores the African-American experience in the late 19th century through Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), a Black aspiring writer who comes to work for Agnes van Rhijn. Racism is front-and-center in The Gilded Age as Peggy endures endless disdain and suspicion nearly everywhere she goes. Further, Downton Abbey didn’t utilize a POV character for the audience like The Gilded Age’s Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), the penniless niece of Agnes Van Rhijn and her kindly spinster sister, Ada (Cynthia Nixon). Marian is a newcomer to New York and her outsider questioning serves as the audience’s surrogate as Miss Brook tries to understand and live under the harsh rules and customs of her new life.
Why Downton Abbey Fans Will Also Love The Gilded Age
In spite of their stark differences, there is plenty for Downton Abbey fans to love about The Gilded Age. It’s evident that Fellowes made sure The Gilded Age has its own counterpart for Maggie Smith’s indomitable Lady Violet in Christine Baranski’s Agnes van Rhijn. Like Smith, Baranski has the most biting dialogue and delivers each line with rapier wit. Agnes’s unwavering adherence to her beliefs and traditions echoes Lady Violet’s staunch advocacy for her own high standards. Although it remains to be seen if Agnes will eventually begin to accept change the way the Dowager Countess evolved throughout Downton Abbey‘s run. Meanwhile, George Russell obviously adores his wife Bertha just as Lord Grantham passionately loves Lady Cora.
The Gilded Age echoes many of the same intriguing plot twists and character beats Fellowes used in Downton Abbey, like the scheming Lady’s Maid Turner, who obviously plans to bed George Russell, which is something Miss O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) would never have dared with Lord Grantham. Of course, the eye-popping recreations of Old New York’s lavish mansions and locations frequented by the super-rich rival the handsome sights of Downton Abbey‘s era. While it shares Julian Fellowes’ basic Downton Abbey formula, The Gilded Age is ultimately a very different show and it’s too early to tell if The Gilded Age will achieve the same level of success and enduring popularity as Downton Abbey. Thankfully, The Gilded Age debuts with all of the trappings of an immersive, must-see period drama that stands apart from Downton Abbey while sharing many similar traits.
The Gilded Age airs Mondays @ 9pm on HBO and streams on HBO Max.
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