A review of this week’s The Romanoffs, “End of the Line,” coming up just as soon as I leave the tags on…
“There’s something wrong with that baby.” -Anka
After a disastrous pair of episodes — one a clunky defense of Matthew Weiner himself, the other a dramatically inert travelogue — “End of the Line,” about a couple adopting a baby from Russia, comes as something of a relief. It is perhaps the best Romanoffs installment from beginning to end, lacking the highs of some of the early stories, but also not producing any of the baffling moments such as Hajar suddenly being in love with Greg in “The Violet Hour.” So late in the season (there’s only one more episode to go), dubbing this the best-overall Romanoffs episode feels like damning it with the faintest of praise, and “End of the Line” certainly isn’t immune to the flaws that have been apparent throughout the series. At 90 minutes, it’s much too long for the simple story being told by longtime Mad Men writers André and Maria Jacquemetton. And it is again very confused regarding how old its female characters are versus the actresses playing them: Annet Mahendru from The Americans, whose listed age is 29, plays a woman with a prospective daughter-in-law in her early twenties. But it has a relatively interesting story to tell and some good performances at the center, particularly from Kathryn Hahn.
This has apparently been the autumn for Hahn to play a woman with fertility issues in a streaming production, as last month Netflix debuted Private Life, where she and Paul Giamatti are simultaneously exploring adoption and IVF. Here, she is Anka, yet another alleged Romanov (and cousin to Victoria from “Panorama”). After years of failed attempts to get pregnant with her husband Joe (Jay R. Ferguson, Stan Rizzo from Mad Men), they have traveled to the remote Russian port city of Vladivostok to adopt a baby girl named Oksana. If it’s a very specific brand of typecasting, it’s also something Hahn is great at. Throughout this story, she seems frail and weary, not just from the travel and cold, but from the long ordeal of trying to have a child. When she spots a fellow adoptive mom, Clea DuVall’s Patricia, playing with her newly adopted toddler son in the lobby of their hotel, Anka’s face lights up brightly enough to power the entire building, and perhaps the city. It’s clear just how much she wants a baby, and thus how much it hurts when she and Joe begin to realize that Oksana is not the healthy and happy little girl they have been promised by Mahendru’s Elena. They have traveled to the end of the line to prevent the end of their line, but they feel trapped in a strange city where they don’t speak the language and don’t fully understand the rules governing a process that has rapidly moved beyond their expectations.
The Jacquemettons reportedly based this story on their own experiences. The episode feels like that throughout, for good and for ill. So many of the details make the story seem richer, like the baby clothes Anka and Joe are required to donate to the orphanage winding up at the flea market, or the constant reminders that Russians will think you’re a mental patient if you smile too much. But there are occasional detours, such as Anka chatting up a young prostitute at the hotel bar, or Joe chasing after a stray and possibly feral dog, that play as if they’re in the story only because, presumably, they happened to someone in real life. (There are thematic links in both — the prostitute represents both the importance and the peril of having a plan for your life, while the dog is a creature Joe wants to take care of even though he shouldn’t — but neither sequence adds enough to justify padding out this simple tale to feature length.)
Still, the script, the performances and Weiner’s direction effectively lay out the bureaucratic and ethical nightmare Anka and Joe find themselves in after spending time with poor Oksana. In time, they assume she suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome, but even that’s just a guess based on the word little Zoya from the orphanage uses to describe her. She could be autistic or have any number of disabilities or developmental issues, but her prospective parents are in a complete information vacuum, unable to trust Elena or the other adoption workers, with no access to a doctor who might be able to give them a realistic assessment of what life with Oksana might be like — or how long it might last. Joe remains committed, while Anka can’t bring herself to care for a child “as it suffers in a life that, god willing, will be short.”
It’s a brutal but pragmatic sentiment, and their argument plays out as an ugly but honest conflict between his unblinking idealism and her unapologetic realism about where this will go. Joe, whose own father abandoned him and his family, refuses to give up on Oksana, and can’t believe his wife could turn so cold. “Everyone is like this,” she retorts, less angry than just exhausted by how things keep going wrong for them. The scene is uncomfortably raw and flips the expected gender dynamics around as it forces both of them to grapple with a question most of us hope we’ll never have to answer.
There’s an odd hiccup the following morning where the two seem to be going along with the plan despite what Anka said during the fight. But when they arrive at the orphanage, she again can’t go through with it, and this sad story has an unexpectedly macabre punchline: Anka’s resistance to taking Oksana inspires Elena to offer them a healthier baby, Katarina, whose instant fussing and cooing is all that her new mom and dad need to hear to calm their panicked nerves. It’s an unfortunate fate for Oksana, who will likely stay in this place for however long her difficult life lasts. And perhaps thoughts of her will hang over the heads of Anka and Joe, who technically adopt Katarina under Oksana’s name in the orphanage’s haste to get these Americans to spend their money on a baby, any baby. But they get on that plane home with a girl who represents the ideal of what they wanted, even if she’s not the girl they traveled 5,500 miles to get. She’s enough to satisfy. So, this week, is The Romanoffs.
Some other thoughts:
* Ironic closing credits music: Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are” (which can be heard in muzak form when Anka is chatting up the prostitute), at the end of a story where Anka was very much not ready to love Oksana just the way she was.
* Again, the notion that Mahendru could have a son old enough to marry Vera is incredibly odd. Still, her performance neatly played into the ambiguity we’re meant to feel about this almost cartoonishly cool woman in the fur hat and jacket, who is either hustling these Americans, trying to care for all these abandoned Russian children, or possibly both.
* Related to that, an interesting moment in the Chinese restaurant: Anka casually refers to Patricia as gay, and Elena angrily dismisses the idea, because homosexuals cannot legally adopt from Russia. Is this her just trying to help out a woman who wants a baby, or her trying to work around her country’s homophobic laws to serve her greater mission of finding homes for as many kids as she can? Seems more the latter, but like much about Elena, it could contain multitudes.
What did everybody else think?