[Warning: The following contains MAJOR spoilers for The Gilded Age Season 2 Episode 2, “Some Sort of Trick.”]
Unlike the inherited titles of Julian Fellowes‘ Downton Abbey nobles, his American characters of The Gilded Age can fight their way to the top of society. Bertha (Carrie Coon) and George Russell (Morgan Spector) have succeeded at that as the leaders of the new-money crowd, and Bertha’s fighting for a more permanent spot in Season 2’s “opera war” with old money queen bee Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy). But the downstairs staff of these wealthy New York City homes experience more than their fair share of class struggles and triumphs.
The Gilded Age Season 1 revealed that Russell employee Mr. Watson (Michael Cerveris) had a much different past life (and name). Viewers learn more about his untold story in The Gilded Age Season 2 Episode 2, which reveals that he was once a very wealthy man named Mr. Collier before he lost his fortune — and his wife and daughter, Flora McNeil (Rebecca Haden), as a result. This connection threatens Flora and her husband, Robert’s (Christopher Denham), place in society, but it also threatens the Russell’s. They can’t entertain if the word gets out that one of their staff is a man who has fallen from wealthy society’s good graces.
But there’s an even bigger threat to Bertha’s social standing that reveals itself in the final moments of Episode 2 at Ward McAllister’s (Nathan Lane, pictured above with Coon) Newport ball.
Bertha, snubbed by her rejection from the Academy of Music, aims to make a hit out of the fledgling Metropolitan Opera. She spends most of the episode in Newport, Rhode Island, trying to convince Ward to join her side of the glitzy battle. All episode long, he says Mr. Winterton (Dakin Matthews) and his new wife are a couple she wants on her side and arranges to introduce them at his tiara-less soirée (he prefers feathered headpieces in Newport, of course).
Ward makes good on his promise of an introduction, but Bertha can’t believe her eyes when Mr. Winterton’s new wife is Turner (Kelley Curran), the lady’s maid she fired in the Season 1 finale. Bertha still doesn’t know that Turner sexually propositioned George; the maid was fired for something she didn’t actually do. But that secret looms over the Russells now that the scheming woman has accomplished her long-expressed goal of marrying up.
During a Season 2 set visit in September 2022, Fellowes told TV Insider they “deliberately set up Turner as a candidate for something more in life.” Episode 2 revealed what he was getting at with this remark. In a new interview, Fellowes tells us this Mrs. Winterton plot twist has been planned since before Season 1 started filming.
“I didn’t think, unless that decision had been reached, we could find the right actress, which we absolutely did, who could play the one and then play the other and reinvent herself satisfactorily as a Gilded Age hostess,” Fellowes explains of Curran’s role. “And, of course, her husband is a much older man, which is a price often paid for that kind of marriage.”
Future episodes may reveal if Mr. Winterton is privy to his wife’s past, but Fellowes says, “he’s not really interested in whether her mother was a DuPont. He knows he’s getting better sex than he’s ever had in his life, and his whole horizon has changed.”
Fellowes implies that as a new-money woman married to an old-money man, the Wintertons could be a swing vote in the opera war, which could mean that Bertha will have to befriend her former employee. Hosting a former lady’s maid in your own home?! This is a Gilded Age horror story.
“He’s not interested in whether Mrs. Astor doesn’t find [his wife] suitable to be a member of the Academy because, unlike a lot of the characters, Winterton is perfectly competent socially,” Fellowes teases. “He doesn’t need anyone to tell him he’s a gentleman; he knows it. And so he’s prepared to take on Mrs. Astor and go to the new opera house and do everything else because what he wants is to keep his wife happy and his life much more interesting than it was two years ago. And I think this is easily understood.”
Coon also teased what’s to come between Bertha and Mrs. Winterton during our set visit, saying Curran’s character is the “monkey wrench” in Bertha and George’s best-laid plans.
“Turner’s been dismissed, but we’ll see,” Coon warned at the time. “That may not be the last of that lie. Bertha and George are going to have to deal with some personal issues in their marriage while they’re trying to complete this rise in society.”
It seems like George’s secret is sure to be revealed.
The Gilded Age, Sundays, 9/8c, HBO, Streaming on Max