‘The Last Czars’: Inside Netflix’s Stunning Russian Answer to ‘The Crown’
This new six-part series, a hybrid of fiction and documentary, chronicles the rise and fall of Russia’s Romanov dynasty. And it is well worth your time.
The Last Czars is proof that two great tastes sometimes do taste great together. A hybrid of The Crown and a bingeable documentary series, Netflix’s six-part historical saga about the fall of Russia’s Romanov dynasty is a lavish period piece driven by non-fiction talking-head interviews and archival material. It’s a combination that, in theory, should negate the power of both its chosen forms, resulting in cardboard cut-out recreations and cursory factual explanations. Yet the final product is a handsomely mounted and cleverly constructed crossbreed account of one of the 20th century’s most monumental political upheavals, which ultimately concluded with the execution of Czar Nicholas II, his wife Czarina Alexandra and their five children.
At heart, The Last Czars (premiering July 3) is a story about monumental stupidity. Led by sharp commentary from authors and academics that’s seamlessly integrated into the action proper, the series paints a portrait of a tragedy that occurred because of the incessant missteps made by its victims. Those begin almost the moment Nicholas (Robert Jack) assumes his position as monarch, which gives him control of an empire that spans a sixth of the world, features more than 146 nationalities, and has belonged to his family for the past 300 years. Despite a rapidly industrializing nation, Nicholas uses his first official speech as czar to proclaim that he won’t embrace any elements of democracy. Instead he’ll hew to the principles of autocracy—a decision that will set the tone for his ensuing reign, and downfall.
Nicholas’ marriage to German-born wife Alexandra (Susanna Herbert) is one of love, and The Last Czars suggests that it’s doomed from the start by cutting from a shot of Alexandra’s jewelry falling to the ground during their wedding, to violence erupting at the peasant-attended feast outside. Spurred by his hardliner uncle Sergei (Gavin Mitchell), Nicholas pays no mind to such common folk-related disasters, since he’s sure that, like his ancestors before him, he’ll be beloved as a divinely chosen leader. Per a narrated anecdote, he and Alexandra subsequently waved from their carriage at passing vehicles that were carrying dead bodies from this calamity, mistaking them for well-wishers. It’s an incident emblematic of their Old World conception of their relationship to the masses, and it soon earns the monarch the nickname “Nicholas the Bloody.”
Speaking of Old World ways of thinking, The Last Czars also concentrates on the rise of Grigori Rasputin (Ben Cartwright), a wild-man peasant who, while on a pilgrimage, comes to believe that sin is a necessary precursor to salvation. “He’s ungovernable, he’s fearless,” is how one speaker describes the occultist “Mad Monk,” whose transfixing eyes and magnetic charm (especially with women) are key to his self-created persona as a supernatural healer. Rasputin’s “feral charisma” sets him on a path that leads him thousands of miles away from his Siberia home to the courts of St. Petersburg, and then to the Romanovs’ inner sanctum, where Nicholas and Alexandra view his gifts as vital, given their lack of success at having a male heir.
That boy arrives, finally, in the form of Alexei (Oskar Mowdy), albeit not without complication, since the infant has hemophilia and therefore is in danger of perishing before he can assume the throne. The Last Czars contends, persuasively, that Alexei’s condition was the most important facet of the Romanovs’ life. It influences Nicholas’ every move as ruler. It forces Nicholas and Alexandra to retreat from the public eye, thereby creating an even wider chasm between them and their people. And, most crucial of all, it provides an opening for Rasputin to gain sway over them, once he convinces the couple that he’s the sole person capable of keeping Alexei healthy and safe.
Rasputin’s position at the side (and in the ear) of Alexandra, as well as his orgiastic appetite for women, leads to tabloid stories about their (non-existent) affair. Such slanderous gossip only further sows seeds of discord around Nicholas, whose constant military blunders are taken as a sign of his individual weakness and his victimization at the hands of the dastardly Rasputin. As it turns out, both of those things are true, although The Last Czars damns Nicholas for a more fundamental failing: an inability to recognize that the traditions he cherishes (and which empower him) are dying and that the encroaching modern world requires a novel ruling approach that involves, among other things, greater popular representation in government.
The series is, consequently, a study of the cost of clinging to history at the expense of understanding the present. Unlike Matthew Weiner’s ambitious, scattered The Romanoffs, the opulently staged The Last Czars conveys an intimate sense of the thoughts and emotions guiding Nicholas, Alexandra, and Rasputin. Its lead performances, especially from Cartwright as the Mad Monk, vividly express the personalities being described by the show’s real-life experts. Moreover, the actors’ appearance, and comportment, prove all the more convincing when juxtaposed with photos and film clips of the actual Romanovs—a fiction-versus-reality device that’s also employed to sterling effect during discussions of Russia’s military campaigns, as well as during the execution of Rasputin.
The Last Czars’ suspense is mitigated by the surprise-free destiny of its main characters, and its uneven accents are an occasional distraction. Nonetheless, its only considerable shortcoming is a framing subplot that concerns a former Romanov tutor (Oliver Dimsdale) investigating, in 1925 Berlin, the case of a woman (Indre Patkauskaite) who says she’s Czar Nicholas’ youngest daughter, Anastasia. Try as the show might, there’s no mystery about the validity of this injured woman’s claims, which makes it comes across as a lame attempt to piggyback on a legend—which has fascinated people for decades, even inspiring an animated feature and Broadway musical—that has scant plausible basis in fact.
Even then, however, The Last Czars dispenses fascinating insights, proposing that the myth of Anastasia was created and promoted by the revolutionary Bolsheviks themselves, who didn’t want to reveal that they’d callously massacred not only Nicholas, but also his innocent children. It’s a final note that, like the rest of the series, sheds illuminating new light on a well-known tale.