It doesn’t matter if it is 19th-century or 21st-century New York: No one likes to be called a social climber—whether there is any truth in the statement. And while the outfits are equally attention-grabbing, the women of The Real Housewives of New York reboot could learn a thing or two about how to throw barbs at each other from rivals Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) and Mrs. Winterton (Kelley Curran) on The Gilded Age.
Whereas today’s reality stars have confessionals, Instagram, and reunions to fire off passive-aggressive missives, in Julian Fellowes’s gloriously melodramatic HBO series, nothing says making a splash quite like appearing in the society pages. Bertha hasn’t kept her ambition to headline New York society a secret, but the return of a former servant has rocked her world. That Bertha’s subsequent triumph is so public makes the side order of vengeance all the more delicious, demonstrating why The Gilded Age’s ongoing spat is this season’s must-see event.
Bertha’s grudge against Mrs. Winterton is much deeper than her other quarrels this season, as the hot new young wife is better known to the audience as Bertha’s former lady’s maid, Turner—her first name is Enid, but to me, she will always be Turner. Both have a rags-to-riches narrative, though only one woman has tried to seduce the other’s husband.
Watching Bertha quickly swing from tearful betrayal to securing her prize is a lesson in what happens when her full “fuck you” mode is activated, and it should make any other Gilded Age character step back and take notice. When Bertha wants something, she gets it, including hosting an English Duke, who has already accepted another invitation.
Dukes are currently hot business on shows with a Manhattan backdrop. Apple TV+’s The Buccaneers shows myriad excited front-page headlines when a New York socialite gets engaged to a British man with a fancy title. Bertha isn’t making a romantic claim for herself but is undoubtedly thinking of the long game for her daughter Gladys (Taissa Farmiga). However, at this juncture, the Russell matriarch is driven by a feud she didn’t even know she was in until Turner rocked up with a ring on her finger.
Before Turner lost her job, mustache-twirling villainy oozed from every arched eyebrow and permanent scowl, so her return has been nothing short of spectacular. I would gladly watch 10 more seasons of Coon and Curran trading barbs and smug reaction shots. Her presence has echoes of the chaos Georgina Sparks (Michelle Trachtenberg) caused in the original Gossip Girl series, with Bertha’s schemes hitting the heights of Blair Waldorf’s (Leighton Meester) well-considered plans.
The Failed Seduction
Disdain isn’t a new emotion for Turner, who previously made offhand comments about her mistress, all while trying to bed George Russell (Morgan Spector). Turner’s naked night-time visit was an unexpected maneuver for a show that typically prefers eye-banging and grazed fingertips to literal bodice-ripping. While I don’t need The Gilded Age to take lessons from Bridgerton, when it does embrace a character’s sexuality (see guest star Laura Benanti), the steamy results don’t lie. Alas, this hasn’t always been the case.
Given how cringe-worthy the dialogue in the Season 1 attempted seduction scene remains (I rewatched this scene with my hands half covering my eyes and ears), it is to the credit of Curran that she can make the following sound believable: “I can make a sanctuary for you, a temple to your greatness.”
Even if George weren’t one of TV’s most ardent wife guys, this line would be hard to stomach. Turner completely misjudged how much Bertha’s single-minded ambition is a turn-on to the self-made man. Instead of being threatened, he actively encourages Bertha’s ascent. So, Turner climbing into his bed without a stitch of clothes on would only end in rejection. Turner’s self-confidence is her greatest weapon and flaw, and George’s mistake was to think he could keep a lid on this indiscretion—no matter how innocent he is.
Technically, Turner doesn’t outright tell Bertha. What makes her such a fantastic villain is how she bides her time after getting fired midway through Season 1. Having bagged herself a wealthy widower, her appearance at McAllister’s (Nathan Lane) fancy Newport bash was as gasp-worthy and unexpected for the audience as it was for the Russell family and staff. The Gilded Age tends to telegraph plot twists, but this was a genuine surprise.
Putting the pair on a level playing field ensures this will not be a clean fight as both women use every resource at their disposal to get what they want. Turner has kept the bedtime rendezvous up her tailored lace-cuffed sleeve, choosing to drop hints about it amid opera luncheon faux niceties. “You should ask your husband,” she helpfully signposts. Landing a personal dig is the dessert after a condescending appetizer, dismissing the Metropolitan Opera as a “second-rate project.” Zinger after zinger comes pouring out of the resentful former lady’s maid, and Curran turns into a delicious antagonist meal.
What makes this match-up one for the TV ages is that Bertha is at the top of her game, and any challenger will suffer, no matter how much ammunition they have, because no marriage is stronger than the Russells. Even George’s worst betrayal is something they can work through—though Bertha warns him there can be no next time.
Fine, Turner briefly fractures one of TV’s hottest couples, but even during this rare cold front, Bertha still plays the dutiful wife when called upon. Turner is well poised to stand against Bertha, having spent time with her in intimate spaces, and yet she misjudges so many opportunities. Considering how fun this back-and-forth is, it is a good thing she isn’t put off by failures.
Access to the much coveted Academy of Music gives Turner a cockiness that makes everything that follows in this week’s episode, “His Grace the Duke,” all the sweeter. Curran leans into Turner’s shit-eating grin when she refuses to have her portrait drawn by The Daily Graphic—“Not me. I support the Academy,” she coos.
Amazingly, Bertha has kept a smile plastered on her face, no matter how much Turner pushes her buttons. We have previously seen rage spill out of every one of Bertha’s pores, but she knows better than to do this in public, saving thrown breakfast trays and angry words for the privacy of her home. She might be new money, but she knows the rules of engagement, and Coon is the picture of restraint when Bertha is placed in challenging scenarios.
Bertha’s current lady’s maid, Adelheid (Erin Wilhelmi), finds it more challenging to keep her reactions to a subtle register when Turner shows up at the opera fundraiser. Adelheid vibrates with shock, and this is The Gilded Age at its ridiculous best. Turner was as unpleasant to the rest of the staff as she was about Bertha’s taste, and this over-the-top double take is as silly as it is brilliant.
Turner has already warned Bertha not to say anything (she will “respond in kind”), but secrets have a way of getting out—especially on a show that trades gossip like currency. Unsurprisingly, someone exposes Turner’s past to the ultimate social gatekeeper, Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy).
A Stolen Duke
Unbeknown to Turner, her new husband Mr. Winterton (Dakin Matthews) has been forced to give up the Academy box as his wife’s “history is quite unlike that of the other ladies she will meet there.” Mr. Winterton proves himself to be a voracious defender of his new bride, highlighting that he shares at least one similarity to George, in his fierce support of his marriage.. Mr. Winterton doesn’t break the news until Turner giddily saunters into the room, ready to head out for a dress fitting. Until now, she has been relishing her quick rise, and more bad news follows.
Did Bertha carefully deploy this status-ruining missive? It isn’t confirmed, but she is the likely source—it also means she has another Met Opera customer. It is a win-win for Bertha, no matter who spilled the lady’s maid tea. It might not even be the most significant grievance Bertha commits against Turner this week, as the arrival of the Duke of Buckingham (Ben Lamb) prompts an outburst worthy of Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton) throwing sun loungers in the pool on The O.C.
Turner uses her social relationship with the Duke to notch another win in the status column against Bertha. From her time as a lady’s maid, Turner has intimate knowledge of Bertha’s tears and desperation in her climb to the top, and breezing in with a link to the upper echelon is a name drop that Bertha can’t top… yet. Somehow, amid her showing off, Turner forgets that Bertha has connections in every corner of the city—or if she doesn’t, George does. The former lady’s maid relishes torturing Bertha at every opportunity, but attacking Bertha’s marriage and this pet opera project motivates her nemesis. In doing so, Turner loses the guest of honor.
The first sign something is awry occurs at a reception in honor of the Duke’s arrival in New York. George doesn’t get why Americans who fought so long for independence from the British are quick to fawn over a man with an English accent and an inherited honor. The robber baron rolls his eyes at this pomp and circumstance, yet he champions Bertha’s cause—including how she switches her name card with Turner’s so that she would be able to charm the Duke at the reception.
“That witch has stolen him from me!”
“Mrs. Russell is exactly where she should be,” he tells the butler who tries to intervene. The Gilded Age is light on sex scenes, but this sequence doubles as foreplay. Suffice it to say her husband is forgiven for the scandal with Turner in the bedroom when the Duke is secured as their forthcoming houseguest, meaning everyone will clamor for a party invitation. Bertha clarifies that George’s lie was the betrayal, not their ex-lady’s maid’s claim.
Undoubtedly, the duo would get a kick out of the screams echoing around the Winterton house. “That witch has stolen him from me,” stomps Turner. Thankfully, this defeat doesn’t mark the end, as Turner has at least one footman ally at the Russells. Mid-tantrum, she warns, “I’ll upset Mrs. George Russell if it’s the last thing I do.”
Let the next stage of this 19th-century housewife battle commence.
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