Photo: Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO
When I was 6 years old, I asked a boy in my first-grade class named Timmy to be my boyfriend. He said sure. In about an hour, he wrote a love letter (it was a drawing of a heart) to a girl named, I kid you not, Savannah. So ended our relationship. The relationship between Tom and Marian on this show has almost equivalent depth, and its feeble collapse this episode had me going, “…. What??” Because, like Timmy choosing Savannah despite my very fetching bowl haircut, this storyline makes no sense.
When this season began, I did not think I would ever be in a solid place of “I enjoy this show,” but the last few episodes have turned me right around. We’ve shed most of the boring plotlines, and we’re going from courtroom drama last week to social spectacle in the finale. Marian is eloping with Tom, Bertha is threatening Mrs. Astor, George is just kind of hanging around the house, and Peggy — Peggy’s having a rough time.
After Peggy announced last week that she had been married, had a baby, and that it died, this immediately sounded rife with “that baby is still alive” possibilities. And so it has come to pass! Dorothy, a.k.a. Mrs. Scott, a.k.a. Peggy’s mother, finds a note in her husband Arthur’s pants (classic) that intimates that Peggy’s son is still alive and in Pennsylvania. Arthur seems to have orchestrated the whole thing, which is high up on the list of Worst Things You Can Do to Your Child. This explains so much! Before, it seemed very much like Peggy just did not like her father’s lack of support for her writing career (also valid!), but this is like pantomime villain behavior.
Arthur comes home, and when Dorothy confronts him, he says they will never find the baby and that Arthur is not sorry. Arthur!! You are not on the high ground here! You think you are, but eventually you will realize you are instead at the bottom of a very deep well. Peggy and Dorothy leave the season to look for Peggy’s son, whom we will hopefully see next season, along with a real change of attitude for Arthur. I’m talking immense contrition, Arthur.
The entire rest of the finale is Marian’s attempted elopement and Gladys’s coming-out ball. Also, they spend a lot of time on the fact that Monsieur Baudin is actually from Kansas? Like way too much time. I do not need this storyline — snip snip. Also: Does every servant have a mysterious secret?? Bridget the maid, the cook, JohnJack (they alternate names for him, so this is what I call him), Miss Armstrong, Mr. Watson (this is the man who watches that lady from behind a tree). I am really interested in why Mr. Watson is following this married woman around and why she recognizes his name and then shows up at the Russells’ very fancy party with her husband! Why couldn’t we spend the finale on that instead of “you thought I was from France, but I am not.” Minus one star!
Okay, let’s do it. Let’s talk about Marian. MARIAN. Again! Look at your life! Look at your choices! This story line is absolutely bonkers. It feels like it was just to give Marian something to do and set her up to get with Larry next season after the disappointment of a failed engagement. But also, it makes no sense. Tom and Marian meet in the park, and he says he’s never loved her more than he does this moment (as opposed to the other five minutes you’ve spent together??). They’re going to elope the next day. This is important. The next day. I’m actually not positive on that, because timeline is never clear in this series, but it’s at least the very same week. When Peggy asks Marian where she and Tom are going to live, Marian says, I shit you not, that she guesses they’re going to live in Tom’s apartment. She doesn’t even know. Marian!! What if he doesn’t have an apartment! He’s been in New York for like three weeks. He’s probably living in some hotel. Good LORD.
Ada susses out Marian’s plans, and when Marian says they both wanted to wait, Ada points out that and yet, Tom has not waited. An excellent point, Ada. This is all a learning experience for Marian, but it’s like … it’s an experience I would expect of a sixteen-year-old in this time period? Like if all this happened to Gladys Russell, I would be like, oh yeah, absolutely. But Marian has positioned herself as this very discerning twentysomething, and it’s just bananas that she makes these choices. Agnes points out that Marian is reading Henry James, and is that a Washington Square reference? Hopefully. It came out in 1880, so only one year before. Learn from your books, Marian! Or from absolutely anything other than your bad intuition. If it sounds like I’m being too harsh towards Marian, be aware that this will continue until she starts thinking about absolutely anything. Ol’ Shoes in the Carpetbag Marian.
Tom doesn’t show up to the elopement. Of course, he doesn’t, but also it’s really, really weird that he doesn’t. He has chosen the heiress Miss Bingham, which, sure, but also this was set up terribly. Why was he so insistent on eloping with Marian? Are we really to do the work of thinking that he was trying to get married before his avaricious side kicked in and he jilted Marian? That is extremely silly and I will not allow it.
It is, however, very nice that Aurora sees him with Miss Bingham at the Academy of Music while a woman sings Bellini’s “Vaga luna che inargenti” and rushes off to tell Marian about it. That is the correct thing, and I support Aurora. She is the Mercury of this whole series. Marian has the support of many excellent women in this episode, including Aurora, Mrs. Chamberlain, Peggy, and Ada, whether she deserves it or not.
Side note that Marian giving Mrs. Chamberlain a painting she did of a bird when Mrs. Chamberlain literally has masterpieces all over her home is a bold move, and I laughed very hard at Marian’s bird-painting gift.
Let’s get to the ball and the WWE smackdown of The Gilded Age that is Bertha Russell and Lina Astor. It all comes down to this: Mrs. Astor and Mrs. Russell are in the same room, squaring off for social domination. It is all based on real events! Or at least a possibly apocryphal story. To no one’s surprise, Bertha’s role was played by Alva Vanderbilt, and she indeed did not invite Carrie Astor to the ball until Mrs. Astor called on the Vanderbilts. In the real version, instead of Gladys’s coming-out ball, it was a costume ball, and I am so sad they did not go this route in the show. Someone came as a phoenix rising from the ashes, someone came as a wasp, and someone seems to have murdered many peacocks to have her dress covered in peacock feathers. But the spectacle.
But first, we have this meeting between Lina Astor and Bertha. TWO TITANS. Mrs. Astor declines to sit and says that now that she’s paid a call on Bertha, Carrie can go to the ball. Bertha parries and says she paid a call when no one was likely to be there. I am distracted by how pretty Carrie Coon looks in this scene. The drama alone is so good, but also: pretty. Bertha has all the power here and is extremely aware of it, which is a sight to behold. She makes her demands: Mrs. Astor has to attend the ball, and she has to make the van Rhijns come too (“WOW. WOW” my notes say). Bertha! Captain of social industry! “Mrs. Astor is leaving,” she says to her butler. This is exactly what I wanted from this show.
Mrs. Astor decides to give in to Bertha’s stipulations, and Carrie is invited to the ball. At the ball, I hate Bertha’s dress, but it is okay! Carrie Coon was about 8 million weeks pregnant at this point, and the costume designer(s?) have done extremely well at masking that. Also, maybe this dress is High Fashion for 1881; I don’t know these things. The van Rhijns have come! Mrs. Astor enters with Carrie, and everyone stops talking because it is A Moment. A Success for Bertha Moment!
We have to sit through the much-talked-about quadrille, where the dancers were in 18th-century costumes and have teeny parasols. The men wear horse heads and they all prance around. It’s no wasp or peacock costume, but it’s fine. Mrs. Astor tells Bertha during the dance that she could destroy her, and I am so attracted to Donna Murphy at this moment and at all other times.
Oscar tries to make Gladys dance with him, and she says she has had enough of being told what to do — foreshadowing for next season! Everyone is dancing, and it’s so pretty and, again, exactly what I wanted from this show. OPULENCE. Tom arrives with Miss Bingham, which is shameless, and he tells Marian he didn’t think she’d be there. Okay, sir. He says he meant it when he said he loved her, and she says love is not always enough and walks off crying. There is zero emotional payoff in this moment. What a bungled storyline. When Larry comes up and asks her about Tom, she says he’s just someone she used to know (“Somebodyyyyy”).
People leave when it’s full daylight outside like this is the first night of The Bachelor. Larry escorts Marian across the street to the van Rhijn house, and she says she shouldn’t have told him. Does it feel like they cut a huge section out? Like we all blacked out at the party, and oh, there’s Marian Brook telling Larry Russell she shouldn’t have told him about Tom? When did that happen? Probably when we were talking to Miss Rockefeller about her cunning peacock costume and then drank too much punch. At home, Marian tells Ada she’ll explain someday about the canceled elopement.
The butlers nod to each other across the street. The servants roll up the red carpet and stack up the party chairs. Season one is over! To more drama and a fancy dress ball in season two!