If it isn’t evident based on the exceptional rollout of The Romanoffs by Amazon, Matthew Weiner is a big believer in letting episodes breathe by releasing them weekly. While Mad Men was on the air, the show became infamous for having “next week on” previews and one-line episode descriptions that were hilariously vague, offering up nothing at all about the specific plot you could look forward to. Weiner wanted you to go into an episode cold, and then have a week of expectation—waiting for what you didn’t even know—mingled with reflection on what you had just seen, which you had not been prepared for. That gap, filled with expectation for the future and admiration of the past, is one of my favorite elements of the Weiner-verse, and when done right it can be mildly intoxicating.
Since Mad Men has ended, the popularity of streaming television has ballooned into something massive. Streaming and binging a TV show all at once has become the normal way to ingest a show, a method that hasn’t prevented critical or commercial success. All of this is to say, that I am relieved and appreciative that Weiner chose the weekly format as something he could not budge on, especially this week, because the third Romanoffs episode, “House of Special Purpose” needs some room to breathe. Unfortunately, we will never get answers to our questions here. We will stay waiting, with only endless reflection available to us. I expect I will truly know my feelings about it sometime from now.
Vanity Fair critic Richard Lawson tweeted pre-air that this episode is like the weird child of the Olivier Assayas films Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper, and I have to admit I agree—for the most part. “House of Special Purpose” takes the examination of life as an actress, particularly an aging actress, from the first film and combines it with the subdued paranoia and haunting ambiguity of the latter. However, the ending resolution paints this story a smidge more simplistically than I would like. Where those films are so fascinating because of the ambiguous territory they tread, and the eerie fluidity of the filmmaking—both traits shared by “House”—the films work because the endings leave a lot of questions hanging. The ending of “House” feels closer to something you would read at a juvenile campfire: “and then she died of fright.” For a while there, though, the episode was succeeding in building an ominous, strange atmosphere that addressed various themes and concerns without completely falling into clichés as the previous two episodes had done.
The paranoia of the episode builds slowly, but even from the beginning, something feels a bit wrong, and a bit uncomfortable. Olivia Rogers (Christina Hendricks) is being driven in the dark, along a rural Austrian road. She makes polite small-talk with her driver, a fan, and she is surprised to learn that he is not taking her to the hotel. “I have my instructions” is all he gives in the way of an answer to where he is taking her, which turns out to be the set for the project she is a part of. That project is “The Romanovs: A Six-Part Mini-Series,” a Meta reference (one of a few) that adds to the surreal haze of the episode. Olivia meets her director, Jacqueline (Isabelle Huppert!) who immediately starts dropping passive-aggressive comments and making power moves. She’s a character that does not make it easy for Olivia, or us, to fully relax or feel capable of predicting her behavior.
The story continues, as Olivia tries to please her complicated director and make sense of a few confounding occurrences. She gets a call asking her to meet Jacqueline at the hotel bar; she is told there is no bar, until a few nights later, when she finds that bar (in a sequence that especially echoes Personal Shopper in its meandering, eerie quiet). Olivia deals with Jacqueline’s direction on set: half-assed rehearsals, lack of praise or criticism, and otherwise aggressive behavior (like grabbing the balls of the actor portraying Tsar Nicholas to toughen him up). Besides Jacqueline, there is the rude P.A. who pretends not to know English and Samuel (Jack Huston) who plays Rasputin and is basically what I imagine Jared Leto would be like if he were to play the legendary creep. There’s a moment where an actor starts to sing “Suspicious Minds” rather than speak his lines during a scene. A little girl walks into Olivia’s room, smelling of gasoline. An actor gets ushered into a van late at night and is never seen again—but did he just have an early flight out? All of the oddities accumulate through the first hour-plus, creating a strange real/unreal balance. We do not realize how firmly we are entrenched inside of Olivia’s perspective until we learn at the end that we have not been able to discern what could have been imagined, and what could have been real.
Three major scenes standout, and work particularly well in unsettling the viewers. The first moment is short, but it is the first indication of Jacqueline’s equally questionable hold on reality. The scene finds Jacqueline speaking to someone. The scene is filmed just-so to trick us multiple times. At first, the angle could indicate that she is on the phone. The camera circles slowly around her, and we see that she is not. Maybe she is speaking to someone sitting across from her, but then we turn to see the mirror behind her and see her empty bed. In case we missed it, Jacqueline tells her conversation partner that “you are dead, and I am alive.”
Jacqueline’s connection to the dead resurfaces dramatically during a dinner with the investors, during which Olivia, Samuel, and others are expertly kissing ass. Suddenly, Jacqueline stands up and appears to be gasping for air. Suddenly, she starts speaking Russian, speaking as Tsar Nicholas’ mother, calling for someone to save her family. Luckily, the wife of the investor is Russian and translates the otherworldly message—before being “cursed” by the spirit. This experience frightens the woman so much that she passes out and we later learn that her heart briefly stopped. She was “frightened…almost to death,” Olivia is told, prompting her to say “that can’t happen.” This moment flashes in neon lighting that oh, yes, it can Olivia.
Finally, the ending explodes into a full bent into the surreal. The reality of the world seems to crack apart as soon as Jacqueline appears in the most, dramatic fantastic look you can imagine, with apparent plans to change the ending and save the Romanovs. Olivia cannot take any more eccentricities and oddities and calmly walks off of the set for good. Or, she tries to. She spends some time wandering in the woods and then returns back to where she started. Her paternal agent, Bob (Paul Reiser, underused but doing his whole genial presence thing), has arrived from L.A. to comfort her. She goes back to her hotel room to pack and sleep until the next morning when she can leave. Instead, she is woken up by pounding on the door. She answers, and it’s the film crew in antique militia uniforms, demanding she come with them. They escort her to a wagon and pile her in. They take her to a white room in the basement of a building, where she sees the other actors playing the Romanovs have been gathered as well. Before Olivia can even speak, the firing squad is ordered to shoot and they do—coldly and chaotically murdering every royal in the room. Like the shot of the “The Romanovs” script seen at the start of the episode, this moment evokes the real opening credits to The Romanoffs of our reality. However, this scene is much more graphic than the opening credits. Last week, I wondered what it would be like if the credits were more honest about the deaths of the Romanovs, and here we catch a glimpse of what that would look like: really grisly and horrifying. If nothing else concrete comes from this episode, it certainly helps to remind us that the Romanovs were real, flesh-and-blood people and that their deaths were truly violent experiences preceded by real fear, and not just historical trivia.
It appears that Olivia has been killed, but the scene quickly shifts back into a film set. Jacqueline is herself again, and she yells cut on the scene, applauding the work of the actors, who all stand back up and dust themselves off. Olivia doesn’t move. After a few moments, Jacqueline and Bob reach down to Olivia and discover that she is not moving and her eyes are open. They call for a medic, but by all appearances, Olivia’s heart has stopped—petrified by her all-too-real imaginings.
When did Olivia’s reality diverge from “ours?” What moments were real and what was not? What happened to Samuel? Was Jacqueline really possessed? There are plenty of unanswered questions we can mull over endlessly. But, if you want, you could just as easily say that Olivia suffered delusions—likely from grief over her mother’s recent death—and maybe she drank too much, or used some of those pills left behind in her hotel room. Her actor’s imagination and the pushing from her director led her into dangerous territory, and she terrified herself. Sure, that’s plausible. While it is considerate of Weiner to offer up a closed-ending for people who want it, I do relish an open, mysterious ending every once in a while. This week The Romanoffs reminds us that the past and death are both mysterious, intangible things that everyone must reckon with. They’re also pretty terrifying.
- This episode was written by Mathew Weiner and Mary Sweeney, directed by Weiner.
- The motif of people telling Olivia “sweet dreams” added to the mystery and uncanny atmosphere, but I didn’t quite know what to make of it. Also, despite several years of German language education I never previously thought about how the German spelling and pronunciation of the word for dreams (“Träume”) evokes the English word “trauma.” This perfectly exemplifies the experience of the German language. It’s also not completely inapplicable to Olivia’s experience in this episode.
- The “Suspicious Minds” moment was genuinely funny and surprising—as was Hendricks’ play of Olivia’s reaction to it.
- During the investor dinner, another funny moment, illustrative of how much smoke-blowing is occurring, comes from Steve the investor and Laszlo, the cinematographer. Steve says “You know, I heard Kubrick shot all of 2001 with candlelight. Am I wrong? Laszlo?” To which Laszlo can only offer a solemn, constrained headshake. Laszlo knows that Kubrick shot Barry Lyndon with candlelight, how and why would he have shot 2001 by candlelight?!
- Again we have an episode with a woman having sex with a man pretty much right after she meets him. This one is a little more understandable, because of course set hookups happen, and neither participant is claiming love (unlike in the last two episodes). However, it also doesn’t add much of anything to the story here. I am still waiting to see if Weiner will be capable of writing an episode without hitting this particular beat at all.
- If you liked this episode at all, please go watch Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper. Clouds is on Netflix and FilmStruck!