The Gilded Age recap: Dreams and fireworks burst in this season’s penultimate episode

The Gilded Age
The Gilded Age
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The Gilded Age

Big Hat Hive! Our days of excessive headwear, extravagant parties, and extreme frivolousness are numbered, as we’re already on the penultimate episode of The Gilded Age season two. And the TV gods have dished up a doozy this week, one seasoned with deception, destitution, and—eek!—even death.

But let’s get to the celebratory stuff first: the President—Chester A. Arthur, that is—is coming to Manhattan for the unveiling of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the whole town is abuzz in patriotic preparations. Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy) will be helping Mrs. Roebling with the official opening party, she tells Bertha (Carrie Coon), but that’s not all: She’s finally secured the Russells that coveted box at the Academy of Music.

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There’s better news coming from downstairs at the Van Rhijn household: Bannister (Simon Jones) invited his friend Mr. Schubert, the secretary of New York City’s watchmakers’ association, to check out Jack Trotter’s clock invention. He’s impressed by the new wheel and fast-tracks Jack’s (Ben Ahlers) membership to the watchmakers’ society, which means the patent office will now officially consider his application. Hooray for horology!

Similarly good news hits the staff across the street. Watson’s daughter Flora (Rebecca Haden) finally arrives at Chateau Russell to tie up that whole West Coast storyline for her father (Michael Cerveris). It seems her husband was offering up that San Francisco proposition completely without her knowledge, and she’s come to not only tell Watson that she doesn’t want him to leave New York, but that she wants him to remain in her life. He can have an apartment and see his grandchildren and “be a retired banker called Collier, exactly who you are.” “I am to have a life after all!” he declares to Church and the rest of the Russell staff. Hooray for harmony!

Speaking of harmony, things may seem harmonious over at Hot Beard’s mill, with George and labor leader (Darren Goldstein) shaking hands and posing for photos now that the workers’ strike has been called off, but it’s all a farce. All of the safety measures and medical care and raised wages that Mr. Russell approved for the workers in his “spirit of moderate compromise” was really just a ruse to get the pressure off him and have the laborers warring with each other instead. “My moment of tenderness turns out to have been my trump card,” he proclaims. However, now it seems like Hot Beard has another battle brewing, with the other railroad bosses fuming that he gave into the union’s demands.

But that’s not the only bout of deception this week. After assuring Aurora Fane (Kelli O’Hara) that things were still chugging along nicely with Maud Beaton (Nicole Brydon Bloom), so much so that he planned to propose to the heiress at the Brooklyn Bridge bash, Oscar comes to the horrifying discovery that Ms. Maud is actually a world-class scammer. After Mr. Russell tells him that Maud’s railroad company, into which Oscar just invested a hefty chunk of his family’s fortune, doesn’t actually exist, Oscar goes ransacking the city to find her.

No, she’s not in Newport taking care of her sick aunt like she said—in fact, she’s completely vanished, with the railroad office empty and her “home” address occupied by someone else entirely. He’s been bamboozled! Maud Beaton took him for a ride! Needless to say, Oscar is having a full-blown breakdown, showing up at Aurora’s house crying, “She’s deceived all of us. She’s deceived me!” (Shout out to Mrs. Fish joyfully approving of said freakout with a “This is really thrilling!”)

And, sadly, the Van Rhijns have even more to cry about. A clergyman has been sent for, seemingly to offer up last rites to Reverend Luke. Yes, they’re really killing off Robert Sean Leonard! Sad! Though Ada tells him that she’ll be fine when he goes (“Being loved by you has made me strong”), she’s utterly devastated when she wakes up to find her husband cold in the bed next to her. HBO just ain’t giving Cynthia Nixon a break this year.

Our big finale piece this week is, of course, the Brooklyn Bridge shindig and the arrival of the President, who, in a shrewd chess move, is introduced to the Duke of Buckingham by one Mrs. Astor, much to Bertha’s displeasure. There’s plenty of other notable moments at the firework-filled festivities, from Larry Russell (Harry Richardson) finally giving Mrs. Roebling (Liz Wisan) the public kudos she deserves for her management of the bridge’s construction to Borden/Baudin ( Douglas Sills) sweetly stealing Mrs. Bruce (Celia Keenan-Bolger) up to the roof to catch the stunning firework display.

However, those skyward explosions have nothing on Christine Baranski’s face when Oscar informs Agnes about the Maud Beaton mess and the loss of the entire Van Rhijn fortune. “Go and get our money back!” she bellows. Maud, you’re in danger, girl.

Stray observations

  • Peggy (Denée Benton), Dorothy (Audra McDonald), and the Black teachers have surmised that they’re going to need white help to get the school board to care about their plight—not just white pupils enrolling in the school but also white educators. Peggy ropes in Marian to talk to her fellow teachers, and they manage to convince several Irish instructors—themselves no stranger to prejudice—to join the cause. They now might just have a shot against the education board, a hope Peggy and T. Thomas Fortune (Sullivan Jones) toast to before that simmering tension between them threatens to boil over. But Mama Scott has already caught on about what’s going on between her daughter and her married editor: “I hope that’s the extent of it because I raised you better than that,” she warns.

  • “Are you alright Mrs. Armstrong? You said something nice!” Jack Trotter asks the perennially grouchy maid after she gives a compliment to Bauer’s cooking. “I give praise when it is dessert,” she retorts. Mood.

Stream The Gilded Age now on Hulu.

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