An eight-part miniseries which aired on The History Channel in late 2012, chronicling the explosive industrial development of the United States in the latter half of the 19th Century, and the men who drove it, and in the process, created the American national character.
The series begins immediately after the end of The American Civil War, with the United States recovering from the most destructive conflict it has ever seen. There is a need to rebuild, to create an infrastructure that will strengthen the nation. And where there is a need, there is an opportunity, for the savvy entrepreneur. A opportunity to help develop the country, and get filthy stinking rich in the process. The series begins with the development of the rail industry, and the first great industrialist, Railroad Baron Cornelius "The Commodore" Vanderbilt, who grew wealthy through a combination of business acumen and some plain old dirty tricks, and who consequently set the standard for the giants of industry who would follow.
As the series progresses, it focuses on the rivalry between oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, men who were very much polar opposites in background and personality and soon found themselves clashing in their quest to be the Richest Man In The World. Meanwhile, as Rockefeller and Carnegie build empires out of virtually nothing, the son of a New York banking family, one John Pierpont Morgan, wants to do the same, creating an innovation that will revolutionize the modern world (and make him a ton of money). He funds an inventor by the name of Thomas Edison, who promises great things with this "electric light" thing he's working on. Which in turn puts him in conflict with Rockefeller, who has a virtual monopoly on artificial lighting thanks to his control of the domestic kerosene supply. And Edison's insistence on sticking with the low-voltage Direct Current delivery method - as opposed to the higher-voltage-but-potentially-more-dangerous Alternating Current method - triggers a full-on war between himself and one of his former protégés, some weirdo by the name of Tesla...
As the 19th Century marches on, fortunes rise and fall, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer, until the struggle turns into a political one. Organized labor causes problems in Carnegie's steel mills, and eventually the Populist orator William Jennings Bryan emerges to challenge the control of these powerful businessmen for the soul of the country. Rockefeller, Morgan, and Carnegie put aside their differences for a brief period, to back a Presidential candidate - William Mckinley - who will be more receptive to their influence. And when some minor New York moderate Republican starts voicing the same sort of anti-business opinions, they decide to boot him upstairs and make him Vice President. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
As the 19th Century draws to a close, these Captains of Industry find themselves facing the new anti-trust politics of the Progressive Era, and their almost absolute power and authority in American capitalism in jeopardy. And some eccentric engineer by the name of Henry Ford has an idea for a new kind of automobile, one that could be made cheaply and quickly in large quantities, making car ownership no longer just a novel luxury for the super-rich, but an attainable commodity for all Americans.
The series tells its tale with broad strokes, mostly through dramatizations, and obviously some liberties are taken and some important historical things are omitted or glossed over. The narrative is punctuated by commentary by historians, scholars, and some modern-day entrepreneurs like Donald Trump, Mark Cuban, and Russell Simmons, who offer some insight into the mind of the businessman. The series produced two spinoffs The Men Who Built America: Frontiersmen and The Food that Built America
Tropes featured in the series include:
- The Atoner: Andrew Carnegie, after the Johnstown Flood of 1889, caused when development of the private club he and his business partner Henry Frick owned weakened the nearby dam. Over 2,000 people died, and Carnegie threw himself into humanitarian causes immediately afterwards.
- Bullying a Dragon: Shortly after being installed as President, Teddy Roosevelt gets a visit from J.P. Morgan, who tries to lay down the law and tell Roosevelt just how things are going to be. Yeah...let me know how that goes, J.P.
- Capitalism Is Bad: This miniseries focuses on the history of the United States from the late nineteenth century to the first decades of the twentieth century known as the Gilded Age. While it recounts the innovations that came about from the enterprises of Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and J. P. Morgan, it also shows the social unrest of the workers of those companies who endured economic hardships. The captains of industry were apathetic towards the plights of their workers and viciously sought to assimilate as many smaller companies as possible to snuff out competing businesses. They also certain had no problem, to paraphrase J.P. Morgan, "buying a president" referring the Presidential election of 1896.
- However the last episode of the miniseries subverts this by portraying the beneficial effects of capitalism when it focuses on Henry Ford successfully challenging the legality of the Trusts' claims that his attempt to start his own automobile company infringed on their rights in court and his creation of the Model T, an automobile that middle class consumers could afford.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: More or less the rule to succeed in the Gilded Age. Frick is a truly standout case.
- Dawn of an Era: The Gilded Age, the age of unfettered, laissez-faire capitalism, and arguably a redefinition of The American Dream in more materialistic terms.
- Deus ex Machina: Seeing the negative press that General Electric is getting thanks to Edison's stunts, J.P. Morgan's father decides to pull the plug. Once he returns from his trip to Europe, he intends to withdraw all Morgan capital from the company. While in Europe, Junius Morgan has a fatal riding accident. Leaving J.P. in charge of the family fortune. Oh how unfortunate...
- Enemy Mine: The three biggest industrialists of the time put aside their differences to defeat Bryan and the Populist movement.
- Escalating War: Between Rockefeller and Carnegie. It starts with them sending each other mean-spirited Christmas gag gifts. As their rivalry goes on it gets worse, culminating with Rockefeller buying out an iron mine he doesn't intend to use just so Carnegie can't have it.
- Esoteric Happy Ending: The Anti-Trust commission breaks up Standard Oil, which is a victory for anti-trust forces, to be sure. But now, instead of being owner of one big oil company, John D. Rockefeller is now CEO of a bunch of smaller companies. And he's still the richest and most powerful man in America.
- For Science!: Nikola Tesla's motivation, to the point where he tears up his royalties contract to keep Westinghouse Electric afloat long enough to vindicate Alternating Current.
- Head-in-the-Sand Management: While Henry Frick is crushing strikers with Pinkertons, damaging vital dams while building his luxury private club, and just generally acting like a Gilded-Age rich prick, Andrew Carnegie is in Scotland playing golf, blissfully unaware of how Frick is running his company. By the time he realizes what a mistake he made in trusting Frick, it's too late to do anything but fire the man.
- Historical Hero Upgrade: Arguably, everyone gets one to one degree or another. The show focuses on the admirable qualities of the subjects (their determination, their desire to achieve, etc.) as much as it does their negative qualities (their naked avarice, their willingness to screw each other over, etc.). Only Henry Frick is portrayed as having no positive qualities whatsoever.
- Thomas Edison's legendary Jerkassery is downplayed significantly in the series, portrayed more as a symptom of the pressure Morgan was putting on him to beat Tesla and Westinghouse.
- Not much time is spent on Henry Ford, so his documented Batshit Insanity is not shown. Instead he's depicted as a "man of the people," who wants to make automobiles available to everyone, not just the wealthy.
- Honest Corporate Executive: George Westinghouse, Morgan and Edison's rival in the electricity industry. Unsurprisingly, he doesn't do as well.
- Insane Troll Logic: Edison's attempts to discredit Alternating Current seem to flow from here, as he electrocutes various animals, including the first execution of a criminal by electric chair, all to prove that AC is unsafe. Unfortunately the general public doesn't make the distinction; they just know electricity kills.
- It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: The office of Vice President of the United States is predominately a prestige position: under normal circumstances, the Vice President has virtually no actual political power. Back in the 19th Century, it was a good place to dump troublesome political figures; it gives them the appearance of having power while denying them the ability to actually do anything constructive. This was what McKinley's backers planned to do with Roosevelt. And it would have worked; the only way Roosevelt could conceivably have gotten real political power was if something happened to McKinley. Like, say, if a mentally-unbalanced, unemployed factory worker should come to see the pro-business President as the source of all his woes, and decides to take drastic action. Oh...wait...
- Its Pronounced Tro PAY: The scholars and historians interviewed can't seem to reach a consensus on how to pronounce Andrew Carnegie's last name. Whether it's CAR-neh-gee or Car-NEH-gee. The actual Carnegie biographer favors Car-NEH-gee, though, so that seems to be correct way.
- It Will Never Catch On: To almost hilarious levels. Every time there's an innovation, someone pooh-poohs it as a fad or a dead end. Mass-production of steel? Too impractical! Electric lighting? A mere novelty! Alternating Current? Too dangerous to ever be useful! Gasoline? A worthless byproduct of petroleum refining! No one will ever find a practical use for any of these things!
- Just Train Wrong: You would think that a program featuring American railroad history would use footage of American trains. Yeah... Not so much.
- Karma Houdini: Each robber baron has a variation:
- J.P. Morgan is able to dodge anti-trust laws since the government needs his steel for major construction projects, and gets away from stealing AC from Tesla and Westinghouse.
- John D Rockefeller's oil company may have been destroyed, but he still made a fortune from shares in the broken company.
- Downplayed with Frick. He was never punished for killing thousands with a faulty dam and dozens in the Homestead Strike. He was, however, wounded in an assassination attempt, and was fired and given a (relatively) shameful severance package by Carnegie, who burns bridges with him afterward.
- Carnegie defies this. While he may not have been directly responsible for the actions of Frick, his guilt pushed him to donate his entire fortune to charity.
- Large and in Charge: Tim Getman, the actor playing Rockefeller, is easily the tallest of the ensemble, which is both appropriate to the narrative and something of a Truth in Television.
- Made of Iron: Henry Frick. Being shot and stabbed by an assassin just pisses him off.
- Magnificent Bastard: Several, but J.P. Morgan is probably the greatest of them all.
- New Era Speech: Edison's is short, but Badass. "The kerosene lamp is dead. Long live the electric light." ::click::
- Pet the Dog: Morgan, while demanding that Edison crushes his competition, also orders him to build a toy for his daughter.
- Pinkerton Detective: They're called in to break up the Homestead Strike. It doesn't go well.
- Poor Communication Kills: Carnegie writes to Frick regarding the Homestead Strike, saying something to the effect of, "I know you will handle this as best you can." Frick takes this to mean he has free reign to crush the strikers mercilessly. He calls in the Pinkertons, and things go downhill fast.
- Right for the Wrong Reasons: Both Rockefeller and Carnegie turn to philanthropy in their later life, and end up becoming great patrons of the arts and humanitarian efforts. Nice, hunh? Nah. It's just yet another chapter in their life-long feud. This time they want to see who can give away the most money before he dies.
- Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Actually didn't happen that often...simply because at this point in the development of American capitalism, there weren't a lot of rules to screw.
- Self-Made Man: Most of these guys. It's easier to list the ones who weren't. J.P. Morgan was the exception, coming from Old Money as he did, but even he built his industry from the ground up just as Carnegie and Rockefeller did.
- Sharp-Dressed Man: Everybody, really.
- The Teetotaler: John D. Rockefeller, devout Baptist who never drank. One of Carnegie's gag gifts to him was a bottle of Dewar's White Label (ie. the good stuff).
- Token Evil Teammate: Henry Frick. The other Captains of Industry on display at least have some admirable qualities. Frick is just a brutal asshole.
- Unflinching Walk: Expositional shots of Rockefeller feature him striding through his refinery with all the confidence of an emperor...which he kind of is.
- Vetinari Job Security: J.P. Morgan is spared the full wrath of the Anti-Trust commission because his business acumen is required to help with the Panama Canal project.
- "Well Done, Son!" Guy: JP Morgan to his father Junius, who disapproves of investing in this parlor trick that Edison is making.
- Yank the Dog's Chain: After a long hard battle with Edison and Morgan, Westinghouse Electric wins the bid to develop the Niagara Falls hydroelectric plant. Yay! Alternating Current is vindicated, and Westinghouse and Tesla have triumphed! Well...no. J.P. Morgan sues them for copyright infringement, claiming he and Edison own the rights to AC. He knows he has no legal ground to stand on, but he also knows that Westinghouse doesn't have the money to fight a prolonged court battle. Westinghouse has no choice to but to surrender the royalties. Morgan, you Magnificent Bastard.
- You Have Out Lived Your Usefulness: Morgan kicks Edison out of the company he created once he's established it as the primary electricity provider of the Northeast.