Monday, February 14, 2022

REVIEW: 'The Gilded Age' - Peggy Returns Home as Bertha Starts Working with Aurora to Improve Her Standing in 'A Long Ladder'

HBO's The Gilded Age - Episode 1.04 "A Long Ladder"

Marian learns more about Mrs. Chamberlain. George makes a deal to benefit Bertha. Peggy meets a trailblazing newspaperman.

"A Long Ladder" was written by Julian Fellowes and directed by Salli Richardson-Whitfield

George and Bertha Russell are scheming how they can take over the city and climb the social ladder. They are making big moves. It's dangerous for them to do so. George characterizes it as weak when Alderman Morris' death is ruled a suicide. That's toxic rhetoric but one that further builds up the myth of him being a businessman no one should ever cross. He can ask for anything and the power players of this world are likely to hand it over. He uses that influence to help Bertha. Their marriage continues to be one of constant support. They each have their hands in each other's businesses. They offer opinions and criticisms. They trust the other to do what they believe is best. They offer their counsel when it seems suitable. They trust each other completely. That makes them a powerful duo taking this world by storm. All of that clashes with the old guard. The old money families are used to running this world. Their lives aren't quite filled with the same dynamic storytelling though. That creates a schism within the storytelling ambitions that is truly quite startling to behind. Yes, it's the story about the differences between the old and new money in New York City. However, it's increasingly coming across as the stories of those with ambitions putting things into action and those who are aimless but lavishly comfortable. The latter category basically defines the entire van Rhijn household. Marian certainly questions the beliefs of her aunts. She refuses to make any resolute promises to them because the future is such an unknown. It doesn't seem sensible to her. And yet, she has occupied space in this world for awhile now. The story still simply wants to present her as someone dumbfounded as to how a society could work this way. She operates within it. She has heinous views and prejudices as well. It just doesn't seem like the story aspires to do anything of interest with her. She befriended Peggy. She relies on that friendship but is completely blind to the hardships Peggy faces as a Black woman in this world. It comes to a head at Dorothy's birthday lunch. Marian believes her presence will be appreciated. She isn't great company though. Peggy's bond with her is more than just business. But the show struggles to present Marian or her aunts as people deserving of focus in an ever-changing world.

The story repetitively hits the same beats of trivial focus with regards to the old money as well. They are impressed when people move up in this world quickly. That doesn't mean they are welcoming to the new money in their homes. Aurora is forced to make Bertha accepted in society. Meanwhile, Mrs. Chamberlain is scorned for the affair she had with her late husband which produced her son. The story loves planting these little mysteries that are meant to inform character and behavior. Mrs. Chamberlain attends events but no one is allowed to be her friend. Several episodes go by before a reason is presented. It was always a subject talked around instead of embraced fully. The same applies to what is going on downstairs in the van Rhijn household. Bridget does her job but is traumatized whenever Jack tries to get close to her romantically. She reveals something to Mrs. Bauer. The audience is left in the dark until some point in the future. Yet another example is the mystery of where Watson goes during his lunch break. People notice it. He's seen spying on someone. But again, clarity is delayed until the future. It's all done with the intention of allowing the tension to simmer and break out when it is boiling over. But it's also tedious waiting for something more dynamic to occur. It's simply not fun watching Ada worry after her dog runs away while Agnes is outraged when Bertha reveals herself as finding the pet. These rhythms are not only commonplace in this particular genre but too prevalent within the show's narrative. It's only been four episodes but a lot of action has been incredibly repetitive. That makes it at least nice when Turner makes her move on George. He shuts her down completely. Her still being employed by Bertha will likely create drama at some point. It at least presents as a story with momentum that goes somewhere here. It pays off even as the show is juggling a number of other plots. It tries its best to offer episodic flourishes. And yet, the focus meanders along to show just how constant this world can be even when people talk about the world changing. It's hard to match these expectations and depict them in long form storytelling. That's what made this show so ambitious in the first place. It's simply gotten stuck in a rut where the complaints are seen week to week. The characters do the same things over and over with no sense that the outcomes will be any different or provoke any introspection whatsoever.