Fans of Downton Abbey who watched the premiere of The Gilded Age may have been surprised when the young Cora Levinson (Elizabeth McGovern) and her family didn’t appear. Both historical drama series are created by Julian Fellowes, who originally planned The Gilded Age to be a Downton Abbey prequel about the courtship between Cora and her future husband, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), the 7th Earl of Grantham. As The Gilded Age underwent years of research and development, including a network switch from NBC to HBO, Fellowes changed his American-set series and its main characters.
Julian Fellowes has always been fascinated about the late 19th-century era in the United States that Mark Twain dubbed “the gilded age.” When Fellowes moved away from his direct Downton Abbey prequel idea, another early concept for The Gilded Age was making the series about the Vanderbilts. However, after his pilot script was rejected, Fellowes soon realized that making The Gilded Age about real, historical people would be limiting and problematic. Instead, as he did with Downton Abbey, Fellowes refashioned The Gilded Age to be about why Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) is steadfastly opposed to welcoming “new money” railroad tycoon George Russell (Morgan Spector) and his ambitious wife Bertha (Carrie Coon) into New York high society. Meanwhile, Agnes’ niece Marian Brooks (Louisa Jacobson) and her new African-American friend Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) serve as the audience’s POV character into The Gilded Age’s world of high society.
Julian Fellowes revamping The Gilded Age explains why Cora and the Levinsons don’t appear in the premiere episode, “Never The New. The only Downton Abbey reference was Mrs. van Rhijn’s butler, Bannister, being played by Simon Jones, who also appeared as King George V in the 2019 Downton Abbey movie. Yet The Gilded Age is purportedly set in the Downton Abbey universe, although New York City circa 1882 is 30 years before the beginning of Downton Abbey season 1. Therefore, the young Cora, the Levinson family, and other Downton characters would exist in The Gilded Age’s universe, even if they didn’t appear in the episode. It’s also possible that Fellowes substituted the Russells in place of the Levinsons as Agnes van Rhijn’s opposite number, yet Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine) and her clan would also represent the “new money” Agnes and the keepers of “old New York” known as “The Four Hundred” despise so much.
In Cora’s backstory, her mother Martha Levinson married Cincinnati-based dry goods millionaire Isidore Levinson sometime in the mid-1800s. Cora was born in 1868 but it’s not clear whether her brother Harold (Paul Giamatti) is older or younger. Regardless, at some point before 1888, Isidore died and left Martha his fortune, including homes in Rhode Island and New York City. According to Downton Abbey’s timeline, in 1888, Martha brought Cora to London to find a suitable husband, although Robert Crawley didn’t love Cora when they wed and he did it to entwine the Levinsons’ money to Downton Abbey in order to save the Crawley family from bankruptcy.
Martha Levinson is exactly the type of self-made “new money” that Agnes van Rhijn and her peers seek to keep out of New York society. As such, Martha, Cora, and Harold Levinson may still appear in The Gilded Age. A key difference between Martha Levinson and Bertha Russell is that Bertha is obsessed with Old New York society accepting her and her family, while Martha isn’t driven by quite the same need. But the fact that The Gilded Age’s New York-based characters also holiday in Newport, Rhode Island also links to the Levinsons, who own homes in both places. If and when Cora and the Levinson family appear in The Gilded Age, it seems likely they would cross paths with Agnes van Rhijn and the Russells en route to Cora’s destiny to become the Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey.