A review of “Expectation,” this week’s The Romanoffs, coming up just as soon as I’m literally patronizing…
“I literally walked by my own life and saw someone else take it.” -Daniel
In certain ways, “Expectation,” which centers on a woman’s overdue reckoning with a long-ago affair, is a notable improvement on the three previous tales. It’s only about an hour long, thus (mostly) avoiding the narrative bloat that dragged down the others. It is singularly focused on Amanda Peet’s terrific performance as Julia, where some of the prior episodes either kept shifting their attention away to a less compelling figure (Michael in “The Royal We”) or got their best work from a supporting player (Isabelle Huppert in “The House of Special Purpose”). And it has by far the best concluding scene of these first four, where the other three tended to stumble at the end.
In many other ways, though, “Expectation” (written by Mad Men vet Semi Chellas, and directed as usual by Matthew Weiner) is the same mixed bag The Romanoffs has offered up to date. It feels shaggy even at this abbreviated length, particularly in the gauzy, lingering flashbacks to Julia’s affair with Daniel, the best friend of her husband Eric, featuring actors who look nothing like Peet and John Slattery. With no prior history with these characters (save for Daniel’s cameo as a cruise ship lecturer in “The Royal We”), the hour periodically gets bogged down in exposition and a too-blunt statement of its themes.
But if you’re going to spend an entire hour on a fairly thin narrative, you could do a lot worse than Amanda Peet when picking an actor to carry it. The story follows Julia through one nightmarish day involving her pregnant, spoiled daughter Ella, the arrival of her in-laws Ron and Marilyn, pressure from Daniel to reveal that he is Ella’s biological father, an encounter at work with a mentally ill man calling himself Gary Beethoven(*) and an attack of gallstones. It’s a lot to deal with, and Peet is a whirling dervish of nervous energy throughout, even when she gets day-drunk outside Manhattan’s Flatiron Building. As Ella points out in their tedious breakfast conversation at Bergdorf Goodman (a scene that had me checking the running time to be certain this wasn’t another 90-minute episode), her mother has lived an incredibly privileged life, though she acts like she hasn’t. (Julia dresses plainly for her job as a social worker and marvels at the air of snobbery that permeates the department store.) And as we soon find out, she’s been keeping the truth of Ella’s parentage a secret from her and Eric, forcing Daniel to play the role of, as he puts it, the creepy fake uncle. It requires a high caliber of performance, and of storytelling, to make Julia seem even slightly sympathetic in a tale where she’s mostly judging and scolding others. Peet finds a level of vulnerability necessary to make this work even before we get to the scene where she explains the entire story and her motivations to Gary Beethoven. (He’s the perfect audience, as someone who is far outside her social circle, unlikely to remember the details of what she tells him and even less likely to be believed if he tried sharing them.)
(*) If your show already has fake Romanovs — a doubly-fake one in Ella, who’s not even biologically related to the rest of the line — might as well add in a fake Beethoven.
Slattery, for that matter, is terrific as Daniel. The episode is told from Julia’s point of view, and its sympathies are mostly with her. But it also recognizes the lousy situation he’s been placed in for decades. Eric, towards the end of the episode, suggests that he loves Daniel because he never grew up, which evokes the role Slattery famously played for Weiner and Chellas on Mad Men. (Where Slattery also played a man who had to pretend his biological child was fathered by someone else.) But if Daniel was once a Roger Sterling type, he isn’t now; Weiner’s camera dwells on the lines on his face, particularly around eyes that look very tired and sad as Daniel grapples with the idea that he’s about to become a secret grandfather. Neither he nor Julia are particularly innocent, but nor is either entirely to blame for how their story has unfolded.
There’s no good way out of this mess, and “Expectation” doesn’t try to find one. There’s a brief sequence where it seems as if Julia has confessed to Eric, who admits that he’s always known and doesn’t care. It is thankfully revealed to be a daydream by Julia(*), as Eric hasn’t been established enough for this level of saintly devotion to feel earned. Ultimately, it is misdirection for the closing scene, where it turns out that Ella is the one who figured it out on her own. It’s an effectively understated moment in a series that thus far hasn’t been shy about playing things big. Ella never even outright says that she knows, but her understanding that Julia needs to call Daniel from her hospital bed, and the looks she and her mother share in the final moments, say all we need to know. Unlike the dopily loyal Eric of Julia’s fantasy, Ella’s feelings are more complex, even as she has accepted that this is the way things are. She has a comfortable life with a rich husband, she loves Eric and she’s not going to rock the boat just so she can get closer to the man who provided half her DNA. That the women don’t speak about what’s really going on suggests they might never — that poor Daniel will always be on the outside of his own life, looking in, even after his wife gives birth and he can publicly be a father to someone.
(*) Yet another reason the flashbacks are a problem: They’re visually coded differently from this fantasy. Part of this is to disguise that it is, in fact, a fantasy, but it’s distracting in hindsight that her imagination can look so different depending on the needs of the director.
During that ugly conversation at Bergdorf, Julia snipes at her daughter, “Sometimes, I wonder where you came from.” The Romanoffs, by design, is fixated on questions of ancestry and nature versus nurture. Eric believes his family is descended from Russian royalty, and he and his sister Katherine (Diane Lane) feel the importance of keeping the line going, of behaving like the aristocrats they almost certainly aren’t. The sad joke is on them, given what we learn about Ella, whose actual father Daniel wrote a book about the real Romanovs that Katherine dismisses as bad armchair history. And it’s on Julia, who doesn’t understand how Ella could have grown up into the woman she did, even though the answer — rebellion against the mother who’s been lying to her for her entire life — should be staring her in the face.
“There’s nothing worse than historians guessing at people’s hearts 300 years ago,” Katherine complains of the book to Julia. “We can’t even do it now.”
The Romanoffs aspires to look inside contemporary hearts every week and give us some idea of what’s making them beat. “Expectation” is still deeply imperfect, but its compact story does a more effective job of this than the series has previously.
Some other thoughts :
* Each story remains almost entirely its own thing, but the links from one episode to another continue. Daniel returns, and the miniseries he discusses here was the primary subject of “The House of Special Purpose.” And we get our most direct connection from one plot to another this time, as Katherine will be one of the main characters of an upcoming installment.
* Like Marthe Keller in “The Violet Hour,” Peet appears to be playing a fair bit older than she is in real life. Peet is 46, while Julia got married at 27 and gave birth sometime after that to a daughter who’s now at least in her mid-twenties. (Emily Rudd is 25.) Actors shouldn’t necessarily be bound by their birthdates, but Peet already looks a bit younger than she actually is, a reality that undercuts a lot of the material about Julia being self-conscious about her age and how her appearance has changed as a result.
* It also doesn’t help that, again, Annie Krueger, who plays Julia in the flashbacks, bears no resemblance to Peet. Charlie Gorrilla, who plays the young Daniel, also doesn’t look much like Slattery, but Slattery didn’t really become more than a That Guy until he was already in his forties, and his hair went gray so early in his career that he’s mostly played middle-aged guys even when young. Maybe Weiner should have filmed one fewer episode on international location and used the saved money to give Peet and Slattery the Young Tony Stark treatment? (Of course, I’m illustrating this point with a clip where Slattery is in the background playing Howard Stark, who elsewhere is played at a younger age by Dominic Cooper, who looks even less like Slattery than Charlie Gorrilla does. Mostly, I just like typing “Charlie Gorrilla.”)
* Speaking of early in Slattery’s career, his first regular TV role was on a short-lived Fox remake of The Dirty Dozen — which was also the first regular TV role for Jon Tenney, who here plays Eric. (Here’s an old publicity still: Tenney is top left, Slattery kneeling in front.)
What did everybody else think?