The Gilded Age Already Has The Perfect Dowager Replacement

The Gilded Age's best similarity to Downton Abbey is Agnes van Rhijn, (Christine Baranski), who is the show's answer to Maggie Smith's Lady Violet.

HBO’s The Gilded Age may be set in America but Julian Fellowes’ new period drama comes with the perfect replacement for Downton Abbey’s beloved Lady Violet, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith). Set in 1882 New York City, The Gilded Age centers on the societal conflict between the wealthy families of “Old New York” and the upstart multimillionaires who represent “new money,” embodied by railroad tycoon George Russell (Morgan Spector) and his ambitious wife Bertha (Carrie Coon). Newly arrived Marian Brooks (Louisa Jacobson) must learn the rules of New York high society if she expects to survive in The Gilded Age.

Despite its distinctly American setting, The Gilded Age has many similarities to Downton Abbey, including upstairs/downstairs intrigue between servants and their employers. The fabulously wealthy Russells and their counterparts, the van Rhijns, live across the street from each other on fashionable Fifth Avenue. The Russells’ brand new, palatial estate and the van Rhijns more modest but still luxurious townhouse each have sets of servants like butlers, maids, and chefs who keep the houses running, just as Downton’s indomitable cast of servants like Carson the butler (Jim Carter) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) do for their great house in Yorkshire, United Kingdom. Upstairs, Bertha Russell has a lady’s maid named Turner (Kelley Curran), just like the Crawley women have in Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt) and Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy).

The most obvious – and best – counterpart The Gilded Age has to Downton Abbey is Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski), who is the HBO drama’s version of Lady Violet, the Dowager Countess. Agnes rules over her house and her kindly spinster sister, Ada (Cynthia Nixon), and in her house, Mrs. van Rhijn’s word is law. Agnes is also respected and feared by the other socialities of New York high society. Just as Maggie Smith had the juiciest one-liners in Downton Abbey and delivered each with aplomb, Baranski’s Agnes is the character who enjoys The Gilded Age’s most cutting dialogue. Even when Agnes is severe, intimidating, and intolerant of “the new,” Baranski’s wit shines through and makes Mrs. van Rhijn irresistible to watch.

Having just met Mrs. van Rhijn, she comes off as rigid in her deeply-held beliefs about preserving the traditions and rules of New York society and keeping out newcomers like the Russells. But Agnes also has a fair-minded side, which is immediately seen when she finds herself impressed with Marian’s new friend, Peggy Scott (Denée Benton). In spite of Peggy being African-American, Agnes admires Miss Scott’s determination, and Mrs. van Rhijn quickly hires her to be her new secretary. The surprising depth to Agnes brings to mind how Lady Violet was similarly stern about holding onto her Edwardian values, but as Downton Abbey progressed, the Dowager Countess appreciated how her granddaughters Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), and Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) embraced becoming modern women, even if Lady Violet sometimes disagreed with their choices and dreaded change herself.

Agnes van Rhijn’s force of will dominates her younger sister Ada and their niece, Marian, and she prefers not to be challenged. As such, Agnes and Ada’s repartee doesn’t have the delightful duel of wit that Lady Violet has with her equally strong cousin Isobel (Penelope Wilton). Perpetually at loggerheads, Violet and Isobel eventually realized they were best friends and their amusing disagreements were a reliable highlight of Downton Abbey’s TV series and movie. But if Ada learns to stand up to her sister, then Agnes and Ada could eventually develop the same kind of cutting banter that would rival Lady Violet and Isobel. As The Gilded Age continues, Agnes may eventually evolve her thinking as New York high society inevitably changes, but even if she doesn’t, Mrs. van Rhijn is already The Gilded Age’s best opposite number for Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess.

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