Beyond the fact that both period dramas were created by Julian Fellowes, HBO’s The Gilded Age has a secret Downton Abbey connection hiding in plain sight. Set in 1882 New York City, The Gilded Age centers on a struggle for social supremacy between “Old New York,” embodied by Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski), and the “new money” of railroad tycoon George Russell (Morgan Spector) and his ambitious wife Bertha (Carrie Coon). Like Downton Abbey, opulent wealth and splendor are on display in The Gilded Age, and the central conflict over who will ultimately rule New York high society also holds up a mirror to present-day life.
Another similarity between Downton Abbey and The Gilded Age is both series feature juicy tales of upstairs/downstairs intrigue. The indomitable servants of Downton Abbey like the butler, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), plucky assistant cook Daisy (Sophie McShera), and the troubled romance of the valet Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna the lady’s maid (Joanne Froggatt) are just as crucial to the show’s success and popularity as the Crawley family. The Gilded Age also showcases two sets of servants who toil in the homes of Agnes van Rhihn and the Russells, who built a magnificent palatial estate directly across the street from Agnes’ stately townhouse. Like Downton’s loyal downstairs cast, the servants of the van Rhijns and the Russells dream of better lives for themselves while knowing they can never match the extravagant wealth of the people they work for.
If Mr. Bannister, the elegant butler of Mrs. van Rhijn, appears familiar to Downton Abbey fans, that’s because he is played by Simon Jones, who also appeared in the 2019 Downton Abbey movie. Jones played King George V opposite Geraldine James’ Queen Mary in Downton Abbey. Set in 1927, the first Downton Abbey movie was about the King and Queen of England coming to stay at the Crawleys’ estate in Yorkshire. Meanwhile, Tom Branson (Allen Leech) foiled an attempt to assassinate King George. As intimidating as the King coming to stay at Downton was for the Crawleys and their servants, who were desperate to impress the Royal Family, Jones played King George with a playful glint in his eye and the sovereign was kinder and more bemused than anyone expected.
It may seem like a step down for Simon Jones to play the King of England in Downton Abbey and then be cast as a butler in The Gilded Age. Yet Jones brings the same dignity and bearing to his role as Mr. Bannister, who gently enforces the high standards Mrs. van Rhijn expects in her house. Whether it’s welcoming Agnes and Ada’s (Cynthia Nixon) niece, Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), to their home or kindly accepting Marian’s new friend, Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), who is African-American and becomes Mrs. van Rhijn’s new secretary, Jones’ Mr. Bannister is a worthy counterpart to Downton Abbey’s Mr. Carson.
Before it was changed, The Gilded Age was originally a Downton Abbey prequel, showing the courtship of Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) and Cora Levinson (Elizabeth McGovern) before they became the 7th Earl and Countess of Grantham. But The Gilded Age’s premiere episode doesn’t mention any Downton Abbey characters and it’s not clear if the young Cora, her mother Martha (Shirley MacLaine), or her brother Harold (Paul Giamatti) will appear later on. If the Levinsons do bridge the gap between The Gilded Age and Downton Abbey, it will be extra amusing to see Mr. Bannister interact with them knowing that he also plays King George V in the 2019 Downton Abbey film.