“A Magic Hour”
The Romanoffs, Matthew Weiner’s new anthology series streaming on Amazon Prime, seems poised to rival his earlier Mad Men, one of the great dramas in the history of American television. The credit sequence begins with the Russian royal family gathering in a room filled with priceless oil paintings and statuary. Their clean white clothing stands out amid carpeting and wall coverings dominated by red.
Figure #1: The Russian royal family in their splendor
Suddenly, Bolshevik soldiers barge into the room and take the family into a drab, empty basement. The soldiers brutally shoot the family, covering the white clothing and the wooden floor with copious amounts of red blood.
Figure #2: The murdered Romanoffs
A woman in a blue cloak escapes into the forest. As she uncovers her head by lowering her hood, she ascends the steps of a subway in a present-day European city. An overhead shot follows her disappearing into the crowd. The credits begin with an historical bloodbath sullying white civilization, but end with a fairytale of “little blue riding hood” walking in redemption into our present.
Figure #3: “Little Blue Riding Hood” escapes into the forest
Figure #4: The shift to the present-day city
As with Mad Men, the credit sequence of The Romanoffs quickly summarizes the metaplot of the series: Instead of watching Don Draper’s fall into depravity, we now witness a series of descendants of the Russian royal family struggling to exist in a world shorn of its reverence for the landed gentry.
The pilot, “The Violet Hour” is a stunning tale in the tradition of Guy de Maupassant and Anton Chekhov, the French and Russian masters of the short story, respectively. Weiner tells of Anastasia La Charnay (Marthe Keller), a descendant of the Romanoff dynasty whose only remaining possession is a grandiose apartment at the base of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Her nephew, Greg (Aaron Eckhart) and his abominable wife, Sophie (Louise Bourgoin) lust after the elderly woman’s real estate. However, Anastasia stubbornly persists, cantankerously alienating all of her assigned caretakers. The latest, Hajar (Ines Melab) is a kindly young Muslim woman who refuses to be dissuaded by the racist, xenophobic old woman.
Anastasia eventually warms to the affable Hajar, who asks her employer for the story of the Faberge egg in the curio cabinet in the dining room. Anastasia tells Hajar of losing her family to the Nazis, who raped and pillaged their way through her family and its possessions. Anastasia declares the egg Hajar cradles lovingly in her hands a fake. Anastasia poetically describes the sky turning violet amidst the Nazi violence.
Figure #5: Hajar with Anastasia’s fake Faberge egg
As a result of the young woman’s kindness, and to punish the greedy Sophie, Anastasia bequeaths her apartment to Hajar. Sophie devises a scheme whereby Greg has sex with Hajar in order to convince her to relinquish the apartment. Instead, the consequence is Hajar’s pronouncement of her pregnancy with Greg’s child.
The furious Sophie flees, stealing the egg as her payment; she is thus rewarded exactly as she deserves. Anastasia unexpectedly declares her joy at the continuation of the Romanoff line; Sophie long ago refused to have children. In a stunning last shot, Anastasia blows out a candle in front of her bedroom window, revealing a redemptive violet night sky over Paris.
Figure #6: Sophie storms away with the fake Faberge egg
Figure #7: The violet hour in the last shot of the pilot
The episode visually recalls the work of filmmaker Max Ophuls. In his masterpiece, 1950’s La Ronde, Ophuls depicts the depravity of a post-war Europe murdered off by the Nazis. Ophuls loads his images with complex mise-en-scene, wherein the busy bric-a-brac belies the fact that the Nazis have destroyed any remnants of European civilization, leaving behind a clutter of material objects but no hope for the future. Ophuls’ films are filled with Anastasia’s fake Faberge eggs, seemingly precious, but stripped of their significance.
Figure #8: The cluttered mise-en-scene of Max Ophuls’ La Ronde (1950)
Figure #9: Anastasia’s elegantly decorated apartment in The Romanoffs
The end of “The Violet Hour” takes an unexpected turn away from Ophuls. In Mad Men, just as we think the end of the 1960s has finally doomed Don Draper to a well-justified obscurity, he invents the 1970s “Have a Coke and a smile” campaign.
The pilot of The Romanoffs similarly ends with the resurrection of the gaudy version of civilization represented by the Russian royals. Anastasia has engineered the continuation of that violent, false civilization within the womb of the Muslim woman she formerly insulted as barbaric.
As with the ironic ending of Mad Men, we desire a life-affirming civilization, but are only left with demons—Don Draper and Anastasia La Charney—triumphant in their shallow, selfish lives, overshadowing the potential future of civilization represented by the loving Greg and Hajar.
Figure #10: Hajar lovingly takes care of Anastasia
If The Romanoffs continues with visual storytelling this powerful, we are witnessing, not the demise of the artistry of Matthew Weiner, as critics have foolishly declared, but his grandiose apotheosis.