The second season of HBO’s The Gilded Age (premiering October 29) will amp up the stakes, along with the lavish production design. As we see in these first-look images and a new trailer, debuting exclusively on VF.com, the late-19th-century swells of the Upper East Side are back at it in extravagant fashion—while their maids and cooks and butlers scurry about the mansion basements attending to their own complicated intrigues.
“The whole thread of [season two] is wrapped around this story of dueling opera houses,” says executive producer David Crockett. Those houses are the Academy of Music, long the cultural destination of Manhattan’s most monied families, and the upstart Metropolitan Opera. (We, of course, know who won in the end.) “The opening nights of the 1883 season—and the first ever opening night of the Met—fell on the same night,” says Crockett. “So you have this very clear choice for all of New York society: Are you going to go the old money route, or the new money route? It’s a great engine for a classic clash.”
Bertha Russell, the new-money industrialist’s wife played with flint and mettle by Carrie Coon, lays it plain in an early episode of season two: “The opera is where society puts itself on display, where the elite meet each other and their children court each other and where the wheels of society turn.”
And so we will watch those wheels turn, and wrench. As dramatized by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, The Gilded Age gives viewers the vicarious delight of swanning around opulent estates and fabulous Newport parties—as well as perhaps the slight queasiness of guilt. After all, should we really be fawning over such blithe plutocrats?
Executive producer Michael Engler, who also directs many episodes of the series, says that moral shading is a deliberate part of The Gilded Age picture, perhaps even more so in season two. “They have moral choices,” Engler says of the show’s many rich folks. “As you watch them make [those choices], that’s how you determine their moral character and value. It’s not, We love the rich and we love watching them, so we don’t really care how they act. You see what it takes and what it costs people to behave a certain way.”
Season two will also expand on the first season’s glimpse of Black society in Brooklyn, the home turf of Denée Benton’s Peggy Scott, who works for a white family—among them the imperious and very old money Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and her spinster sister, Ada (Cynthia Nixon)—while negotiating political and social matters across the river. Ada, meanwhile, may finally be getting a love interest.
Benton, Baranski, and Nixon are but three of the many New York stage luminaries who make up the cast of The Gilded Age. That the show is essentially a who’s who of Broadway stars wasn’t exactly by design; it was more an unexpected, and quite happy, development, says Engler. He remembers famed New York casting director Bernard Telsey telling him that a variety of notable names were eager to be a part of the project. “It was amazing. It was like, Really? She would play a recurring character on our show?”
Those actors are natural interpreters of The Gilded Age’s tone and temperament. “Our theater people are so trained to do this kind of material—great language, complex period character work—that they just never get to do on film,” says Engler. “Even Christine Baranski. She said, ‘I’ve done period plays my whole life, but I’ve never acted in a period thing on film.’ She was just so excited about doing that. It became clear that those were the people best suited to it, and we got particularly lucky.”
With its intricate environments—careful mixes of practical sets, real locations, and digital effects—and a sprawling cast of ornately costumed characters, The Gilded Age season two promises to deliver on the period grandeur so beloved by fans. “It’s much bigger than Downton,” says Engler, a veteran of that show. How could it not be, as The Gilded Age considers a whole city, teeming with stories, burgeoning along? It’s fitting, then, that so much of season two will center on something as sweeping—and expensive—as the opera. The curtain can’t raise soon enough.