Sunday, October 29, 2023

REVIEW: 'The Gilded Age' - Bertha Flexes Her Influence to Recreate New York's Social Hierarchy in 'You Don't Even Like Opera'

HBO's The Gilded Age - Episode 2.01 "You Don't Even Like Opera"

On Easter Sunday, Agnes informs Ada, Marian, and Oscar about the imminent arrival of her nephew, Dashiell Montgomery, in New York. Meanwhile, Bertha shuns Mrs. Astor to support the Metropolitan Opera House and Oscar begins courting Gladys once again.

"You Don't Even Like Opera" was written by Julian Fellowes and directed by Michael Engler

The van Rhijn family tree is full of many branches. Yet another cousin returns to New York after several years away. That deserves a proper reception by the family. That's one way the family continues to wield influence over the social scene. The ways of the old guard are being disrupted by those coming up with new money. It's a generational shift. No one should have a complete monopoly on power and influence. And yet, the social scene dictates how people are suppose to exist. Anything that deviates from that standard has the potential to be seen as scandalous. Marian sets out to forge her own path. She is grateful for the protection and stability offered by her aunts. She still feels like an outsider. She has these connections to the van Rhijn family through marriage. When Dashiell meets Marian, he asks how they are related. He's quick to fill in on any social gathering. However, his presence also exposes the latest activity Marian has started. She teaches painting to young girls. Ada acknowledges the respectable and long-standing stature of the school. It's still beneath what Agatha expects any member of her family to be doing. As such, scandal is invited in.

The storytelling weaves together the pressure to conform in ways that no one truly understands. Aurora is surprised by Oscar wanting to settle down and start a family. He feels pressure to continue the family name. That responsibility falls onto him as the sole son. It doesn't matter how many cousins there are. He's expected to keep the lineage going. The family has been a part of New York since its founding. That legacy cannot end now. Oscar targets Gladys not because he loves her. He has a role he must play. It's destructive and costly for him to pursue his desires. He keeps his actions a secret from his family. Meanwhile, John views them as childish and shameful. Oscar is constantly asked to navigate between these worlds. He cannot ever truly love and accept himself. He can't limit himself in that way. He can't abide by the small nature of what this time period can provide if he lived authentically. He must aspire for more. As such, he must win over Gladys. Bertha and Agatha have their objections. He views the arrangement as perfect for what he wants. He will break any traditions to make it happen. He must act quickly because Gladys is allowed to be on the social scene now.

The premiere overwhelmingly states how so much of the structure from the first season remains the same. It marks a changing of the seasons with the Easter holiday. The action details the ways in which the various groups as separated by class and race celebrate. Enough time has passed for Larry to oversee and design the renovations to his family's new home in Newport. Similarly, Peggy has found her son. However, the narrative feels stuck in its rigid format too. The disruptions to Peggy's life are contortions to make her want to work for Agatha again. She needs to get out of her parents' home. Her friendship with Marian makes that possible. It's also a quick discard of the big reveal that her baby survived and her father gave him over to another couple. An outbreak of scarlet fever has taken his young life and his adoptive mother. Peggy never got a chance to know him. She's only left with a stuffed toy and a picture. Those are reminders of what could have been. The family was already broken from the secret. Now, the loss of life plagues them. Of course, the show chose not to pursue that storyline potential. Instead, it moves to get Peggy back into the environment with the other characters of merit. Her family life is fascinating and compelling. And yet, the creative team seems disinterested from exploring it fully.

Challenges to the social order are baked into the inherent premise of the show. That has always been Bertha's function. She doesn't even like opera. She still desires a box to show her good-standing and acceptance in society. A friendship with Mrs. Astor has the potential to open many doors. She refuses to be blindly loyal to someone who dictates her fate. She seeks her own destiny. She forges this strong identify for her family. She's trying to build something new. It's bold and exciting. At the same time, George is uniting with the other robber barons to stomp out the union unrest against their companies. The greed collects at the top because those in charge believe they are smart for rising to these positions. They enjoyed the good fates of prosperity. They achieved the results through their determination. It shouldn't be easy for others - especially those they deem inferior and unworthy. That's how they treat their workers. The show displays the nuanced lives of the people who work within the van Rhijn and Russell households. The servants are good at their jobs. They help the families execute their visions of entertainment. Those upstairs still look down on those at lower stations. It's potentially scandalous when Mr. Watson is revealed as one of their own who has fallen from grace. That's a secret kept private while the rest of the staff mocks Borden for faking his French credentials.

Bertha still shows off the power of her wealth and influence. Mrs. Astor is baffled by the suggestion a rival opera would be willing to run at a loss to compete against her storied institution. She's loyal to the theater that has stood for over thirty years. The promise of something new is exciting. It offers opportunities for others seeking to enjoy the pleasures of this lifestyle. Competition should be healthy too. Bertha lured Mrs. Astor to her party only to show off what she's capable of creating. She can poach the best talent. She can disrupt the typical schedule. It still plays within the confines of what has always been accepted in this society. Bertha just gets to be the one sitting atop the new social hierarchy. Everyone glows with amazement over the surprise opera performance Bertha arranged. Her foyer was completely transformed while the guests were enjoying dinner. She hired the staff to make it happen. Her guests are amazed by what she produced to keep them entertained over the course of the evening. Bertha is proud of what she accomplishes. George notes how clever she is. Meanwhile, she doesn't want anything to disrupt what she has achieved. This is her moment of perfection. She makes her stand. Everyone must now accept it. Change is inevitable. It simply follows the same outlines of what and who has always been allowed to succeed previously.