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The Romanoffs ends with a confused but intriguing meditation on identity

What was Matt Weiner trying to say with his Mad Men follow-up, anyway? I have a guess.

The Romanoffs
“The One That Holds Everything” takes a romantic sojourn to Hong Kong.
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.

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for November 18 through 24 is “The One That Holds Everything,” the season finale of Amazon’s The Romanoffs.

The Romanoffs is more fun to think about than it is to watch.

Don’t get me wrong. The more that public opinion has turned against Matt Weiner’s Mad Men follow-up — to the degree that “public opinion” has paid attention to it at all — the more I’ve dug in on still liking the show. Something about The Romanoffs fascinates me, even as I find myself cringing at its missteps.

The eight-episode first season had its disastrous installments. Episode five, for example, felt like a self-important, defensive bleat from Weiner about the danger of believing accusations without proof — a debate worth having, though probably not when it's moderated by a guy who’s been accused of sexual harassment in a scenario where it’s his word against a former co-worker’s.

Still, there were also some terrific installments — like episode seven, a strange horror story about adoption, guilt, and being able to buy whatever you want.

And the show is a fascinating project in the aggregate, with little echoes of thematic purpose and symbolic images carrying through from episode to episode, even as each one features a completely new set of characters (with the only common link being that they all believe they’re descended from the last royal family of Russia). It’s as if one character a whole continent away from another can somehow feel the dull aftershocks of that other person’s emotions from several episodes prior.

Weiner is so clearly trying to use The Romanoffs to say something — about modern decadence, about inequality, about what it means to cling desperately to an identity you might not have any claim to, and maybe even about whiteness. It's certainly compelling enough that, watching the first season, I couldn’t help but try to figure it out — even as I realized that the show is, on most levels, a little undercooked.

And then I got to the season finale, which kinda, sorta tries to tie everything together.

“The One That Holds Everything” features a somewhat baffling ending that mars a lot of what comes before

The Romanoffs
Candace tells a fellow train passenger her life story in the episode.

It’s best to start at the end when discussing “The One That Holds Everything,” because the end of the episode more or less renders much of the rest of it nonsensical.

It’s structured as a nesting series of stories, all about the same woman, Candace, who grew up as a boy named Simon. Though it will turn out to be a story that Candace is telling about herself, she couches the whole thing as a story about Simon. And within that story about Simon, one of Candace’s friends delves deeper into her tragic past.

“The One That Holds Everything” doesn’t really treat the fact that Simon and Candace are the same person as a big twist — which is good — but Candace clearly intends it to be a big twist, which makes a lot of the storytelling fall apart.

She’s telling this story to Jack, her younger half-brother whom her father had with her former babysitter turned stepmother. Candace is seated next to Jack on a train. She knows who he is; he apparently doesn’t know who she is. But even if we assume that Jack doesn’t know Candace’s whole story, he definitely at least knows that his older half-sister was assigned male at birth, transitioned to female at some point during adulthood, and that her mother died in a fire when Candace was very young. All of these things have come up! Jack has even met Candace post-transition, though that was many years ago.

So it just doesn’t make any sense that as Candace is telling her story, Jack wouldn’t at least say, “Oh, hey, I have an older sibling who transitioned,” or, “How horrible about that house fire! Here’s what happened to my sister!” People tend to share stories of similar life experiences under even the worst of circumstances, and Jack is also a writer (whose most recent work is important to another Romanoffs episode — more on that in a second), so you’d think he’d be particularly prone to storytelling.

And that’s on top of me suspending my disbelief enough to allow that Candace would be able to somehow find exactly the right seat on a train to sit by the younger brother she hasn’t seen in what seems like decades.

Setting aside the implausibility of the whole affair, “The One That Holds Everything” also has the weird effect of being a story featuring a twist where the twist is only effective for the characters onscreen. Weiner (who co-wrote and directed the episode) and co-writer Donald Joh never try to hide that Candace and Simon are the same person — which, again, is to their credit. (“Gasp! He and she are one and the same!” is the hackiest trick in the trans storytelling playbook.) But it’s not really fun to know the twist and then wait for some other character to catch up, even if we assume Jack is simply humoring Candace.

And that’s really too bad, because there’s plenty to like in “The One That Holds Everything,” especially as Candace throws off the burden of her past to become her true self. The scene in which Candace, early in her transition, speaks with a trans mentor named Dana has a kind of weary wisdom about how hard it can be to be yourself, but also how being yourself is one of the few rewarding pursuits in life.

At its best, The Romanoffs has the quality of a short story collection, a bunch of tales orbiting a central theme, playing off each other, trying out similar thoughts in different keys. And there are numerous moments in “The One That Holds Everything” that hold some of the mystery and intrigue of a great short story, like the presence of Candace’s stepmother at the fire that killed Candace’s mom (suggesting the stepmother killed Candace’s mom), or an entire section of the episode set in Hong Kong that feels like Candace trying to outrun herself.

And yet ... I keep coming back to the ending, where Candace makes her big reveal to Jack, and wondering just what Weiner ultimately means to say with this show.

The Romanoffs is about the crushing weight of feeling the crushing weight of history

The Romanoffs
The show always looks like a million bucks — probably because it cost much more than that.

I haven’t told you everything that happens at the end of “The One That Holds Everything.” Candace poisons her brother, because he’s carrying the precious earrings that supposedly mark the family as Romanoff descendants — the earrings that Candace always believed she was owed, as a woman of the family, but that her stepmother refused to give her, because her stepmother refused to see Candace as a woman. So Candace poisons her brother, both to take the earrings and to get her revenge against her stepmother (shades of a fairy tale in that), then saunters off into a London train station. End of season.

It’s the earrings that I keep coming back to here. In some ways, they’re the cornerstone symbol of the series — beautiful, yes, but also trinkets, imbued with meaning mostly because this family so desperately wants to believe in itself as royalty. And yet for Candace, they also mean something more. They’re a kind of token of femininity, a tie to when she was very young and loved the way the earrings looked on her mother.

But is she really willing to kill for them? Weiner is possibly commenting on the ways our identities become more precious to us than anything else, and if you’ve been taught your whole life that your identity is “deposed royalty,” well ... you might really cling to that. But Candace has essentially left her old life behind, by choice in some instances and not by choice in others. It’d be easy to assume this would make her want the earrings less, but it seems to have made her covet them even more. She’s made them the one small tie she might have to her mother, whose death she still mourns.

Near the beginning of “The One That Holds Everything,” when it seems as though Jack will be our main character and Candace just the irritating foil he’s forced to sit by on the train, he ascends an escalator into a Parisian train station. Simultaneously, we see Greg and Sophie, the lead characters from The Romanoffs’ season premiere, “The Violet Hour,” descend the opposite escalator. We know what they are descending to: the dissolution of their relationship. But we don’t know that Jack is ascending to his death in a matter of hours.

We also don’t know that Jack will not be our protagonist, that his sister will instead. Or even that she’s his sister.

And yet The Romanoffs isn’t about this increasingly intricate web of connections, not really. (Here’s another: The script that Jack has completed is the miniseries that Christina Hendricks’s character was filming in episode three.) What it’s about is the idea that you might somehow catch just the right glimpse at something and suddenly see all the lines connecting everything. That you might find a way to speak the hidden language of the world and make it do your bidding. If Mad Men was about the hidden frailty of its white-guy masters of the universe, then The Romanoffs is mostly about people trying to speak that language again and failing badly.

That quality makes The Romanoffs, in its way, one of the best shows we have about whiteness, about the condition of being born into a world in a skin that gives you advantages you’re not always cognizant of, and then of being born into a world where that power, though still incredible, has waned just enough to provoke anxiety. And so you do whatever you can — maybe you even murder your own brother — to claim your birthright, no matter the weight on your soul.

But all the while, you miss the ways the world really does move to the tune of some barely heard melody. You just catch a glimpse of the larger pattern, just begin to hum that tune, and then it’s gone. And all the while, the world changes beneath your feet, the hidden pattern made up as much of fissures as the lines that draw us together. We are headed for calamity, surely, but until then ...

It’s an idea too big to be grasped, but it’s one worth grappling with. Which, come to think of it, is a pretty good description of this bruised, ungainly, surprisingly vital TV show.

The Romanoffs is available on Amazon Prime. I can’t possibly imagine another season of this incredibly expensive show, but I guess you never know.

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