‘The Gilded Age’ Drops a Surprise Proposal Bound for Disaster

(Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Gilded Age Season 2, Episode 6.)

What is going on with the men of The Gilded Age? Is there something in the water in this HBO drama that’s making all the guys drop to their knees and propose to women they’ve barely dated and never even kissed, or is that just how things went down in the late 19th century? Whatever the reason for all the surprise proposals this season, one thing is for certain this week: Dashiell Montgomery’s (David Furr) surprise proposal to his not-cousin Marian Brooks (Louisa Jacobson) will not end well.

Dashiell might be a charming widower with money and a sweet daughter, but this week, creator Julian Fellowes and his co-writer Sonja Warfield have already begun planting the red flags.

For instance: As Dashiell tries to convince Marian to attend his upcoming fête in the botanical gardens, he bristles when she says she’s volunteered to teach a class of underprivileged children to read and write. “It’s not like you’re a real teacher,” he protests—not exactly the best way to court one’s would-be bride-to-be! And when Marian does show up at the garden party, Dashiell surprises her by bringing her to the front of the gathered crowd and getting down on one knee with no warning. Ratcheting up the pressure even further is his daughter, who loves Marian to pieces and gazes at them longingly while Dashiell proposes. How could anyone say “no” under those circumstances?!

Marian acquiesces, although not very enthusiastically. (The words If you really want me to! never bode well.) And when she runs into Larry Russell (Harry Richardson) later on, she completely forgets she’s engaged. Maybe it’s the stress of hearing that Ada’s (Cynthia Nixon) new husband, the hot priest Luke Forte (Robert Sean Leonard)—who also surprise-proposed a couple weeks ago—has cancer. Or perhaps it’s something else: Maybe, it’s that Marian and Larry are endgame. At the very least, that playful comment she made to Larry last week about them being “twin sufferers on the cruel carousel of life” was… intriguing!

To be fair, Marian really does have a lot on her mind this week. In addition to her family drama, there’s also Peggy (Denée Benton), who confides in her about that illicit kiss she shared with her married editor, Mr. Fortune (Sullivan Jones), after their terrifying experience in Alabama.

Peggy is trying to distance herself from Fortune at work, but something tells me that won’t last long—especially as they begin work on her next story, about New York’s Board of Education shutting down Black schools because it deems their teachers “inferior.”

Mostly, however, Marian seems stressed about Reverent Forte’s diagnosis. While Ada’s older sister Agnes (Christine Baranski) hopes Ada will move back into her home so they can nurse the reverend back to health there, Ada declines and decides they should stay in their new home alone. This is pretty understandable, given that Agnes is still pretty grumpy about their marriage; when Marian suggests that something good will come out of the match this week, she counters, “Good came from the American Revolution, but it was difficult to live through all the same.” Okay, then!

Meanwhile, Larry’s mother, Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon), is still duking it out with her frenemy Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy) in an attempt to seize control of New York’s opera scene. She’s strong-armed her rival, Mrs. Winterton (formerly her ladies’ maid, Miss Turner) into joining the burgeoning Metropolitan Opera, which she hopes will supplant the Academy of Music—and this week, she finds out that the Duke of Buckingham (Ben Lamb) will be sitting in her box for the Met’s opening night.

As always, Turner (Kelley Curran) turns out to be the fly in Bertha’s very expensive soup: In exchange for her and her ultra-rich husband joining the Met and bringing their high society friends with them from the Academy, she demands the central box—Bertha’s box. Because of course she does.

At first, it seems like Turner will get her wish, but then, Bertha’s husband George (Morgan Spector) steps in and sets things straight with the Met’s principal fundraiser. Because he was the one who fixed the work stoppage a few weeks ago with a hefty donation, he now demands that Bertha gets to keep her box. Naturally, she’s still not allowed to know any of this is happening. It remains to be seen who will win out in the end, but let’s all say a quick prayer for that poor fundraising flack.

And speaking of George, it’s a big week for him and the other bearded robber barons: After weeks of threatening to strike, the railway workers have walked off the job. Against his colleague’s advice, George visits the union leader Henderson (Darren Goldstein) for lunch in his home. Henderson’s family is welcoming enough toward the man who pays their patriarch scab wages, but George stands firm in his position: He’s willing to negotiate on safety, but he will not pay his workers more. In fact, he says, he’s prepared to “starve” them out—a line that’s stunningly (and likely coincidentally) reminiscent of what one anonymous studio exec reportedly said about striking writers during this summer’s WGA strike.

When George actually shows up at the picket line, however, the show seems to make a clean break from history. As the armed guards he’s hired stand ready to fire on the striking workers to make way for the scabs hired to replace them, George insists they stand down. “How could I?” he asks his bewildered colleague. “These men have families!”

As Julian Fellowes shared during the inaugural episode The Gilded Age’s official podcast, the real-life robber baron Jay Gould helped inspire George Russell. As Fellowes sees it, the public has only remembered one side of Gould. “We see him as a man, more or less, with a knife between his teeth,” Fellowes said on the podcast. “But it seemed to me a very interesting double, that someone can be caring and affectionate on a personal level, but once they’re in business, then that’s it.”

Gould’s professional heartlessness has certainly endured in public memory; he’s perhaps best remembered for the infamous quote, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.” On The Gilded Age, however, Morgan Spector’s character is often downright cuddly. Fellowes has confirmed that he based the show’s strike on the Homestead Strike of 1892—a clash between the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers and Andrew Carnegie’s Carnegie Steel Company. As Phillip Maciak noted in a review of the season’s strike plot for The New Republic, the real-life Carnegie was a lot less empathetic than Mr. Russell. But, you know, Julian Fellowes gonna Julian Fellowes!

While George shows some heart at the picket line, Bertha remains as ruthless as ever. Her team has finally found a new ladies’ maid (let’s hope this new staffer isn’t another Turner plant) and with her hair all set, Bertha has one more mission—to lure the socialite Ward McAllister (an impeccably campy Nathan Lane) away from Mrs. Astor’s opera party and over to hers. Instead, he accompanies Mrs. Astor to the van Rhijn household, where they try to brainstorm a counterattack. So far, things aren’t looking too promising for the Academy.

And downstairs, the Russells’ butler, Mr. Church (Jack Gilpin), and the van Rhijns’ butler, Mr. Bannister (Simon Jones), have finally made amends—although their detente begins with an act of pettiness.

When Bannister catches Church stumbling home drunk after a night out, he decides to tattle in a letter to Mrs. Russell. (After all, Church did try to get him fired once!) Later on, however, he discovers that Church was drunk because the anniversary of his late wife’s death had just passed—so he rushes to the Russells’ to retrieve the letter, lying to Church about its contents. When Church relents and hands it over, Bannister decides to leave their beef in the past. Could this be the start of a beautiful friendship? I’m kind of hoping so!

Bannister’s having a busy week: Not only does he smooth things over with Church, but he’s also helping his colleague, Jack (Ben Ahlers), try to get a patent for his now-functioning alarm clock. The patent office rejects Jack’s first application, but Bannister doesn’t seem ready to give up yet.

… And speaking of potential business opportunities, Oscar van Rhijn (Blake Ritson) is convinced he’s found the motherlode. His new girlfriend, Maud Beaton (Nicole Brydon Blookm), has let him in on a major investment opportunity. But is this for real? Maud’s finance guy told Oscar that the investor pool needs to stay small and returned his initial endowment from last week and then some. The return on investment was high enough to pop Oscar’s eyes out of his skull as he begged to get back in with a higher sum—and after very little resistance, the business manager relents. … Did that all seem just a little too easy? In fairness, if this is a scam, it couldn’t be happening to a more deserving fellow scammer.

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