The Gilded Age Takes a Mulligan

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.

The big reveal at the end of season one of HBO’s The Gilded Age was that Peggy Scott’s secret child, who she thought had died at birth, was in fact alive! Her terrible father had stolen the boy and adopted him out to some other couple, all because he didn’t approve of Peggy’s husband. Or something. I don’t really remember all the details because they never made much sense. I think Peggy’s former husband is still out there somewhere, in fact, but nobody seems to care about that.

ANYWAY, Peggy did have a secret child and Agnes van Rhijn’s lady’s maid found out and revealed this shameful truth to Agnes, and Agnes fired Peggy. Except not really because, as Peggy told Agnes, she’d been married when she got pregnant and so the baby wasn’t actually shameful at all. Peggy still got fired because Agnes felt it would be too hard to train a new lady’s maid, but she was super sad to see Peggy go. They parted amicably.

If Agnes “Judgment is my middle name” van Rhijn doesn’t think the baby is shameful, Peggy’s dad, then why do you think he’s so shameful that you have to PRETEND HE’S DEAD and take him away from Peggy to adopt him out? Of all the things that didn’t make sense, that’s the part that didn’t make sense the most.

Peggy’s mother uncovered all the subterfuge at the end of season one, discovering that Peggy’s son–her grandson, and the reason for all the bitterness between her husband and her daughter–was in fact alive and living in Philadelphia. Shocker! Perhaps the only interesting plot development to take place on this show! Even Peggy’s mom was aghast at the unhinged actions that would lead a man to do such a thing to his own daughter. What would happen now? Well, Peggy and her mom were going to get that child back, come hell or high water.

Fast forward to The Gilded Age season two, now airing on HBO. And we’re off to Philadelphia…

…to mourn Peggy’s dead son. Who is really dead this time, presumably. For keeps.

That’s right, the biggest plot twist in the show was not so much resolved, but more like reversed, in between seasons. The kid lived, then psych! he died again. Of scarlet fever, before Peggy ever got to meet him. So what, I ask you, was the point of his existence at all?

But! Peggy’s still jobless, living with her ass of a father as a result of all this, correct? Well, no. Once they get back from Philadelphia, she promptly asks Marian to help her get her old gig back as Agnes’s secretary. In episode two, Agnes is thrilled to comply. So now Peggy’s dead kid is back to being dead and Peggy’s lost job is back to being her job.

Every single thing about Peggy’s plot from season one has been undone for season two. And…why? What was the point? Who benefitted from this? Who grew or changed? What purpose did this melodramatic nonsense serve, and why undo it all? What is going on with this show?

Look, people, there’s a lot wrong with The Gilded Age. I could complain about Marian’s abject stupidity or the fact that everybody knows what the romantic pairings are going to be from the first time two people look at each other. I could talk about how even good actors seem bad on this show (hello, Nathan “Foghorn Leghorn” Lane!). I could spend hours ranting about the insanity of the ‘French chef who’s actually from Kansas’ plotline. But Peggy and her family are the best, most interesting part of The Gilded Age (apart from the costumes and the sets). I want to love everything about them, and I don’t want Peggy to be subjected to the terrible writing and inexplicable plotting of the rest of the show. Yet here we are, back where we started, for no apparent reason at all.

Ah, well. At least we’ll always have Agnes.

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