This contains minor spoilers for The Romanoffs Episode 3 and 4. Read our spoiler-free review of Episodes 1 and 2 here.
Family names are a blessing and a curse – a chance to carry legacy forward a generation, but with the price of being responsible for its reputation; a gateway to privileges, or a spectre of past suffering to shrug off. The Romanoffs, for all of its faults, is far from lacking themes and ideas to dig into, and Episodes 3 and 4 of Matthew Weiner’s anthology does so in two strikingly different ways.
Episode 3 reunites Weiner with Christina Hendricks, who plays Olivia, an actress who “works best when she’s praised”. She gets no such treatment, however, on the set of a period drama that, we discover, is actually telling the story of The Romanovs. The director is the fierce Jacqueline (Isabelle Huppert), a descendant of the Russian royal family herself, and she approaches the material with passion and rigour, as well as no small amount of disdain for her stars.
Rushed into production without any rehearsals or preparations, Olivia finds herself caught between the whims of this determined filmmaker and her agent (the wonderfully cheesy Paul Reiser). And the more she gets into the story of this doomed, murdered family, the more Olivia finds unusual things happening off-camera that make no sense.
A horror movie from the creator of Mad Men? It’s an interesting prospect, and one that’s filmed with an eerie atmosphere, channelling the fog of memory into something gorgeously unsettling. But while there’s intrigue in the question of whether these are supernatural goings-on, whether Olivia is imagining the whole thing, or whether it’s some kind of prank to coax a more realistic performance from her, the answer to the mystery is more muddled than moving – the plot feels too shallow to stretch over the feature-length running time, as The Romanoffs continues to succeed more on the surface than in its substance. Indeed, the best moments are those that see that surface disrupted; one dinnertime exchange, between the fiery Huppert and the surprised Hendricks, is when the episode really sparks into life.
Episode 4, Expectation, couldn’t be more of a contrast. Not only does it step away from spooky atmospheres, it finds a real sense of depth to its characters – for the first time, The Romanoffs feels like more than superficial gloss. It’s no coincidence that this is also the anthology’s shortest entry to date.
The episode introduces us to Julia (Amanda Peet), a mother who’s preparing to welcome her first grandchild into the world. That baby is coming courtesy of her daughter, Ella (Emily Rudd). The only problem? They don’t get on all that well, with Ella snobbishly refusing to listen to her mother’s lessons on gratitude and humility.
That’s where The Romanoffs once again touches on its themes of entitlement and identity, as we again see a descendant of the Russian royal family using their lineage to demand something – even if it’s not actually theirs to demand. The Romanoff blood in Expectation stems from Julia’s husband, Eric, and he’s pleased at the thought of having a descendant to continue the line. But just as that spectre looms over the soon-to-be-newborn, Expectation sees Amanda haunted by her own history, as she bumps into an old friend, Daniel (John Slattery).
Daniel, in a neat touch, is the author of the book upon which Olivia and Jacquline’s series was based, but it’s the deeply personal backstory in this chapter, rather than the broader political backdrop, that makes it so effective. Peet and Slattery, in particular, are both excellent, leading a talented cast with convincingly rounded performances; their chemistry is only topped by the believably frayed bond between Peet and Rudd.
Intimate flashbacks, rather than history lessons, are the order of the day, setting up a world where claimed birthrights are as important as actual inheritance, where confessions play out in theory rather than in real life, and where family members don’t need to be told things to understand unspoken emotional truths. Names may not always be passed down, but some things are.
Episodes 1 to 8 of The Romanoffs are available on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.