“End of the Line” is a tense, engaging episode of The Romanoffs that is also the first to realize the potential of what the series can accomplish. While the performances and direction in every episode so far have been exceptional, an underlying flabbiness to most of the stories kept the series in a purgatory of well-staged mediocrity. Not so with this week’s episode, which maintained an oppressive sense of dissonant uncertainty throughout. It begins urgently, as we see hands stuffing slabs of chocolate, coffee, and thick bundles of cash into luggage. It’s easy to surmise these items are bribes, but the process has a harried quality that evokes refugees fleeing home with whatever valuables they can grab.
We learn that Anka (Kathryn Hahn) and Joe (Jay R. Ferguson) are flying to Russia to adopt a child, Oksana. But what should be a joyful trip is anxious and unsettled. It’s not just the coffee and the money, brought to facilitate anything that must be accomplished, but the grey-green filter that lends a pallor to every scene. As they wait in line at customs, they have to constantly remind each other not to smile as armed soldiers walk up and down the length of the aisles. Even though this couple is ostensibly in control, this oppressive air and their lack of certainty reinforces the sense of them as refugees at the mercy of an uncaring destination. After they successfully pass into the terminal, their handler Elena (Annet Mahendru) packs them into a minivan and takes them into Vladivostok. Perhaps my perception is colored by the bitter anticipation of another Minnesota winter, but nothing could set the tone of the episode better than having everything coated in a mucky crust of filthy, trod-on snow and ice. It evokes that feeling of late February when your spirit is lowest and every detail has long since been erased under the plaster of winter. Even the dead dog Joe later notices in a snow pile outside the orphanage seems redundant. The weather is an extension of the numbness that infuses everyone in Vladivostok. Elena makes multiple stops without consulting with the pair —first to change money at some random person’s house, then to a convenience store for snacks, where another armed soldier sets Joe on edge.
None of it looks better in the light of day. Elsa drives Joe and Anka to an orphanage that looks straight out of a horror movie. Joe and Anka have an awkward meeting with the orphanage’s director where Anka tries to ingratiate herself by mentioning she descends from the Romanoffs. Finally they meet Oksana.
It’s stunning and heartbreaking when the two get to be alone with the child for the first time. Shot from the vantage point of the child, the screen consists of nothing but the couple’s faces as their expressions go from joy to a concern they share, but dare not express. They play with the baby, offering her toys and encouraging coos, but it becomes obvious that their interaction is completely one-sided. The child is utterly unresponsive. Even when they remove her diaper and discover she has a severe rash, the baby remains limp and silent. After handing Oksanaover to a nurse, a young child runs by the baby and points at it, repeating a word in Russian. And as thrillers and horror movies have shown, nothing good ever comes from information you receive as a puzzle you must decipher. Elena deflects Anka and Joe’s concerns, coming up with a series of half-hearted excuses that fail to placate either of the two.
Anka’s fears are confirmed later that day when she’s able to have one of their handlers translate the little girls’ word. “Do you mean p’yanitsa? This means drinker. One who takes alcohol every day.” Anka surmise the baby must suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
That night, Anka and Joe get into an argument over what she’s learned. Almost from the start of the fight, Anka only refers to Oksana as it, emotionally distancing herself from the child by stripping away Oksana’s humanity. If she isn’t human, the decision to leave her behind doesn’t feel so monstrous. Anka sees their trip as purely transactional and wants the product they paid for. Joe treats it more like a conventional birth where you can’t possibly know what child you’ll get, and the extra care a special needs child requires is simply a chance to grow as a person. Both characters have legitimate claims. It is a transaction, and the deal was for a healthy baby. But when the well-being and livelihood of a fragile human life is what’s changing hands, it must be treated with a little more care than returning an appliance because it clashes with the countertops. Joe bluntly accuses Anka of not wanting a baby they could easily adopt in America because the child wouldn’t be white. Anka dismisses this, claiming she simply wanted a baby closer to her own genetic stock —again citing the importance of her Romanoff ancestry. Joe points out how that justification is bullshit anyway, on account of the Romanoff family being largely Germanic. The Romanoff bloodline is once again presented as a fantasy, a notion of inherited greatness. Anka refuses to budge, and Joe questions what the two are even doing together. Then Joe goes out for a walk where I totally thought he’d get killed because the entire episode Elena’s been warning them not to walk around after dark, but thankfully he doesn’t. He just meets a dog he wants to save from the cold. Because that’s the kind of guy Joe is.
The next day, they return to the orphanage to inform Elena and the director they won’t be taking Oksana. Elena’s insistence that Anka and Joe can simply have the doctors fix Oksana after they return home is another aspect of her inscrutable morality. Is it just an attempt to brush off their concerns with a lie? Or does she truly believe that the America of those rich enough to travel to another country to adopt a child is an America capable of solving any problem? Was giving them such a vulnerable and wounded child simply a mercenary attempt to fuck over a couple too naïve to understand what they were getting into? Or was it a sincere hope that with these two people, this baby may have a chance for a life that will otherwise be impossible? She remains the most interesting character this episode, because while it’s obvious she’s perfectly comfortable peddling half-truths and manipulations, her reasons for doing so remain uncertain. When they refuse to take the child, the director provides them with another, unexpected option. They are presented with an obviously different, healthy baby that Elena simply refers to as Oksana. And what’s the sin in taking her home instead? She’s still a baby who needs a home, isn’t she? It’s an insidious solution presented to the couple, and one that they only briefly hesitate about before taking.
As Joe looks out the window, his face darkens into a hard-edged sadness. He’s only so capable of lying to himself about the cheap sleight of hand they performed with two children’s lives. While there’s no doubt the baby Anka holds in her arms is just as deserving of love as the one they left behind, there’s still an ugliness to their decision. After all, the first Oksana is a baby “...whose life will be short, God willing,” as Anka exclaimed when she angrily mocked Joe’s newfound piety during their fight. What if it is? What if it isn’t? And which is worse? And could they really do anything for a child that already seemed so distant from this world? The only thing for certain is the simple truth that Oksana exists. And it is cruel.
- On top of being the most interesting character, Elena had every single great line in the episode. My favorite was when she took Anka and Joe out to dinner and in a pitch-perfect American obliviousness, Joe comments hoe you really can get good Chinese food anywhere. Elena, idly points and comments dryly, “China is right over there.”
- And while that’s true of pretty much any part of Russia, it’s especially true of Vladivostok, which hooks downward from the easternmost coast of Russia and hugs the Chinese border. It also shares a border with North Korea and the Sea of Japan with, well, Japan. It’s also the terminus for the Trans-Siberian railway, as they briefly discuss in the episode. Russia is so big it’s really bananas.
- Sure is nice seeing Rizzo again.
- Shout out to “Panorama” when Anka mentions her cousin Victoria who’s spending a fortune in vain trying to find a cure for her son’s hemophilia.
- The exterior shot outside the Chinese restaurant presented a surreal little vignette where the car that dropped the Garners off honks at a tiny old man as he crosses the road. He’s completely decked out in military regalia, including a jacket sagging under the weight of countless medals. It’s established the Vladivostok is a big Navy town, but he seemed more like a tired old relic of the Soviet past, now being prodded out of the way.