When I sat down to write a piece about TV’s hottest couple (happy Valentine’s Day!), I never anticipated that I’d be doing so for a pair of manipulative robber barons with Cheshire cat grins and ambitions as deep as their wallets. But isn’t that what they say about love, that it’ll find you when you least expect it? And so here I am, ready to declare my allegiance to Mr. and Mrs. George Russell (Morgan Spector and Carrie Coon), a marriage so hot that neither person involved need remove so much as a glove to set the screen ablaze.
On Julian Fellowes’ new HBO drama “The Gilded Age,” old money discretion battles new money glamour through tight smiles, strategic gowns, and preening power plays. All three come to a glorious, clashing head by the end of the second episode (“Money Isn’t Everything”), in which Bertha Russell’s attempts to elbow into Manhattan’s elite inner circle trigger a domino effect of humiliations. At first, Bertha’s the one on the outs after her offer to host a charity bazaar in her personal ballroom (remember: robber barons) gets rebuffed. Once George hears about the snub, however, there’s no way the Russells are about to let the insult go unchecked.
George is, as the show not-so-subtly suggests by constantly framing him in front of roaring fires, a devilish businessman who sees no need to mince words when throwing his considerable weight around. He’s ruthless, but also, as played with such tantalizing charisma by Spector, extremely charming as he slits his competitors’ throats. It stands to reason, then, that the woman by his side be equally intimidating, no matter how much the unsettled women around her try to deny it. As Bertha, Coon settles her voice into a silken lower register that’s direct, alluring, and commanding all at once. Apart, the Russells are formidable; together, as a reluctantly impressed Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy) eventually concedes, they’re a force to be seriously reckoned with.
That would be enough to earn my affection (characters with questionable morals and sleek smiles are my TV kryptonite). What takes the Russells from “good” to “great,” however, is the fact that they’re not just husband and wife. As each episode of “The Gilded Age” and HBO veterans Coon (“The Leftovers”) and Spector (“The Plot Against America”) make clear, they’re partners in every sense of the word.
Every glance George throws his wife’s way isn’t just thick with sexual tension, but with overt pride. He admires the hell out of her, and respects her opinion so much that Bertha makes frequent appearances in his business meetings to his consistent delight. He supports her efforts to make inroads with the snooty women running the Upper East Side, even as he can’t imagine why anyone would have the bad taste to not admire her as much as he does. Bertha’s far less openly romantic than her husband, and therefore expresses her admiration a bit differently, but no less clearly. The only moments we’ve seen her truly smile have been when George comes to her defense or shows how much he respects her intellect. So when he comes to her in the third episode (“Face the Music”) with a risky proposal that could either win or lose them everything, Bertha doesn’t hesitate to support him. “I’ve told you before,” she says with barely a shrug. “We’ve made one fortune together. If needs be, we’ll make and spend another.”
From “Gosford Park” to “Downton Abbey,” Fellowes has never been one to show explicit sex in his period dramas, and “The Gilded Age” is no different even though it airs on HBO. But the moment Bertha says that, prompting a relieved George to ask if he can stay with her tonight, is sexier than the vast majority of shows making blunter points of their characters’ lust. So when the Russells do show up at the bazaar, with its cluttered stalls guarded by society’s fussiest and supposedly most formidable women, it’s no surprise that their undeniable partnership ends up stealing the show.
As Bertha stands by in an especially extravagant peacock gown, George strolls in like a fox into a henhouse, opens his jaw, and swallows the event whole — by which I mean, he buys out every stall with a crisp $100 bill and sends them on their way. George whipping out his wallet with such unfettered ease is, as a friend of mine put it (though in rather more indelicate terms), a move so confident it might as well be sexual. Bertha sees it for the romantic, furiously defensive gesture it is, and the smile on her face as they leave everyone behind in the dust is her most sincere of the entire series.
All the Russells need to be hot is a foundation of mutual respect and two actors with palpable chemistry (an increasingly lost art in an age of TV that prefers to throw the most famous/blandly attractive actors together and hope for the best). The pairing of a fiercely devoted “wife guy” who champions his intimidating partner and vice versa — from Gomez and Morticia (“The Addams Family”), to Schmidt and Cece (“New Girl”), to Lazlo and Nadja (“What We Do in the Shadows”) — is a tried-and-true pleasure for a reason. Contrary to popular storytelling belief that relationships always need drama to be compelling, it’s always satisfying to watch a couple that likes and respects each other prove why that’s the unequivocal case. There’s even a bit of a thrill in realizing how secure a fictional relationship actually is when so many other narratives would upend it for no real reason. On “The Gilded Age,” it says everything that not even a conniving servant with her eye on George feels like much of a threat to what he and Bertha have built together as partners at home and beyond.
Given how solid their foundation is, it would be both disappointing and frankly unbelievable if the show eventually allows one or the other to explore the allure of a covert affair. There’s truly no need to crater a dynamic that’s already so compelling just to give in to the kind of story we’ve seen play out on TV over and over again. If the maid’s machinations should succeed at throwing a wrench into their lives, though, I must have faith that the Russells would emerge the other side unscathed. They’ve already made one rock solid partnership together. If needs be, they’ll make another life to spend together as one.
“The Gilded Age” airs Mondays at 9 pm on HBO, and is currently available to stream on HBO Max.