“The Gilded Age” makes its return for a second season, and it still carries the essence of a “Downton Abbey Lite.” This isn’t a bad thing, as the show remains captivating, combining a finely tailored, opulent soap opera with a touch of 19th-century history. This season delves into the early struggles of the labor movement and the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Set in 1880s Manhattan, the storyline continues to unfold both upstairs and downstairs on 61st street. While the pace may feel a bit rushed in this eight-episode run, the central conflict remains a titanic clash between the nouveau-riche Russells, led by the formidable Bertha (played by the outstanding Carrie Coon), and old-money society heavyweight Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy). Their battle unfolds through competing opera houses, leaving the town’s elite in an uncomfortable position, choosing sides and setting the stage for a “fight at the opera.”
Beyond this drama, George (Morgan Spector), Bertha’s husband, faces the challenges posed by an emerging organized labor movement and the pressure from old robber barons to suppress workers’ demands for safety and shorter workdays. The resonance of this storyline with recent Hollywood strikes is hard to ignore, even though modern tactics differ.
The class struggle often takes a back seat to romantic entanglements, with Marian (Louisa Jacobson) potentially finding a love interest, Peggy (Denée Benton) facing personal and professional complications after a shocking revelation about her father’s betrayal, closeted Oscar (Blake Ritson) seeking a wealthy wife, and the Russell children embarking on quests to find suitable partners.
Series creator Julian Fellowes seamlessly integrates real-life events and historical figures into the narrative, including the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge and appearances by Oscar Wilde and Booker T. Washington, albeit briefly.
Christine Baranski’s character, Aunt Agnes, shines as a witty, acerbic observer of shifting societal norms, reminiscent of “Downton Abbey’s” Dowager Countess.
While Fellowes doesn’t neatly tie up every subplot, there’s enough closure for the season. Whether this season turns out to be the series’ finale remains uncertain, as “The Gilded Age” has yet to achieve the commercial, awards, and critical acclaim that HBO typically seeks, potentially impacting its future.
Despite its divergence from HBO’s typical content, “The Gilded Age” remains a delightful anomaly. If not met with a standing ovation, it certainly deserves an “opera clap.”
“The Gilded Age” returns for its second season on October 29 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery, and offers a compelling blend of opulence, history, and drama.
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