Part of what made Mad Men such a pleasure to watch was everything that occurred between the words. The lingering glances, slow sighs, and slight, furtive movements hinted at some strongly checked desire rustling beneath the surface that was not allowed to break into the very identity-conscious 1960’s. These quiet intervals are what made the series characters feel so whole and complete. There are still some wonderful examples of those moments in each of the first two episodes of Mad Men creator, Matthew Wiener’s new anthology series, The Romanoffs, but here—frustratingly—they exist in isolation for a series of characters that feel like they’re barely there at all.
The first episode, “The Violet Hour” (B-) is essentially a fairy tale: a Cinderella story ostensibly updated to reflect a more culturally thoughtful era, but one that, at its core, displays a prim, fusty moralism.
Anushka (Marthe Keller) is an aging French dowager we first meet as she’s being taken to the hospital for what we learn is one of her many exaggerated health episodes. There she’s met by her only remaining relative, Greg (Aaron Eckhart), an seemingly amicable American expat whose sole talent seems to be getting women 20 years his junior to fall in love with him. Her insulting reaction to her doctor of Indian descent establishes Anushka as a disdainful, intolerant person who Greg spends equal amounts of time apologizing for and avoiding. Greg, along with his sour girlfriend Sophie, does the bare minimum amount of caretaking required to stay in Anushka’s good graces so that when she dies, she’ll leave them with her palatial apartment. Greg outsources most of this caretaking to a home assistance service. Being a terrible person, Anushka fires every helper they send, leaving only one available employee; a young Muslim nursing student named Hajar (Inès Melab).
Anushka relentlessly berates Hajar. In one impressive scene, Anushka rattles off a list of historical defeats the Persian army received at the hands of Christendom. It culminates in pointing to the croissant on her plate and as citing its origin as a celebration of the removal of Muslims from Vienna in 1683. “And every morning,” Anushka tells Hajar, “we laugh as we eat you for breakfast.” Unlike the kind of provincial, unexplored racism we’re so familiar with here in the states, hers is an educated, erudite prejudice. Hajar smiles, attempts to redirect the conversation or offers sympathy. She later tells Greg that she believes Anushka simply doesn’t want to feel ignored. Which is an admirable sentiment, but is also indicative of the biggest problem with this episode: Hajar feels less like a person and more like a stand-in for virtue. Melab is fantastic, but constrained by a role that feels more like an ideal than a person.
Of course, Hajar’s endless patience and compassion finally wears down Anushka’s defenses, if not her racist tirades (she’s allowed a seat at the table where the dog usually sits), and Anushka begins to confide in Hajar about the loss of her son (the night he died, the light in Paris turned violet, hence “The Violet Hour”) her tragic family history and even dressing her up as royalty. Finally, after Hajar stays by Anushka’s side during a one of her episodes, Anushka changes her will to make Hajar the sole inheritor of the coveted apartment.
On hearing the news, Sophie—who in contrast to Hajar, is the evil manipulator of this fairy tale—orders Greg to do something to wrest back the promise of the apartment. Greg agrees, and takes Hajar out for pizza and a walk to half-heartedly talk her out of accepting the apartment. As they stroll, Greg claims he’s not interested in the apartment and is simply happy to live in the splendor of Paris. But is he? It’s impossible to say if this is how Greg sincerely feels or if it’s an evasion tactic while he does whatever it is he’s supposed to do to “take care” of Hajar. Greg has been presented as a very low-key kind of guy lacking any great ambition. He’s made plans with Sophia, but claims they can’t be acted on until Anushka dies. But you never get the sense that there are things he wants to do, or if Sophie is projecting her wants onto him; he just kind of floats along, gormless and cleft-chinned. His motivations shouldn’t be so muddy, or character so underdeveloped when he’s the ostensible lead. The two end up back at the hotel where they make love. Hajar is given the vocabulary of autonomy—the right to say no, the declaration that she knows what she’s doing and what she’s getting involved in—but her words don’t resonate when the scene still just feels like an older, more experienced man taking advantage of a naïve young woman. Shortly after, she ceases working for Anushka.
There follows a brief time jump illustrated by Greg sporting a massive beard. He’s made a modicum of peace with Anushka, and the two are spending more time together. Unexpectedly, Hajar arrives at the apartment with her mother. She’s pregnant with Greg’s child and abortion isn’t an option. What should be a messy, complicated encounter emerges as a Greg offers a bemused “I didn’t know this is what I wanted… yet maybe I knew all along” kind of enthusiasm for being the father of a stranger’s child that would only feel in place in the most hackneyed of plays. Anushka is delighted, as there emerges this final act reveal that she’s very concerned about continuing the Romanoff bloodline. It’s a sudden priority that was only ever alluded to buried in Anushka’s grief about the death of her family, and more strangely, in the show’s treatment of Sophie.
Sophie is presented as not interested in having children, and that trait—more so than her negativity and her covetousness—defines her as a bad person. But according to whom? The manipulative, hypochondriac racist? Greg? Again Greg’s bee-in-a-jar inner mind doesn’t provide us any clues. He enjoyed interacting with his friend’s children, which was apparently shorthand for his… if not strictly desire to have a family, than at least his lack of aversion to the idea. But you can be nice to kids and not want to have them. That’s just basic humanity. Without a grounded character point-of-view to present why her not wanting children is bad, it comes off as the view expressed by the narrative itself, and another example of the strange storybook moralizing the episode engages in. I have two kids who I love dearly, but wanting kids is not intrinsically a virtue, and lord, wanting to maintain a shred of your disposable income and free time is no vice.
But this is a fairy tale, and Hajar is good-hearted person rewarded for enduring hardship. What does it mean that her prize is a nice apartment and marriage to an American doofus?
In the final scene, Greg, wearing the Grand Duke’s smoking jacket, stands over a very pregnant Hajar. His previous offhand decision to grow a beard is now understood to be a manifestation of his undeniable royal bearing. Anushka leaves the two and retires to her bedroom where we see outside her window that the evening light has turned violet; an indication that the staged, too-tidy ending has done what high blood pressure could not, andkilled the poor old woman.
If Greg from the “Violet Hour” doesn’t ever develop beyond a blank character, at least he has the benefit of being a generally pleasant one. In the “Royal We,” ( C ) we’re saddled with Michael (Corey Stoll), who wants nothing, is interested in nothing, takes pleasure from nothing (except a panda-themed mobile game on his phone) and is just as unpleasant and uninteresting to watch as he surely must be to everyone in his life. We meet him along with his wife, Shelly (Kerry Bishé) in couple’s counseling for their troubled marriage. Shelly is earnest and committed to keeping a connection to her husband, while he, obviously checked out, stares out a window and fidgets with some abstract objet d’art on the table. Michael’s ennui is reflected by the episode’s setting: a hazy, purgatorial exurb of featureless office parks and strip malls. The only thing that kindles any excitement for Michael is when an unexpected jury duty summons brings him in contact with Michelle (Janet Montgomery) a vampy, self-possessed woman who passes her time in the courthouse lobby by doing languid, cat-like stretches. The previously inert Michael comes to life as he scrambles and connives a way to get closer to Michelle.
Michael lies about his inability to get out of jury duty so he can stay behind from a Romanoffs-themed cruise the two had scheduled to provide Michael the chance to learn more about his ancestry. Shelly opts to go without him in a mixture of liberated excitement and disappointment. At home Michael stubbornly refuses to agree to the otherwise unanimous verdict in an obvious murder case just so he can uncover an angle to get closer to Michelle. His obstinance is infuriating to the other jurors and an obnoxious demonstration of his sullen myopia.
Shelly’s solo excursion on the cruise plays out like a kind of Dante’s Inferno voyage, where she bears witness to a series of enlightening vignettes.She sees the other passengers existing on a spectrum of entitlement and clinging to their identity as ersatz royalty—and acting accordingly snooty, suspicious, and disdainful. Shelly’s experience on the cruise, bolstered by the episodes title, “The Royal We” suggests that somehow, by virtue of his blood, Michael is an indolent and selfish a creature as any pampered noble. But lord knows the world has proven men don’t need to emerge from aristocratic stock to be shitheads, and you don’t need to witness a boat full of watered-down nobility chasing delusions of grandeur to understand your husband is a selfish clod. The idea of genetic entitlement isn’t told compellingly nor given enough subtext to resonate as a theme. Like so much of The Romanoffs so far, it’s a character sketch, but the artist doesn’t know how to draw. Still, Shelly returns home, committed to making her marriage work.
Back home, Michael exploits Michelle’s interest in true crime to fabricate scenarios related to their case that bring the two closer together. This culminates in Michael leading her out to his lake house in a mock kidnapping roleplay situation. After the one night stand, Michael grudgingly concedes to vote on the case, and he and Michelle part ways. The true crime undercurrent of the episode comes to a head when a despondent and obsessed Michael decides to kill Shelly in hopes it will allow him to be with Michelle. He suggests taking a hike and when the two reach an appropriately scenic vista, pushes her off the side. Shelly survives the fall and manages to hobbles back to the car, maces Michael in the face and kicks him in the balls for his fumbled attempt at murder. “I can’t believe it took that for me to realize this is over!” She exclaims as she drives off. I don’t think any of us can believe it, either.
- Even if the characterizations fall flat, there is still a lot of splendid individual moments and dialog in the series -more so in “The Violet Hour”. Anushka berating her previous helper for arriving at work in her club outfit and “smelling of testicles” was pretty great.
- Generally the series is so lovingly shot and well-acted it takes a long time before it sink in that the storytelling just isn’t that effective. Here’s hoping things pick up going forward.