Opera boxes and labor movements! Season 2 of “The Gilded Age” will amp up the class warfare

Opera boxes and labor movements! Season 2 of “The Gilded Age” will amp up the class warfare
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The Gilded Age is back and bitchier than ever.

With the return of the HBO series this Sunday, the old money crowd continues to be a pain in the class system. When last we left the Russells, Bertha (Carrie Coon) had triumphed with her ball and George (Morgan Spector) had proven just what happens when anyone attempts to upend his business interests.

The second season of the Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey) drama picks up about six months after the end of season 1 on Easter morning, 1883. "Bertha is preoccupied with the fact that she doesn't have a box at the Academy of Music, and that becomes a big driver of the season," executive producer David Crockett tells EW. "That might beg the question, do people really care that much about opera? But Bertha cares about it greatly. She cares about having a box at the Academy of Music because, as she explains to George, the opera is where society puts itself on display, where the elites meet each other, their children court each other, and how the wheels of society turn."

The Gilded Age Season 2 - Carrie Coon
The Gilded Age Season 2 - Carrie Coon

Barbara Nitke/HBO Carrie Coon on 'The Gilded Age'

"She has got into society with her successful ball, but now she wants to really be a part of it in a full way," he adds. "And then across the season, perhaps she even wants to run it."

In short, it's business as usual for the new money social strivers who upend Fifth Avenue and the world of the Four Hundred Club. And that promises to bring plenty of drama when season 2 premieres at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Oct. 29.

Crockett broke down more of what we can expect from season 2, including new romantic prospects for Marian (Louisa Jacobson), whether Peggy (Denée Benton) will reunite with her son, and how intractable Aunt Agnes (Christine Baranski) will continue to be.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Last season, people went to Bertha's ball at the behest of Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy), but has Bertha truly won over these society women?

DAVID CROCKETT: That's the thing. It was a wild success at the end of last season, but she realizes that you can have these successes, but she hasn't arrived yet. She's got a foot in the door, but Agnes certainly doesn't accept her. And Mrs. Astor puts up with her, if you will. Mrs. Astor is the gatekeeper. She will allow you to have a box at the Academy. There are only a handful of boxes at the Academy of Music, which is the primary opera house. You either get in or you don't. And there's a long list. Bertha is not jumping the line, so she is not accepted into that opera house.

We base a lot of this on true events. In 1883 there was the Academy of Music, which was the principal house. It's like a country club. But there were only these 18 boxes, and there were a lot of wealthy families that couldn't get in. So they decided to fund and to open the Metropolitan Opera House. There's 365 days in the year, but in 1883, both of those opera houses had the same opening day. It was really a throw down and a competition. Are you going to go with Mrs. Astor? Or are you going to go and be part of the new money crowd, the future, and be a part of Mrs. Russell's society gang?

The Gilded Age Season 2 - Taissa Farmiga, Carrie Coon, Donna Murphy
The Gilded Age Season 2 - Taissa Farmiga, Carrie Coon, Donna Murphy

Barbara Nitke/HBO The upper crust ladies of 'The Gilded Age'

As usual, George cares more about his business interests than their social standing. What challenges might he face this year?

Much of his story revolves around union troubles, as he calls them. The labor question was sweeping the country around this time. People could, for the most part, get as much work as they wanted, but they couldn't earn a living wage. They could merely exist or subsist. Early in the season, George meets Henderson, the head of the Knights of Labor, the union that is running his Pittsburgh steel mill. Henderson has some pretty strong demands for his men. George Russell responds as you would expect. It leads to a grand conflict.

This is real history, but was any of the impetus to tell that story coming from the fact that this year of major labor unrest seemed to be bubbling up before you started shooting? And how hard might that make it for us to root for George this year? 

We didn't really think about our industry in coming up with the story. Julian and I and Michael Engler and the team, we all talked about it a lot, but it was more about the history of this time, the 1880s, 1890s, and that big labor movement. But also when you look at our time, there are similarities. The concentration of wealth had never really happened in this country or anywhere in the world as much as it was concentrated in that 1880s, 1890s period. Now it is that way again. The pendulum has swung back. We found it really interesting that George and the robber barons looked at labor as a commodity, so they wanted to get that commodity as cheaply as possible. But it's playing out again. It's an issue of our time. Some of the robber barons that George was based on, they were complex. They could be downright evil as we would look at them today in business terms. Then when they would come home, they would be great fathers and great family men. George is that. So we will be rooting for him at times, but at other times, decidedly not.

The Gilded Age Season 2 - Christine Baranski
The Gilded Age Season 2 - Christine Baranski

Barbara Nitke/HBO Christine Baranski on 'The Gilded Age'

Turning our eyes to Marian, she lost Mr. Raikes (Thomas Cocquerel) at the end of last season. Might she set her cap for someone new this season? And where might Larry Russell (Harry Richardson) come into play there? 

Marian continues her quest to find her way in the world. She's still quite young and very new to New York. But she's been here now a little while, so she feels she knows some of the lay of the land. But as a young woman at that time, there aren't too many options available — she could work with a charity and she should get to work finding a husband. Agnes is always there to provide suggestions. Early in the season, a distant cousin is in town and is a possible match for Marian. She pursues that tepidly because she does have other interests. Having just come off of Raikes, she is a little wary. Larry Russell continues to be a good friend, and as everyone around her might see, potentially more than that. But there could be some tension there.

We ended with Peggy learning that her son that was given up for adoption is actually alive. What might that journey and rediscovering that part of herself look like this season? 

With the help of Dorothy, her mother, she does locate her son in Philadelphia. As we open the season, it's Easter morning for everyone. The Russells and the New York elites are going to their church in New York. The downstairs folks are going to their smaller, more modest churches. Peggy is in Philadelphia attending church with the people who raised her son since birth. That doesn't go the way she had hoped. She spends much of the rest of the season throwing herself into her work. And she does some traveling. She establishes herself as a strong voice in her community. She also gets a little closer to her boss, and that has some unexpected consequences.

The Gilded Age Season 2 - Audra McDonald, Denée Benton
The Gilded Age Season 2 - Audra McDonald, Denée Benton

Barbara Nitke/HBO Audra McDonald and Denee Benton in 'The Gilded Age'

We have all these downstairs characters with rich lives. We learned a lot about the backstory of George a.k.a. Josh Borden (Douglas Sills) last year, and also, about Mr. Watson's (Michael Cerveris) secret past. What can we expect for all of them this year? 

Julian pointed out last year that if you look back to Edith Wharton and the other novels of that time, the downstairs characters were not featured in any way. They were somebody to bring in your tea. One of the strengths of our story and of our time is that each of these people have their own travails and journeys to explore. They're the main character in their own story. Watson continues his journey to reconnect with his daughter. He is thrown together with her in an unexpected circumstance, which forces the issue. Gordon is retained, which is a big step for Bertha because she now decidedly does not have a French chef as planned. But the downstairs there, as a group, with the absence of Turner (Kelly Russell), continues to get closer. Mrs. Bruce (Celia Keenan-Bolger) and Borden particularly.

Jack Treacher (Ben Ahlers), the footman in the Van Rhijn house, his ingenuity and his handiness presents an opportunity. Sometimes it's not easy for him to wake up in the morning and the alarm clocks of the day are not very good. He endeavors to try to solve that problem. It could lead to some interesting possibilities for Jack outside of the house. Julian always says that one of the great things about the American story versus the British is that you could change your station. You could start out as a servant and in one generation become part of a different class.

The Gilded Age Season 2 - Nicole Brydon Bloom, Blake Ritson
The Gilded Age Season 2 - Nicole Brydon Bloom, Blake Ritson

Barbara Nitke/HBO 'The Gilded Age' season 2

Season 1 was about self-discovery and trying to gain a foothold of legitimacy in this world, no matter who you are. Could you tease this season as a whole?

It's everybody trying to secure their positions more. There's a lot of empathy; we try to display people really learning and understanding each other a little bit more. Certainly everybody doesn't do that, but people are understanding life is complicated. Whereas last year we met everybody, we got to know them. This season is about understanding them a little bit better and empathizing with them.

Can you sum up the season in three words?

I don't know if I can. There's so much pageantry, there's so much extravagance, there's so much beauty. We have a core cast of 30 people, so it's 30 people thrown together in the soup of New York City.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

The Gilded Age season 2 premieres Oct. at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.

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