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‘The Gilded Age’ rings the curtain down with a showdown of society titans and more

By Brian Lowry, CNN

Well, you didn’t think they were going to have Marian get married off and live happily ever after in season one, did you?

Poor Marian wound up with her heart predictably broken in the season finale of “The Gilded Age,” but that was only one of the many balls that series creator Julian Fellowes juggled with “Downton Abbey”-like efficiency, setting up plenty of intrigue and romance for what’s to come in the new HBO drama.

Marian (Louisa Jacobson) saw her plans to elope dashed, validating the worldly-wise concerns of her aunt Agnes (Christine Baranski). Meanwhile, Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon, spectacular all season, and never better than here) demonstrated that the “new people” in New York society of the 1880s weren’t messing around, engaging in a battle of titans with old-money matriarch Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy), who had consciously snubbed her.

Using their respective daughters as pawns, Mrs. Russell secured not only Astor’s grudging assent to attend her lavish ball, but got her to arm-twist those within her social circle to join in as well.

“Whoever achieved great things without taking a chance?” Bertha asked her husband (Morgan Spector), who further demonstrated his commitment to his wife’s ambitions by leveraging his financial clout to pressure a bank president to attend.

In a thoroughly delicious moment, Mrs. Russell savored her public triumph as the room came to a stunned-into-silence halt when Mrs. Astor entered, before the latter mused under her breath about the possibility of destroying her as retaliation.

“I will be a good friend to you if you let me,” Bertha said, though one suspects an enduring alliance of this nature won’t be forged quite so smoothly.

While that might be enough for most shows, wait, there’s more. Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) discovered her father’s monstrous lie about her having lost her baby, and is now determined, along with her mother (Audra McDonald), to find him. And in a hilarious subplot, the Russells’ chef (Douglas Sills) was exposed as not being French as advertised but rather from Kansas, having adopted the accent as a means of securing work.

As for Marian, as rebound relationships go the Russells’ son, Larry (Harry Richardson), seems like a promising option, and there’s the matter of Agnes’s closeted son (Blake Ritson) seeking to woo Larry’s sister Gladys (Tassia Farmiga), hoping to take solace in her wealth given the impossibility of living openly as his true self.

As with “Downton,” Fellowes somehow makes it all look easy, though perhaps the defining quality of “Gilded Age” is the number of sparkling roles for the women in its cast, which, in addition to those mentioned, includes Jeanne Tripplehorn, Cynthia Nixon and Kelli O’Hara.

Of course, Marian should be changed by her experience with Tom Raikes (Thomas Cocquerel), after having naively asserted, “Society means as little to him as it does to me.” (With the benefit of hindsight, that last name was a pretty big bit of foreshadowing.)

As season one demonstrated, then as now, New York can be a tough town for the young and romantic, and money — old or new — can produce strange bedfellows. But as “The Gilded Age” demonstrated throughout and particularly during the finale, the seeds of all that Big Apple drama can be a whole lot of fun to watch sprout.

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