The Romanoffs Episode 2: The Royal We

Shelly at the Romanoff gala next to a decked out bearded man

Our coverage of the 8-part Amazon Prime series The Romanoffs from Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner begins with two back-to-back roundtables between Caemeron Crain and Lindsay Stamhuis. Contains spoilers for Episode 2 “The Royal We” as well as for Mad Men.

CC: So, the second episode presents us with entirely different characters from the first. But we get another claimed descendant of the Romanoffs—Michael (Corey Stoll)—and his wife, Shelly (Kerry Bishé). We first meet them in couples’ counseling, which I might have some things to say about, but I’m curious what you thought of this episode in general, and the whole plan of jumping to these different stories. And, also, were you able to pin down the geography of where they live in this one? I may have missed it.

LS: I think I read Ohio on Shelly’s car’s license plate in the final scene, but they mentioned Pennsylvania, and the cruise departed from Miami, and it was filmed in Ontario so it’s really all over the place!

I don’t know if I enjoyed this episode the same way I enjoyed “The Violet Hour” but I think that’s because they are totally different. They actually felt more like little films instead of TV episodes. And as I was watching it I tried to think of another show that did something like this and came up blank. It really does seem like it’s a wholly new way of approaching streaming services and Prestige TV and whatever all of that means, and that’s very exciting.

Actually, forget I said that…David Lynch’s Hotel Room did that back in 1992.. The Twilight Zone also did similar things, and Black Mirror does it too.

I still think it’s exciting though.

CC: Yeah, well, the length may be a factor in that feeling, though. With the episodes approaching 90 minutes they are film length, but I don’t think they feel like films. They still feel like TV. Please don’t ask me to explain what I mean there, because I don’t know how to pin it down, but something about these is what I am trying to get at. The run time kind of feels long—more in this one for me than in the first—and I want to say it’s because they aren’t composed like a 90 minute film would be, or something like that. I don’t know.

LS: No no, Caemeron, now you have to explain what you mean…you shouldn’t have said that, man…now I gotta know!

CC: Haha. Well, I just don’t know how to put it. I kind of tried my best above. The point is, basically, that these don’t feel like films to me, even if they are the length where they could be. They feel like TV episodes. Maybe that’s because I know that’s what they are, but I feel like that’s not it. I’ll get back to you if I find a better way to get at this later.

Regardless, we could compare it to those other shows you mentioned, but Black Mirror, e.g., has a clear throughline in terms of what it is about. Maybe this show does, too, but we’re less than totally clear about what it is as of yet?

LS: One thing I really liked about this episode was the neurotic characters though.

CC: I really enjoyed the characters in this one too. How do you take the way Michael can’t come up with anything he enjoys, or wants to do, in the therapy session at the beginning?

Michael and Shelly at couples' therapy

LS: The therapy sessions didn’t catch my attention until I saw the second one and I realised that they were bookending the episode in a way, so I wished I had paid closer attention at the start. It seems to me that Michael’s Romanoff ancestry was less present for him (with the exception of his family history/”Bolshevik” comment to Michelle outside the courthouse), but I couldn’t help but trace a line to Anushka from “The Violet Hour” and her inability to find happiness in her palatial Paris flat. It seems like Michael has a lot of things that should make him happy and he isn’t. So…is this a comment on empty and disposable 21st century culture and the effects it has on us and our interpersonal relationships? I don’t know that I have an answer for that, to be totally honest.

CC: Yeah, you get this comment outside of the courthouse about his family being murdered, but he doesn’t seem to have much connection to the history beyond that. Or, at least, he skips the trip/cruise that Shelly has arranged, which is a meeting of the Romanov Family Society (which doesn’t exist, by the way, though the Romanov Family Association does—no evidence of them having cruises, though). How much connection does he feel to all of this? He says “my family was murdered” when he is talking to Michelle as they smoke, but it is clearly a misleading understatement when he tells her that it was a long time ago. One would reasonably think that meant a long time ago within one’s own personal life history, not that you are talking about people whom you never knew who were killed 100 years ago.

So, there’s that. I guess the opening therapy scene struck me, though, because of how her criticism was that he didn’t want to do anything, and he couldn’t think of anything he wanted to do. He couldn’t come up with anything he enjoyed, and so on. It seemed to me like this was getting at a certain kind of 21st century ennui at least. I’m not sure how to cash it out more than that.

LS: Malaise and boredom are his motivation for everything, really. I think that’s what makes Michelle so attractive to him: she’s dangerous, seductive, “other”. Which is funny, because ‘Shelly’ is often a shortened form of ‘Michelle’ anyway, and Michelle even seems to understand that what he needs is to shake things up and blow off steam and he’ll be fine. (Meaning that the issue is not needing a different woman, because even the different woman is somewhat the same; it’s something else Michael needs. He just doesn’t know it.) Of course he takes it to an absurd length, as we see. That was interesting to me too—that here is this character stuck somewhere between molasses-like stasis and explosive action. It doesn’t seem real but it seems very true, if that makes sense.

CC: Totally. I mean, take what he says to Andrew the I-want-go-to-Harvard kid: that no one is really happy. Michael is stuck and listless. And then he becomes infatuated with this woman when he goes to jury duty. At a certain level I get this—she is attractive as all get-out, let’s be honest—but he never really knows her. This is infatuation, not love. When he breaks down and cries in the therapy session towards the end, I think it is clear that he is thinking of Michelle, and it’s pathetic.

LS: Your point about infatuation is well made. It did make him quite pathetic. And then Shelly doesn’t know how to comfort him at all. It was quite a sad scene, and a bit funny (the therapist miming what to do cracked me up a lot), but it’s kind of poignant too. The incompatibility of these two is so obvious to everyone but them. It’s such a common story.

CC: Yeah, the therapist miming to her to hug him and so on was funny, given how clear it was to us that he wasn’t talking about his wife. Dark, too, I guess, but darkly funny. Should we talk about Shelly’s experience on the cruise with Ivan (Noah Wyle) a bit?

Shelly and Ivan talk by the pool

LS: Absolutely. Because I thought that was such a weird and wonderful set of vignettes. You have these two Romanoffs-by-marriage on this Romanoff/Romanov extended family reunion cruise (complete with lectures about the murder of the Russian royals. I dunno, at my family reunions we just play a lot of baseball, but that seems very odd…) where they’re treated like the grafted branches they are…and also there’s a lot of vodka and a cast of little people playing the Romanov family, for some reason. It was wild.

But I liked that Shelly and Ivan would gravitate towards one another. It seemed unlikely that this scenario would actually happen but it seemed to serve a nice narrative function.

CC: I looked into this a little bit—apparently there was this whole tradition of Tsars having little people perform for them, and some stuff that it is even more objectionable, so that’s not coming from nowhere. I realized in that scene that I maybe should have talked about Rasputin more in that history piece I wrote…Anyway, yeah, I enjoyed Shelly and Ivan’s rapport (in contrast to what I said about Greg and Hajar last time, or what I will say presently about Michael and Michelle). And we’ve got this other stuff characterizing this Romanov family gathering: dances to “Green Eyes,” a horse on a boat, etc.

Oh, also, I hope that’s not all the John Slattery we get!

LS: Yeah! I think John Slattery for sure appears in one more episode later in the series, at least according to the cast list online. I’m very much looking forward to more of him as well.

The pageantry on the ship seemed very on point for a 19th century Russian royal event…I can only imagine what they had to cut out because it would be a bridge too far. But the horse provided one of my biggest laughs, honestly, when Ivan made a comment about waiting around to see who was going to fuck it. And then I felt really bad. Catherine the Great was a lot of things—a good ruler, a patron of the arts, highly intelligent and well-read, a scholar in her own right—but she’s going to have that reputation for bestiality. Is it misogyny? The same thing that causes us to think of “Let them eat cake” when we talk about Marie Antoinette? I don’t know. Still, the horse made me laugh.

CC: Yes, also both of those are probably apocryphal—that’s the word I was looking for earlier/last time. I feel like that is going to be the stock and trade of this show; something in that wheelhouse. And I do think there is something at least vaguely misogynistic about it, which the show is maybe also playing with? Maybe?

LS: I think you’re probably right about the direction this show will take. I do hope that’s the case. So much more fun that way!

CC: What do we think about the way things play out between Michael and Michelle?

LS: I appreciated that Michelle knew what she wanted and took it, and that Michael was the one left adrift. Again, there was that subversion of expectation—you get so used to the assignation breaking up a marriage, and of course in this case it still (very likely) did, but not in the way you think it will. If Michelle hadn’t ditched Michael in the 7-11 parking lot we wouldn’t have gotten TV’s most broadly telegraphed and ridiculously inept almost-death scene since Lane Pryce attempted suicide by Jaguar in Season 5 of Mad Men (#toosoon #ripLane)

CC: Oh God, don’t throw Lane at me; that was the saddest thing I have ever seen!

LS: But I feel like we knew that Michael was going to try to murder someone—first I thought it might be Michelle, then I thought it might be Michelle’s husband, and then I knew it was going to be Shelly. And of course he was going to fuck it up royally. I have to say that Corey Stoll plays these hilariously cringe-y characters so well. Michael is just such a mess.

CC: There was definitely a lot of foreshadowing, you’re right, but it didn’t really strike me until it was about him maybe trying to kill Shelly. It wasn’t until they were on the hike, and he was looking back over his shoulder and so on, that I thought that he was going to (try to) kill his wife. And I thought the way he failed was hilarious, with a silent pause and then her yelling at him, etc.

You thought it was even more telegraphed that he would try to murder someone? That’s interesting.

LS: I had this feeling from the moment he and Michelle arrived at the lake house that something ominous would happen. He seemed very dangerous when he brought Michelle into the house, but that was subverted (again) and revealed to be a kinky role play kind of situation. Then he and Michelle began talking about how they’d get away with murder. And I just knew it would come back. I feel like one thing Matt Weiner is not is subtle. At least that’s what I remember from Mad Men. Still a phenomenal show and it will always be one of my faves, but the subtext is printed in bold letters, then underlined and highlighted for good measure. He’s capable of subtle moments, but it seems there are far more that really hit you over the head. It’s not a criticism, just an observation.

And yes, it was almost slapstick funny at the end. Lovely choice to finish with Shelly in the car and Cake’s version of “I Will Survive” playing in the car (diegetically? non-diegetically? Either way, it was perfection.)

CC: Yeah, I had this feeling as they arrived to the lake house where I wondered if Michael might kill Michelle. That must have been on purpose. And then we get him pinning her arms behind her back and so on; there’s a violence to the scene. She was into it, I guess, but again we are exploring problematic sexual dynamics. But without a thesis. At least, I don’t think there’s a thesis. I don’t know what to say about that.

LS: I remember that as well from Mad Men. Don’s relationships with other women were not typically women he perceived as “on his level”, power-wise. Sure, he dated Rachel Menken and Dr. Faye Miller, and others—each powerful women in their own right—but his longest sexual relationships were with a debutante Betty and his one-time secretary Megan. The fantasy scene of him choking Andrea Rhodes (Mädchen Amick) to death and stuffing her body under the bed springs to mind. There, Don was responding (mentally) to a woman putting demands on him. The power dynamic shifts and suddenly Don can’t handle it; he wants out. I don’t know if Michael here or if Greg in “The Violet Hour” is being cast in the same mold as Don, but I sense the same anxieties around powerful women, or at least women who know themselves and know what they want.

I’m not going to try and psychoanalyse Matt Weiner but this “threat” (perceived or otherwise) from his particular vision of strong women is pretty common in fiction today generally, no? And it matches the current political fervour over #MeToo and things like the sexual and reproductive rights of women. Art is how we process our world, and so this fixation on sexual dynamics does seem to be willing to at least try to grapple with the shifting order of things when it comes to negotiations like these.

CC: Yeah, I definitely thought it resonated with our current cultural context. The inept defense attorney even says something like, “Who hasn’t been falsely accused?”—though this was definitely made before the whole thing with Kavanaugh. The comparison with Don is interesting, but it seems to me that this is a bit different. Michael doesn’t seem intimidated or threatened so much as he seems to think that killing his wife will make him more attractive to Michelle. That’s how it struck me, anyway, given the stuff about her being fascinated by murder and so on. Of course, she made it incredibly clear that he had no chance of being with her no matter what, so really he’s being stupid. Maybe part of it stems from a sense of entitlement on his part, which we could relate to him being a Romanoff. I’m not sure if that’s a stretch or not.

LS: It struck me too that Shelly cuts things off with Ivan. Especially after seeing the way Daniel Reese (John Slattery) characterized the Romanovs as tyrants, basically…not good people…so here’s this non-Romanoff being a better person than this royal descendant…while her husband is off screwing with a trial to get his rocks off. Makes me think actually that he’s not intimidated by Michelle but rather by Shelly. She’s a better person than he is and maybe he knows that…

CC: Yes, that makes sense, and would tie in with the way he talks about being her employee at the beginning. So here’s this guy who feels entitled to more because of his lineage, but that’s just getting focused through his relationships with women. I feel like we’re almost on the track of a theme to the series, Lindsay! Looking forward to next week!

LS: Same here, Caemeron!

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

Caesar non est supra grammaticos

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