After weeks of fumbles, over or under-baked premises and “good except for…” episodes, The Romanoffs team finally delivers some magic with “End of the Line.” Of course, in a perfectly Russian way, the best episode so far is also the most crushingly sad.
The story is a relatively lean one, which begins simply and expands outward in unpredictable directions. The writing and direction this week are especially successful in elevating the plot of the episode. The writers, Andre and Maria Jacquemetton—frequent and longtime collaborators with Matthew Weiner—excel at delicately unfolding the plot. This episode is largely a great example of showing, not telling for the story’s exposition. On the direction side, Weiner excels again, even when Weiner’s writing can sometimes falter big-time, his direction is always successful in my book. Here he starts the episode with a static shot of two pairs of hands packing a suitcase with an abundance of strange items: coffee bags, chocolate bars, baby clothes, more chocolate and coffee, and several cash stacks. What are these for? We just have to wait patiently to find out.
It is this careful unfolding of plot that kept me glued to the screen through the hour and 27 minutes of this episode. When I first saw that runtime, I thought “now that is too long,” but I was impressed with how easily I forgot about the runtime and was able to let the episode carry me along. No other episode of The Romanoffs has been able to do that yet as there has always been some point at which I start to figuratively tap my feet.
Outside of the carefully paced writing and direction, the performances of the episode’s two leads deserve a lot of credit for the effectiveness of this story. As Anka and Joe Garner, Kathryn Hahn and Jay R. Ferguson wholly commit to fleshing out their complex characters. They arrive in Russia, ready to complete the process of a “quickie” adoption. However, this adoption, which characters say is easier than American adoption, seems awfully complicated.
The majority of the episode is filled with tension as we expect that maybe one of the many intricate details of this process will fall through, preventing them from adopting. They have to have specific gifts (the coffee and the chocolate) ready for various people, they have an accordion folder full of forms, and they need to be sure not to inadvertently offend anyone with their obnoxious American-ness. Guiding them through this process is Elena (Annet Mahendru), a tall, glossy-haired and fur-hatted Russian who is exactly the right amount of intimidating and encouraging. Her slightest glance of disapproval or satisfaction keeps the Garners, and us, on our toes, wondering if they have accidentally taken a giant misstep. Every step of the adoption process here feels like one step after another in an endless combination lock and at any time the Garners might slip up and turn to the wrong number.
The initial tension of wondering whether they simply will have all of the right forms and bribes soon turns into a different kind of tension once the Garners meet their child, Oksana. The sweet meeting soon turns quietly uncomfortable for the parents, with initial joy replaced by subdued hesitation. The infant is quiet, doesn’t even cry and when they undress the child—at Elena’s suggestion, basically saying to check if the merchandise is as ordered—they see she has a rash that could be diaper rash or indicative of something more. This meeting immediately plants a large seed of doubt into Anka’s mind, which soon grows into something large and unavoidable.
Anka is given slightly more depth and attention in the story, with her feelings being the more externally dramatic. After meeting the baby, she researches the rash in an attempt to see if it’s something more serious. She meets another American woman who has adopted a young boy and she asks her how he was when she adopted him. The woman, Patricia (Clea Duvall), says that sure, her kid had a rash and that “they all do.” Unlike Anka’s baby, he was a screamer, though, but he had been abused in the past so that’s “probably it.” Patricia’s mother expresses some doubts to Anka about her grandson’s stability, but Patricia is determined to see any difficulties in her child as surmountable through love and patience.
Anka initially seems almost ready to do that with Oksana, but then learns from another employee of the adoption agency that the word a young girl had said while pointing at Oksana, “p’yanitsa,” essentially translates to “drunk.” This convinces Anka that Oksana the infant is probably suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome, which would mean the baby is developmentally or physically disabled, or both. The resulting change in Anka is heartbreaking to watch, and doubly so when we see how it affects Joe.
The centerpiece of the episode is a lengthy scene set in the Garner’s hotel room, with just the two of them discussing and arguing about the child and what they should do. It is thrillingly theatrical and never feels overlong or contrived. Here, Ferguson and Hahn shine as they completely carry the weight of this long conversation, captivating us at every moment with their emotional honesty. Anka is suddenly distancing herself from the child, going from referring to Oksana as “my daughter” to “it” within one day and declares that she, basically, does not want the child. She knows she cannot take care of a disabled child and to some degree—as Joe points out—she is treating this adoption like it is a sale gone bad. As callous as that seems, she makes a fair point when she underlines how they’ve been treated so far—“it’s just money changing hands for them.”
Joe is quietly horrified by Anka’s words here and insists that it is right that they follow through with their plan, and their promise to each other, to “take whatever God gave us.” Anka doesn’t buy that and brings up examples of sick relatives to illustrate that maybe they wish God hadn’t given them certain things. She knows that they have been through every possible avenue of baby-making, and have sunk a lot of cash into this, but she cannot go through with it.
What seems especially alarming to Joe in this scene is the revelation that Anka is not nearly as considerate of his desires as he thought she was. He considered them a team, especially in their endeavors to become parents, and here she demonstrates that she will not take his wishes into consideration. Furthermore, she buckles down when he asks her whether she would have wanted to keep their one natural pregnancy if it had received amniocentesis results indicating Down’s syndrome. She says she wouldn’t have. Besides feeling shocked at Anka’s exclusion of him in their parenting decisions or hypothetical decisions, Joe seems equally disturbed by Anka’s relative callousness. He ultimately admits, “I can’t believe I didn’t know you were like this,” to which Anka replies “everyone is like this,” with a tone that indicates she believes everyone is secretly like this. Apparently, Joe is not, however. He lets Anka know that “if we leave here without that baby, I don’t want to be with you.” And Anka is suddenly placed in the seemingly impossible position of choosing between her husband and a child she does not feel equipped to take care of.
After an interlude apart—a few scenes this episode could have done without—in which Anka talks to a sex worker at the hotel bar and Joe attempts to rescue a dog on the street, they return together to the adoption offices the next day. It appears that Anka is going through with the plan to adopt Oksana until, at the last moment, she isn’t. She stands up to Elena and the director of the adoption agency and informs them that she can’t, that that baby is sick and is not what they were led to expect. Like a harried saleswoman, Elena attempts to smooth out relations between the director and the Garners, insisting that “everyone gets nervous, this is normal, everything is fine.” But Anka won’t have it. In one of the most upsetting moments of the episode—and brilliantly acted—Anka pleads with Elena not to bring Oksana back in, “don’t make me see her again,” because she knows that will make it more difficult. Here, Joe steps in and does the husband thing of supporting what his wife is saying and declaring that his wife has made her decision and they are going to leave. Has Joe come around to Anka’s point of view, or decided that his love for her overrides this failed adoption?
Elena and the director remove themselves from the room, which sends Anka into slight paranoia, thinking that they will probably be dragged off and arrested or shot somewhere for reneging on this deal. However, as the Garners are about to attempt a (slightly outlandish) escape from the premises, Elena returns with a new child—a slightly older girl, Katarina. You aren’t happy with that item, let me fetch you another. This child appears healthy and well-adjusted and from that scene we cut to the Garners in adoption court, going through with the process. Anka is enamored with the child—in the way she was in the first moments of meeting Oksana—and everything seems to be going smoothly. The paperwork for the adoption still lists Oksana as the baby being adopted and Elena signals the couple to go with it. Joe then is tasked with giving a convincingly heartfelt speech about their earnest desire for a happy, strong Russian baby and their plan to give her a full, healthy life. It’s convincing enough and earns them their baby.
On the flight home all seems well and good. Anka plays with the baby in her arms, and Joe plays along. In the final shot we see Joe’s face looking away from Anka and out of the plane window. His smile fades and his face falls into a dark, haunted and cold stare. It’s a chilling moment because we realize that the last several scenes with Joe were dishonest on his part. The revelation of Anka’s true feelings has not left him and, possibly, the connection to and responsibility for baby Oksana has not left him either. It’s a shattering moment, executed so swiftly by all involved—the Jacquemettons, Weiner, and Ferguson—and subtly reveals to us how truly earth-shattering Joe’s experience in this episode has been.
While Anka’s feelings initially seemed complicated, they ultimately were not. She did not want an ill or disabled child instead of no baby at all. When given the opportunity to adopt a healthy child, she jumps at it and transfers her former feelings of parentage onto this new child. One who fits her standards. Joe, meanwhile, seems to believe in parentage as being something deeper, a connection that is more meaningful, with love that is unconditional—whereas Anka seems to be saying that her love and her commitment to a child is very much conditional. Besides learning that his wife feels that way about their potential child, Joe also learns that Anka was ready to lose him as well, instead of adopting this disabled child. She was also going to take away his chance to be a parent, because of her preferences. The only reason he stood up for Anka in the adoption agency is that he just wasn’t cruel enough to let Anka be in that kind of distress.
Joe told Anka that if they leave Russia “without that baby,” he doesn’t want to be with her. Anka may have heard him as saying if they don’t leave with a baby, but this last look indicates he may have really meant that baby. The baby they planned for and made an unspoken promise to. The Oksana that will be adopted in the eyes of Russian law, but in actuality left to wither away in a Russian orphanage. They have a baby, which is what they supposedly wanted. But if these babies are interchangeable, for Anka at least, does it mean as much as it did before?
- The sparsely used pop songs in Weiner’s shows are always carefully selected. Sometimes, they are even extremely dark jokes, as one is here: Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are” plays over the end credits. Woof.
- The Jacquemettons wrote many excellent episodes of Mad Men, but I think my favorite is the season two installment “Three Sundays.” I think most Mad Men fans can agree that’s a good one.
- Anka, of course, carries the Romanoff connection here. Joe says that she wanted a Russian baby specifically, to have a child that has some connection to the same heritage. We also learn that Anka is cousins with Victoria from last week. Her perception of Victoria’s experience with her sick child is very different from how we and Abel saw them.
- The Romanoff essence also shows itself in the lengths Anka and Joe will go to have a child, to “continue the line.” In particular, Anka’s desire for a healthy Russian baby echoes the desperation of the last Empress to ensure that her male heir, Alexei, was healthy and viable—which of course led her into the orbit of Rasputin.
- The unknowability of the Russian infants’ backgrounds—and their easy interchangeability—also brings up echoes of the myth of Anastasia, the Romanoff who somehow escaped death and went on to live an anonymous life under a different name. Who would know who she really is?