The Romanoffs: “Bright and High Circle” (2018)

“The Music Teacher, or ‘Unhappy in its own way’”

“Bright and High Circle,” the fifth episode of The Romanoffs confirms the feminist critique of the show that has dogged it from the release of the pilot a month ago. A grotesque misstep, Matt Weiner’s story of purported mob rule, trying those accused of social transgressions without first accumulating evidence, comes off as profoundly defensive.

The critique of “bearing false witness” in the episode serves as a tactless, if not reprehensible, intervention given the #metoo exposure of his behavior while showrunning Mad Men (AMC, 2007-2015). Women stepped forward to accuse Weiner of creating a hostile workplace environment, claims virtually confirmed in Weiner’s own statements about how he treated his fellow writers.

Rather than beat this interpretation of The Romanoffs like a dead horse, I will attempt a different method to get at some of the issues involved in white men controlling the short story industry. Weiner’s episode concerns a piano teacher, David (Andrew Rannells) who specializes in teaching the children of affluent families in Los Angeles.

An anonymous accuser activates a police investigation into vague wrongdoing on his part. The episode’s central character, Katherine Ford (Diane Lane) aids in spreading the gossip about David. It turns out that the worst thing David did was to tell sexual jokes in bad taste to his teenage students, and buy alcohol for them. Nevertheless, a firestorm of hysteria strikes the small community of affluent clients, wherein the bearing of false witness almost results in David losing his job as a music teacher.

My idea is to use another white male writer from a different era to think about issues of gender and power in this episode of The Romanoffs. In December 1964, John Updike published a short story, “The Music School” in The New Yorker. Updike’s story concerns Alfred Schweigen, an unsuccessful novelist who sits outside the practice room in a music school where he daughter is having a piano lesson.

Alfred tells us through stream-of-consciousness narration that he learned in the newspaper that an acquaintance of his was murdered. Alfred was supposed to write a novel about a computer programmer, using his interview with this man, a computer expert, as research. His novel, which he intends to call “N + 1” sounds downright abysmal. Conversely, David has great talent: he graduated from Juilliard, the best music school in the country. Despite his professed love of teaching, David clearly resents his failure to become a famous musician.

Alfred’s physical location outside of the practice room is allegorical; he is on the outside looking in longingly at the world of the artist. Alfred does not play an instrument, but he values music highly: “Vision, timidly, becomes percussion, percussion becomes music, music becomes emotion, emotion becomes—vision.” Despite her status as a purportedly successful professor of Russian literature, Katherine is also on the outside looking in at her sons’ musical talents.

Yet “Bright and High Circle” reverses much of the exposition of “The Music School.” Instead of Alfred and his daughter traveling to the music school, Weiner’s characters are rich enough to have the “school” (in the guise of David) come to them. And yet, both short stories—the written one and the audio-visual one—begin and end with the symbol of the door, a transition between the outside space of the parent (foreign to the world of music) and their child, on the other side of the barrier, learning to be an artist.

Figure #1: In the episode’s first shot, Katherine opens the door to the recital at her fancy home.

At the end of the short story, Alfred’s daughter comes through the formerly closed door, producing Updike’s beautifully poetic ending, a celebration of the renewal of the world engineered by children, only observed by adults: “I am content here in this school. My daughter emerges from her lesson. Her face is fat and satisfied, refreshed, hopeful; her pleased smile, biting her lower lip, pierces my heart, and I die (I think I am dying) at her feet.”

Updike frames Alfred’s story via his Catholicism. The father obsesses over the details of the rite of transubstantiation, whether one should touch the communion wafer with one’s teeth, which his priest has forbidden. As his daughter emerges from behind the door, Alfred observes, “The world is the host; it must be chewed.”

Weiner forwards no such belief in transcendence, religious or otherwise. The episode begins with Katherine opening the door to a recital she is hosting in which all of David’s students, some of whom are her sons, perform. The episode ends, after the damage has been done to David’s reputation by Katherine’s gossip mongering, with her closing that very same door, with David putting his arm behind her son, sitting on the piano bench giving the lesson.

Figure #2: The episode ends with Katherine closing the door on the music lesson.

The episode absolves David of any wrong-doing, but does not hold out any such possibility for Katherine’s redemption. As she closes the door, she is in a far worse state than she was when she opened it at the beginning of the episode.

Furthermore, Weiner’s story is bitter in its seriousness. Unlike Alfred, the failed novelist, Katherine is a professor at Occidental College, a ritzy liberal arts college in Los Angeles. When we first meet the police detective who informs Katherine of the investigation, the professor is excoriating an Asian-American student for being upset at receiving a grade of C on her cliché-filled paper analyzing the first line of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1878).

Figure #3: The police detective interrupts Katherine’s meeting with a student who is upset at her grade.

The moment is a bitter take on the professor-student relationship. Katherine shocks her student by calling her paper derivative, showing no empathy for the student who has never received such a low grade. Katherine then realizes the cruelty of her flip response, and apologizes to the student.

However, at that moment, she is interrupted by the detective. Distracted, Katherine tosses the paper at the student, telling her she can rewrite it by next week; the student leaves with absolutely no guidance as to how to read literature in a more nuanced way.

Contrary to Weiner’s cruel depiction of Katherine, Updike imbues Alfred with a delightful sense of humor. He explains that he has driven his daughter to her lesson, “because today my wife visits her psychiatrist. She visits a psychiatrist because I am unfaithful to her. I do not understand the connection, but there seems to be one.”

Alfred diagnoses his marriage as empty, a common theme in Updike’s depiction of men caught in unsatisfying marital relationships: “My friends are like me. We are all pilgrims, faltering toward divorce.” Alfred positions his imagined novel as a Romantic antidote to his lived experience: “I wanted the hero to be a computer programmer because it was the most poetic and romantic occupation I could think of, and my hero had to be extremely romantic and delicate, for he was to die of adultery.”

Ironically, Katherine teaches the cornerstone of Russian Romantic literature. Anna Karenina loves Count Alexei Vronsky, in contrast to her cold relationship with her husband, also confusingly named Alexei. Anna’s devotion to her son, Sergei allows us to see that “Bright and High Circle” replicates the basic plot structure of the Tolstoy novel.

Katherine has a functional but not particularly warm relationship with her husband, instead devoting her emotional energy to her sons. While Katherine does not have an adulterous affair with David, his potential status as a child molester does threaten the family with dissolution. While Katherine does not jump in front of a train to commit suicide at the end of Weiner’s tale, her shutting of the door on the music lesson does leave her in a state of stasis that does not imply that her stultified life will ever improve.

Weiner’s tale presses into service yet another instantiation of Russian Romanticism. In a seminar class, Katherine has a student read the Russian Romantic poet Alexander Pushkin’s “When Your So Young and Fairy Years” (1829).

Figure #4: A student reads Pushkin’s poetry in Katherine’s seminar class on Russian literature.

The poem’s narrator defends a friend whose name has been besmirched by “gossip’s noise”: “Hypocritical damnation: / Try to forget the whole stuff. / Don’t drink the poison, outrageous; / Leave that high circle, bright and close; / Leave crazy merriments and pleasure: / You still have one good friend of yours.” Absent any such presence in David’s life, Weiner becomes the protective narrator from Pushkin’s poem. Given the context of the episode as Weiner’s defense of his actions regarding #metoo, the episode strikes a reprehensible tone.

The contrast between Weiner and Updike illuminates some continuities and divergences in the history of American short fiction as a patriarchal enterprise. In the 1960s, Updike’s stories foregrounding men’s disillusionment with conventional marriage often obliterate women’s experience. Indeed, in “The Music School,” we only learn of Alfred’s wife and daughter through his first-person narration.

Conversely, Weiner writes in the wake of the powerful feminist critique of such patriarchal fiction writing in the late 20th century. Whatever its ulterior motives, “Bright and High Circle” foregrounds Katherine as the central protagonist of Weiner’s drama.

However, Weiner’s third-person cinematic narration is necessary to critique Katherine’s role as the lead instigator of the mob’s assault on David’s reputation. And yet, both Updike’s and Weiner’s central protagonists, regardless of their gender, cannot self-interrogate their misreading of the world.

In Tolstoy’s famous formulation, indeed, the opening line of Anna Karenina analyzed by the well-meaning but type A student, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Weiner’s bitter tale indicates that, despite decades of feminist criticism meant to displace the patriarchal centering of male experience in the short story, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Great short stories are all alike, building to single effects and epiphanies; every short story by self-centered, clueless men is sexist in its own way.

–Walter Metz