In many ways it’s a timeless story of ambition and hard work, of old ways clashing with new, of young people making mistakes, and of messy, complicated family dynamics. However, HBO Max’s “The Gilded Age” is an intriguing, nuanced peak inside life in 1882 New York City. Airing its first episode on the streaming platform on Jan. 24, HBO released the show on a weekly basis with the season finale dropping in late March. Set among the backdrop of bustle dress trains and booming enterprises, I found watching characters shape the creation of Manhattan’s both physical infrastructure and ideals, in such an intimate way, to be fascinating.
The Russell family are the “new money” characters, fresh on the scene of New York City’s elite when they arrive in their newly finished mansion on 5th Avenue. Across the street lives widowed Mrs. Agnes van Rhijn with her sister, Ms. Ada Brooks. Their niece joins them in Manhattan after the unexpected death of her father leaves her broke, and Ms. Marian Brook challenges the way things are in the way only a young, bright-eyed protagonist can. Ms. Peggy Scott, a young Black woman working to make it as a journalist, meets Marian as she first arrives in New York. The Scott family provide a nuanced view into the lives of the Black elite in Brooklyn, giving a voice to a part of the 1880s often left out of the narrative.
While the characters are fictional, the impact of real power brokers and figures that influenced the success of America’s industrial revolution in the Northeast are present throughout the telling of this story with some speculating that the Russells bear interesting similarities to the real life Vanderbilt family. It’s a story of many characters, whose paths cross as their ambitions overlap. The costumes are stunning and the sets are architecturally breathtaking, but the true triumph of this show is its characters. Though complicated, and often very obviously flawed, I found it interesting how easy it was to find something admirable or redeemable in almost every individual that crossed the screen.
Already renewed for Season 2, “The Gilded Age” has much room to expand and develop further. Many questions were left unanswered as episode nine came to a close. “The Gilded Age” was transportive and entertaining. It’s a must-watch for fans of historical fiction. For those who aren’t, it’s a perfect introduction to the genre.