‘The Romanoffs’ Finale Recap: Sneak Attack
A review of The Romanoffs finale, “The One That Holds Everything,” coming up just as soon as I call you King Tut because you have a dead mummy…
Between its title, its position as the last of these eight episodes and the early moment where English screenwriter Jack walks past Greg and Sophie from “The Violet Hour” in the Paris train station, it’s easy to start “The One That Holds Everything” with the assumption that it will somehow tie together all of the season’s disparate threads. And there are, in time, other references to past episodes (Jack wrote the screenplay for the Romanovs miniseries based on Daniel Reese’s book). But the finale feels less a summation of the season’s stories and themes than it does a collection of its various flaws. Let’s consider some of the many oddities of The Romanoffs to see how they manifest here:
Is the episode too long for the story?
At 80 minutes, this isn’t the longest episode of the season. Nor does it feel quite as padded as several others. This week’s tale bounces around a lot in time and space, and uses multiple narrators to tell the sad life story of Simon (Hugh Skinner), Simon’s distant and philandering father George (Ben Miles), Simon’s ruthless nanny-turned-stepmom Ondine (Hera Hilmar) and Simon’s Hong Kong boyfriend Christopher (Christopher Ming). Initially, it is a tale Jack hears from Candace (Adèle Anderson), an overly chatty woman who has taken his seat on the train from Paris to London, but soon narrative duties are handed over to Simon (speaking with a support group) and Christopher (trying to appease his fiancée Kiera after Simon tells her about a bachelor party indiscretion). Then they move back to Simon again and eventually to Candace. The narrative shifts locales and periods — at first seeming like a backwards-moving story akin to Harold Pinter’s The Betrayal — enough that the episode doesn’t have quite the air of “Yes, we get it already! Move on!” that’s plagued most of its predecessors. Still, most of the sequences could be easily trimmed without anything significant being lost. And the ending — which reveals that Simon and Candace are, in fact, the same person, and that Candace has contrived to sit next to her half-brother, Jack, to murder him with a spiked drink as revenge for Ondine apparently murdering Candace’s mother — reveals the whole thing to be a shell game not particularly worth the amount of build-up. But we’ll get back to that.
Does Matthew Weiner know how to cast age-appropriate actresses?
Nothing can top the bizarre business from “End of the Line” wherein 29-year-old Annet Mahendru plays a woman old enough to have an adult son. For this episode, having a relatively young actress — Hera Hilmar is 29 — play a much older character is intentional, as Hilmar portrays Ondine at various stages of her life, in various levels of makeup. But while it’s intentional, it is also distracting.
Are we using transgender characters as props?
So many different things about Episode Five, “Bright and High Circle,” were so ill-considered that the flashback about Alex (Ron Livingston) befriending a boy named Alan who was actually a girl named Ellen seemed pretty far down on the list. That story was such a small part of the episode that there wasn’t time to make clear whether Alan was trans at a time where people had little understanding of or sympathy for the notion, or if Ellen just liked to dress as a boy sometimes for activities that girls of the era weren’t as welcome to do, like skateboarding. But there was still the suggestion that Alan/Ellen was somehow getting one over on Alex, who stopped hanging around with his friend upon learning the truth.
That strange notion of gender transition as a sinister disguise blossoms from minor thematic element in a prior episode to the whole bloody punchline of this one. Initially, we are meant to sympathize with Candace (back when she is still going by Simon) for the loss of her mother, for the manipulation and cruelty of Ondine and for her struggles to find love and acceptance from Christopher and the world at large. Some of that material is quite effective, particularly the bachelor party karaoke sequence where, wearing a sex worker’s silk robe and lipstick, she sings The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame” a bit too tenderly to the closeted Christopher.
The episode tries to suggest, as Candace tells Ondine in their first face-to-face meeting, “I’m who I always was. You can just see it now.” But the revelation that she is also the woman on the train — and that her chance encounter with Jack is actually an elaborate plot to kill him, make Ondine suffer and reclaim her mother’s Romanov heirloom earrings — treats Candace less as Simon’s true identity than as a convenient mask used to lure Jack into this fatal trap. (Candace even notes that it’s an advantage to become a woman of a certain age, whom the world treats as “paint on a wall.”) This is a plot twist familiar from a much less enlightened time in society and Hollywood, where cross-dressers and transgender women were treated as shocking plot twists — “That woman’s really a man… and he’s a murderer!” — and, at best, worthy of suspicion. The bulk of “The One That Holds Everything” treats Candace with more empathy and nuance than any of those movies and shows did their trans characters, then sells her out for the sake of the Keyser Söze (by way of Norman Bates) ending.
Which brings us to yet another familiar Romanoffs problem:
Does the ending fit with what we’ve seen before?
Getting us to that twist presents narrative stumbling blocks as well as thematic missteps. Even once we understand that Candace is telling her own life story to Jack, the manner in which it’s presented doesn’t make sense, particularly the sequence being told by Christopher. And even before Jack himself appears in Candace’s tale, as the listener on the train he would certainly have to recognize familiar elements — starting with his own mother’s relatively unusual first name — that would prompt him to interrupt and ask questions. Jack clearly knows little about his half-sibling, but he knows at least something of his parents’ history, and that “Simon” existed at all. Whether or not it was too late to counteract the poison the moment he drank it, it still rings false that an episode framed as a story between two strangers on a train wouldn’t try to stick with that structure and show us Jack’s reaction to details that a real stranger couldn’t possibly know.
If you look back over this eight-episode run, nearly every episode features either a surprise twist or an unearned narrative left turn near the conclusion:
* In “The Violet Hour,” Hajar and Greg are in love with each other, despite zero preceding evidence on either side (and particularly from hers).
* In “The Royal We,” Michael attempts to murder Shelly in hopes that Michelle will take him back if he’s single but not divorced.
* In “The House of Special Purpose,” Olivia dies of fright from Jacqueline’s attempt to convince her she’s been sent back in time to be part of the real Romanov massacre.
* In “Expectation,” Julia discovers that Ella has long known about her affair with Daniel, and possibly that Daniel is Ella’s biological father.
* In “Bright and High Circle,” Alex’s strange fixation on the Alan/Ellen situation leads him to bulldoze Katherine and their sons into letting David remain their piano teacher, despite ample reason to want him out of their lives.
* In “Panorama,” Abel realizes he’s actually a terrible journalist and that none of the story he was investigating (and that we were watching) is actually of public interest.
* In “End of the Line,” Anka and Joe are prepared to go home baby-less, and Anka briefly goes hysterical with the belief that the women from the orphanage are going to murder them like the Romanovs, only to be unexpectedly given a healthier baby girl to adopt.
In some cases, like “The House of Special Purpose,” these twists are meant to be surprising but don’t properly track with what’s come before. In others, such as “The Violet Hour” or “Bright and High Circle,” the endings are presented as the natural conclusion of the story, but require the audience forgetting most of what they’ve already watched to make the least bit of sense. This one with Candace and Jack suffers from both of these problems. However you categorize it, though, it completely kneecaps what had until that point been a fairly progressive and sympathetic story about gender transitioning in particular and the show’s larger questions about the identities we choose versus the ones we inherit. All of that gets tossed in favor of more bad Hitchcock pastiche that treats Candace’s true self as little more than a supervillain’s rubber mask.
In that way, “The One That Holds Everything” couldn’t be more perfect as the final chapter of this season — and perhaps of the whole series, depending how many people have been watching. The episode has lofty ambitions, it’s more directly linked to the Romanov legacy than several other episodes, and yet, in the manner of virtually every other episode before it, it can’t get out of its own way. There is so much potential, and then it’s all squandered by a maddening, inexplicable storytelling choice. That is, unfortunately, The Romanoffs experience in a nutshell.
What did everybody else think?
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