Now that all eight episodes of Amazon’s “The Romanoffs” have been aired, a full review seems appropriate. In general, the critics’ comments about most of the individual episodes have been unforgiving (see, e.g., this Rolling Stone review). At times, they have contrasted it unfavorably with director Matthew Weiner’s much more popular “Mad Men.” But I think “The Romanoffs” needs to be judged more for its own strengths and weaknesses. And despite the admitted existence of the latter, there are also plenty of the former.
Of course, I could be biased. By profession, for over forty years I was primarily a professor of Russian history and wrote a two-volume history of Russia, plus another book dealing with one of the Romanoff (or more commonly Romanov) rulers, Alexander II.
Admittedly, most of the series had little to do with Russia or Russian history, but what there was I appreciated. Each of the episodes (usually about one and a half hours) began with the same brief scene of the communist-ordered killing of Tsar Nicholas II and his family (July 1918). Certainly a horrific event, but also an important one. In 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church proclaimed Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, and their five children as saints in recognition of their Christ-like behavior in humbly and meekly dying for political reasons. And any depiction of Nicholas II, for example in having a premarital affair with a ballet dancer in the 2017 film Mathilda, that violates this saintly image is controversial.
Outside of the same rapid opening, the only two episodes that deal much with Russia are the third, “The House of Special Purpose,” and the seventh, “End of the Line.” The former is about a cable miniseries on the Romanovs, which is being shot in Austria. The latter is about an American couple who for purposes of adoption come to Vladivostok, a port city on the Sea of Japan.
Having been to the Soviet Union and then Russia many times from 1978 to 1995, viewing the “End of the Line” brought back many nostalgic moments.
Having been to the Soviet Union and then Russia many times from 1978 to 1995, viewing the “End of the Line” brought back many nostalgic moments. Although Moscow and Leningrad/St. Petersburg were the cities we (my wife, Nancy, and I and/or accompanying students) usually visited, there were also others from Tallinn in the northeast (now the independent Estonian capital) to Irkutsk in southern Siberia—still 2550 miles northwest of Vladivostok via the Trans-Siberian Railway.
As the American couple (Joe and Anka) came and went in various places in Vladivostok, the episode had them experience various familiar happenings that I recall. Among them were turning in your passport at a hotel front desk, not drinking the local water, a prostitute plying her trade in a hotel bar, gifts (bribes) for various officials, changing money on the black market, a Russian guide or expeditor encouraging visiting Americans to spend freely their dollars, visibly armed security guards in places like stores and hotels, reminders of high Russian alcoholism (in the mid-1980s Soviet per capita alcohol consumption was about two and a half times the U.S. rate), and various cultural differences—the couple’s main Russian facilitator, Elena, tells them not to smile too much or the Russians will think them mental patients.
Other bits of information or accurate portrayals also emerge. The American husband tells his wife that the last Romanoff rulers were German not Russian, which because of centuries of future rulers marrying mainly Germanic royal women (like the future Catherine the Great) is partly true. Nicholas II certainly had much more German than Russian blood.
If we wonder why an American couple would go all the way to Vladivostok to adopt a child, it’s useful to recall that from the mid-1990s to about a decade ago (when the episode was set), Russia was a major provider for U.S. foreign adoptions. From 2003 to 2005, for example, U.S. adoptions from Russia averaged over 5,000 per year.
One commenter on a review of “End of the Line” had this to say:
As a parent of a child from Russia, I can say the details in this episode really ring true, from the hotel buffet, to the room key, to the people involved in the adoption at the baby home and in court. 2008 was probably one of the last “busy” years of Russian adoption . . . ., Packing small gifts, baby clothes and other items which were requested was also right on target. Most regions required two visits, and there was a process in place if upon meeting there was an issue with the child (or the prospective parents,) so that aspect was dramatized. I thought the episode showed “all sides” of the arguments regarding international adoption, and since there must have been a writer who had first hand experience to get it so right.
In the other six episodes of “The Romanoffs” the only connection that any character has with the royal family is claiming a Romanoff ancestry, sometimes quite remote. But various characters often deal with situations that are worth thinking about.
In Episode 1, “The Violet Hour,” an elderly aunt, Anushka, living in Paris is seeking a new caregiver. When an agency sends her a French Muslim-looking woman named Hajar, Anushka tells her, “Take your bombs and go home,” thus providing viewers a small glimpse into the hostility toward immigrants and their descendants that has become so important in Europe and the USA.
In Episode 2, “The Royal We,” we see a young couple, Michael and Shelly, attending therapy and attempting to rekindle the love in their marriage. As so often happens in a couple’s relationship, they have difficulty empathizing and communicating with each other. While on jury duty, Michael meets a fellow juror, with whom he has an affair. Meanwhile, Shelly goes on a Romanoff Cruise (an interesting spectacle in itself), and is tempted to have her own affair. As common as stories of disharmony in marriages and infidelity endangering them are, such tales are often worthwhile—as this one is—for the insights they provide for problems that are centuries old but still important to us.
Episode 4, “Expectation,” also deals with a marriage—between Julia and Eric—and infidelity, Julia’s with Eric’s good friend, Daniel, which long ago produced Julia’s only child, Ella. Julia’s interactions with Eric, Daniel, Ella, and Ella’s father-in-law and mother-in-law give us plenty to think about. Stories of family dynamics, from Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel to the present, are something to which we can all relate.
Episode 5, “Bright and High Circle,” dramatizes two other subjects of importance—homosexuality and charges or rumors of inappropriate sexual behavior. The two main characters are Katherine, a mother of three sons, and the gay piano teacher, David, who has given lessons to all three of her sons and is suspected of pedophilia. Some critics have stated that it was unseemly for director Weiner, himself accused by a woman of unwanted sexual advances, to suggest that sexual accusations were often untrue. Nevertheless, the recent judge Kavanaugh hearings once again reminded us of how difficult it is to disentangle he-said-she-said conflicting stories.
Episode 6, “Panorama” takes us to Mexico City, where a wealthy American woman, Victoria, has brought her son, Nicky, for treatment for his hemophilia—the same disease that afflicted Alexei, the only son of Tsar Nicholas II, and heightened Rasputin’s influence as one who could alleviate his suffering. Although this episode does not draw the comparison, both Victoria and Alexandra (mother of Alexei) went to great lengths to ease their sons’ sufferings. But while Rasputin did seem to help Alexei, any benefits the Mexican clinic provided Nicky were not apparent. The willingness of mothers, however, to take desperate measures to help their suffering children is something with which we can all empathize. Additionally, the attempts of local columnist Abel to woo the married Victoria add another series variation on the theme of marital challenges.
We have already seen that the seventh episode dealt with an American couple in Vladivostok to adopt a child. It also provides insights into marital relations, especially in a scene where the couple argue about the adoption process.
The eighth and final episode, “The One That Holds Everything” once again deals with marriage, and family—and sexual orientation. The primary setting is on a train to London, featuring a young man (screenwriter Jack) and an older woman (Candace), who tells him a long story. But there are plenty of flashback scenes involving a boy and later young man, Simon, and his parents, which include his mother, father (George), and Odine, his baby-sitter and later (after George’s dallying with Odine and the death of Simon’s mother) stepmother. Simon’s childhood and his relationship with Odine are difficult, partially explaining his later attempted suicide. While recovering and undergoing group therapy he realizes and accepts his transgender nature and still later becomes a woman. As in previous episodes, this one leaves viewers with plenty to think about, not only family dynamics, but the whole issue of sexual identity.
To this point, this essay has focused on the episodes’ Russian connections and various other themes, especially those related to marriage, family, and gender. But television is primarily an entertainment medium; and good acting, interesting or attractive locations, humor, and good plotting, all add to the entertainment value. To varying degrees, “The Romanoffs” provides them all.
Among the actors I especially enjoyed watching were “Mad Men” stars Christina Hendricks (as an actress playing Tsarina Alexandra in Episode 3) and John Slattery (Daniel in Episode 4). Other well-known actors who performances stood out were Isabelle Huppert (the high-handed film director Jacqueline in Episode 3) Amanda Peet (Julia in Episode 4), Diane Lane (Katherine in Episode 5), and Kathryn Hahn (Anka in Episode 7). Other actors such as the Swiss Marthe Keller (Anushka) and Aaron Eckhart (her nephew Greg), both in Episode 1, and “The Americans” actress Annet Mahendru (as Elena in Episode 7) also gave notable performances.
Varied settings—e.g., scenes of Paris (Episode 1); a cruise ship at sea (Episode 2); New York, including inside the Russian Tea Room; and the Metropolitan Cathedral and the Diego Rivera mural outside the Palacio Nacional, both in Mexico City, and the Aztec ruins of Teotihuacan just outside the city—also add to the appeal of the series.
There are also plenty of humorous situations and lines. The whole concept of claiming Romanoff ancestry, as at least one character in each episode does, opens itself up to all sorts of comic possibilities, which are most fully exploited in Episode 2 when Shelly goes on a Romanoff Cruise. The shenanigans of her husband Michael, who delays a jury’s decision so he has more time to flirt with one of the other jurors, are also amusing. As is the pretentiousnesss of Anushka in Episode 1 and the imperiousness of director Jacqueline in Episode 3. In Episode 4 John Slattery as Daniel is as wry as he often was in “Mad Men.”
Among the comic one-liners we hear are Anushka’s words to her Muslim caregiver—“Take your bombs and go home,” and to her nephew’s girlfriend—“Your womb is full of cobwebs.” In Episode 4 social worker Julia (Amanda Peet) has humorous conversations with daughter Ella, who is pregnant, and with one of her troubled male social work clients who has to listen to Her problems.
The plotting also has its humorous moments. Weiner’s “The Romanoffs” is full of surprise endings, as we see in almost all episodes. It’s almost as if Weiner just took a class in O. Henry’s Short Stories and decided that he too was going to feature surprise endings that can make us smile. About the final episode, one reviewer wrote that it was convoluted with twists and turns and that in it the series “let its hair down and has a little fun.” Furthermore, “the series would have been better served if more episodes had shared its energy and audacity.”
Regardless of such mixed reactions, however, I found plenty to enjoy in “The Romanoffs.”
Walter G. Moss