The Gilded Age Has Already Fixed A Downton Abbey Problem

By making Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) a main character, The Gilded Age makes the African-American experience central in a way Downton Abbey never did.

In just its first episode, HBO’s The Gilded Age has already fixed a Downton Abbey problem in regards to how it handles race. Both historical dramatic series are created by Julian Fellowes, who originally conceived The Gilded Age as a prequel to Downton Abbey. While it may still be set in the Downton universe, The Gilded Age begins in 1882 New York City and centers on “Old New York,” epitomized by Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski), wanting to keep “new money” like railroad tycoon George Russell (Morgan Spector) and his ambitious wife Bertha (Carrie Coon) out of New York’s high society.

Downton Abbey is set in Yorkshire, United Kingdom in the post-Edwardian era, which was a time of massive societal, political, and economic change as the country began to become “modern.” However, Downton Abbey’s cast was decidedly white British and European and the series rarely dealt with race in its six seasons and the 2019 Downton Abbey movie. The notable exception was in Downton Abbey season 4 when Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James) got engaged to Jack Ross (Gary Carr), an African-American jazz musician. Rose’s fling with Jack was scandalous and it resulted in the singer visiting Downton Abbey and meeting its servants. The butler, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), asking Jack, “Have you never thought of visiting Africa?” was certainly memorable, but not in a positive way. Of course, Rose and Jack could never be and the storyline quickly ended with Jack’s belief that Rose “wanted to make a point” to her parents by dating a Black man.

Because The Gilded Age is set in America in the post-Civil War period, just 17 years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, Julian Fellowes’ new series is properly addressing race and the African-American experience in a way Downton Abbey never did. One of The Gilded Age’s main characters is Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), a Black woman and an aspiring writer who befriends Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), Agnes van Rhijn’s niece. In The Gilded Age’s premiere episode, Peggy accompanies Marian to her aunt’s home on posh Fifth Avenue, and she experiences suspicious and wary reactions from some of Mrs. van Rhijn’s servants. Indeed, Marian also got to experience what Peggy goes through by boarding last and riding in the segregated carriage for “colored people” when they travel from Pennsylvania to New York.

However, Mrs. van Rhijn herself is surprisingly progressive. Not only is she impressed with Peggy’s self-determination but Agnes takes a shine to Miss Scott, who learned penmanship and shorthand in a Pennsylvania school that Agnes’ late father was a patron of. Agnes, who is The Gilded Age’s version of the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) in Downton Abbey, has strict beliefs about “the new” millionaires like the Russells but she takes no issue with Peggy’s race. Mrs. van Rhijn hires Miss Scott as her secretary based on Peggy’s merits. Meanwhile, Peggy’s own mother is suspicious of Mrs. van Rhijn’s motives and implores Peggy to come home to Brooklyn. However, Peggy’s grievance with her father creates a complicated and intriguing dynamic within the Scott family that’s a central part of The Gilded Age.

The Gilded Age also shows a strong friendship has already formed between Peggy and Marian. Together, they are the audiences’ POV into the rules and customs of New York high society, although their experiences are markedly different. For her part, Peggy is a self-assured, and driven woman who is pursuing her dream of becoming a writer and won’t let the color of her skin determine her destiny. Unlike in Downton Abbey’s arc between Lady Rose and Jack Ross where the Black singer was soon dismissed because he would never fit in Downton’s world, America is as much Peggy’s country as anyone else’s. It will be fascinating to watch how The Gilded Age explores Peggy’s story juxtaposed against the high society of New York she now finds herself a part of.

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