‘The Gilded Age’ Co-Showrunner Explains How Season 2 Parallels Recent Hollywood Strikes: ‘The Worker Wasn’t Valued’

Season 2 of HBO’s “The Gilded Age” delves deeper into the steel strikers and railroad labor unions that loomed in Season 1 — a storyline that parallels the recent entertainment industry strikes, co-showrunner Sonja Warfield says.

On Sunday episode, railroad magnate George Russell (Morgan Spector) met with the captain of a labor union Mr. Henderson (Darren Goldstein) in an attempt to quell the rising tensions from the many men he employed to construct the life-changing railroads that made him rich. With the end of the SAG-AFTRA strike last week, the most recent episode of the HBO drama series could not be more timely.

“It is so timely. As much as things change, they stay the same. We’re in a time period in America where there’s a huge income inequality. The top-tier people are making all this money and then the middle class is disappearing. And then we have people on the lower end, and that’s what it was in ‘The Gilded Age,’ there were these huge robber barons,” Warfield told TheWrap. “In fact, in reality, when they would parade in their carriages in Central Park around the city, poor people would beg them ‘Just throw me some coins.’ They would run up to the carriages and say, ’Just throw me some coins.’”

Mr. Russell pulls out all the stops for Henderson by putting him up in a nice hotel, having him visit their mansion on 61st Street and offering him a position in management, but Henderson doesn’t bite.

“George was making it railroads and doing all these innovative things. We have [Amazon founder] Jeff Bezos and others. We have this income inequality and people can’t afford housing. We have a labor strike because of that, and they had labor strikes back then because the worker wasn’t valued and humanized,” Warfield continued. “Obviously not knowing that there was going to be a strike and not knowing the depths of what our strike was going to be, we’re in a union so we knew that our contract was coming out — but when we wrote this, we had we didn’t know for sure that we were going to be on strike for five months. That’s just the reality of the way things were then because of the income disparity and how they are now.”

In the midst of this work stress, Mr. Russell also has to deal with the return of a former employee-turned-enemy in a way — his wife’s previous maid Turner (Kelley Curran). Turner has come back into the Russells’ lives as Mrs. Winterton, wife to a much older, and wealthy man. She sits at their table as a dinner guest, now their equal versus her previous position serving them and their household.

Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) and Turner/Mrs. Winterton (Kelley Curran) in Season 2 of “The Gilded Age” (Warner Media)
Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) and Turner/Mrs. Winterton (Kelley Curran) in Season 2 of “The Gilded Age” (Warner Media)

“What’s amazing is that in America, there are many different ways to ascend into the upper class. Like George Russell, you can make a huge fortune, and then Bertha is trying to claw her way into society, or like Turner, you could marry into it,” Warfield said. “What I love about this plot twist is that just when Bertha thinks her life is going in the direction that she wants it to go in and she’s getting what she wants — her partnership with George is foundational to the show, and it’s tilted on its axis with this betrayal.”

Turner attempted to seduce George last season by climbing into his bed naked. He didn’t encourage the advance, and he immediately shut it down once he realized it was Turner and not Bertha, but he never told Bertha about it. Turner hints at what happened to Bertha, who grows suspicious of George and still ends up ultimately considering the event a betrayal of her trust.

“That’s life. It’s like you reach a point, and then something else throws you for a loop. And so that was really great because we’re always rooting for George and Bertha,” Warfield said, echoing creator Julian Fellowes’ sentiment from the end of last season. “It’s a real conflict that happens in marriages and with couples, and it’s one of those things where it’s like, you think you know, someone’s so well, and then something happens and you’re like, ‘Do I even know you at all?’”

The first three episodes of “The Gilded Age” are now streaming on Max. New episodes arrive on the streamer and air on HBO Sunday nights.

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