“Tell the [ambulance] to slow down. I want to see the Arc de Triomphe one last time.”
So begins Matthew Weiner’s new mystery-shrouded anthology series for Amazon, The Romanoffs. We are taken instantly into a world of such privilege and luxury, in which glimpsing the beautiful landmarks of Paris is your first priority while being rushed to the hospital.
But before we see that, we are greeted with the title sequence. We pass through a hall of portraits while lush, classical music plays. We see a wealthy family, primarily women, dressed all in white early 20th century garb. Then the raucous strains of Tom Petty’s “Refugee” resound as uniformed militiamen enter the aristocratic parlor, grab the family, and take them to the basement where they proceed to shoot them dead. If you weren’t aware of how the Romanoff royal family was killed off for good, here is your history lesson. The sequence is jarring and just a bit unintentionally comical. The way the royals almost cavalierly put up their hands to stop the bullets—as if shielding themselves from insects or harsh sunlight—belies the serious and traumatic event.
Even if you’re a royal, I don’t think you would retain such composure whilst being murdered alongside your family. But it is unclear if that attitude was intentional in the directing. It’s plausible Weiner wanted to convey a disconnect between the Romanoffs and the violence around them. More likely, however, he was—perhaps not unreasonably—just trying to film a scene that was more palatable for an opening credits sequence, and thus less realistic. It’s still disturbing, however, and the muddled mix of feelings that these scenes produce is a good indication of what the rest of the series is going to make you feel.
The first two episodes released offer two different looks at the same sickness. In a nutshell—and I hope I’m not imagining this and that the rest of the season digs into this more and more—The Romanoffs can already be taken as an examination of white privilege at large, by using an absurd, specific example of people who claim to be descendants of the royal Romanoff family. The second installment, “The Royal We,” illustrates the most quietly insidious elements as they affect Michael Romanoff (Corey Stoll). There is, as his “Scottish-Irish-Whatever” wife Shelly (Kerry Bishé) discovers, the entire life full of validation—because of his special ancestry—that has then left him wallowing in disappointment as his adult life levels out.
Is this not comparable to the many white people who, because of the bias of Western history textbooks and lessons, believe themselves to be of royalty or nobility compared to the “savage” other races who were forcibly colonized by those nobles? Never mind that there were far, far more European peasants milling about than nobles and that the wealthy were not the ones who emigrated from Europe. Michael’s disappointment, malaise, and bitter resentment recall that of some white Westerners who believe, because of their perceived specialness, that they currently deserve more. Additionally, Michael’s brazen way of introducing his Russian heritage by way of saying that “my whole family was murdered,” indicates his desire to carry a wound, a past that he can feel cosmically wronged by and seek vengeance for in some small degrees in his own life.
The reality is, of course, that he has not suffered nearly as much as the statement “my whole family was murdered” would suggest. Greg (Aaron Eckhart), The American Man of episode one, “The Violet Hour,” is asked where his people are from, and he overcompensates by claiming that his people are “French, German, Russian, Irish, Mormon, and ‘Real American’.” The woman who asks him this does so after he fumbles while, just after meeting her, asking her where she is from. The woman, Hajar (Inès Melab) has been born and raised in France, and tells him so but concedes that “her people” are from North Africa. Her response is less complicated than that of a white American male. This scene is one of the more pointed, successfully humorous scenes of the two hours (well, altogether almost three) because it is just so familiar.
This critical element, this strange, slanted look into the center of the White Crisis of Identity we are living through—which has worked, among many other things, to bring out a resurgence of vocal white supremacists—is the best part of the series so far. It just manages to redeem some of the despicable characters by saying “hey, we know they’re bad, that’s kind of the point?” But while these characters aren’t exactly easy, the real difficulty comes in deciding whether you are upset with the characters or the writer.
The Fabergé egg in the room is that the show’s creator, and primary writer and director, Matt Weiner was accused by a former Mad Men writer, Emmy-winner Kater Gordon, of creating a very inappropriate and uncomfortable workplace environment by making a comment to her about how she owes it to him to let him see her naked. He probably thought he was being hi-larious (please note the sarcasm). However, heading into The Romanoffs, I had my antennae up for how Weiner writes scenes between men and women. Just to catch a glimpse inside that noggin’. And, well, it’s pretty disheartening. I do not have time, nor the inclination, to dive into everything that annoyed, bothered, or slightly disturbed me in these scenes. I will, however, touch on the two relationships which play a significant role in each episode.
In “The Violet Hour,” Greg meets Hajar—a sensible, 20-something domestic worker at his aunt’s apartment—once and then goes to eat pizza with her to discuss the aunt, Anushka (Marthe Keller), choosing to give that apartment to Hajar. Sure, they should talk. The night goes on and they talk more. She somehow trips and scrapes her knee and he just has to help her bandage it. Before you know it, they’ve had sex. That’s pretty much it, but two months later Hajar shows up pregnant and lets Greg know. Hajar seems upset and she should be worried about this change of trajectory (she was a medical student), but Greg is surprised and then quickly happy. “I love you,” he says, and she smiles and admits, “I love you too.” I don’t buy it. There’s a personal limit on stories of people falling in love after one short evening (there is only one story that does this well, and that is Before Sunrise and I’m pretty sure they don’t say “I love you,” and they talk more than Greg and Hajar do), as well as stories about a sad middle-aged man falling into a relationship with a woman at least twenty years his junior. But this episode’s romance feels overwhelmingly romantic compared to what we see in “The Royal We.”
I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a visceral distaste for a character as I did for Michael Romanoff. What makes it worse is that I adore Kerry Bishé and was reluctant to leave behind all of her scenes. In this episode, Michael becomes a bit obsessed with an enigmatic woman on his jury. A woman he might as well have dreamed up. She is first spotted in the waiting area wearing a sleek black dress and heels, with full hair and makeup, bending and stretching by the water cooler. Who on Earth goes to jury duty—in this very unremarkable town that looks astoundingly like my hometown—in this outfit? She proceeds to part her mouth just so as she thinks real hard in the jury box, and even appears to be titillated by the murder scene photographs (at least through Michael’s eyes). He tries his hardest to talk to her and then to find more time and chances to talk to her, he holds out on the obvious jury decision and prolongs their deliberation for days. Eventually, they make their way to his wife’s family’s lake house and end up having sex, but only after Michael has manipulated many of the events to get them there. I so wished, with all of Michelle’s (Janet Montgomery) talk of murder, that the story would take a turn and she would end up murdering him.
Instead, what eventually happens is that Michael ends up trying to murder Shelly by pushing her off of a cliff. Except, the cliff isn’t that high and Shelly is a fairly nimble athlete who catches herself on a rock, breaking her fall. Michael immediately acts as if he didn’t do what he just did, but at least Shelly finally sees the light and leaves him in the dust. As she drives away she gradually calms and even smiles—with palpable relief. We can feel the hand of the Romanoff bitterness and rotten entitlement loosening its grip on her life. Both episodes end with some relief from the burden of the Romanoff dynasty: either by adding new blood or by escaping it entirely.
That last scene is one of the better scenes of the two episodes, but for the most part, both installments are disappointingly predictable. The beats of “The Violet Hour” played out exactly as predicted and here they felt as if they were being pointed at with a neon sign. The episode is only made okay by the chemistry of the primary leads, Marthe Keller and Inès Melab. The second episode is sometimes intriguingly twisted or dark, but the male fantasy element is too distracting and, considering outside circumstances, worrisome.
The appeal of The Romanoffs so far lies in the actors set to appear. As is the Weiner tradition, very little information about each episode is available, but we do have an extensive and impressive cast list to look at. I am intrigued about what actors like Diane Lane (I miss you!), Isabelle Huppert, Griffin Dunne, and Andrew Rannells will be doing. Hopefully there will be some surprise and it won’t come from how unbelievably the women are behaving.
- Mathew Weiner wrote both episodes, with Michael Goldbach getting a co-writing credit for the “The Royal We.” Weiner directed both episodes. If this is surprising to you, you are new to the Weiner-verse.
- OK, the only other character that I can currently think of who I dislike more than Michael is the protagonist of the novel The Collector. He made me so furious; I couldn’t be in the same room as the book for a long time after finishing it.
- The character of Sophie (Louise Bourgoin) was difficult to enjoy, but her reaction to Hajar’s confession of love (“Jesus Christ!”) was exactly mine at that moment.
- This is not the first time I have seen Janet Montgomery play an enigmatic, alluring woman. Any fan of the British teen series Skins will remember her from the season two episode “Tony.”
- It’s possible Michael’s actions on the jury disturbed me even more because I have jury duty on Tuesday, and this revealed to me a nightmare I didn’t know I had.
- Next week: Christina Hendricks!