This contains minor spoilers for The Romanoffs Episode 5 and 6. Read our spoiler-free review of Episodes 1 and 2 here.
The Romanoffs has not been the best showcase of Matthew Weiner’s talents overall, but that’s clearer than ever with the show’s middle episodes, which are both misjudged pieces of writing, albeit for different reasons.
The first appears to be an attempt to address the current #MeToo movement. Society is undergoing a dramatic, and positive, shift to become more open, accepting of and sympathetic towards victims who have previously not had the voice or support to out their abusers or harassers. Matthew Weiner knows that more than most, because he’s been the subject of allegations of misconduct himself: a Mad Men writer has accused him of saying that she owed it to him to let him see her naked. He has said that he doesn’t remember saying that, and has otherwise attempted to avoid the topic. Episode 5 of The Romanoffs, though, is impossible not view through the lens of his own experience.
Bright and High Circle follows David Patton (Andrew Rannells), a piano teacher who is popular among the wealthier families in California. But when mother Katherine (Diane Lane) is approached by a detective investigating inappropriate behaviour by the teacher, she finds herself unsure whether to fire him or say something to all the other parents who have hired him on her recommendation. Ford is a descendant of the Romanov family, but she learns that David has been claiming to be one himself, using her back-story to give his own life a colourful history – confirming her suspicions of him being dishonest, at the very least.
Rannells is excellent as Patton, delivering a performance that’s so queasily cheerful and friendly you can’t help but distrust him – and the piano segments are impressively captured. But while Lane’s Ford and the privileged parents that surround her are all cattily depicted, the most queasiest thing of all is the conclusion that this story reaches, as it turns out that the thing David is being investigated for is not as severe as thought. There’s arguably something to be said for a story about not rushing to judgement in a heated climate, but it’s impossible not to think that Weiner’s the wrong person to write it.
We thankfully head for different shores in Panorama, which reminds us that The Romanoffs started out with a story not set in the USA at all. It whisks us off to Mexico City, where a journalist, Abel (Juan Pablo Castañeda), is investigating a medical clinic helping to cure people of incurable diseases at a very high cost. But Abel doubts their secretive, innovative techniques are even legitimate, let alone approved, and so he falls in with American mother Victoria and her son, Nicky, who’s being treated for haemophilia. While he tries to look into how that treatment works, he falls in love with her, and so things begin to get complicated.
Except, well, they don’t. The story wraps up in a decidedly uneventful fashion, as Abel’s article is dismissed by his editor (Griffin Dunne) and the sparks between him and Victoria fizzle out into nothing. Worse, it’s all powered by illogical behaviour and bad dialogue – Abel, for example, when he admits to Victoria that he deceived her, doesn’t seem bothered to explain why, and his editor refuses his submission, despite being interested in issues of inequality and exploitation. (His reasoning is that nobody wants a story sympathetic to the wealthy people being made victims, which only feels like an unfortunate riposte to the whole of The Romanoffs.)
The one thing that does work is Mexico City, which feels like an actual character in the story – a cliche that only becomes true because all the other characters are so poorly sketched. Radha Mitchell as a mother determined to help her son is intriguing, but not allowed any room to grow – she and Castañeda shine most of all during the sequences that see Abel give Victoria and Nicky a tour of the city, including the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Teotihuacan ruins and, most notably, the Diego Rivera mural outside the Palacio Nacional. All the while, Abel dives into Mexican history to ruminate on the separations between classes over the centuries, with the kind of rambling personal conviction that’s convincing and impassioned. But that, ultimately, turns out to be the prelude for the finale, which brings that Diego Rivera mural to life, with our characters suddenly surrounded by a living recreation of the portrait, complete with actors in period costume and a long tracking shot. But that magic realist flourish feels as undeserved and out-of-place as Episode 5’s conclusion, rounding out two underwhelming chapters in an anthology that increasingly feels less uneven and more uncomfortable.
Episodes 1 to 8 of The Romanoffs are available on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.