The Gilded Age has delighted many viewers with its striking similarities to Julian Fellowes’ previous drama, Downton Abbey, but the new series is missing one important identity: Sybil. Set in New York City in the 1880s, The Gilded Age mirrors the style of Downton Abbey in cinematography, score, and opulence despite being set several decades prior (Downton Abbey season 1 begins in 1912) and having crossed the Atlantic. Yet, though The Gilded Age recreates many of Downton Abbey’s successful elements, it is (so far) sadly lacking the conflict Sybil brought to the plot through her convictions and fearlessness.
The Gilded Age begins with Marian’s journey to New York following her father’s death. Marian moves in with her aunts, Agnes and Ada, and finds herself in the middle of a war between New York’s established wealth and its “new money.” Despite her Aunt Agnes’ best efforts to keep Marian under her thumb, Marian seems drawn to those her aunt calls “new money”, speaks to the local outcast in Mrs. Chamberlain, and befriends Peggy Scott, the mysterious secretary that accompanies her to New York from Pennsylvania.
In this way, Marian is similar to Downton Abbey’s Sybil. Before her untimely and devastating death in Downton Abbey season 3, Sybil saw the world much differently than her society-obeying family. Sybil, however, stood firmly for her beliefs, her convictions shining brightly throughout her short time on the series, and exposed many of the shortcomings and wrongdoings of the era. The Gilded Age’s Marian, on the other hand, provides a tepid dissent at best, her actions without any distinguishable motives. There are, however, a few characters that could rise to the challenge and fill the void bringing a Sybil-like character to The Gilded Age.
Although Marian may be intended as a rebellious character, she is coming off far too meek and mild. On the other hand, Mrs. Russell has a similar fire to Sybil but she is simply trying to work her way around the current rules of society so that she might be able to be governed by them later. Likewise, The Gilded Age’s Oscar Van Rhijn is quick to speak against his aunt Agnes’ stuffy rules and prejudices but is only rebelling to capitalize on many of her same values (namely money and status) in his pursuit of Gladys Russell. In Downton Abbey, Sybil was breaking the rules in an effort to create better ones, her motive a deep desire for justice—not just for the wealthy but for all.
One interesting candidate for The Gilded Age’s rebel is Larry Russell, however, his rebellion thus far is lacking a cause beyond making friends and a possible love interest in Marian. Alternatively, it could be that the mysterious outcast Mrs. Chamberlain is The Gilded Age’s much-needed fire starter, with her unknown past revealing a cause that ostracized her among the social elite. Most likely, though, the role will be filled by Caroline Astor, daughter to New York’s reigning queen, Mrs. Astor. Though Caroline has had minimal presence in the series so far, her dialogue has leaned toward the idea that Caroline is not as enamored with society’s structure as her mother. Caroline would also only have her mother to deal with in her rebellion as anyone else would be beneath her social status. However, even if The Gilded Age is able to recreate Sybil’s rebellious nature, the reason Downton Abbey’s Sybil was so beloved was because her rebellion was for all the right reasons—something not easily recreated.