Julian Fellowes did it again. The lavish sets; the characters all agonizing over choices to be made; a hero who is supposedly from the past, yet who has progressive, modern sensibilities: all of these remind me strongly of Fellowes’s first historical drama, Downton Abbey. But aside from a few of the standard Fellowes clichés, I truly enjoyed this series in a way that I couldn’t enjoy Downton Abbey after Season 1. Maybe because Fellowes takes many of his actual characters from history, or maybe because I hail from the area of Doylestown, PA, The Gilded Age feels grounded in history—my history. And (perhaps also as a sharpening of Fellowes’s storytelling skill), the moral themes of that historical period are more nuanced than the politically progressive themes we saw in Downton. I noticed in his storytelling the echoes of Christianity. The Law is woven into his depiction of the period, in the ways so many characters are bound by rigid social norms. The Gospel shines bright against this backdrop; when the main character, Marian Brook, chooses to approach the world with Christ-like love instead of following the Law that rejects, the Law loses its power over her. Eventually, many of those she loves experience the same sense of freedom as Marian.
The name The Gilded Age originally derives from Mark Twain’s similarly-titled novel. Twain apparently was referencing a Shakespeare quote about gilding gold—a metaphor for how extravagant the age was in the richness of its rich people. However, the name has come to have a moral connotation as well. In other depictions of the Gilded Age, such as The Age of Innocence, authors dig into the absurdity of the moral expectations of the time, especially for women (more scandalous books would have entire passages snipped out, for example). If you operate with a set of rules, or especially a strict moral code, you might seem entirely pure, fully genuine, but it could turn out to be just a veneer. Julian Fellowes’s upper crust is depicted in just this way: as gilded by living up to social expectations, but with cruelty or at least extreme selfishness lurking in their hearts. The notable exception is the previously-mentioned Marian Brook, and she is one of the few redeeming characters in a panoply of hypocrisy. When the gilding of anyone inside the social circle scratches or fades, the others turn their backs. Marian opens her arms in unconditional Christ-love, accepting regardless of their story.
This idea of gilding is also a good metaphor for what happens when the Law of God gets reduced simply to religious systems or even human customs. The Law has evolved throughout Scripture as God introduces new covenants. But the Law was always intended primarily to reveal sin, not as a way for humans to cover up their sins with the “dirty rags” of righteous deeds. After sin entered the world at the Fall, God introduced a system in which people could atone for their sin through sacrifice and enter God’s family through circumcision. This is the Abrahamic Covenant. The Mosaic covenant, which we often mean when we talk about the Old Testament Law, codified these ideas even further, spelling out in detail what the people had to do to remain at peace with God and one another. The Law functioned as a means to reveal sin and lead one to the proper repentance and necessary sacrifices (whether animal or grain) required to be restored back to a state of rightness.
In the New Covenant, the Law’s standards were finally fully satisfied in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our sins that the Law revealed were washed away. In Romans 7:10, Paul spells out the function the Law has in the New Covenant: “I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.” The Law has no power to save, only condemn. When humans wield the Law for the purposes of our own justification, or even to solidify a reputation of some version of holiness, it never succeeds in achieving inner and outer rightness. If I’m honest with myself, I almost always find behind my seemingly good deeds, envy or pride or even plain old spite. Even the Pharisees, who were legendary for carrying out every law in Torah (and an additional dictionary’s worth of minutiae), still were called out by Jesus as “whitewashed tombs.” The Gilded Age is full of whitewashed-tomb-types. Gilded Age society had essentially elevated the Law of social expectation to the level of the Christian moral Law. As a result, the Law merely gave an outer sheen for the purpose of gaining reputation and social status. Even donating to a charity was often reduced to a way of gaining reputation or influence.
Mrs. Astor, in Fellowes’s depiction, is the mistress of the gilding. She is unimpeachable by Gilded Age standards. She has an unsullied reputation: she won’t even allow herself to be in the same house as any who have scandals on their records. This makes Mrs. Astor the perfect choice for trendsetter of social conventions—a rule-maker of the human kind of Law. Her rejection of Mrs. Russell, the robber-baron’s social-climbing wife, is so firm that she won’t even acknowledge her presence for much of the series. Even though Mrs. Astor is the height of moral impeccability, her heart is unable to love anyone who doesn’t have the same moral sheen as she.
Ward McAllister, the gatekeeper to the upper crust, and connoisseur of luxury, seems like an ally to Mrs. Russell after the lavish dinner she hosts at her home. He even invites Mrs. Russell up to Newport to see Mrs. Astor’s fancy new home there. But he turns out to be completely false. Once Mrs. Astor reappears on his social radar, he forces Mrs. Russell out a back door and pretends she was never there, reducing her to the dignity of a parlor maid or cook. Ward McAllister seems like he bends the rules to make room for those outside the social order. When he meets Mrs. Russell, he goes into the deep recesses of her home and seems caught up in her overtures of wealth and alliance. But he is able to maintain his seeming innocence – his unimpeachably gilded exterior. When his reputation with Mrs. Astor is at stake in any way, he breaks his ties with Mrs. Russell immediately. He, like Mrs. Astor, has lost his ability to love anyone who does not meet his (or, more accurately, Mrs. Astor’s) conditions.
Agnes van Rhijn, the aunt of Marian Brook, is a member of an old, venerable American family. She thinks of herself as open-minded and accepting because her father founded the Institute for Colored Youth—and she is truly kind and generous to the graduate of that institute she employs. But she is actually almost religious in her beliefs about the deep differences between Old and New. She tries to keep her niece, Marian Brook, from associating with anyone unworthy of her family’s pride—especially Mrs. Russell and the scandal-bound Mrs. Chamberlain. Although she remains socially pure according to her own standards, she is always gossiping darkly about people and always steps to the beat of Mrs. Astor’s drum.
The clearest depiction of the good is in Marian Brook, whose sincerity and integrity acts as a foil to the shallow virtue of old New York. Her choice to love like Christ often means actively putting aside the Law that her aunts have tried to inculcate in her. Instead of using the Law to put on an outer gilding, she outrages the Law-keepers by actively loving those shut out by the rules.
Peggy Scott, the employee of Aunt Agnes and graduate of the Institute of Colored Youth, is a character who—both because of her race and her choice of a writing career—experiences the rejection of the world at large every time she walks into a white-owned workplace and the rejection of her father every time she goes home. One episode shows Peggy pursuing publication at a national magazine, which refuses to print her work only out of fear of losing Southern subscribers. In spite of the fact that Peggy, in so many ways, is a clear outsider to the fashionable society she rubs shoulders with, Marian Brook very calmly but determinedly befriends her. Eventually, Peggy’s gilding is scraped away by a bigoted busybody. She reveals that she had a baby she thought was stillborn, as well as a husband from whom her father forced her to separate, both things that could harm her place in society, and her budding career. Even upon learning this history of her now-dear friend, Marian remains unmoved: she feels free from the Law that rejects, moving toward Peggy in love. Over and over she does this, with anyone who is shut out and condemned by the Law-followers. For Peggy, it restores her hope and gives her the courage she needs to pursue her writing career and find out if her baby still is alive.
Marian’s unconditional love also includes the upstart Russell family. Mr. Russell, whose character is modeled after the “robber barons” of the period, is known for his ruthless business practices. Mrs. Russell spends the whole season maneuvering for social position in order to secure suitable marriages for her children, even though her children would prefer to be free to choose their own paths in life. Although Marian is a part of an old family, and one of her aunt’s strictest injunctions is against associating with the new neighbors on the block, she operates with a different system of values. Not only does she feel no obligation to maintain her gilded state according to the Law of Mrs. Astor, she also operates with unconditional love and grace toward the family members in spite of their faux pas, as well as their fairly obvious-to-everyone sins (their attempted gilding doesn’t cover very well). Such a small act of love has ramifications throughout the season, as Marian encourages the Russells’ son to defy his strongman father and choose his own career. His father comes to respect his choice, changing the family dynamics. Her choice of Christlike love over condemnation has the power to transform a family.
In Season 1 of The Gilded Age, the pettiness of human law is clearly depicted in the form of those who belong to the old families of New York—those who condemn and shut out anyone who is new or morally suspect. But Marian Brook’s choice to move toward the condemned and rejected in love gives them a renewed sense of hope and possibility. In this way, Fellowes’s new show symbolizes the condemnation that Law brings, whether the Law of the Old Testament or human law. But Christ, like Marian, moves toward us in love and forgiveness offers us hope of a new kind of life.