Watching the latest episode of The Romanoffs, “Bright and High Circle,” feels akin to touching a hot stove after weeks of letting your hand hover close to the coils. I didn’t want it, but here it is, Matthew Weiner addressing the “Time’s Up” movement and this past year of, as he would probably describe it based on this episode, accusations ruining the lives of good men.
There is a lot going on in this episode and to address all of it would require this review to become much longer than I, or you, would like it to be. Besides that, there is so much about this situation depicted that will trigger a different reaction in each person, depending on a myriad of factors. There is no easy way to talk about “inappropriate behavior,” or accusations of such, or reactions to accusations.
Before I get into specifics, I will temper my future criticisms and admit that, like all of Weiner’s work, this episode is directed and structured well. The episode feels a bit slow, but that slowness is essential for the story being told, because we need to see the unease and doubt and quest for answers trickling through Katherine (Diane Lane), and then out through her social circle, slowly fermenting into something bigger.
The way Katherine also goes to each of her three sons and discusses David (Andrew Rannells) with them, using different language depending on their age and how confused or frustrated she is by the lack of satisfying answers, is an effective way to move through Katherine’s feelings and move through the story. Like last week’s episode, this week also employs flashbacks, but these are added in more effectively, without relying on blue-tinted coloring or other noticeable signifiers of “the past.” We slip in and out of Katherine’s history with David as she struggles to contend with the possibility that all of these memories are with a person she doesn’t know and shouldn’t have trusted.
But let’s get into the meat of the episode. The story on paper is a simple one. Katherine has employed David Patton as a piano instructor for her children for close to 10 years, and her recommendation of him has earned him the patronage of the rest of her large, wealthy circle of friends. The mothers and students alike adore him, with some even welcoming him into their family for vacations. Then, Katherine is visited by an SVU detective, investigating a complaint filed against David for “inappropriate misconduct with a minor.” The detective is not able to give Katherine the detailed answers she wants, so Katherine’s mind goes to dark places, imagining that David could have been a secret child molester for decades, and she has given him the keys to perpetrate his crimes.
She asks her sons if he ever did anything “inappropriate” or “made them feel uncomfortable.” They all say no and are confused by their mom’s questions and why she is asking them. Even though she is not supposed to tell anyone about the investigation—as no charges have actually been filed against David—Katherine tells her gossipy friend Cheryl (Nicole Ari Parker), who tells their nervous friend Debbie (Cara Buono), who each react in ways specific to their own feelings about David. Cheryl eventually discovers that the complaint is related to David possibly buying alcohol for a 15-year-old. This relieves the parents, as they were expecting the misconduct to be sexual. Despite their relief, the kids don’t want to go to lessons anymore because “it’s just weird now.” This makes Katherine and her husband Alex (Ron Livingston) tell them to forget about it and continue their lessons because it’s wrong to “think with the mob” and let an accusation change how you see somebody forever.
One of the first impressions you’re left with as the episode ends is that Weiner has some hard opinions about people who make accusations. This might be an interesting episode and a rich, complicated story to dig into if the director and co-writer wasn’t part of the collection of several dozen men in Hollywood accused of “inappropriate behavior” within the last year (I’ve already talked about this here). Weiner is currently premiering his new, very expensive, series so I hope he doesn’t consider his life truly changed in any way, so there could be the slim chance that he is writing this as an observer of the “Time’s Up” movement and what it has possibly “done to” several other men. But I don’t think so. I think there is something in the writing that indicates Weiner aligns himself with the accused, and although it is not overly strident or obvious at all times, the writing here is defensive.
Katherine’s oldest son, Julian, remarks that sometimes David “made inappropriate jokes” which made him uncomfortable, mostly because they weren’t really funny. Alex also agrees that David is “always trying to be funny and he’s usually just annoying.” These comments come off as almost self-deprecating from Weiner, like hey, if I made inappropriate comments I was probably just making another one of my lame jokes! Whoops, silly me. And the implication that maybe one of these jokes is what someone else deemed inappropriate also reeks of self-defense because it seems to say “well, if someone is offended by that then they just need to lighten up or get over it.” They’re just harmless bad jokes, right? Never mind that even Cool Teen Julian admits that they made him uncomfortable and why is it okay to be uncomfortable in an educational, professional situation?
The reactions of Katherine’s friends Cheryl and Debbie also give us representations of two polar opposite reactions to accusations like this. Cheryl, who adores David and treats him like more of a best friend than an employee, is immediately angry, but not about feeling potentially duped by David. Rather, she’s angry at whoever made these accusations.
Debbie reacts to the accusations against David with much more nervous agitation because she is ready to believe that he is guilty. She does not like David, rightly so, after hearing him bad-mouth her decorating scheme behind her back while in her own home. Because of this dislike, Cheryl initially proposes that perhaps Debbie is the one who filed the complaint, but asks if Debbie would ruin his life over a joke. Referring to the joke he made about her home (“Versailles threw up in here”), it indicates that Debbie has held a grudge and is waiting to exact some sort of revenge.
The polar reactions to David represented in Cheryl and Debbie could be an interesting factor of the episode. One woman is such a fan of David that she is ready to ignore anything bad said about him and fight those who say it and the other is already not a fan of David and so is ready to believe anything terrible and take any opportunity to “ruin his life.” Katherine can represent a middle reaction, which considers evidence and waits to make a judgment. But again, the Weiner connection sullies the storytelling. Instead, Debbie in particular now seems hysterical and helps promote the paranoid and often false idea that people who make and/or believe accusations against someone are doing so as part of a long-held desire to destroy that person.
There is another aspect of the story which is almost interesting, but becomes muddied in the waters of the overall story. While speaking with Cheryl, Katherine discovers that David has a lot of life she doesn’t know about and has told multiple lies, including telling Cheryl that he is descended from Romanovs, echoing the story of Katherine’s familial tale. Katherine and Alex already know that sometimes David lies to fluff up his past—their reactions to an Elton John anecdote early in the episode convey how much they believe him with economical glances—but the Romanov-lying is almost a step too far for Katherine. There is an undercurrent of classicism in this story, with Katherine’s wealth and lineage marking her as Other than David in several instances. Katherine is David’s “patron saint,” so she and her kids are basically untouchable. This also might help explain why Katherine has never hung out with David in the way that Cheryl and Debbie have, which Katherine is surprised to learn about.
Additionally, it also helps point to why David might have lied to Katherine and the others about details of his life. He is not rich and leads a completely different life than they do. Of course, he might feel compelled to lie and make himself seem more elite, rather than admitting to not having a car, or not having another job besides that of a piano teacher. These women and families have let David into their inner circle and he has to hustle to make sure that he stays there, for financial security if nothing else. But the exploration of what kinds of lies are harmful is overshadowed by the question of David’s innocence, as well as the effect these accusations have on his reputation, which the episode is very concerned with.
Once Alex and Katherine know that the accusation isn’t related to anything sexual (and I don’t even have time to plumb the undercurrent of homophobia related to the parents’ fears and Alex’s lack of surprise about David molesting one of their young boys), they now want everything to go back to normal, back to when David was their fun family friend. Alex tells Katherine a story from his youth that is honestly so confounding, which I don’t have the time or inclination to explore, which ends with his father lecturing him about how disappointed he was in Alex falling in line with “mob” thinking and letting others tell him how to feel about his friend. This inspires Alex to tell his own sons, Henry and Benji, in quite a pedantic lecture for all of us that “when you accuse somebody of something—whether they did it or not—you make everybody look at them differently.” He also points out that if we let people change our opinions of others, then “anybody can say anything about anybody…and just saying it ruins their life… Does that seem fair? No, it’s not fair.”
To be succinct: I hate this. But I’ll elaborate. This is a valid point and I understand the initial impulse behind it. I will admit that sometimes I have thought that some recipients of the “Time’s Up” culling were treated a smidge too harshly. Not every guy who has done inappropriate things needs to be “canceled” completely, but they should definitely all engage in a conversation about their mistakes and how they can learn and improve. But these men have created another problem in that none of them will do this.
Every guy accused, whether guilty of or who has admitted to anything inappropriate, is now just digging their heels in about how they’re being persecuted. It is true that accusations before something has been proven can change how you perceive somebody. Usually, however, accusations are found to be based in truth. This hand-wringing over what false or over-blown accusations do to someone’s reputation is perpetuating the myth of large-scale false reporting for larger crimes and again, this idea that there is some “witch hunt” out for powerful or popular men. (The appropriation of “witch hunt” to apply to men who let their dicks control the rest of their body is truly one of the worst elements of this whole thing).
And, yeah, what about these “ruined lives” and reputations? You were accused of inappropriate behavior, Matthew Weiner, and I am sitting here—along with many other critics—reviewing your new show that was given a gigantic budget and exclusive weekly roll-out by a prominent streaming service. How is your life ruined? How are things more difficult for you? I haven’t seen any lives ruined—careers stopped, maybe (or more like paused). Your career is not your life. If a man cares about keeping his career the way it is, he should have had the sense and decency not to make bad sex jokes, not to touch a co-worker without asking, and not to remark about a woman’s appearance or her potential nudity in any way. It’s that easy, can you believe?
I do not care about all of the hand-wringing—in this episode, as well as in life—about how accusations and charges and perceptions, etc. are going to affect the accused. But his reputation! But he was my friend! Now I have to change how I think of him?! Tough. Every one of these stories approaches the topic as if no one ever considers how these accusations can change the life of the accused, with righteous fists shaking in the air about how this “hunt” has gone too far! But, once more, almost all accusations of inappropriate behavior are made because the inappropriate behavior is experienced or seen. If someone is foolish enough to make these choices, they need to accept the consequences.
Maybe people are sometimes too quick to judge and condemn. But if the past year has demonstrated anything, it is that almost all rumors and accusations lead you to the tip of the iceberg residing in someone’s past and the condemnation is deserved. If someone is found to be falsely accused, I will put aside judgment, Matt Weiner. But I haven’t heard about one of those in a long time.
- The episode was co-written by Kriss Turner Towner, and directed by Weiner.
- This was the most dramatic episode so far, but Diane Lane had a couple of funny moments. First, when she joyfully says “I found the croutons!” as cover for her and Alex’s secret closet conversation. Then, in a flashback to a meeting with young Henry’s teacher, Lane expertly pulls out the child’s chair she’s to sit on with such haughty disdain. It’s some incredible silent acting.
- I love Andrew Rannells and consider him the best part of a lot of things (example: all of Girls). He isn’t used very much here, but he does a lot to imbue David with a sad aura—both sad-sad and sad-pathetic—to create a person who is mysterious, desperate and disappointed in his life enough to maybe do something bad.
- This show is a hot mess and I generally enjoy it. But boy I am so tired of hearing about “poor men” and “poor me.” Give me an episode about an accuser who isn’t believed and you might have something interesting to say.