Monday, February 28, 2022

REVIEW: 'The Gilded Age' - An Impulsive Decision Leads to Embarrassment for Agnes in 'Heads Have Rolled for Less'

HBO's The Gilded Age - Episode 1.06 "Heads Have Rolled for Less"

As George fights to protect his public image, Agnes' status quo is disrupted and Armstrong intensifies her campaign against Peggy.

"Heads Have Rolled for Less" was written by Julian Fellowes and directed by Salli Richardson-Whitfield

Agnes refuses to ever act impulsively. That desire comes from a harsh life where unfortunate decisions had to be made to survive. She has done so. The most cruel obstacles seem to be in the past. However, she has become a cold, immovable woman herself. She has high expectations for those around her. She lords over her house. Ada and Marian may have more freedom. That comes from the sacrifices Agnes made. They should appreciate her. And then, she stands completely stunned upon storming into the Russell dining room. It's an impulsive decision she makes. One done after realizing the people in her house have been lying to her. She is even more cruel and demanding on the staff. Sure, she acts with compassion towards Peggy. She won't tolerate Mrs. Armstrong's prejudice. The tables turn though when people tell her what she wants to hear. Even then, it can be a convenient way to spin her out of control. Agnes wants to avoid that at all costs. She never wants to be in a situation where she isn't in control. It's something she holds onto so fiercely. Her family doesn't understand why she is so domineering. She demands so much. She wants them to respect her wishes. She wants what's best for them no matter what. She has determined that the Russell family isn't deserving of their attention. And yet, so many have found their ways into the house across the street. Agnes does as well. In that moment, the changing world is looking directly at her. She is the one facing the brunt of a condescending leer. In an instant, her entire attitude and composure has shifted. It's quite astonishing. She operates with such confidence over her own domain. She has received a great deal of respect in society. She isn't ostracized like so many are. The world is passing her by though. It's thrilling as she makes this pivotal journey. The entire season has been pitting these two households against each other. They are destined to blend. Agnes refuses to abide by that inevitability. So much is out of her control. People take advantage of that. Mrs. Armstrong does so in order to inflict more pain. Again, it's her trying to regain some composure as well. Oscar doesn't consider his mother at all when it comes to mapping out his future. His eyes are set on Gladys and how perfect she would be as his wife. Marian and Aurora are sitting at that dining room table too. They have done so to impress one man. One traditionalist has positioned himself as the arbiter of societal importance. He must be appeased despite how hard the people of this society work to be noticed. It's still all about him putting in a good word.

Bertha entertains even though a train has derailed in Pennsylvania killing five people. That disaster has the potential to ruin this family. All evidence points to the company cutting corners in order to avoid high costs. George expects the best. However, people are pointing their fingers at him for giving this destructive order. He should be deemed responsible. Even without that evidence, the town is full of talk shaming this family for ruining lives. It's yet another reason why they can't be accepted. And yet, Bertha is still achieving that goal. She is finally accepted onto the charity board. Meanwhile, Ward McAllister is coming to dine at her home. She is willing to change absolutely everything to fit into society. The season has pointed out the ways in which her house is different than those that populate this neighborhood. So much of that is driven by George and Bertha's undying love. They know how to make the other happy and successful. They know they belong in this world of the rich and privileged. They have worked their way up. Once they've arrived, they feel the pressure to adapt to their surroundings. That's the whole reason why Bannister is brought over to the Russell house for lunch. He knows how to perform the services required for an English meal. That's the way Agnes has run her home for years. It was already pointed out that Bannister knew better than Church in this regard. That made it easy for Mrs. Bruce to make the suggestion in the first place. None of it feels like a forced dynamic to create that fateful confrontation with Agnes. It proves the show is willing to carefully pace itself. It rewards attention to detail. It can still meander quite a bit in service to relationships and dynamics that don't seem like they are going anywhere. That's why so much attention is directed towards the comparison between Agnes and Bertha. Those are fiery personalities. They are certain of what they want. They demand it. It comes at the expense of those they love. It's startling to Gladys when her mother finally starts talking about bringing her into society officially. That only comes because they have already gotten the approval of those she seeks to impress. It's all a carefully calibrated game. And yet, people have died. George cannot hide from that. In fact, it seems inevitable that Oscar will come to his rescue. That will return him to the good graces of the Russell family. That's what he wants. It may clash with the desires elsewhere. These people are so desperate to leave their stamp on society. However, they all feel pressure to fall into line with expectations. That doesn't change no matter where in the city the story drops in on.