[This story contains major spoilers from the finale of HBO’s The Gilded Age season one.]
Carrie Coon’s Bertha Russell emerged triumphant on Monday night’s finale of The Gilded Age, having enticed New York’s snobbish elites into attending her daughter’s debutante ball by ruthlessly leveraging her child’s friendship with a member of the old-money set.
It was a plot twist ripped from New York lore, inspired by the legend that 19th and 20th-century New York social climber Alva Vanderbilt encouraged her daughter’s friendship with Carrie Astor to persuade her mother, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, to attend one of her events, explains show writer, creator and executive producer Julian Fellowes. “I love the almost cynicism of that, that she [Alva] was prepared to use this young woman, who is completely innocent, as her tool to get her mother into the house and it just made me laugh when I read it,” he says. “So I thought I would use it in this show.”
In other finale developments, Marian’s (Louisa Jacobson) engagement with Tom Raikes (Thomas Cocquerel) came to an end after a failed elopement attempt, Peggy (Denée Benton) discovered that her child — who her father led her to believe was dead — was in fact alive and living in Philadelphia, and the Russells’ chef, “Monsieur” Baudin (Douglas Sills), revealed he was not French, but an American with a phony accent from Kansas. The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Fellowes and co-writer and co-executive producer Sonja Warfield about their intentions with the finale, Mrs. Russell and Mrs. Astor meeting at last, and what they can say about season two so far.
How did you end up landing on an ending for this first season? Did you know how you wanted to conclude the story from the outset, or did you have to find your way through the writing process?
Julian Fellowes: I always, in a way, try to work out where we’re starting and where we’re ending up in a season and then work out the other stuff that comes between. I think I knew that I wanted to end in Bertha’s ultimate triumph at the ball, because we’d spent so many hours of her laboring towards it and being frustrated, and being pushed back and all the rest. I mean, I don’t want to come out too violently, but I’m kind of on Bertha’s side in all of these things. I like people who know what they want and get it, and she goes for it and she gets it, and that pleases me, really. And I like the story about the Vanderbilts blackmailing Mrs. Astor into coming to her ball, which I sort of lifted for the show. So yes, I think we did know where we were going.
Sonja Warfield: We see Bertha at home in episode one and nobody shows up, so she’s definitely [triumphant] by the end and fought to get there, and get her daughter the ball that she deserved.
Julian, you said you lifted the moment of “blackmailing” Mrs. Astor. Can you expand on that?
Fellowes: Yes. In real life, Alva [Vanderbilt] was determined that her ball was going to be a success and she hadn’t managed to persuade Mrs. Astor to take her seriously. And she deliberately encouraged the friendship between her own daughter and Mrs. Astor’s daughter, Carrie, and they worked up this little dance they were all going to do with costumes and music and so on and so forth. And then at the last minute [Alva] said, “Well, if your mother isn’t coming, I’m afraid we have to cancel this.” And it had the desired effect. I love the almost cynicism of that, that she was prepared to use this young woman, who is completely innocent, as her tool to get her mother into the house and it just made me laugh when I read it. So I thought I would use it in this show.
One major moment in the episode occurs when Mrs. Russell finally meets Mrs. Astor in person. It feels like we’ve been working all season up to this moment. What kind of dynamic were you hoping to establish with that scene?
Fellowes: Well, I think the dynamic that we got, which is that Mrs. Astor, before she meets Bertha, assumes she is in the winning position. But when she does meet Bertha, she is forced to realize that this is a much stronger woman than she had been allowing for in her imagination. And in fact, Bertha may not be an ancient American aristocrat who came over on the Mayflower, but it doesn’t mean she lacks power. And Mrs. Astor has to reckon with that, that actually, as her daughter has warned her, that her assumption that she has more power than Bertha is made in absentia. When she actually meets the woman in person, she discovers to her reluctance that they are much more equally matched than she had previously anticipated. And I thought both actors got that very well in the scene and played it out. Carrie’s created Bertha as a woman who, she wants things that aren’t easy to get and she’s determined to get them, but she doesn’t lack strength. Of course, she’s frustrated and she’s very disappointed early on, and it makes her cry and all of these things, but finally she’s not afraid to meet Mrs. Astor when she comes to the house, that doesn’t bother her at all. She’s going to get this woman to give her what she wants. And that’s what I think takes Mrs. Astor rather by surprise. I think both actresses played that marvelously.
Another key moment comes when Peggy and her mom Dorothy find out that Arthur kept the fact that Peggy’s son has been alive for all these years from them. Do you think this will change the relationship between Dorothy and Arthur?
Fellowes: Well, I think it’s a big item of news, and I don’t see how it could not alter things, but in order to get a definite answer to that, you’ll have to watch the next season.
There are several moments this season, including one in the finale, where George Russell engages in business practices that are unethical or potentially illegal, and yet in this show he’s not necessarily portrayed as a villain — what are you hoping to convey in moments like those?
Fellowes: I think, when one talks of illegal, it doesn’t have much meaning, actually, in the Gilded Age because practically nothing was illegal. These guys, these “robber barons” [as] everyone calls them, were more or less unfettered in getting what they wanted. There was no income tax, for a start. Bad practice and insider knowledge — none of that meant anything to them at all, it was just go after the rabbit and get it. And George was a member of that group. Several things about George: In a way, he’s based on a real-life character called Jay Gould. And the thing about Jay Gould which I like when I was doing my reading was that Jay Gould was very, very ruthless in business and basically, probably, allowing for inflation, one of the richest men who’s ever lived, but he was a very affectionate husband and a very tender father, in an age when a great many fathers had very little do with their children until they were much older. But he wasn’t like that; he would take his daughter round the garden on her pony and all this type of stuff. I loved that sort of split personality, but I also think that George and Bertha have one of those marriages where they don’t share each other’s ambitions, but they entirely support each other’s ambitions. And it is George’s wish that his wife should get what she wants, whether he cares about it or not: I don’t think he does care much whether Mrs. Astor comes to his house, but he knows how important it is for his wife, and he believes that part of his loyalty is to get for her what she wants. And I think she feels exactly the same. And that’s what they have in their marriage that is rather beguiling, that they are completely loyal to each other and they embrace each other’s wishes.
As for the ruthlessness, I don’t think we hide it, I think it was a very ruthless time in business. Indeed, when George decides to break the group of men who are trying to, first of all, drive the shares up and then take them down, the technique he uses is exactly the same as one that had been used earlier by [Cornelius] “the Commodore” Vanderbilt in the same situation, where everyone assumed that the shares would go down and they would short it and all those words one doesn’t really understand, and they would make a fortune. But he decided to stop them and he bought every share that came on the market and he ruined them all and there was at least one suicide. I don’t think in his own eyes he was a bad man. He had paid them out for their treachery and I think for George, these men deserve to be punished. He’s kind of sorry one of them committed suicide and he feels a little bit bad about that, but he doesn’t feel bad he punished them, because they were treacherous and they deserve to be punished. And I think those men, those Carnegies and Fricks, I think they had a pretty primitive moral code — that you were for them or against them. And once [someone] worked against them, then they had anything coming to them, and it wasn’t your fault. And I feel that’s really what governs George.
Mr. McAllister says at one point in the episode to Mrs. Astor, “We cannot hope to keep the new people out entirely or they’d form their own society that would exclude us.” Is that an anxiety that you believe was at play in real life in the Gilded Age, or was it just an invention for this show?
Fellowes: No, I think that was a real life anxiety for Mrs. Astor. I think for Ward McAllister, too, because he was perfectly happy to include new people but that seemed to have more to do with how rich they were. But fundamentally neither Ward McAllister nor Mrs. Astor, who was the ultimate authority, believed that they were strong enough to keep the super-rich out who had descended on New York and yet retain leadership of society. They believed that if the super-rich created their own super-glamorous society and entertained in a way that very few of the old families could manage, that ultimately that would take over. The way they stopped that happening was to mix the old and the new families because once the new people saw there was a chance they could get in, then they were content to get in and live within Mrs. Astor’s orbit. I think it was a real anxiety, yes, because ultimately money wins, and most of the old families, they Stuyvesants and the Schermerhorns and all those people, some were very, very rich, but most of them had more modest fortunes and lived in Washington Square and that kind of thing, lives that we would see today as really fairly modest.
This show has been popular on Twitter. What has struck you or surprised you about the response to the show, now that the first season has come to an end?
Warfield: I just read something yesterday on Instagram that they considered us the Dynasty of the 1880s. It just fascinates me how involved everyone is, they’re just invested in all the characters and the storylines and have opinions about what’s going to happen, and so that’s just fun for me. And some of their opinions are correct, some of them really caught onto Raikes early and aren’t a fan [laughs], so I love how invested they are.
What can you say so far about the second season of The Gilded Age and have you written the season yet?
Fellowes: The answer to that is we can say virtually nothing, I mean, it’s difficult to say whether we’ve written it, because you write it but then you rewrite it and you go back and you do this and you do that. And as you approach the readthrough you’re sort of finalizing the episodes you’re going to read, so it’s all a kind of ongoing thing. The short answer is we are working on the script of the second series.
Are there particular characters that you would like to explore more in depth in the second season?
Fellowes: Do you know, I always feels so disappointing in this part of the conversation because I feel I’m not really telling you anything you want to hear.
What do you hope viewers leave this finale thinking about or feeling?
Fellowes: I’m very interested in American history, which I think is very rich, and I think the Gilded Age period in many ways was a precursor of 20th-century America, that the very high-gloss, high-glamour, high-consumerist America that would flower with Hollywood and all these various other aspects was really being laid and rooted in the Gilded Age, in those super-prosperous year after end of the Civil War. When you go back to before the Civil War, America is a much more modest place, one with less self-confidence in the world. These [Gilded Age] people were very confident and they believed in themselves, they believed in their preeminence. You only have to go to some of the Gilded Age buildings in New York to see what these people thought of themselves, that they were giants, that they were the people of now. And all of that really led into a century that they would dominate. They were the one power on Earth that for the 20th century you needed on [your] side in any kind of cultural battle, you needed America’s team on your team. And I think that was emerging now as they define the new way of being rich, a new way of having society, a new way of living life. None of this was like Europe, Newport is nothing like Europe. There’s no Newport in Europe. There’s nothing like Mrs. Astor’s society ever happened in a European capital. It was American. And I hope that our viewers will take that away with them and perhaps explore it some more by reading round the subject or reading on Wikipedia about some of the figures of the Gilded Age or some of the events, like the Edison light-up that we’ve mentioned and look up for themselves the truth of these things and learn more about their own history. That I suppose would be my ambition. Sonja, do you agree with that?
Warfield: I do, and it’s already happening, Julian, because online, again on Twitter, the Edison lights episode, there was mention of Louis Latimer, [T. Thomas] Fortune mentioned Lewis Latimer, and a viewer looked it up. And they wrote that, because they had no idea that a Black man had created that better filament that Edison used in lights and they looked it up and they reported back that “yes, it’s true.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.