As things kick off in The Gilded Age season 2 episode 3, "Head to Head," Bertha (Carrie Coon) is still reeling from the bombshell revelation that her former lady's maid Turner (Kelley Curran) has scored a wealthy widower and all the fancy benefits of this position. With the ongoing opera wars, Bertha must secure more notable patrons, and Turner could prove valuable. However, a secret about a nighttime encounter with her husband, George (Morgan Spector), threatens Bertha's typically cool head — and marriage.
It is an episode full of professional and personal negotiations with Peggy (Denée Benton) hoping to score an assignment that will send her out of the city, Ada (Cynthia Nixon) finding a flirtatious spark and the potential strike action edging closer.
Read on for a full our full episode recap.
Bertha goes head to head
An opera tea at the Russell's New York home is an illustrious affair. Bertha warns Church (Jack Gilpin) that one guest will surprise him, but he cannot react as Bertha doesn't want to ruin her former employee — or not yet. When Turner arrives, it doesn't take long for the Russell staff to look shocked. "This is America. You can be anything you want," says chef Baudin (Douglas Sills). After all, he pretended to be French.
Of course, Bertha doesn't know that Turner climbed naked into George's bed (he rebuffed her), but this doesn't mean she won't find out. First, Turner dangles her recent friendship with a British Duke in front of Bertha's face before dismissing the Met as a "second-rate project." She then tells Bertha, "You should ask your husband," as a not-so-veiled hint at the secret he keeps.
Earlier, Bertha announced the Met will open the same night as the Royal Academy's new season, a bold move for an untested venture. She tells Mr. McAllister (Nathan Lane) a time will come to pick a side, but he isn't ready to ditch Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy). He makes his excuses to leave early and dashes across the street to the van Rhijn residence, where he knows Mrs. Astor is visiting.
He quickly spills this update, and Mrs. Astor wants those with boxes at the Academy to know they will lose the hard-to-come-by privilege if they also get a box at the Met. It's the exact level of petty you would expect. Agnes (Christine Baranski) is ready to fight alongside Mrs. Astor.
Agnes is scheming in other ways too, as Daishell (David Furr) has written to announce his interest in Marian (Louisa Jacobson). She asks Ada for her assistance in making this happen.
Peggy's new assignment
T. Thomas Fortune (Sullivan Jones) tells Peggy about an event in Alabama he wants to cover: Booker T. Washington opening a dormitory at the Tuskegee State Normal School. Peggy would love to write this story and wants to go with him. Thomas mentions the last time he was in the South, "I was a slave," reminding the audience that abolition wasn't too long ago. It takes some convincing, but he finally agrees to her request later in the episode.
Peggy wants to celebrate ideas of independence and self-reliance, but her mother is against her going as Peggy has never been south of the Mason-Dixon line. "Once you cross that line, you are no longer human," she warns. Dorothy (Audra McDonald) thinks it's perilous and makes Peggy promise never to go out alone. Peggy again makes a case as to why she needs to go, including her lost child and looking for a purpose.
While Larry (Harry Richardson) continues his romance with Mrs. Blane (Laura Benanti), the widow clarifies she wants to keep it secret to avoid a scandal. However, she will come to New York to settle some property, giving them more time together.
Meanwhile, Bertha confronts George about what Turner said. He reveals what happened but says he kept it from her because "there was nothing to tell." His nonchalance doesn't quell her anger; she calls this a betrayal.
Despite her outrage, she agrees to help with his meeting with the union man, Mr. Henderson (Darren Goldstein). Unfortunately, Bertha's perfect housewife routine does nothing to shift Mr. Henderson's position that workers deserve more rights (and a safer working environment), neither does George's proposal. Later, Bertha suggests if he can find out information about the visiting British Duke, she will forgive him.
Downstairs, Watson (Michael Cerveris) receives a generous but heartless offer after meeting with his son-in-law. Watson reveals to Mr. McNeil (Christopher Denham) he was forced into a divorce by his father-in-law after he lost everything in the panic of 1857. However, McNeil only seems concerned about the scandal Watson's servant position could cause. Watson will get a pension, but he will have to move to San Francisco and cut off all ties with his daughter. Watson is unsure if he can meet those terms.
Plays and art exhibitions
An Oscar Wilde play, complete with an appearance by the British writer, is the society event of the episode. However, the crowd is rather unenthusiastic about Vera; or The Nihilists.
The conversation flows more freely as Oscar (Jordan Waller) makes some witty observations and engages in light banter with John Adams (Claybourne Elder) — who accompanies Gladys Russell (Taissa Farmiga). It doesn't go unnoticed that Larry and Mrs. Blane leave early; no one buys the headache excuse.
Marian can't muster enthusiasm for the play but does volunteer to accompany Daishell's daughter Frances (Matilda Lawler) to the mother-daughter tea at the school. Later, she also does her aunt Ada a massive favor when she plots to get her to a Menzel art exhibition that Luke (Robert Sean Leonard) has invited her to.
The issue is Agnes already made enough fuss when Ada served clam chowder for lunch as a gesture toward Luke (soup at lunch is a no-no, apparently). The plan goes without a hitch, and Marian leaves her aunt with Luke. This relationship is beginning to bloom, but how long before Agnes finds out?
The Gilded Age season 2 debuts new episodes Sundays on HBO and Max for US viewers, and Mondays on Sky Atlantic for those in the UK.