The Gilded Age Episode 3 Review: Face the Music

The Gilded Age raises the stakes, and shifts the tone, in Episode 3.

George Russell sits at an ornately set table in The Gilded Age Episode 3
Photo: HBO

This The Gilded Age review contains spoilers for Episode 3. It also includes discussion of suicide.

The Gilded Age Episode 3 not only raises the stakes but also sees a noticeable tonal shift between this series and Julian Fellowes’ earlier series, Downton Abbey. In “Face the Music,” the nouveau riche’s war against the old money elites has turned deadly by the end of the episode. The actors across the board have risen to the challenge of more complex and dark scenes.

The episode begins with a nice history Easter Egg. Clara Barton, known at this time for nursing Union Army soldiers, is now turning her eyes towards establishing an American chapter of the International Red Cross. Washington D.C. politicians turned down her funding request so she’s hoping Bertha or the Charity Karens will help her. The American Red Cross notes they were officially founded the year before this episode takes place, but this is close enough for historical fiction. Marian is clearly intrigued by Barton’s work and naturally comes to the conclusion that Bertha should help out. The other women have different ideas, which will have unintended devastating consequences later on.

George finds out the politician’s bill for the new railroad station has passed. However, Alderman Morris lets him know that the little folks aren’t happy about the bill and they are rescinding the approval. Now the politicians who lied to him have made a profit on those cheap margin shares. George decides to risk a large chunk of his capital by buying back the stocks remaining in the morning to inflate the value of the company. The politicians are now in trouble as their investment is potentially up in smoke. Rumors are now circulating that George could go bankrupt in a few days as the new station can’t be built. This crisis reverberates throughout the episode.

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Meanwhile, at the Aunts’ house there are some less stressful conflicts. Cornelius Eckhard is an old friend of Ada’s. He wanted to marry her when they were younger but was turned away. After a chance meeting, Mr. Eckhard wants to reconnect with Ada over tea. Mr. Raikes tells Marian that he did take the new job and has moved to New York. Agnes advises Marian to keep a safe distance from Raikes as she sees him as a fortune hunter. Oscar is interested in meeting Gladys Russell but Agnes is concerned she will pollute the shades of her house with her bad new money vibes. Marian doesn’t want to be a spinster, Oscar has multiple motives, and Ada clearly wants to relive the good ole’ days. Two of the servants also plan on going out to the theater. How will these situations pan out?

During the railroad chaos, Peggy has her own drama to deal with. She receives a letter from an editor at the Christian Advocate that the magazine is interested in publishing one of her short stories and wants to meet. Writers today can relate to the joy of having a pitch accepted by a publication. Alongside this, Mr. Raikes has encountered some vague resistance to Peggy’s earlier legal inquiry. It’s very possible based on the Christian Advocate situation—it could be a copyright violation that she is pursuing. Viewers are aware Peggy’s doesn’t get along with her father from previous episodes. Arthur Scott randomly shows up at the Aunts’ house asking if she can come home for her mother’s birthday. She tells him about the Christian Advocate offer but he seriously doubts they will want to publish a Black writer. (The characters use the term “colored” which was the respectable term at the time). Peggy wants to prove him wrong because not only does she want to pave her own way but also because the Black publications do not have the financial resources to pay writers the same amount white publications do.

Her optimism is put to the test by 1882 attitudes. The Christian Observer is shocked Peggy is Black and they force her to wait all day to see the editor. The editor then offers to publish one of the stories for a very nice fee… if the main character is changed to being white and if she signs an old-timey NDA to never reveal she is the real author. Peggy is incensed that the editor wants her to lie to appease readers in the Jim Crow South and refuses the offer. Sadly, some things have not changed in the publishing industry as Black writers struggle to be represented. Some viewers would rather not be reminded that Peggy will have to experience racism, but the series is not applying a fantasy patina in her storyline. This setback will make audience members who weren’t engaged with Peggy’s plot in earlier episodes care as now her stakes are clearly defined.

Oscar tells his lover John about his plans to pursue Gladys. This conversation is revealing because viewers finally get a picture of what American queer people faced in 1882. Oscar believes their relationship would likely end in one or both of them marrying women. He also sees the possibility of continuing their relationship in secret after marriage. John is concerned while Oscar also points out marrying Gladys will increase his cash flow. The conversation reveals the constraints of class expectations on queer men (marriage to continue the family line) and yet the possibility of continuing queer relationships via elite married couples living separate lives. This idea sounds great out loud but the railroad drama potentially bankrupting the Russells is a bigger obstacle than Agnes’ hatred of new money and George’s distrust of Oscar’s motives. Of course, Gladys’ feelings about what Oscar is not telling her isn’t accounted for either.

Ada’s plans for reminiscing with Eckhard are dashed by Agnes as she’s already figured out he’s broke and needs a wife with money. The servants’ night out ends with Armstrong rejecting the advances of her date and no plans to break curfew. Raikes invites Marian to walk in Madison Square Park to view Lady Liberty’s massive hand and also asks for her hand in marriage. Marian is extremely confused and doesn’t give him an answer at all. 

While all of these potential romances aren’t going anywhere, Alderman Morris and the other politicians are feeling the financial squeeze. Many of them used up all of their savings to buy George’s margin railroad stock. Bertha and George agree that they’re willing to burn their capital in order to get what they want. The charity Karens beg Bertha to intercede and she refuses to do so. Why should Bertha help the very people who treated her with disdain and snubs? George is in agreement as Alderman Morris later begs for forgiveness. He’s just as angry at Bertha being snubbed as he is at the politicians failing to do what he wants with the railroad. The damage is clearly done as the offer to pass the bill came too late to reverse the ill will George feels towards the politicians. Alderman Morris feels there is no way out from bankruptcy and social ruin other than death by suicide. The episode ends with Mrs. Morris hearing the gunshot. 

The end of this episode sets up New York as not only the city where dreams can come true but also the city of nightmares. It also pushes the limits of greed. On multiple levels, it is the primary driver of the social standing war and this element of American culture and history is clearly under the spotlight. Some may argue Fellowes has taken HBO’s nonexistent limit on content ratings too far, however, the Panic of 1893, which shattered the real Gilded Age, also resulted in many deaths by suicide. On the one hand, Morris’ death could result in highlighting historical attitudes towards mental health and unchecked greed in future episodes. On the other hand, it could result in a reaction similar to Downton Abbey Season 4’s Anna Bates plot, which featured another trigger that popped the bubble for period drama fans who signed up for society scandal escapism. We’ll find out how the fallout is handled next time on The Gilded Age.

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4 out of 5