[This story contains spoilers from the season two finale of The Gilded Age.]

In HBO’s period drama The Gilded Age, the character of Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) offers a solitary glimpse into the life of the Black upper class in New York City in the 1880s. Yet in season two, that contextual lens is expanded when the secretary and aspiring journalist, just one generation removed from slavery, ventures to the South and witnesses both the progressive educational strides made by and for African Americans at the dawn of the establishment of historically Black colleges and universities, as well as the social prejudices that threaten their existence.

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“Peggy gets to explore so many different textures of the Black world this season, from going to Tuskegee, to meeting Sarah Garnet and seeing the community organizing that was happening during that time, and getting to see a Black social gathering for the fireworks at the Brooklyn Bridge, which was one of the first in the series,” Benton tells The Hollywood Reporter.  

“This season, it feels like we got to really go into the eyes of different characters. I really like the nuanced ways they showed grief and fracture and repair through Peggy’s family, and the journey that she takes with her parents and that her parents take with each other,” she says. “I thought it was beautiful to show the way our specific generational trauma can affect some of those fractures and what mending can look like.”

When T. Thomas Fortune (Sullivan Jones), Peggy’s editor and publisher of the weekly New York Globe, agrees to let her accompany him to cover the opening of the new dormitory at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, her mother, Dorothy Scott (Audra McDonald), doesn’t see it as the exciting career opportunity she does. Instead, Dorothy’s opposition, rooted in fear for Peggy’s safety and naiveté to the racial realities of being Black in the South, threaten to drive a greater wedge between Peggy and her family, whose Brooklyn home she left so she could return to work for Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) in Manhattan after learning her child, whom her father made her believe was stillborn, had actually survived and was adopted. In the season two premiere, Peggy found out that her son, who would’ve now been 3 years old, and his adopted mother, died of Scarlet fever six months prior. That grief, Benton says, is part of what fueled Peggy’s insistence on traveling to Tuskegee.

“It kind of makes her feel like she doesn’t have anything left to lose in a really powerful way. I think it makes her really clear about her purpose around using her writing as a real channel. And I think that maybe had these things not happened, had she not gotten the closure that she’d gotten, maybe she wouldn’t have wanted to put her life at risk to go down to Tuskegee. It kind of gives her a portal to that part of herself in an even stronger way,” she says.

The Gilded Age Season 2

Sullivan Jones and Denée Benton in The Gilded Age finale. HBO

While in Alabama, Peggy and Fortune stay with Booker T. Washington, a historical figure whose real-life tenure as the first leader of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute beginning in 1881, perfectly aligned with the fictional world creator Julian Fellowes and executive producer and co-showrunner Sonja Warfield were depicting in the historical drama.

“We wanted to see Peggy in action doing journalism,” explains Warfield. “She’s a predecessor to the real Ida B. Wells, but we had always talked about having her do more. I had discussions with our historian, Dr. Erica Dunbar, who said this was the same time period that Tuskegee was being built and that Fortune and Booker T. Washington would have met and known each other. And then she found this connective tissue with New York. So, in the episode, there’s a dorm that’s being built, and it’s literally from a big donor in New York that gave money.”

Observing the response of the white elite to Washington and his efforts, Peggy and Fortune, another real-life figure who was born into slavery in 1856 and went on to become a journalist and civil rights leader, initially question whether race relations in Alabama are as grisly as they’d anticipated. Yet a physical altercation with a white man one evening forces the pair to flee Tuskegee for their lives. Upon reaching safety, the two share a passionate kiss, a story arc that was met with mixed reactions from audiences given Fortune’s status as a married man.

“My friends texted me that they were upset that she kissed Fortune, and I was like, ‘Um, okay. They really thought they were going to be killed,’” Warfield recalls. “People do things, she’s not perfect. We’re all flawed individuals.”

Given the historical context of Black women’s portrayal as mistresses onscreen — the depictions of which were hotly debated in more contemporary TV shows such as Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, and Being Mary Jane — the decision to create a romance between the characters is one that was mulled over carefully behind the scenes, Warfield adds.

“It was a debate. I wanted her to kiss him because I thought that was real. They were huddled together, they were afraid,” she explains. “And I have to say, love won.”

For Benton, the storyline represents another type of win for Black women on and off-screen. “What I love is that it gives Peggy an opportunity to be messy,” she says. “I think respectability politics are so limiting for Black women and the way we’re allowed to express ourselves and learn and make mistakes. I love that we got to see Peggy do something a little spicy and just be caught up in the moment like humans do.”

Upon her return to New York, Peggy’s romantic encounter with Fortune is met with disdain when she tells Marion (Louisa Jacobson) what happened. She then tries her best to keep her distance from her boss, which will prove to be difficult should they continue to work together, particularly with Peggy’s profession providing a medium to further uncover the little-known communities of the Black upper class across the country during this time.

“God willing, if we have a third season, there’s a lot we want to explore,” says Warfield. “There was a Black elite also in Newport, and because Newport’s so small, they lived among white people,” she adds, noting above all, “I absolutely want to see more of Peggy’s life.”

“I’d never thought of doing a period piece about the Black elite. I only knew my own family story was different than any of the stories that you ever see on television and film about Black people post-Civil War,” adds Warfield, who grew up in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights and was a part of the Black debutant community there. “What I loved about what Julian [Fellowes] did was that he told a story that has been waiting to be told, and whenever I go out and speak about the show, everyone, all ethnicities, are so excited to see this because they haven’t seen it before.

“Because of the images that they’ve seen that have been emblazoned on their brains, that Black people after enslavement were just sharecroppers, they don’t know that Howard University existed. They don’t know that Black people were doctors. They don’t know that Black people were pharmacists. They don’t know that Black people were professionals,” she continues. “There’s such a rich amount of material because we are humanizing an entire race of people who were dehumanized in real life and onscreen.”

It’s for that reason that portraying Peggy, whom Benton in previous interviews has referred to as a “spiritual ancestor,” feels different from other characters she’s played.

“I feel very connected to Peggy. I feel like her journey of self-actualization and her journey of individuation feels very similar to mine in the sense of the archetype of what it is to be a young Black woman in certain family and societal dynamics. Reclaiming yourself is its own archetypal journey,” says Benton.

“I feel like Peggy empowers me too,” she adds. “With everything that’s been going on in the world, the calls for a ceasefire, it feels like when Peggy channeled her voice during this really specific time. She didn’t have any control to really change anything, but she had control of being a sacred witness. And I feel like I have to honor her story, too. We sort of hold each other accountable in that way, which feels special to me.”

The Gilded Age season two is now streaming on Max.

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