For this final installment of The Romanoffs, Matthew Weiner draws upon the key characteristics of the series and blends them into one story that, ironically, often feels far from the Romanoff shadow. Weiner is a storyteller and, through the anthology format itself, it has become evident with The Romanoffs that Weiner relishes the chance to create new characters, histories, and conflicts each week. In this episode, he doubles down on the fascination with, and enjoyment of, storytelling, with the episode unfolding via the stories told by three different characters (who really are two, but we will get to that), within a Russian nesting doll construction (ha-ha). This episode also becomes the most “epic” of the series, ultimately encompassing nearly an entire life, and highlighting locations and life within London and Hong Kong through several decades. It is every superficial, shiny trait of The Romanoffs, but with a winding tale of family, love, identity, and murder baked into it.
The episode begins with Jack Edgar’s perspective. Jack (JJ Field) is the scribe of the frequent connective tissue that is the Romanoffs mini-series from episode three. In my episode four recap, I wondered whether we would ever meet him—considering we met the author of the Romanoffs book – and I am really satisfied that we did! I am even further impressed that Jack is portrayed by Field, who I spotted among the crew in the third episode, and who I am pretty sure had no lines during that installment. That’s just commitment to world-building right there, which I heartily appreciate. Speaking of which, as Jack heads towards his train, he passes Greg and Sophie from the very first episode. This was a fun moment for viewers who saw every episode, but it also feels a bit like Weiner was trying to make sure the entire cast of characters was connected in some way, just for kicks. The characters from episode one were the only ones floating off, away from a connection to someone in another episode. Interestingly, the moment does, again, indicate, as other episodes have, that the series does not run chronologically, because Greg and Sophie are still together here. The events of episode one do not all take place before episode two and so forth. It’s a subtle touch of unpredictability from Weiner.
Once on the train, Jack is immediately perturbed by the woman sitting in his seat, who asks to remain there because she wanted a window seat and there wasn’t one available and do you mind if we trade? Jack becomes the picture of British “I’ll do anything not to cause a scene” politeness and obliges her. He also engages minimally with her small talk as she rambles a bit about everyday things. One topic of conversation leads to another until Jack reveals that he wrote a mini-series about the Romanoffs. The woman, Candace (Adèle Anderson) is interested—as almost everyone seems to be—and says she must tell him about a real Romanoff she met once. Jack demurs until she mentions that the story involves a murder. Then he is interested—and isn’t the murder the reason why so many people today are interested in the Romanoff story? If they had simply died out, their history wouldn’t be nearly as compelling.
This begins the first story-telling layer. Candace tells the story of a man she knew, Simon Burrows (Hugh Skinner). When we first meet Simon, he is a sickly-looking drug addict visiting his dying father. They had a terrible relationship because of the father’s long-ago affair with, and second marriage to, a much younger woman. The deathbed visit does not go well and there is absolutely no warmth to be found from George Burrows (Ben Miles in very effective old-age makeup) to Simon. Simon is mostly there to steal his father’s drugs, which his stepmother Ondine (Hera Hilmar) scolds him for. While Ondine plays the part of the worried maternal figure, the feeling behind her words still feels oddly cold and detached. She doesn’t truly care about Simon, but feels as though she should act as if she does.
Shortly after this visit, Simon overdoses at his barren flat and wakes up in the hospital at rock bottom. We jump ahead then to Simon in group therapy. We see the feet of the people sitting next to him, but we do not know anything else about the group he finds himself with. It’s a way to highlight the isolation Simon feels then—we can only see him, he can’t acknowledge the potential connections around him—but it also serves to set up a sort of reveal later on that doesn’t necessarily need to be a “reveal.” Simon is encouraged to speak his mind and open up, which he hasn’t been doing. Then, he finally does and we begin our next layer of the story: Candace is telling Simon’s story and now Simon is telling his own story.
This change in narrator also takes us back in time to before Simon’s drug addiction. Here he’s a top student gone to make good and be the Best Little Boy his father could be proud of and be someone the world could love. He works in Hong Kong and we see that he is in a secret relationship with a male co-worker, Christopher (Christopher Goh). Simon thinks that their love is valid and viable, but Christopher knows it’s just a fling. He’s dating a woman, Keira (Jing Lusi) and has just proposed to her. This devastates Simon, and we know that Simon, who yearns for acceptance and love from his family, feels this loss even more acutely because he has so few people—or, no one at all—who really knows, loves, and accepts him. Christopher marrying Keira is basically confirming that Christopher barely accepts Simon and doesn’t accept their relationship.
As if getting married to a woman wasn’t bad enough, Christopher also wants Simon to be his best man—and he sees nothing wrong or upsetting in his asking that, which further cements the truth that Christopher cared a lot less about Simon than Simon thought he did. This leads us to a bachelor party at a karaoke bar and it’s one of the most excruciating but heartbreaking moments of The Romanoffs so far.
After joining in on “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” Simon sings solo to the Bangles’ ballad “Eternal Flame.” The hostesses drape him in a silk kimono and apply some red lipstick to him, playing a game at the silly man singing a woman’s song. Simon even plays along. He sings to Christopher and eventually gets too close—too “female”—and Christopher pushes him away. If you spent your summer right, you recognize Hugh Skinner as “young Colin Firth” in Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again, and you adore his awkward, but endearing performance of “Waterloo.” Seeing him sing again, even for a moment, is just as satisfying because, while he isn’t technically impressive, his voice and face convey a surprising amount of vulnerability while he’s performing, which make the songs very effective.
The next day Christopher is awakened by his enraged fiancée Keira, who says “Simon told me everything!” and calls him a degenerate she can’t marry. She soon explains that Simon only told her that he saw Christopher receiving oral sex from a bar hostess—which is true, but not the truth Christopher feared. Christopher eventually talks Keira down and explains that Simon is lying because he lies all the time, he can’t help it. Plus, he’s probably jealous of Keira because she’s “stealing” Christopher away. This is true, but again Christopher tells it falsely—he says that Simon told Christopher about his “fucked-up childhood,” and so considers the two of them to be very close. The wedding is hard for him, etc. To prove his point and to explain how Simon could be such a pathological, fucked-up liar, Christopher proceeds to tell Simon’s childhood stories.
This change in story-teller again takes us back in time. This segment is truly the most upsetting, as every turn in Simon’s life hits harder and harder. We first discover that Ondine was not merely some younger woman, but Simon’s babysitter. We also learn that Simon discovers her affair with his father by seeing them make out from his bedroom window, right outside their house. Simon then witnesses his mother’s tears about her husband’s affair, as well as their fight, and George failing to even confess to his philandering, denying it and insisting she imagined it.
Then Simon wakes up to smoke in his room and has to open his window and shimmy down the drain pipe to avoid death while his mother burns inside. Shortly after his mother’s death, Ondine moves in to “take care of George and Simon,” but Simon is no fool. He also basically learns that Ondine was most definitely the person who set the fire. I didn’t suspect such malicious behavior from Ondine, but her conversation with Simon in which she “denies” setting the fire is so chilling and disturbing, it implicates her more than anything else. Throughout the entire episode, Ondine and George are true horrors: selfish, manipulative, withholding, cruel. Sure, we can consider that because of who is telling the story, the perspective is biased or the characterization flattened through time and subjectivity, but they are just awful. Simon would have to be lying about a whole lot for George or Ondine to actually be okay.
After Ondine ingratiates herself into this family, Simon gets sent away to school, and as we learn from scenes in the second “story,” Simon never really re-joins this family. Ondine and George go on to have their own child, who they dote on and lavish with attention, while Simon is treated as a guest they feel obliged to acknowledge sometimes.
At the end of this story, we swiftly jump back through time. Christopher finishes his story for Keira, who immediately says “that can’t all be true.” We will never know, but it’s at least true enough for Keira to understand the idea of a Simon who is so messed up he would lie about his friend’s infidelity. We then jump back to Simon at group therapy, who explains that after Christopher’s wedding he basically never sees him again and then begins his descent into addiction. Simon explains his years of heartache and feeling unaccepted and unknown by everyone. He has learned how to brush his teeth without ever looking in the mirror because if he does it ruins his entire day. That’s such a shattering thing to say and Skinner delivers it with just the right emotion from someone who means it, but who has accepted this self-hatred as part of his life.
It’s when Simon is finished that we finally see who he is telling his story to. This “reveal,” as well as Simon’s conversation with Dana (Rebecca Root) afterward, tells us—without relying on clunky exposition—that Simon doesn’t identify as a gay man, but rather a trans woman, and is in the beginning stages of becoming herself. This conversation with Dana is a good scene, largely because of Rebecca Root’s infusion of such a history, and a personality, into her character. This conversation is also refreshing because it is the first time in such a long stretch of time that someone is speaking to Simon with warmth and listening to her and telling her that she is strong, brave, and better than George or Ondine have ever led her to believe.
We move ahead in time once again, further along into Simon’s transition. She doesn’t have her name yet, but is fully presenting as a woman—someone like her mother, who she admitted to Dana is the kind of woman she’d want to be. Simon visits the now-widowed Ondine to request her mother’s earrings back. Again, Ondine displays the pragmatic, superficially familial tone with Simon she’s always had, and barely blinks an eye at the new look. But once Simon says why she’s there, Ondine brings out her claws, saying that she can’t give away the earrings because they were a gift from George, and are meant for the women in the family. The Scandinavian vitriol continues, with Ondine eventually saying “if you really loved your mother, you would have died saving her in that fire.” So, yeah, Ondine definitely set the fire and she is a real piece of work.
But then, Simon’s younger brother arrives. Simon has never met her brother as an adult and neither have we. Well, it turns out we have, as the brother is none other than Jack Edgar himself. This reveal is pretty great, in an old-fashioned mystery novel kind of way, like when you learn how everyone on the Orient Express is connected to one another. However, its effectiveness is dampened slightly by the fact that despite attempts to give him a boyish look, JJ Field is obviously older than Hugh Skinner.
This launches us into the finale and back into the present day train car. Jack is stunned: “Simon?” Yes, Candace is Jack’s sibling and knew who he was the entire time. Again, like the mystery novel, now is when the revelations and motivations come flooding out. When Jack, overcome, says he feels sick, Candace calmly explains that that’s just the poison in his drink. We then watch Candace explain her desire to inflict pain on Ondine in the best way she knows how—killing her Golden Boy—and we watch Jack die in the train seat. It’s chilling and a little unnerving how easily Candace handles the situation. However, it’s hard not to want Ondine to suffer some kind of karmic justice and from what we know of George and Ondine, it’s hard to imagine that Jack was such a great person, to be perfectly honest. It’s a dark ending, but there is some small, sick pleasure in it. Furthermore, Candace somehow—this plan is much more elaborate than we know—knows that Jack is traveling with her mother’s Romanoff earrings. She slyly reaches into his suitcase and takes the case out, promptly walking to the bathroom to place them in their rightful place, her earlobes.
She makes it off the train without anyone suspecting or noticing a thing. She further illustrates her point to Jack recently made—that once you’re a “woman of a certain age,” you become paint on the wall—by walking past Ondine and Jack’s fiancée on the train platform, wearing the infamous earrings, and going unnoticed by Ondine.
There is something satisfying about this ending as an ending for the season of The Romanoffs as well. The series is still truly an anthology series, and despite the loose familial or professional connections among some characters, each episode is a standalone story. Many felt a bit burdened with the obligation to incorporate either a character’s Romanoff ancestry or a plot that echoes the famous plots of the Romanoffs—a sick child, a dangerous influencer, an obsession with lineage. In this episode we get the least focus on the Romanoff heritage: Candace is proud of her mother’s Russian ancestry, and the earrings, but she doesn’t seem to cling to wanting to be a Romanoff the way other characters have. Instead, this arc results in a loop closed for this series. After most of her life, Candace is able to end the line of the pretend Romanoff family that has been carrying her mother’s legacy and return it to herself. The pretender to the throne has been dispensed with and, along with that, the “true Romanoff” is able to get some kind of revenge or retribution that the real Romanoffs never got.
As a series, The Romanoffs was always interesting. Even when I became frustrated with the predictability of the plot (“The Violet Hour”), or the choices of Matthew Weiner (“Bright and High Circle”), each story was capably told, and every performance was committed and as honest as they could be. The series initially appeared too keen on making its premise clear and incorporating the Romanoffs and crafting semi-wacky scenarios. However, after the head-in-hands episode that was “Bright and High Circle,” the series loosened up a little bit and really became a beautifully shot and generously acted character studies.
These later episodes, with more distance from the Romanoff legacy, underline more the common connection all of these “Romanoffs” have. They are people who are too obsessed with the past, and with heritage, and who then cling to an idea of what they once were, and what they once had, and use it to explain away why they deserve more today, or why they are suffering today—because of what they’ve inherited, or were meant to inherit, as Candace was meant to inherit the earrings. Candace getting back the earrings is a tangible manifestation of the other Romanoffs trying to get back their inheritance of nobility and specialness, but with the accomplishment of her goal, it feels like maybe one Romanoff can start to let go of the past. It’s high time.
- This episode was co-written by Matthew Weiner and Donald Joh (who worked as a story editor on the previous episodes). Directed by Weiner.
- I understand every trans person is trans their entire life; I do not wish to imply that Candace “used to be a he”; I used the names and pronouns I did here to correspond with what names and pronouns were used during each part of the story, to keep the recap parallel with the arc of the episode.
- The bar is the floor, but I appreciate Weiner casting trans women Anderson and Root to play trans women.
- I was happy to see JJ Field brought back after glimpsing him in the background in episode three because I have a fond memory of his performance in the 2007 Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of Northanger Abbey, which I saw several times. It also stars Felicity Jones and Carey Mulligan!
- The line “I had accepted the fact that no one would really know me again—certainly not love me” is very Don Draper.
- Every episode was very intimidating to review, but I did enjoy doing it. I liked being tasked with watching the episodes closely and I think my experience of the series benefited from that critical gaze. I will likely watch the episodes again sometime in the next few months, just to see if the experiences and stories hold up. Should be interesting!
- A song for the road