In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Julian Fellowes and Sonja Warfield also discussed the real-life event that inspired one of the episode’s juiciest moments and the robber barons with “a pretty primitive moral code” who informed George Russell.
[This story contains major spoilers from the finale of HBO’s The Gilded Age season one.]
Carrie Coon’s Bertha Russell emerged triumphant on Monday night’s finale of The Gilded Age, having enticed New York’s snobbish elites into attending her daughter’s debutante ball by ruthlessly leveraging her child’s friendship with a member of the old-money set.
It was a plot twist ripped from New York lore, inspired by the legend that 19th and 20th century New York social climber Alva Vanderbilt encouraged her daughter’s friendship with Carrie Astor to persuade her mother, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, to attend one of her events, explains show writer, creator and executive producer Julian Fellowes.
“I love the almost cynicism of that, that she [Alva] was prepared to use this young woman, who is completely innocent, as her tool to get her mother into the house and it just made me laugh when I read it,” he says. “So I thought I would use it in this show.”
In other finale developments, Marian’s (Louisa Jacobson) engagement with Tom Raikes (Thomas Cocquerel) came to an end after a failed elopement attempt, Peggy (Denée Benton) discovered that her child — who her father led her to believe was dead — was in fact alive and living in Philadelphia, and the Russells’ chef, “Monsieur” Baudin (Douglas Sills), revealed he was not French, but an American from Kansas with a phony accent.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Fellowes and co-writer and co-executive producer Sonja Warfield about their intentions with the finale, Mrs. Russell and Mrs. Astor meeting at last, and what they can say about season two so far.
How did you land on an ending for this first season? Did you know how you wanted to conclude the story from the outset, or did you have to find your way through the writing process?
Julian Fellowes: I always, in a way, try to work out where we’re starting and where we’re ending up in a season and then work out the other stuff that comes between. I think I knew that I wanted to end in Bertha’s ultimate triumph at the ball, because we’d spent so many hours of her laboring toward it and being frustrated, and being pushed back and all the rest. I mean, I don’t want to come out too violently, but I’m kind of on Bertha’s side in all of these things. I like people who know what they want and get it, and she goes for it and she gets it, and that pleases me, really. And I like the story about the Vanderbilts blackmailing Mrs. Astor into coming to her ball, which I sort of lifted for the show. So yes, I think we did know where we were going.
Sonja Warfield: We see Bertha at home in episode one and nobody shows up, so she’s definitely [triumphant] by the end and fought to get there, and get her daughter the ball that she deserved.
Julian, you said you lifted the moment of “blackmailing” Mrs. Astor. Can you expand on that?
Fellowes: Yes. In real life, Alva [Vanderbilt] was determined that her ball was going to be a success, and she hadn’t managed to persuade Mrs. Astor to take her seriously. And she deliberately encouraged the friendship between her own daughter and Mrs. Astor’s daughter, Carrie, and they worked up this little dance they were all going to do with costumes and music and so on and so forth. And then at the last minute [Alva] said, “Well, if your mother isn’t coming, I’m afraid we have to cancel this.” And it had the desired effect. I love the almost cynicism of that, that she was prepared to use this young woman, who is completely innocent, as her tool to get her mother into the house and it just made me laugh when I read it. So I thought I would use it in this show.
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