The Romanoffs, in almost every way, is peak #PeakTV. That is an endorsement and a damnation. Mostly it’s the latter.
Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner wrote and directed an anthology series of 80-plus-minute episodes about rich white people claiming royal heritage. Nearly all of the first episode is told in subtitles. There are movie stars in each installment. Advanced screeners sent to critics arrived with a bulleted list of innocuous plot points we were forbidden from discussing.
The show embodies everything TV audiences and those in the industry cheer and, alternately, groan about in the current state of prestige TV, in which auteurs are given creative free rein, privilege is given boundless empathy, whiteness is blinding, lighting is a construct, and conventional running times are rendered meaningless. Every single element in The Romanoffs, the first two episodes of which were made available for streaming on Amazon Friday, is exquisitely structured and meticulously crafted. And taken broadly as a whole, it is all maddening.
To anyone who watched Mad Men during its spectacular original run and/or read the 3,000-word deconstructions that every pop culture website ran weekly following each episode, the thematic concerns of The Romanoffs shouldn’t be unexpected. This is Don Draper’s existential grappling over Dick Whitman resurrected and on steroids.
Each installment of The Romanoffs centers on a person who is, or at least claims to be, a descendant of the Russian royal Romanov family. In surprising ways, that supposed heritage upends the characters’ entire lives. In the first episode, “The Violet Hour,” an ailing Parisian woman in the sunset of her life dangles her ancestral apartment as a bargaining chip for the respective futures of her Muslim maid and her American nephew. In the second, “The Royal We,” an unhappy marriage is tested when a woman goes on a Romanov-themed cruise without her husband, who is the actual Romanov descendant.
If, like me, you kind-of-sort-of know who the Romanoffs are, here’s a Wikipedia-ish summary. They are a Russian imperial family, referred to as the House of Romanov, and the second dynasty to rule Russia, from 1613 until 1917. In July of 1918, 18 members of the family were executed by firing squad by the Bolsheviks, an event that is macabrely restaged in the opening credits of The Romanoffs. There were rumors that some members of the family had escaped, with several impostors over the years claiming their identities, most famously the Grand Duchess Anastasia—a dark historical falsehood turned into a whimsical musical cartoon—but DNA testing of remains disproved all of their claims to lineage.
The running theme in the episodes of The Romanoffs that we’ve screened is that the descendants feel an emboldened, unearned entitlement, not necessarily because of their lineage, but to a certain destiny or material happiness.
Is it supposed to be satire? The desperation of white privilege is on display here, but it isn’t necessarily mocked as much as it is just nakedly exposed. Toxic masculinity whiffs from every frame, but we’re not certain the stench is meant to be unpleasant. In the cases of the characters played by Aaron Eckhart in “The Violet Hour” and Noah Wyle in “The Royal We,” it’s even a pheromone, not a turnoff.
“The Violet Hour” begins with a veiled condemnation of Marthe Keller’s Anushka and her white-knuckling of tradition, class, and pedigree. Her racist cruelty towards her house servant, Ines Malab’s Hajar, makes it easy to side with the shrill girlfriend to Aaron Eckhart’s Greg, who bemoans that the woman won’t just die so they can finally inherit her apartment. When Hajar’s inherent kindness wins over Anushka, she decides to leave Hajar the apartment instead. This pisses Greg off! He confronts Hajar over it, but ends up seducing her instead and our eyes didn’t stop rolling from that point until the credits rolled.
“The Royal We” centers on Corey Stoll’s Michael Romanoff, who so despises his wife Shelly (Kerry Bishé) that he purposefully prolongs jury duty so that he doesn’t have to go on a Romanov-themed cruise with her. Everything else that happens is on the list of plot points we were told not to spoil. So we’ll instead reveal that the gender politics of what unfolds are extremely cringey.
No matter where you stand on the art versus the artist debate, it’s noteworthy that The Romanoffs so exactingly deals with themes at the root of recent allegations against Weiner. Last year, former Mad Men writer Kater Gordon accused Weiner of sexual harassment, saying that he once told her she owed him the opportunity to see her naked. Weiner told The New York Times that he doesn’t remember saying it. Veteran TV writer Marti Noxon, who also worked on Mad Men at the time, called Weiner, “in the words of one his colleagues, an emotional terrorist who will badger, seduce and even tantrum in an attempt to get his needs met.”
The press tour for The Romanoffs has forced Weiner to confront and reckon with these allegations and that reputation. But given the themes of the show, it’s unclear whether Weiner is working through his demons here, or if he just shrugged and let those fuckers take the wheel.
That’s a lot of exasperation we’ve just articulated. And yet this is a TV series that is truly enjoyable to watch. Therein lies the problem, and our own critical crisis of conscience.
Weiner has a way of making the ordinary look whimsical, which in turn makes everything else more profound. It’s that eye that sets Weiner apart. His work has a playfulness that is missing in most modern TV.
His cinematic chops are unquestionable. In each of the first two episodes there is a shot of characters riding an elevator, and they are among the slickest TV images you’ll see this year. The production value is sumptuous, the pacing somehow both languid and lithe. And no one can write dialogue for the world’s most insufferable people like Weiner can. He’s able to pop open a window into the worlds of people who are, truly, the worst, and let’s us gaze at them in a way that not only helps us understand them, but, in many cases, like them.
Yet the fact that we’re still being sold this as prestige TV, as elegance, is predictable and also inexcusable. Matthew Weiner is a phenomenal auteur with an obvious perspective. How exciting would it be if he widened that perspective, or imbued it with a semblance of empathy?
It’s the marginalized in both the first two chapters who are manipulated, sexualized, and stripped of their agency. And these characters, naturally, are women. These are two distinct stories in which women’s subservience to men is depicted as an inevitability, or even a reward, but not a choice. Perhaps this is reflective of an unjust, patriarchal reality. Perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps we should stop glorifying television that insinuates it is.