“Panorama” is certainly a revitalizing follow-up to last week’s frustrating stumble, but it is also an interesting episode in its own right—if not exactly a satisfying one. Continuing to take full advantage of his blank check, Matthew Weiner takes us to Mexico City this week and fully embraces the subtle nature of this series as a travelogue. Each week has given us unbelievably large, lavish homes and apartments in various upscale areas like Paris, Manhattan, Northern California, and Austria. Even the second episode which features our least wealthy protagonists does include a very opulent “royalty” cruise.
This week features a lot more of the history of the setting and its citizens, which is interesting but doesn’t necessarily make for a traditional, or dynamic, episode of television. I find in general that this episode can be summed up pretty well by what a character says near the end of the episode. I feel as though Weiner keeps writing moments like this into The Romanoffs, where a character comments on something within their story, but is simultaneously nudging the audience and talking about The Romanoffs. It’s a bit annoying and too clever for its own sake, but it does help write these reviews.
That said, the newspaper editor played by Griffin Dunne (filling a role like the one by Paul Reiser in episode three: beloved character actor is underused, but very much appreciated) assesses Abel Erikson’s (Juan Pablo Castañeda) story as inspired by the events of the episode and declares, “It’s not a story… It’s like a poem or something… It’s god-awful.” I wouldn’t apply the god-awful descriptor to this episode, but I would definitely say that it is closer to a poem than a story.
We follow Abel as he works “undercover” to attempt a take-down of a shady doctor who is milking terminally ill billionaires for all they are worth in exchange for “false hopes” of getting better. While visiting the clinic as a faux patient, Abel meets Victoria Hayward (Radha Mitchell) and her hemophiliac son, Nick (Paul Luke Bonenfant). The three of them strike up a connection, with Abel enthusiastically showing Nick and Victoria around his favorite parts of the city and acting as an emotional rock during the last days of another failed treatment for Nick’s condition. The largest source of conflict—which turns out to not be so large after all—is the secret Abel is keeping that he is not sick, and is, in fact, perfectly healthy.
There is basically no conflict, hardly any character arcs to be seen, and no true resolution, but this episode is not a failure. As frustrating as some of The Romanoffs has been, I have to reluctantly admit every time I sit down to watch it that, at the very least, each episode is visually beautiful and captivating. In the same way, while the long run-times can be daunting, I do appreciate the time each story takes to sit with its characters and let them breathe. This week felt especially slow-paced, but intentionally so. It created a sad quiet that evokes the internal life of both Abel and Victoria, two people who are sad but searching for hope for various different reasons.
Radha Mitchell is especially great in this episode, even with not a lot to do. We don’t see much of this woman’s life, but we catch glimpses of heartache, hard-won wisdom, as well as frustration and pragmatism—all of which she primarily conveys silently. She has two stand-out moments. The first comes after she gets a phone call that tells her Nick’s treatment has not been working. She speaks to Abel away from Nick and tries to keep it together. All at once she shows that she is upset, frustrated, angry at herself, angry at her husband, desperate to cling to a sliver of hope, and trying to hold it all together because she has to be happy in front of Nick. Later, after Abel confesses—at the last possible opportunity—to Victoria that he was never actually sick, she takes several moments to process her emotions. You can see her cycling through surprise, some betrayal, and annoyance before reminding herself of what is important: he is not sick. And one less sick person is always a good thing. She finally sighs and says, “I’m so glad.”
There are unfortunately fewer Abel moments that really stick with me. Castañeda is a supremely watchable actor, and the walking definition of “dreamboat,” but here Abel is kind of a blank slate, observing the world around him and absorbing it without being bold enough to take action in response to it. His journalistic endeavor fizzles out, even after he discovers deplorable practices of collecting stem cells and other “research material” from poor indigenous clinics. Instead, it seems he writes a story he proposed to his editor earlier, about the saintly mother taking care of her sick child. It’s not thrilling journalism, but an extension of Abel’s slightly strange fixation on “really knowing” women and his romanticism that leads him to use Tinder to fuck around while bemoaning that he doesn’t know true intimacy. Victoria is a pure receptacle for his idealized romantic notions and their relationship is probably ideal for him: they never consummate, never kiss, but decide that it can be enough that “[Abel] knows that [Victoria] wants to.” This is another in a long line of Men Who Romanticize Women, but in this episode, I feel that it is made clearer that we are supposed to look at Abel’s behavior and mindset with a skeptical eye.
If you haven’t already spotted the royal connection, it is one of the most explicit of the series so far. Victoria claims she is descended from the Romanoffs and that this heritage has passed hemophilia down through the generations until she, as a carrier, gave it to her son Nicholas. Tsar Nicholas’s young son also suffered from hemophilia, which was a primary reason for Empress Alexandra’s pursuit of Rasputin’s help. Here Victoria’s Rasputin is Dr. Siqueiros, who Abel even calls a “charlatan,” an old-fashioned word often associated with Rasputin. It’s an interesting, unremarked-upon parallel to see, which makes you realize that while Rasputin has been mythologized as a spooky, creepy mystic maniac who was one-of-a-kind, we have a lot of Rasputins now, too. Anyone who promises miracle cures, who takes advantage of the wealthy and the vulnerable for their own gain, can be a Rasputin of sorts.
Interestingly, while the other Romanoff characters we have met so far view their heritage as a rare badge of honor, or some sort of guarantor of nobility, prestige, and respect, Victoria feels burdened by the relation and does not understand the power it holds over others. She wonders why even someone like Abel, who is “some kind of socialist,” is impressed. He responds simply, “it’s history.” She laments that, even through the years, the “poison” in the blood survives. It’s an evocative statement, leading us to wonder what other poison that comes with royalty and wealth might linger and cling to its descendants.
The story ends quietly, with the only definitive “end” coming with Abel leaving his job as a lousy journalist. We’re then treated to a surreal surprise that, while pleasing, doesn’t necessarily do much more than “look cool.” Earlier in the episode, Abel takes Victoria and Nick to the Palacio Nacional to view Diego Rivera’s “History of Mexico” mural. We spend a lot of time there, with Abel giving us and them the explanation of the painting as the camera takes in a section at a time. Initially, this segment feels like another languid travel segment for the sake of it, but during the final scene, it’s clear that this was there to make sure we got it.
As Abel walks through the Zócalo, he is gradually passed and surrounded by people dressed as the figures in Rivera’s mural, representing all of Mexico’s history happening all at once. It’s visually, and technically, impressive, but its ultimate message is not clear. It’s a fitting end to a slow, slightly meandering episode that is more concerned with making you feel something than necessarily “think” about something. It is not my favorite Romanoffs installment, but I do appreciate its quiet and subtle melancholy, especially in relation to the other, slightly higher-concept stories and their higher-strung characters. This is a refreshing change of tone and perspective for The Romanoffs and it mostly works—and even when it doesn’t, it remains stunning to look at.
- This episode was written by Matthew Weiner and Dan LeFranc and directed by Weiner.
- As an extreme Gilmore Girls fan, I was delighted to see David Sutcliffe appear briefly as Phillip Hayward, Victoria’s almost-ex-husband. He is great at playing Blue Blooded Deadbeat Dads of one form or another.
- Next week’s episode features Katherine Hahn and Jay R. Ferguson and I am excited about that!
- Griffin Dunne was underused here, but he is a delightful comedic presence when used well. He was recently in the short-lived but awesome Amazon series I Love Dick (with Katherine Hahn!) and starred in, in my opinion, one of Martin Scorsese’s best movies, 1985’s After Hours. Go watch it somehow, it’s fantastic.