The fourth installment of The Romanoffs, “Expectation,” comes with an intriguing logline: “Over a single day in New York City, a woman is confronted with every lie she ever told.” That premise sounds devilishly compelling and just the right amount of high-concept. While the episode does partly live up to that description, it is a bit of an exaggeration. That woman, Julia Wells (Amanda Peet), really only has one secret that she confronts during her day, albeit a very large one.
This episode is relatively bare-bones compared to the previous three installments, and not just because of the blissfully short runtime. This episode just takes up about 64 minutes, while the previous episodes went to at least 84 and often started to drag once they went past the hour mark. The plot of “Expectation,” and its construction, is near-Aristotelian in its simplicity. It does occur within 24 hours, in the regular haunts of Julia’s New York City life, and there is just Julia and her internal conflict she is wrestling with during this time. There are no firing squads, jury pools, or fortunes to bequeath this week—just memory and guilt.
The episode title is equally straightforward and applicable. Julia’s 20-something daughter, Ella (Emily Rudd), is expecting her first child any minute and everyone in their familial orbit is waiting with her. At the same time, Julia spends the episode thinking back to the early days of her pregnancy and the choice she made that defined the rest of her life. Did her life live up to the expectations that came with that choice?
Julia’s secret is that her daughter’s father is not her husband. When she was younger, Julia was dating Eric and simultaneously having an affair with Eric’s best friend Daniel (portrayed in the present day by John Slattery). Julia gets pregnant by Daniel, but decides to claim the child is Eric’s—which leads to their marriage and life together. Daniel remains a close family friend, but is no fool and knows the entire time that the child is really his. Ever since, Julia and Daniel have remained close and seem to have maintained a balance where Daniel is a “sort of uncle” to Ella and is able to know her that way as a compromise. But with the arrival of Ella’s child, the tensions resurface with Eric’s excitement about being a grandfather and “continuing the line” (that would be Romanoff, as it alludes here that he is the one with the royal connections) that is built on false information.
Julia spends the day meeting her entitled daughter for brunch, meeting Daniel at The Strand, sipping a couple of afternoon beers, and picking up in-laws at the airport before going into work. During that time, she experiences the resurfacing of several memories based around the time in her life when she chose Eric over Daniel and one life over another. I find this conflict fairly compelling in any story, and unfortunately relatable, because the impulse to look back on past decisions and agonize over how they may have changed your entire existence is an impulse that I have leaned into frequently as I grow older every year. I can’t imagine living with the question mark that Julia has been living under for decades, of whether things would be better, or if she would have “had everything” with Daniel as opposed to Eric.
My favorite show of the year so far, Sharp Objects, dealt with memory, particularly triggered memories in a nuanced and beautiful way that was illustrated by way of the specific and skilled direction of Jean-Marc Vallée, who excels at constructing non-linear edits built around the subjectivity of his characters. Last week, I felt an echo of Olivier Assayas’ work in Weiner’s story and direction, and this week I couldn’t help but again draw comparisons between The Romanoffs and the work of another director.
Throughout the episode, Julia’s memories resurface from sensory reminders. She’s in the Strand and recalls a bookstore tryst with Daniel. She goes to close her office door and she remembers the last time she did that, which resulted in an injury and a Daniel-accompanied hospital visit. This practice of using present-day moments to recall past events is very reminiscent of Vallée’s work, but in The Romanoffs it does not quite achieve the same visceral quality that Vallée provides. That is primarily because of the formality of the direction. While Vallée is very handheld, up-close and personal, and does not significantly alter lighting or style for “flashbacks,” Weiner here is a more classical director, relying on slow zooms or dollies for camera movement, and infrequent use of close-ups. Weiner also paints the flashback scenes of young Julia with a darker, slightly vintage, palette compared to the bright, unaltered lighting of Julia’s present day.
The longest flashback, which takes place shortly before Ella’s wedding, is, unfortunately, color graded to be of a light blue-grey shade for the entire memory—through scenes in Julia’s office, the hospital, and her apartment. These touches cheapen the emotional impact these flashbacks can offer because they are first so noticeably choices from a director, which serves to remove you from Julia’s perspective, and they are unnecessary choices made to clarify the plot for an audience that likely doesn’t need clarification. We can understand that these are flashbacks, without them being altered so obviously and unimaginatively. While Vallée’s flashbacks increase our immersion into a character’s head, these flashbacks feel more like emotional footnotes included for fear of our misunderstanding.
The use of the flashbacks is generally fine though, as they do help to understand Julia’s frenzied and stressed state by knowing that this guilt and these doubts are ever-present in her mind. The “flashes” build in length and coherence as the episode progresses and we understand more of the situation Julia is in. The most effective one may be the sequence in which Julia rides the subway and just thinks—without a specific trigger—about her dual loves. A young Eric gifts Julia with roses, which appear on her nightstand while she has sex with Daniel. She embraces Daniel passionately and then returns to the scene with Eric and does the same with him. It’s like a memory of a memory and the use of Mac DeMarco’s “This Old Dog,” while a bit too on-the-nose (“this old dog, ain’t about to forget”), does create a bittersweet haze over the scene.
While the flashbacks lose some power through their aesthetic differences, a moment in which Julia imagines the future is filmed to fully trick us. While getting dressed for dinner, Julia steps out of the closet and goes to tell her husband that she has kept a secret for a long time. Ella isn’t his because she had an affair with Daniel. Eric replies soberly that he knows, and has known, but that it doesn’t change anything. It’s only when we return to Julia in the closet that we realize that the scene went too perfectly and did not happen. It is what she wishes could happen but, as we sense with her when she opens the closet and sees Eric getting dressed, that just isn’t how it’s going to work. Eric doesn’t know and destroying his perception of his world would likely be a disaster.
But someone else might know. After Julia is hospitalized for gallstones, she sits quietly with her annoyingly composed daughter. Ella sees that Julia is afraid of her condition and her surgery and asks “do you want to call him?” Neither woman has to say who they are talking about, because they both know—as do we—that they are referring to Daniel. To further illustrate her knowledge of her mother, Ella picks up Julia’s phone and dials the call for her. We don’t hear his side of the conversation, but we can surmise it equals her side in tenderness. She hangs up after a warm “I love you too” and looks at Ella, who gives the slightest shrug.
In their first scene together, Ella says “I’m practical, like you.” This shrug might indicate that Ella’s practicality extends to the acknowledgment of the obvious feelings between Daniel and Julia—indicating some kind of special relationship to anyone with their eyes open—and maybe even a subconscious knowledge of her real parentage. Ella knows that Julia’s decision to marry Eric and to choose Eric as Ella’s father was a decision of practicality and she has grown to respect that. And perhaps that is all it was. Julia was young and pregnant and in love with two people—as she insists she was, and is, in this episode—and she needed some promise of stability. She tells Daniel that Eric “wanted a family” and Daniel just “wanted her,” so she went with the guy she could expect to be a committed father. She likely also expected Daniel to remain, as Eric notes, a “kid” always. But that hasn’t necessarily happened. Instead, Daniel has had the experience of “walking by [his] own life and seeing somebody else take it.” Slattery’s performance is infused with just enough embedded heartache to sympathetically convey the experience of a life that is an ongoing compromise.
Julia contends with growing older in this episode, with her dawning grandmother-hood and the realization that she can never go back to her life as it was when she made the decision that would determine how her life would look 20 years later. Contending with the difficulty of making those choices—which we all have to make when we’re young—and reckoning with the impossibility of making a fully informed decision is what Julia has to do and what we’ll all do. Sometimes, as with Daniel, you have to contend with choices that were not entirely made by you, but which have affected you greatly anyway. It’s not easy and dwelling on the past can eat you up. Julia is granted a moment of peace with her daughter at the end, a recognition from someone else that her decision was just one that had to be made and that it was likely a good choice at the time. Sometimes that is all you have. At the very least, Julia was fortunate enough not to lose everything with her decision. She still has Ella, and Daniel, and their grandchild.
- This episode was written by Semi Chellas and directed by Matthew Weiner. I’m honestly surprised not to see Weiner get co-credit.
- (Maybe coincidentally this is also the first episode that doesn’t employ the trope of characters falling into a sexual relationship after just meeting each other.)
- Slattery’s character, Daniel Reese, is the writer of a book about the Romanovs. We saw him briefly discussing the book on the cruise in episode two, and we learn here that his book was just optioned to be made into a mini-series, “shooting in Europe.” This would be the series that Olivia Rogers was shooting in episode three. This is interesting because it reveals that these episodes are not necessarily in chronological order. Also, Daniel says that maybe he will adapt the book—but looking at the script in episode three, we see that he does not. A “Jack Edgar” writes the script—maybe we’ll meet him sometime?
- Diane Lane shows up briefly in a flashback and on the phone, playing who I think is supposed to be Eric’s sister, Catherine. I suspect she will have more screen-time in the future.
- The writing of Julia’s character and the performance by Peet illustrate well how you can have an unlikable, privileged, frustrating character but mine humor from their bad behavior. This tone would have made Corey Stoll’s Michael Romanoff more palatable, as well as if his privilege and bad behavior were not tied to his pathetic obsessions with a woman. The portrayal of Michael during the final scene, however, remains golden.