Are We Witnessing the Birth of a Philanthropist on The Gilded Age?

Laura J. Burns
Laura J. Burns writes books, writes for TV, and sometimes writes TV based on books and books based on TV. She will never, however, write a poem. She’s the managing editor of The Antagonist.

Everybody’s favorite thing about the robber baron Mr. Russell on HBO’s The Gilded Age is his beard. But everybody’s second favorite thing about him is the gooey center inside his flinty exterior.

Honestly I can’t even write that without laughing. Mrs. Russell is the tough one in that family, I don’t even know how Mr. Russell got to be a robber baron. We’ve seen him threatening people with financial ruin, and he has actually ruined some people before, but they deserved it and at best he came off as cold and above-it-all. Not tough the way, say, a union leader is tough. Bertha Russell could go toe-to-toe with anyone, but George? Meh. He seems like he’d rather be at home in a smoking jacket sexing up his wife.

In last week’s episode, George Russell returned the visit that union leader Bill Henderson paid, deigning to go into a small Pittsburgh house and ignore the coffee put in front of him. He’s a gentleman, though, and thanks Mrs. Henderson for it after threatening her husband…which means peeking into the kitchen where all the kids are gathered around the tiny table, eating. As if that’s not poverty theater enough for you, the oldest boy announces that he’s now working for Mr. Russell too.

On the way home, Mr. Russell gazes out the window of his expensive carriage and wonders why the children weren’t in school. “Is there a school?” he murmurs wistfully, to the sounds of my disbelieving laughter. (His secretary, Richard Clay, shares my incredulity.)

I’m calling it right now, George is going to found a school for workers’ children in Pittsburgh.

He couldn’t bring himself to let the militia shoot Bill Henderson and his son at the end of the episode, so he’s going to pretend he didn’t cave because he’s actually a nice guy with a luxurious beard, but rather CHOSE to be a magnanimous benefactor who offers benefits like schooling instead of child labor. He’s going to become a philanthropist in the Rockefeller vein, by including education in his portfolio along with funding opera houses.

The real question is, will Bertha find this compassionate streak hot?

You can watch The Gilded Age on HBO or Max Sundays at 9pm EST.

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