‘The Romanoffs’ Recap: Calling Our Better AngelsOctober 12, 2018 4:00pm

Streaming dramas are often tricky to recap, as much for their flaws as for the fact that all the episodes drop at once. The Romanoffs, however — Matthew Weiner’s new anthology series about people who believe they’re descended from Russian royalty — is a special case in a couple of ways. First, Weiner convinced Amazon to release one episode a week (except for this premiere week, which will feature two: “The Violet Hour” and “The Royal We”). Second, while the new show’s problems are many — starting with early installments that run close to 90 minutes apiece — there are enough echoes of the style and depth of Mad Men to merit a weekly discussion. So, thoughts on this week’s debut episodes coming up just as soon as I kill time rescuing baby pandas trapped in bubbles…

“The Violet Hour”

“One never knows how much of the journey will be alone.” -Anushka

Since this is an anthology series, Weiner conceivably could have begun with any episode. It’s not hard to see why he led off with “The Violet Hour,” though. It focuses on an elderly woman named Anastasia (Marthe Keller) who lives in Paris, the city where many legends (plus a popular animated musical) claim the actual Anastasia, daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, wound up. This one, who goes by Anushka, isn’t old enough to be the original (the Romanov massacre was in 1918), but she seems a plausible niece or granddaughter of the real deal, and she tells stories of tragedies she witnessed or experienced directly during World War II(*) that are no less horrifying than what may have become of her namesake.

(*) Keller was actually born in 1945, so she’s playing a bit older herself.

All of the series’ protagonists are fooling themselves, not only about being Romanov descendants, but about the more fundamental questions of their lives. Anushka, with her swank Paris apartment and Fabergé egg (which she’ll eventually confess is a fake), just has a more credible case for being royalty than, say, Michael in this week’s second tale. But whatever her lineage, she’s still just a lonely old woman, frightened of how the world is changing from the one she remembers, and of how close her journey is to ending. She is visited by her nephew Greg (Aaron Eckhart) and his girlfriend Sophie (Louise Borgoin) but her sadness and frustration are taken out mostly on her new Muslim caregiver, Hajar, played by Inès Melab.

“The Violet Hour” is, if you step back from it, a pretty stock tale of a model minority winning the heart of a stubborn old racist. (See, among other things, most of Sidney Poitier’s early films.) However, Weiner’s script and the performances by Keller and Melab provide enough specificity to transcend the cliché. There’s an unfortunate timeliness to Anushka’s particular brand of xenophobia, down to the way she keeps thinking of and referring to Hajar as an immigrant long after it’s made clear that the aide was born in France. (Hajar struggles to be a part of a country she’s lived in for her entire life, while Anushka fantasizes about being a citizen of a country she’s never been to.) The chemistry between the two women builds carefully but unmistakably, so that moments such as Hajar holding Anushka’s hand, or Anuhska insisting on dressing Hajar in her old-world gowns and gloves, have the intended impact. The story maybe too much of a slow burn, but these two leads mostly makes it work.

It’s when the tale extends out beyond Anushka and Hajar that it stumbles. Borgoin is a blast as Sophie, whose contempt for Greg’s cranky old aunt is as unmistakable as it is understandable. Eckhart also nicely rides the line between a good but ultimately aimless guy and someone who is transparently desperate to inherit that apartment. But the episode barely puts any effort into making us believe the key twist: that Greg would fall in love with Hajar. And it puts absolutely none into the idea that she has fallen in love with him. Yes, he’s handsome, and yes, the olive pizza was good. But the moment where a pregnant Hajar admits that she has fallen for Greg comes utterly from nowhere. It’s necessary for the ending Weiner wants, where the old woman becomes so taken with this girl that she tearfully welcomes her into the family, but it’s not reverse-engineered thoroughly enough. Weiner occasionally fell into this trap on Mad Men — I never found it wholly believable in “The Other Woman” that Joan would prostitute herself to close the Jaguar deal — but never to this absurd degree.

It’s a story full of lovely images, both inside and outside of that amazing flat, but that closing tableau of Anushka admiring Greg and Hajar rings hollow because of how unsubstantiated this romance is.

The Royal We”

“You have to accept the reality and try to be happy with whatever you get.” -Michael

“The Royal We” starts out in intentionally less glamorous territory than “The Violet Hour.” Instead of a European woman who feels directly linked to royalty, we have a suburban American couple where the husband, Michael (Corey Stoll), is a Romanov by name but doesn’t really care about the family legends — or anything else. He has what seems to be a successful tutoring business, a nice house and a beautiful wife, Shelly (Kerry Bishé), who only wants to spend time with him. But, like Anushka, there is something in the core of his being telling him that this is not what his life should be, for reasons he can’t articulate as well as she could.

Michael’s inability to find satisfaction in a fairly privileged existence makes him even more exasperating than Anushka, who is old and frail and relatively powerless. “The Royal We” plays at times like a parody of the Draper marriage from Mad Men, with a remote man losing interest in his wholesome blonde wife in favor of a mysterious and challenging brunette. Only in this case, the husband’s an uncharismatic loser, and the wife is much too awesome for him to deserve. Much of this is explicitly played for laughs, as Michael shamelessly pulls a Henry Fonda from 12 Angry Men to extend his time on the jury with Janet Montgomery’s Michelle. Even the story’s final beat, with him pushing Shelly off a cliff in the vain hope that Michelle would want him back if she didn’t feel like a homewrecker, is treated as a jokey Hitchcock pastiche: Shelly survives with minor scrapes and bruises, while Michael gets a kick in the nuts and a face full of pepper spray.

Whether Weiner and Stoll intentionally want the audience to hate Michael from early on, he’s not a character worth the time the story spends on his pursuit of Michelle and its aftermath — especially not when Shelly’s solo adventure on a cruise ship is so much more fun. It’s an unfair balance, because she’s clearly the sympathetic one, and because Bishé lights up the screen as Shelly comes into her own, flirting with another unhappily married man in Ivan(*) and generally swanning around as the belle of the (retrograde and offensive) cruise-ship ball. But every time the story cut back to that jury room, or to Michael and Michelle canoodling at a bar and hooking up at the family lake house — Shelly’s family lake house, no less — my reaction was always an impatient, “Oh, right. This again?”

(*) This is a good mode for Noah Wyle, who now has just enough mileage on that eternally boyish face to seem both dashing and damaged in the same moment.

“The Violet Hour” likewise luxuriates in its Romanov’s awful behavior, but en route to a better understanding between her and the story’s more likable protagonist. In “The Royal We,” Michael learns nothing, and is so transparently lame that it’s a wonder Michelle wants to spend more time with him, let alone that we’re expected to. Shelly’s story is thematically similar to Michael’s in her confusion over why she can’t find joy in a pretty good life — “I’m a basically happy person. I mean, as much as anybody could be,” she tells Ivan. But in addition to having a more clear external reason for her unhappiness in Michael’s bad behavior, she’s simply a more well-rounded character, and a better showcase role for Bishé than the one Stoll has to work with. The episode’s at least smart enough to recognize which half of the marriage to conclude on, as the final shot is of Shelly driving away from her own attempted murder, smoking and listening to “I Will Survive.” As various emotions wash over Bishé’s face, you see finally that Shelly is relieved, and even happy, to be free of this hopeless loser who’s been dragging her down.

It’s a great ending to a story that’s half-delightful, half-nails-on-chalkboard.

Some other thoughts:

* Having spent multiple seasons writing for The Sopranos, Weiner is no stranger to explicit sex and language on television. Still, there’s a sense in the Greg and Sophie scenes of “The Violet Hour” that he’s very much enjoying being free of basic cable’s content restrictions.

* The main title sequence draws the line between past and present with pictures and music, starting out with a depiction of the Romanov massacre scored to a classical piece, before transitioning into Tom Petty’s “Refugee” as the images eventually take us to a contemporary woman exiting the subway.

* These episodes are connected only by theme, but it may be that the series as a whole isn’t just a group of isolated stories. Mad Men alum John Slattery, who has already been advertised as starring in a different installment, pops up briefly in “The Royal We” as Romanov historian Daniel Reese, the speaker at the lecture where Shelly and Ivan first notice each other.

What did everybody else think?

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