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The Romanoffs, from Mad Men creator Matt Weiner, feels like a period piece about the present

It’s everything good and bad about Mad Men, in one slightly soggy, bloated package.

The Romanoffs
In The Romanoffs, modern descendants of the deposed Russian royal line attempt to deal with the world of the 2010s.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Mad Men, the TV series that made Matthew Weiner one of the most famous, most powerful showrunners alive, obeyed the time-honored tradition of using a story set in the past to tell a story about the present.

It was a show about changing social customs and mores that lulled you into complacency with big sight gags about how much things had changed since the 1960s — hey, we don’t let kids put plastic bags over their heads anymore! — in order to quietly nudge viewers to realize how much things hadn’t changed. In particular, Mad Men contained ample storylines about how little the world had evolved for women butting their heads against the seemingly unbreakable walls of workplace sexism.

In the three years since Mad Men went off the air in 2015 and this week’s Amazon Video debut of Weiner’s follow-up series, The Romanoffs, the lessons of Mad Men’s treatment of workplace sexism have more than come home to roost, including for Weiner himself, who in 2017 was accused of sexual harassment by former Mad Men writer Kater Gordon. (Weiner’s “Who ... me?!” response to these accusations in a Vanity Fair profile wasn’t terribly convincing.)

And even beyond Weiner, The Romanoffs’ original studio — The Weinstein Company — was toppled in the wake of the exposure of its co-founder and namesake Harvey Weinstein’s long string of sexual assaults.

But while sexism and gender relations are a part of The Romanoffs’ tapestry — and the three episodes sent out to critics burble with nods both knowing and unknowing to the past year of #MeToo reckoning — Weiner is once again using the past to inform the present. This time, however, he’s also using the past to predict the future.

And the revolution is coming.

The Romanoffs might be the biggest blank check in television history

The Romanoffs
Just look at the scope! Look at the sweep!
Justina Mintz / Amazon

Everything about The Romanoffs is massive. The show filmed on location across multiple continents. (The first three episodes alone were shot in three different countries.) It boasts an all-star cast, including everybody from Isabelle Huppert to Diane Lane to old Mad Men favorites like Christina Hendricks and John Slattery.

Every episode approaches 90 minutes in length, with opulent production values that practically drip off the screen. And even though Amazon typically drops full seasons of its series all at once, the better to binge, new episodes of The Romanoffs will be released week to week (though the first two are both out Friday).

(Note that I’m also going to use the anglicized spelling “Romanoff” to refer to the actual Romanov family throughout this review, so as to maintain continuity with the show’s title. My apologies, Russophiles.)

The show is probably the biggest blank check in TV history, only really approached in scope by properties that were already established hits, like the later seasons of Game of Thrones. And what’s more, it has a decidedly noncommercial premise: an anthology series of small, character-driven TV films about people all around the world who either are or believe they are descended from the Romanoffs, the final monarchs of Russia who were killed in a hail of gunfire in 1918. (Though the whole royal family was executed, many of their relatives lived on, and there’s even a putative Romanoff heir to the Russian throne alive right now, though good luck getting her on it.)

All of this money is up there on screen, as it were. Weiner directed all three if the episodes sent to critics for review, and he creates beautiful, watercolor-esque images — like the soft, wintry light of a purple morning drifting through an ice-covered window in Paris, or the surreal image of an opulent cruise liner at night, or a streak of fake blood smeared on the floor of a movie set meant to evoke a tumultuous moment in history.

(If you think I’m being a little vague, I am. Weiner’s famous hatred of spoilers — which leads him to regularly send out long lists of things critics are not to reveal — has manifested itself here again, despite the relatively thin plots of the three episodes I’ve seen. Better safe than sorry, I guess.)

The most salient detail I can share about all of these episodes is that they’re all at least 15 minutes too long. Even the one I liked best — the third episode, “House of Special Purpose,” which will debut October 19 — might have been better off with a solid quarter-hour cut out of it. Weiner occasionally uses this additional length well, to create haunting silences, or to hold on an actor’s face longer than you might expect him to, or to drink in a moment of sublime beauty. But sometimes he just uses it to fit everything he can think of into an episode, even when it’s not all that clever.

Still, the qualities that made Mad Men so good are present here, if buried a bit beneath all the excess. Weiner maintains his knack for getting terrific performances out of actors. (His use of Hendricks in episode three feels like a deliberate mission to convince Hollywood of how poorly she’s been used in post-Mad Men projects.) And though his scripts might be too bulky, they certainly boast dialogue that cuts to the quick when he gets out of his own way.

And yet the weird thing about The Romanoffs is that, as an anthology drama, it’s somehow better when taken as a whole than as a set of individual episodes. Any given episode of the show can disappoint with its bulkiness and its inability to zero in on the ironies inherent in its storytelling. (Especially the second episode, which sometimes feels like Weiner flagellating himself in public and sometimes feels like Weiner asking for our love and approval despite his bad behavior.)

But the more episodes you watch, the more The Romanoffs starts to feel like a story about the instability of our modern moment, a story about class consciousness, a story about the guards knocking on the door to point guns at all of our heads, maybe even Weiner’s.

The world is dying in The Romanoffs, but it’s as if nobody really cares

The Romanoffs
The world might be ending, but at least there are still dogs. And Aaron Eckhart.
Chris Raphael/Amazon

The thing I find most fascinating about Weiner’s work when taken as a whole is that he’s simultaneously drawn to white male supremacy and horrified by that quality within himself. Mad Men could only have been as good as it was if Weiner had both wanted to be Don Draper and gaze at the emptiness in the man’s soul. He seems taken by the opulence of lost eras, of ’60s America, of pre-communist Russia. But it’s likely no mistake that in those worlds, the dominance of people who looked like him, or like me, went largely unchallenged.

But in every episode of The Romanoffs, Weiner finds some way to reenact the death of the titular family, sometimes as tragedy and sometimes as farce. It’s an echo that his characters can’t escape, a rhyme of the past they are doomed to repeat, even if they might believe otherwise.

And that doesn’t even count the bulk of the opening credits, in which the 1918 execution of the Romanoff family at the hands of Russia’s new rulers is dramatized to the strains of Tom Petty’s “Refugee.” You can’t escape what’s coming, the knock at the door, the gun to the head, and we’ve all got something to pay for.

The revolutions within The Romanoffs are smaller ones, within families or marriages or friendships, but they presage some justice over the horizon, a sense that the world has become so imbalanced that it will greenlight anthology dramas about people who believe they’re descendants of the Romanoff family that will cost millions upon millions of dollars to produce. The divide between poor and rich only grows, and in The Romanoffs’ very first episode, a character notes that the middle class has largely disappeared.

And yet these characters cling to an aristocracy that ceased to exist a century ago. They are convinced of their own royalty. They display a confidence that, because of their heritage, because of their regality, because of their class, they are somehow more than, even as they are in the same boat as so many of the people who see their charade for the false front that it is. The aristocracy disappeared. So will you.

In The Romanoffs’ second episode, “The Royal We,” an older man addresses a bunch of other older people to say that maybe in 50 years, the world won’t exist anymore, or at least humans won’t, or at least this particular social order won’t. Everybody laughs, because we have to go on believing that death isn’t at the door.

After the massacre of the tsar and his family happens in the opening credits, the sequence revisits the idea that one of the Romanoff children escapes the slaughterhouse, then morphs into a young woman exiting the subway in our present, looking at her phone. It’s a nod to the pervasive idea from the mid-20th century that Anastasia Romanoff escaped that basement room, living on into the late 20th century and animating plenty of stories about the Russian aristocracy in exile.

It wasn’t true, of course. The bodies of all of the Romanoffs have been found and accounted for and DNA tested. But the idea that the lost aristocracy might still exist in you, in me, in somebody, is a powerful one. The Romanoffs knows that someone will have to pay the piper eventually, that this modern lifestyle has become unsustainable, that we have all done terrible, terrible things we must be held accountable for. But the series holds out hope that it, too, might be the one to escape. Or maybe its creator holds out that hope.

After watching the second episode, I jokingly told my wife that The Romanoffs is the sort of series I’d be inclined to give three-and-a-half stars right now, then declare a misunderstood masterpiece in six years. Well. Here are the three-and-a-half stars.

The Romanoffs debuts its first two episodes today on Amazon. New episodes will be released every Friday from now until the end of November.