.Review: ‘The Romanoffs’

The new Amazon series by 'Mad Men' creator Matthew Weiner boasts some serious tsar power

Only a few episodes in, it’s not entirely clear what ‘The Romanoffs’ is about—but power, privilege and jealousy are definitely themes.

The legend of the Russian royal family, and the descendents who might have escaped the Bolshevik’s bullets, has been a fountain of mawkishness for the last 100 years. It’s smarter to feel sorry for the czar’s victims. But Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, did something with his new anthology, The Romanoffs, that came as a surprise.

Olivia, an actress playing Empress Alexandra in a bad miniseries, comments about the royal family’s assassination: “That’s all anybody knows about them.” Yet, when we see a staging of the royal corpses—dumped nude into a pit in the forest to be burnt by the revolutionaries—one felt, for the first time, a strange twinge of horror.

The series’ debut episode, “The Violet Hour,” features a remarkably hellacious old lapdog-fondling Parisienne, Anushka (Marthe Keller). She’s a Romanoff, a Russian exile who’d been living in her flat since ever since there were rapacious Nazis commanding it during the Occupation. Anushka dangles her very nice piece of Right Bank real estate over her heir—her American nephew Greg (Aaron Eckhart, at his most lynx-eyed). She has him on speed dial every time she feels faint. As as a buffer, Greg hires Hajar (Ines Malab), a hijab-wearing French citizen, to nurse the old dragon. This gives Anushka a chance to spill out a torrent of venom about the Muslims. And yet, to teach Greg a lesson on the importance of returning phone calls, Anushka plans to change her will and leave the flat to Hajar.

The film noirish second installment, “The Royal We,” is set in dismal Ohio. Mike Romanoff (Corey Stoll, displaying the sinister bald virility that’s helped him in villain parts) and his sweet spouse, Shelly (Kelly Bishe), are in couples counseling. Mike’s job sucks; he advises the kind of privileged punks who dream of Harvard when they’d actually be better off at Lagertown State College. At jury duty, Mike spies Michelle (Janet Montgomery), a real tantalizer. To get more time with her, Mike decides to stage a version of Twelve Angry Men starring himself as the holdout on an open and shut case.

Shelley goes alone on what was supposed to be a couple’s trip; a Romanoff-themed cruise where the kitsch is thick as borscht; from a display Faberge egg the size of a Smart Car to a guy in a cossack suit sabraging a bottle of champagne, and a little-person dumbshow, complete with a tiny Rasputin.

Weiner is particularly evocative here, digging into the grossness of the fantasies of blue blooded power. There were backward viewers who watched Mad Men and misread the show as a tribute to the world of alpha males putting women in their place. They failed to understand Mad Men’s point, that the single most important difference between now and 50 years ago is the way women are treated.

Thus the third episode, “The House of Special Purpose,” brings back the embodiment of macha force in Mad Men, Christina Hendricks. This supernatural tale matches Hendricks’ Olivia with a different kind of red-headed force: the splendid Isabelle Huppert as Jacqueline, a tyrannical director. As in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, reality and fiction mix; Olivia’s hotel room starts to glow radium green from the light outside, and a little Anastasia ghost visits her in the night. And we have the question of who is actually breaking down: the cracked Jacqueline or the increasingly frightened (and credibly pissed off) Olivia.

It’s been done before. But in this kind of story it’s always most fun when you star someone who looks like they’ve got their head screwed on right. Certainly, that’s Hendricks, in this welcome return, fielding everything from ambiguous compliments to mortal threats with remarkable grace and wit.

Writing about The Romanoffs after three episodes is like writing about a symphony in the middle of listening to it. The theme’s not clear yet, beyond the opposing of an innocent woman and a conniving woman in every episode. (Note that the wife and mistress in episode two share a name, Shelley and Michelle.) There are interior rhymes, as when the matter of Anushka’s Parisian flat is is mirrored in Mike’s court case, a Raskolnikov-style landlady murder in the Midwest. But in its study of imperial arrogance, perhaps The Romanoffs offers a mirror of fantasies of property and power with our current American political delusions of persecution and disinheiritment.

The Romanoffs
Fridays
Amazon Prime

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