This The Gilded Age review contains spoilers.
The second episode of The Gilded Age may only be half the length of the series’ premiere, but “Money Isn’t Everything” ironically finds more breathing room for the development of its most important characters and for viewers to see how the main and supporting cast are engaging or ignoring the nouveau riche vs old money turf war.
The opening scene turns the audience towards Agnes and Ada’s staff, who didn’t get a lot of dedicated screen time last week. Mrs. Bower the cook has had an unpleasant visit from a gambling enforcer. She owes $50 and has to come up with the cash before they start breaking legs. This doesn’t seem like a lot but, in 1882, $50 had the spending power of $1,366.88 today. It’s safe to assume this is more than her annual salary. (Unfortunately, it’s never revealed why she started gambling. Based on her accent, it’s likely she’s sending money to relatives abroad which were very common in this era.) This plot may seem out of sorts with the previous episode’s intense focus on the elite, but plot lines in which a working-class character needs help from middle or upper-class characters against the mean boss are a common period drama trope. The Gilded Age uses this trope to position some characters as wild cards in the battle between Bertha and the old guard.
Speaking of Bertha’s scheming, she’s turned her eye towards influencing an upcoming social event. The charity bazaar being held to benefit two similar charities helping women and children in need is short on event rental space. Bertha is ready to offer up her brand new ballroom. She’s aware the ladies are eager to take her cash but not exactly eager in her getting involved. George sees the charity as a way to get a meeting off the record with Alderman Morris as his wife also is on the executive board for the bazaar. They invite the Morris’ over for some wining, dining, and sneaky business discussions.
Meanwhile, upstairs at the aunts’ house, Oscar is scheming to invite Gladys Russell to lunch. Agnes isn’t too happy that he’s clearly attempting to pollute the shades of the building with the riff-raff. He’s not the only one interested in matchmaking. Marian’s lawyer friend is coming to the city for a job interview and Ada believes it would be a good thing if they become more than friends. Agnes, on the other hand, doesn’t agree as Marian has no money and needs to marry for security. It’s also not clear if he is indeed interested in being more than friends.
Peggy is on a tightrope between the two worlds and faced with prejudice on either side. On the one hand, she is happy to hear Mr. Brook is visiting because she has a secret legal matter to discuss with him which occurred in Pennsylvania. Marian agrees to tell him about it but in an unusual tone for her tells Mr. Brook Peggy is “colored.” Thankfully, Mr. Brook says yes to meeting Peggy to figure out if he can represent her case. Some may believe this line is offensive, but it can also be argued that Marian knows not every white person would approve of her acquaintance with Peggy.
On the other hand, Peggy is dragged into Mrs. Bowers’ gambling drama as she witnesses the second attempt by the enforcers to get paid. It’s an interesting choice to set up Peggy as the go-between and not Marian initially, given how openly racist some of the staff were in the last episode and continue to be. Some are still openly resentful that being the secretary elevates her above all of them. For Peggy, this is paying a good deed forward but will she be rewarded later? Both of these examples prove that The Gilded Age scripts have been looked over by experts who are well aware of the racial dynamics of the era.
Marian agrees to meet Mr. Brook at Bethesda Fountain with Peggy, an excuse of a walk providing cover for the aunts. Mr. Brook and Peggy whisper about this unknown legal controversy, and he agrees to take on the mystery case and asks Marian if they could spend time together before he has to go home. Gladys also manages to evade her parents in order to quickly chat with Marian at the fountain. She’s curious as to why Oscar evaded a dinner invite from Larry, who have become acquaintances post-Newport. This works out as Oscar’s condition for helping erase Mrs. Bauer’s gambling debts is to invite Gladys to the house. It remains to be seen what his intentions are besides annoying Agnes. Aunt Ada ends up hearing about the debt and offers to pay it directly.
The younger characters are likely on a collision course with their families that is separate from the status war. Ada is being set up as the “kinder” face of the old money crowd, and there may come a point in future episodes where she will break with Agnes when it comes to Marian, Peggy, or the downstairs staff.
At the dinner with Alderman Morris and Mrs. Morris, George gets a chance to persuade the Alderman to approve a bill for a new railway station. Those familiar with New York history may recognize this is a loose version of the history behind the building of the original Penn Station. He low-key advises the politicians to buy margin stocks and then sell them after the announcement. Today there are laws against this, but the real Georges of history caused the antitrust and anti corruption federal and state laws to be written.
While George got what he wanted, the charity Karens refused to host the charity bazaar in Bertha’s ballroom and set up shop in the Fifth Avenue Hotel. She throws her breakfast in bed with all the rage of a jilted lover. This doesn’t stop her from crashing the event. Mrs. Astor opens up the bazaar by telling the rich to shop to stop the widows and orphans from being miserable. So much for charity is about empathy.
Bertha was ready to trade icy barbs with Mrs. Astor and her friend, it turns out George was the one who took direct action to stick it to the charity Karens. He starts handing out $100 bills to each vendor to pack up their wares and go. Of course, he’d also keep all of the hand-embroidered handkerchiefs and craft items. George having the ability to throw several $100 bills around without blinking scares the old money crowd who often have more property than liquid assets. Each $100 bill has the spending power of $2,733.35 today so it’s safe to say his donation was large enough to keep hundreds of women and orphans fed and healthy for a year.
Not only is the charity bazaar important for future conflicts, this is also a prime example of the series’ costuming being used to code character allegiances. The old money characters in this scene are wearing muted colors and more historical recreations. Bertha and the other nouveau riche characters have more avant-garde silhouettes, brighter color palettes, and more ornate detailing. The visuals and sets work hand in hand to cement the story.
Mrs. Astor realizes at the end of the episode that the Russells mean business. The charity bazaar is clearly a completed skirmish in Bertha’s long-haul battle against the old money families. This is not a series that will be driven fully by direct confrontations. A dodgy glance here, a purposeful erasure from a guest list there, and some shady words in between will be how this war plays out but it leaves the audience with a few questions: What exactly does Peggy need a lawyer for? Is it related to the mystery around her father or something related to her writing? What are Oscar’s motivations for meeting with Gladys? He didn’t exactly appear to be the marrying type in the last episode. Although the main plot and subplots were well blended, this episode depends on the rest of the season for a satisfying conclusion and answer.