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The Romanoffs’ Missed Opportunity

Matthew Weiner’s new show had the potential to reckon with the uses and abuses of the past.

Amazon Studios

It took twenty minutes to kill the Romanovs. So many bullets had been fired on Tsar Nicholas II, that the room filled up with smoke and the gunmen couldn’t see the rest of the family. The children—the Grand Duchesses Olga, Anastasia, Tatiana, Maria and the young Tsarevich Alexei—had diamonds sewed into their clothes that caused the bullets to ricochet. The firing squad instead tried to finish the survivors off with bayonets. They even shot the dogs, though one, a spaniel named Joy, escaped, and was found days later in the woods by a British soldier. Joy ended his days in comfort in England, and is buried by Windsor castle, a fitting end for the sole surviving member of the Russian royal family.

It is this gruesome scene of a family’s last moments in a Siberian basement that serves as the opening credits to Matthew Weiner’s highly anticipated new show The Romanoffs. The title might suggest a period drama, like Weiner’s last hit Mad Men. But The Romanoffs is set in the present-day and Weiner has likewise turned away from the serialized form to produce something more akin to an anthology. Each roughly 90-minute episode centers on a different character who claims to be a descendant of the Romanovs and the havoc they think this entitles them to wreak on the lives of others. “These characters,” Weiner explained to The Hollywood Reporter, “believe themselves to be, whether they are or not, descendants of this last autocratic family who are part of one of the great true crime stories of all time.”

This sense of being victims of a terrible injustice, a crime of epoch-making proportions, unites the characters in The Romanoffs far more than blood. Whether or not they are actually related to the Romanov family is immaterial. What matters is that they believe their lives are not what they should be, that they have somehow been robbed of their rightful place within an antiquated hierarchy, cheated of a grand inheritance, and unjustly deprived of their right to be xenophobic or power-hungry narcissists—without people judging them for it.

Nostalgia for the Russian royal family often functions in The Romanoffs as a kind of status anxiety, a primal scream against egalitarianism aired to the tune of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. But Weiner’s interest in flawed human beings, which worked in the character-driven Mad Men, threatens here to romanticize autocracy. In order to examine a deluded longing for a bygone era, you have to acknowledge the realities of that era—and the real story of the dynasty that ruled over it, their obstinate cruelty and apathy in the face of mass suffering. 

Much like the opening pages of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the first episode’s dialogue is almost entirely in French. Set in Paris, most of the drama revolves around the opulent apartment that belongs to Anastasia “Anushka” LeCharnay (Marthe Keller), an impeccably dressed chain-smoking woman with high blood pressure who claims to be a Romanov. She says the apartment was purchased by her great great-grandfather, an illegitimate son of Paul I (son of Catherine the Great) because “he liked to hear the sound of the guillotine” (Anushka relishes in relaying anecdotes about the insensitivity of her autocratic ancestors). Her American nephew Greg (Aaron Eckhart) and his French girlfriend Sophie (Louise Bourgoin) spend much of the episode openly waiting for her to die so they can inherit the place and the yellow fabergé egg that rests inside it.

Anushka is cruel and abusive to the caretakers Greg hires to look after her, and no one is able to last long until the agency sends along Hajar (Inès Melab), young Muslim woman studying to be a nurse. Anushka is at first loathe to let her into the apartment, screaming “Take your bombs and go home!” Despite strong performances from Kelly and Melab (Weiner’s talent for extracting haunting yet understated performances from his actors is a happy carry over from “Mad Men”), the premiere sadly slips into the movie trope of the racist who only becomes repentant after she runs out of slurs. Anushka’s growth on the question of migrants in France is meant to be marked by her telling Hajar (who was born in France and is not an immigrant, as she has to constantly remind everyone): “I am also an immigrant. I know what it is to be in exile. Every night—I dream of Russia.” Moments later, she admits she’s never been there. 

Anastasia lets her Romanov legacy stand for different things at different times. At the beginning of the “Violet Hour,” Anastasia uses her supposed heritage to mark her identification with a dying European world order. Then it shifts, just as her feelings towards Hajar change: Being a Romanov suddenly means being a victim of unspeakable violence. Towards the end of the episode, Anastasia reveals a traumatic memory to Hajar of a time when the Nazis, believing her anti-Communist family would be sympathetic to them, occupied the Paris apartment and raped her sister.   

Indeed, being a Romanov is more about how these characters make sense of and channel their own pain at the world. The actual history of the Romanov dynasty itself, as well as Russian history and culture more broadly, is represented onscreen largely in clichéd touches like Fabergé eggs, Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” and cartoonish representations of Rasputin. “Anushka” is also not the proper diminutive of Anastasia; it is a nickname for “Anna,” an entirely different name in Russian.

This is arguably where the show is at its most profound; it would seem to mock some of the worst tendencies of our current genealogy craze—think of the commercial in which an American who realizes he’s of Irish extraction, not German like he thought, proudly proclaims “I turned in my lederhosen for a kilt!” Weiner rightly points out that these investments in heritage often say more about who we want to be than who we are.  

The second episode of the series shifts from central Paris to a decidedly less glamorous suburban strip mall where Michael Romanoff (Corey Stoll) works as college entrance exam tutor. He and his wife Shelly, played by Kerry Bishé, are in couples counseling, but the source of their marital woes is somewhat vague. Shelly later admits her problem in the marriage “might be him.” Michael is certainly bored, but a new chance for excitement comes from a surprising place: jury duty.

Assigned to a murder trial, he falls for one of the other jurors, a seductive true crime lover played by Janet Montgomery. Trying to impress her, Michael mentions that his whole family was murdered by the Bolsheviks. With Michael preoccupied, Shelly decides to go by herself on a cruise she planned for both of them, a tour hosted by the “Romanov Family Society” of the Black Sea (or they may just be pretending to be on the Black Sea—it’s unclear). Once on board, she is somewhat ostracized by the others for being a Romanov only “by marriage.” She meets another “by marriage” Romanov (Noah Wyle) and the two outsiders try to make sense of why this legacy means so much to their spouses. “Who gives a shit?” Shelly wonders. 

Shelly’s line reminded me of a scene in Season 1 of “Mad Men” when it is revealed by Donald Draper’s rival, Pete Campbell, that Don has been living under an assumed name. “Mr. Campbell,” their boss asks, “who cares?” Don, actually Dick Whitman, switched identities with the real Donald Draper, his army lieutenant in the Korean War who died on the battlefield. Don’s efforts to forge a new future through an invented past served as the fitting undercurrent of a show ostensibly about advertising but truly about consumerism’s promise of self-reinvention through acquisition. In this way The Romanoffs is a fitting follow-up for Weiner, but none of the characters use their new identities to become anyone half as interesting as Don. I found myself wishing I could watch the show within the show, “The Romanovs,” instead, or at least a better version of it.

“The Romanovs: A Mini-Series” appears in Episode 3, “A House for a Special Purpose.” Olivia Rogers (Christina Hendricks) arrives in Austria to star as Alexandra, wife of Nicholas II, when she encounters a tyrannical first-time director Jacqueline (Isabel Huppert) who will do whatever it takes to give her actors the right motivation, grabbing the actor who plays Nicholas II (Mike Doyle) by the testicles. Jacqueline, who claims to be a descendant of the Romanovs, uses that to enforce her will on the actors, telling Olivia “This is my family’s story. And you walk through it. It doesn’t mean anything to you.” (It’s hard to watch Jacqueline’s behavior and not think of Mad Men writer Kater Gordon’s allegations last year that Weiner sexually harassed her, or of the producer Marti Noxon’s judgment that Weiner was “an emotional terrorist.” Weiner has denied Gordon’s allegations, but has reflected “in a general sense” on his behavior in the workplace.) 

But that “story,” in Jacqueline’s telling, consists of only the most well-known and sugarcoated plot points—nothing that a cursory watching of the 1997 animated film Anastasia, wouldn’t cover. Weiner surely realizes this, and yet the irony is never made explicit, and the show’s stance on all the big questions it gestures towards—of history, legacy, and family mythology—is never clear. 

As a meditation on the misuse of history to justify feelings of resentment, The Romanoffs had the potential to be a resonant drama: It’s been a little over a year since the events of Charlottesville and a national conversation about the uses of our own past. Yet for a show so concerned with the way the past can be contorted to satisfy present-day egos, it curiously never delves into the actualities of the Romanov reign. Nicholas II exists onscreen only as a buffoonish cuckold, not as the absolute monarch who turned a blind eye to mass starvation, housing shortages, and the many miseries that marked life in the waning years of his rule. Don Draper had to come to terms with the effects of the cigarettes he had helped sell to the American consumer; hopefully the would-be Romanovs in Weiner’s new show will air their family’s dirty laundry in the remaining episodes.