One of the key characteristics that distinguished Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men from its prestige-drama peers was that it was serialized, but focused first and foremost on making each episode its own beautiful, handcrafted work of art. Instead of a novel for television, it was a short-story collection set in the same TV universe. The best stories, like “The Suitcase” (Don and Peggy bond during a long night at work), benefited from our collective knowledge of the characters, but many installments could function as gorgeous standalones for the sake of someone who’d never seen the show before.
Now, three years after Don Draper bought the world a Coke — and 11 months after Mad Men writer Kater Gordon accused Weiner of sexual harassment — Weiner returns to TV with The Romanoffs, which takes the short-story approach to its next logical step: the anthology. Each episode is directed and written or co-written by Weiner, but the stories are essentially linked in only one way: All involve characters who believe themselves to be descendants of Russian royalty.
This might seem a thin thread on which to hang eight episodes, but the first three suggest it can comfortably hold a wide range of stories and tones, albeit with flaws. The first, “The Violet Hour,” takes place in Paris (and plays out mostly in subtitled French) as a domineering, racist old woman (Marthe Keller) struggles to accept her new Muslim caregiver (Inès Melab). Meanwhile, her nephew (Aaron Eckhart) and his girlfriend (Louise Bourgoin) silently abide her abhorrent behavior in the hope that they’ll inherit the woman’s palatial apartment. Episode Two, “The Royal We,” finds Corey Stoll and Kerry Bishé as a married American couple going through a rough patch. During a memorable weekend apart, she goes on a Romanov-themed cruise without him (during which she flirts with a very dashing Noah Wyle), while he tries to extend his jury duty to seduce Janet Montgomery. The third episode, “The House of Special Purpose,” reunites Weiner with Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, who plays an actress cast in a miniseries about the Romanovs, working in the Austrian countryside for an erratic director (Isabelle Huppert) who was once a movie star herself.
The stories overlap superficially with talk of ancestry, missing Fabergé eggs and the family legacy itself. (Hendricks notes that the 1917 Bolshevik massacre of the Romanov clan is the only thing most people even know about them.) But what primarily links them is the same sense of existential confusion and dread that fueled many of the best Mad Men stories. Whether they have a true claim to the Russian throne or not, all these people feel cast out of the life they thought they should have inherited, unsure of what to do with the one they got instead(*).
(*) As with many things Weiner has written (including both halves of the Don/Peggy relationship at different times), this can have the feel of autobiography. In a Vanity Fair interview where he lamely dances around Gordon’s accusations, Weiner does cop to deep insecurities and the way they manifested themselves in his treating lots of people badly during the Mad Men days. The Romanoffs has plenty of moments (particularly when Huppert is playing mind games with Hendricks) where one could easily imagine Weiner doing, saying or thinking these things.
As a director, Weiner has only grown in confidence and skill from the Mad Men days. Working with a big budget and an international production, he paints image after image suitable for framing. Watching “Violet Hour,” it’s not hard to fall in love with the apartment and Paris itself given the lush way he films both. Even a small moment like two characters holding hands can feel enormously moving. And he gets excellent, lived-in performances from his actors, particularly the women. Keller and Melab make their polar-opposite strangers feel equally human. Every moment Bishé has on the cruise ship will leave you wanting to either re-watch Halt and Catch Fire or seek it out for the first time and wonder why she isn’t a huge star already. For that matter, Hendricks’ turn as a successful actress feels like Weiner’s retort to an industry that hasn’t quite figured out what to do with her since she stopped playing Joan.
But short stories should be, well, short, and at roughly 90 minutes apiece (others, I’m told, vary from 60 to 90), each of these initial tales overstays its welcome. They’re movie-length without substantial enough ideas behind them to justify it. Stoll’s character does a half-assed 12 Angry Men act that feels belabored by the end of the first scene that establishes what he’s doing, only the episode keeps returning to it as if it’s still funny. “House of Special Purpose” is seven or eight different shows in one, and ultimately chooses to focus on the least compelling of those.
The self-indulgent pacing can also feel off in the opposite way. Where certain points are repeated long after they’ve sunk in, others are hastily introduced at the end because they’re necessary to the picture Weiner is drawing. In particular, Melab’s character makes a choice at the conclusion of “The Violet Hour” that comes completely out of nowhere and undercuts much of the emotion of what came before. Each episode works better — at times spectacularly so — in individual moments than as a whole.
Coming off one of the greatest TV shows ever made, and despite the allegations against him, Weiner had the clout for Amazon to let him do whatever he wanted. (This includes releasing most episodes weekly rather than as a binge, though “Violet Hour” and “The Royal We” debut together on October 12.) But creativity without limits can be dangerous, even for someone this gifted. Weiner’s fictional wanna-be-Romanovs have to make do with a less opulent world than their DNA might tell them they deserve; the series, likewise, may have been better off living within stricter means.