The Romanoffs: “The Royal We” (2018)

“Tell The Russians We’re Coming”

Matthew Weiner’s anthology series, The Romanoffs is beginning to shape up as a collection of great short stories. In the second episode, “The Royal We,” Weiner tells the story of Michael and Shelly Romanoff, a couple whose marriage is collapsing.

Figure #1: Michael and Shelly Romanoff at couples counseling

One way of understanding Weiner’s startling new video short story is by comparison with Raymond Carver’s written tale, 1981’s “Tell the Women We’re Going.” In his seminal essay on the short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Importance of the Single Effect in a Prose Tale” (1842), Edgar Allen Poe studies the razor-sharp focus of the ending of a great short story.

Like many Carver stories, “Tell the Women We’re Going” proves an apotheosis of Poe’s idea. Bill and Jerry part company with their wives on a lazy Sunday afternoon. They drive by two women on the side of the road. The men pursue Barbara and Shannon, but the women think they escape the predators by hiking away on a path. Bill wants to return to their wives, but Jerry becomes infuriated at the women’s resistance to his lechery. Jerry follows Barbara and Shannon down the path, unexpectedly bashing both women in the head with a rock. Bill stands by impotently. Through stories like this, Carver delved deeply into the barely repressed rage of white men in an America increasingly disdainful of their privilege.

Whether Carver channels patriarchy, or critiques it is a matter of much debate. Regardless, Weiner’s “The Royal We” fundamentally transforms Carver’s premise. Michael Romanoff is called for jury duty just as he and his wife are about to go on vacation. Shelly decides to go alone, on a cruise filled with other Romanoff descendants. On the boat, she strikes up a romance, but backs out at the last minute, still hopeful that she can save her sinking marriage.

Figure #2: Shelly admires a huge Faberge egg on the Romanoff family cruise

Figure #3: Lifeboats suggest Shelly is about to bail out of her burgeoning romance with Ivan

Meanwhile, the sleazy Michael shows no such compunction. His trial is an open and closed case. However, he lusts after one of the female jurors, Michelle. Grotesquely inverting the plot of Twelve Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957), Michael refuses to change his solitary dissenting vote, keeping the jury deliberating so he can pursue Michelle. He succeeds, ending up having sex with her. Michael is proven not only depraved, but delusional as, like Carver’s Jerry before him, he continues to stalk Michelle. As Michelle struggles to convince Michael that their affair was merely a one-night stand, Shelly returns from the cruise.

Michael invites Shelly on a hike. Mixing up the terms of “Tell the Women We’re Going,” Michael is without a male friend, thus unable to leave his wife behind on the hike. Instead, he directs his violence at Shelly. Atop a cliff, he pushes her off. Just as we think Weiner’s story has turned tragically into Carver territory, a cut reveals Shelly hanging on to a ledge toward the bottom of the cliff.

Figure #4: Atop the cliff, Michael stands over Shelly, having failed to kill her by pushing her off the ledge

Shelly jumps the short distance to the ground, shaken but not harmed. She begins screaming at Michael, knowing full well that he has tried to murder her. The pathetic Michael pursues her back to their car, insisting on the event being merely an accident. Shelly sprays Michael in the face, leaving him in excruciating pain.

Figure #5: Shelly rids herself of her abusive husband by spraying mace into his eyes

Weiner turns Carver’s tale of male violence in a distinctly comic direction, leaving no doubt where his sympathies lie. As with his famous anti-hero, Don Draper from Mad Men, Weiner is obsessed with scrutinizing the pathology of the predatory nature of men, in no way endorsing such behavior. Rather than the shock ending of “Tell the Women We’re Going,” in which male violence tears asunder the women’s skulls, the single effect of “The Royal We” is to celebrate Shelly’s escape from the monstrous Michael, blinding him in some grotesque parody of the tragically self-deluded Oedipus Rex.

The very title of the episode resolves its beautiful ambiguity in this way. In the middle of the story, it seems that the plural “we” refers to all of the Romanoffs on the cruise ship. Instead, by the end, Michael is revealed as a delusional king, the kind of patriarch who would refer to himself in the plural, suggesting his dominance over especially the women around him, both Shelly and Michelle, both of whom he wishes subservient to his desires. With a blast of pepper spray, Shelly puts an end to such regal nonsense, the patriarchal Romanoff dynasty happily a thing of the past. Weiner’s ending produces a single effect which leads the patriarchal trail of Hawthorne, Poe, and Carver into the dustbin of history.

–Walter Metz