In a scene from the second “episode” of The Romanoffs, set on a ultra-luxurious cruise ship in undetermined waters, a lecturer (played by an actor whose identity I’m not allowed to disclose) addresses a group of holiday makers. The men in the room wear chinos and brightly colored shirts; the women sport patterned blouses, scarves, and eccentric jewelry. They all believe they’re directly descended from Russian royalty. The Romanov name implies glamour, tragedy, and almost mythological trauma, but what it really conveys, the lecturer tells them, is delusion. Their heritage, he says, is “some combination of the grandiose and the terrified.”
If you were looking for a way to summarize the commonality of The Romanoffs’ eight episodes, which mark Matthew Weiner’s semi-triumphant return to television for the first time since Mad Men concluded in 2015, grandiose and terrified might be as good as it gets. Amazon’s new series—the first time the streaming service has elected to release a show in weekly portions—is extravagant and ambitious, intermittently brilliant and baffling. Each installment (at least judging by the three made available for review) is feature-length and apparently distinct from the others, apart from a simple connective thread: The stories all consider different people who claim to be descendants of the House of Romanov, whose ruling members were assassinated by Bolsheviks in 1918.
In other words, The Romanoffs is another show that might test your tolerance for the pain of rich white people. It also tends to smack of self-indulgence. Weiner was given an exorbitant budget for the show (around $70 million), creative freedom, and apparently unlimited access to a squadron of stars (Isabelle Huppert, Aaron Eckhart, Kathryn Hahn, Christina Hendricks, Amanda Peet, Ron Livingston … the list goes on and on). It isn’t just the cast that makes The Romanoffs feel like a series of Woody Allen films—it’s also the way each installment seems like an opportunity for Weiner to try out different locales and genres (Kubrickian horror here, Parisian high society there).
And yet, when it works, the series can be fascinating. Which other TV writer would name an episode after a line about mortality from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land? Or insert a surreal, unprompted musical interlude when you’re expecting it least?
In the first episode, “The Violet Hour,” which debuts Friday, the Romanov legacy of entitlement manifests in Anushka (Marthe Keller), an aging French doyenne in a magnificent Paris apartment who tortures the nephew (Aaron Eckhart) who’s transparently waiting for her to die so he can inherit the property. Anushka is awful beyond even comic possibility: deliberately cruel and virulently racist. “Your womb is full of cobwebs,” she tells Sophie (Louise Bourgoin), the grasping French girlfriend of Eckhart’s Greg. After Anushka fires the latest in a Busby Berkeley line of caregivers, an agency sends her Hajar (Inès Melab), a lovely young nursing student in a head scarf who absorbs invective so ghastly that the scenes are hard to justify. “Take your bombs and go home,” Anushka says while slamming the door in Hajar’s face. Later, on the street, Anushka compares the “lineage” of white families with Muslims, who she says breed like “two dogs meeting in the street.”
It’s really a herculean struggle to feel sympathy for Anushka, in all her gorgonian horror, and yet the episode hinges on doing exactly that. You’re supposed to be charmed by her eventual attachment to Hajar, and to feel pity for the death of her only son many years ago, and to be mesmerized by the grandeur of her appartement, which was purchased by Russian exiles and pillaged by the Nazis. You’re supposed to be captivated, like Greg, by the superficial allure of Paris, even when its underbelly of ugly, systemic prejudice is exposed. It’s made clear that Anushka is afraid: terrified that her family line will die out, that the Romanovs will have survived everything only for the dynasty to end with her.
If the meek will inherit the earth, The Romanoffs posits, then pity those born with high opinions of themselves, for they will be condemned to perpetual disappointment. The second episode, “The Royal We” (which also debuted Friday, with installments coming weekly after that), stars Corey Stoll as a distant Romanoff (he spells it with two fs, in a nod to the show’s title, which seems itself to imply phoniness and pretension), Michael. Michael works for a college-prep company in a generic American suburb and is married to Shelly (Kerry Bishé), a woman apparently intended to embody vacuity, since she watches rom-coms and wears T-shirts that say You Had Me at Merlot.
Michael’s boring existence (the big secret of life, he tells a student, is that “nobody’s happy”) is disrupted when he’s drafted for jury duty and meets Michelle (Janet Montgomery), a former ballerina and a walking bull’s-eye for the male gaze. Is it odd that the two women in this episode are so lightly conceived that they have varying versions of the same name? Regardless, Michael delays the verdict to pursue Michelle with creepy persistence, leaving Shelly to go on their long-planned vacation alone—the cruise-slash-conference for surviving Romanov descendants to commiserate about their family history.
The cruise scenes are hugely entertaining and lavish. There are glass elevators, ball gowns, Champagne sabering, and discussions about demanding reparations (yes, reparations) from the Russian government. But “The Royal We” spends the bulk of its time with Michael and his increasing sexual obsession with Michelle. In its unforgiving portrait of a self-pitying man consumed by his desire to cheat, the episode feels reminiscent of the 2005 Woody Allen film Match Point, in which an impoverished tennis coach is unfaithful to his wealthy and kind wife simply because he’s bored.
But what’s the point? What depth, if any, lies in an unsympathetic portrait of a pathetic man addicted to panda iPhone apps and slobbering over uninterested women? The way Weiner’s directorial eye tracks Michelle—the curve of her high heel, the tightness of her dress as she stretches, the fluidity of her sheer red blouse—can feel uncomfortable, particularly given the charge over the past year that he harassed a Mad Men writer. (Weiner has denied the allegation.) Even if you decontextualize The Romanoffs from its creator, there’s something icky in the way “The Royal We” treats Michael as an avatar for viewers and Shelly as a vague and distant mystery.
The third episode, “House of Special Purpose,” has been embargoed, but enough has been revealed so far that it’s fair to say Christina Hendricks plays an actress who takes a role filming a miniseries about the Romanovs, directed by a strange and mercurial woman named Jacqueline (Isabelle Huppert). The installment is the best of the three, in part because there’s some intrigue in the exercise of Weiner creating television about creating television. “House of Special Purpose” also feels like the most distinctly stylistic of the three stories, and the wackiest. Its dreamlike interludes, where characters hover on the precipice of reality and hallucination, recall the best aspects of Mad Men.
But Mad Men was also largely a show about privileged people mired in their own trauma and their own constructed identities, and The Romanoffs has the same preoccupations. That’s not to say those themes aren’t worth exploring: Most people, privileged or not, have felt ennui, or doubted their life’s purpose, or fantasized about escape. It’s more that the format here doesn’t lend itself to the deep analysis of character that serialized television does. The characters of The Romanoffs are thinly drawn and elusive, and even the stretched-out scope of the episodes doesn’t allow time to really investigate them.
The hope, maybe, is that as the series progresses, each successive new story will shed light on the others. But that requires investment on the part of viewers that isn’t guaranteed. Grandiosity and terror, it turns out, aren’t always that compelling to watch.