The Romanoffs: “Expectation” (2018)

“I bet it’s all lies”

Episode four of Matt Weiner’s The Romanoffs, “Expectation,” delivers another astonishing ending, evoking the single effect that Edgar Allan Poe finds so remarkable about the short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The exact intertextual connection between each episode of The Romanoffs and specific short stories is less important than the powerful punch—what Roland Barthes calls the “punctum”—delivered by the very best of short format narrative, be it literary or audio-visual.

I happen to be taking a class about the short fiction of Canadian writer Alice Munro. Her novella, “The Love of a Good Woman” (1996), first published in The New Yorker, will serve my purpose of explaining the devastating impact of the end of “Expectation.”

Munro begins her story with a group of kids discovering the submerged dead body of Mr. Willens, an optometrist in a small town. Munro discards this narrational thread in lieu of a nurse, Enid, taking care of a dying woman, Mrs. Quinn. As Mrs. Quinn regains her strength one last time before her death, she tells Enid a story about how Mr. Willens died.

Munro frames Mrs. Quinn’s story within a tangled web of unreliable narration. Mrs. Quinn begins by enticing Enid’s curiosity: “I could tell you something you wouldn’t believe.” Nonplussed, Enid declares: “People tell me lots of things.” Mrs. Quinn responds, “Sure. Lies. I bet it’s all lies.”

This is Mrs. Quinn’s strange, self-dismantling preamble to her story, about her husband’s murder of Mr. Willens. From the start, Munro refuses to grant any stability to Mrs. Quinn’s tale, about how her husband, Rupert came upon Willens sexually assaulting his wife in the middle of an eye exam. Purportedly, Rupert beat Willens to death and then, with the help of his wife, covered up the murder by sinking Willens’ body into the lake.

Munro strips Mrs. Quinn’s story even of the authority of quotation marks: “Then it was in the papers. Mr. Willens found drowned. They said his head got bunged up knocking against the steering wheel. They said he was alive when he went in the water. What a laugh.” Munro refuses to tell us who “they” are, nor who is laughing, and why.

After Mrs. Green dies, Enid obsesses over how to verify the woman’s story. She concocts a plan to have Rupert row her in a boat out onto the lake and ask him for the truth. Enid herself becomes a storyteller, lying to Rupert that she doesn’t know how to swim, in an effort to learn the truth, even if it costs her own life.

The narrator tells us: “He would only have to give her a shove with one of the oars and topple her into the water and let her sink. Once he understood his advantage, she would tell him. She would ask, Is it true?” Enid can’t bear the ambiguity of Mrs. Green’s story. The narrator tells us: “’Lies’ is the word that Enid can hear now, out of all the words that Mrs. Quinn said in that room. Lies, I bet it’s all lies.”

The narrator prods our suspicion of the veracity of Mrs. Green’s explanation of Mr. Willen’s death: “Could a person make up something so detailed and diabolical? The answer is yes. A sick person’s mind, a dying person’s mind, could fill up with all kinds of trash and organize that trash in a most convincing way.”

The incident with Mrs. Green causes Enid to recall a childhood trauma when she discovered her father having an affair with a woman who wasn’t her mother. Enid tells her mother about what she saw, but her mother drives the truth away: “Then that was a dream. Dreams are sometimes downright silly. Don’t tell Daddy about it. It’s too silly.” The narrator coldly ends the section with the one word, “lies,” italicized for dramatic effect.

The novella ends with Enid and Rupert walking to the lake, before Enid has revealed to Rupert the reason for their boat ride. Enid weighs her options. The narrator, seemingly within Enid’s consciousness, at one moment sides with aborting the mission, following her mother’s path of denial of the truth. “This was how to keep the world habitable,” says the narrator.

Munro ends the novella in a state of suspension: Enid and Rupert are about to get into the boat. But, the storytelling ends before we know much of the information we desire. We cannot determine whether Rupert really did kill Mr. Willens, but even more distressing, we don’t even know if Enid will carry out her plan of truth detection.

The possible permutations begin to multiply: If Enid does execute her plan, and Rupert is guilty, Munro has denied us access to yet another murder. If Rupert is not guilty, the narrative returns to its zero state, with us having absolutely no suspects. Munro brilliantly ends her story with us knowing even less than we did when we first encountered the characters.

The single effect of indeterminacy that ends Munro’s novella, “The Love of a Good Woman,” is replicated in Matt Weiner’s “Expectation.” The episode concerns Julia (Amanda Peet) whose daughter Ella is expecting her first child. Julia is married to Eric, a loving husband, but she flashes back to her affair with Eric’s best friend, Daniel (John Slattery). Julia has told Daniel that he is Ella’s real father, but we are given no evidence that this is definitively the case.

By episode four of The Romanoffs, we have become accustomed to questioning the very basis of the show’s narration. Every episode purportedly tells the story of a descendant of the murdered Russian royal family. However, no reliable evidence is ever presented of the genetic links back to the imperial past. People claim to be related, sometimes through delusion and other times through malevolence.

Figure #1: Julia and Daniel meet in front of Carnegie Hall

Daniel is at the center of the indeterminacy of The Romanoffs. While Ella waits for the baby to come, Daniel asks Julia to meet him outside of Carnegie Hall, a venue known for its virtuoso performances. The former lovers wander in front of a bookstore. Out front, in the remainder racks, Daniel finds his book, a history of the Romanovs, discounted to just $1.

Figure #2: Daniel and his remaindered Romanovs book

Two episodes prior, aboard a cruise ship filled with purported Romanov descendants, Daniel gives a lecture about the family’s history. Now that we come to know more about Daniel, Weiner suddenly undermines his character’s expertise. We also learn that this poorly selling book is the basis for the miniseries about the Romanovs we saw being filmed in Austria in the prior episode, “House of Special Purpose.”

As in the pilot episode, “The Violet Hour,” pregnancy is important in The Romanoffs because of the possible continuation of the Romanov family line. In “Expectation,” Ella’s paternity is crucial because Eric is the one who claims to be the Romanov descendant. If Daniel is Ella’s father, it would disrupt the continuation of the Romanov line.

Figure #3: A pregnant woman in the locker room of Julia’s gym

By the end of the episode, Weiner, like Munro before him, is spinning one unreliable yarn on top of another. The impending birth of her grandchild has Julia revisiting her deceit. In what seems an important emotional purge, Julia enters her bedroom to finally tell Eric the truth.

As she breaks down, Eric astonishingly tells Julia that he’s known all along, and still loves both Julia as his wife, and Ella as his daughter. A shock cut reveals that this segment was “all lies.” Julia stands in front of the mirror in her closet, having never moved into the bedroom to talk with Eric at all.

Figure #4: Eric tenderly hugs Julia after learning he is not the father of their adult daughter

But it is the final scene of “Expectation” that delivers the powerful single effect of indeterminacy, and most recalls Munro’s expert questioning of our access to the truth in fiction. Having had a gallstone attack, Julia lies in a hospital bed. After Eric leaves to retrieve some items for Julia, Ella sits by her side, reversing the expectations we have of mother nursing her daughter through childbirth. Julia worries about dying under anesthesia.

Ella asks Julia if she’s afraid. Julia’s eyes quickly dart to her bag across the room. Ella notices this, and asks, “Do you want to call him?” Without another exchange of words, Ella picks up Julia’s cell phone. By the time Julia says, “I’ll do it,” Ella has already dialed Daniel’s number, and handed her the phone. Julia’s eyes query her daughter, indicating that she did not know her daughter already figured out the question of her paternity.

Julia talks briefly to Daniel, telling him that she loves him. Julia and Ella exchange glances. Julia puffs out a brief exasperated bit of air, but then leans her head back in resignation. Ella kindly shrugs, looking lovingly at her mother. As the camera gently tracks backward, the two women gaze at each other intently.

Figure #5: Ella dials the phone for Julia to talk with Daniel

Given the unreliability of the previous sequence between Eric and Julia, there is nothing fixed about the last moments of “Expectation.” This also could be Julia’s psychic projection of the ideal relationship she wants, but does not have, with her daughter. Perhaps there’s another shock cut lying just beyond what Weiner decides to show us.

Figure #6: Julia and Ella together in the last shot of the episode

Indeed, the episode opens with Julia and Ella having a tense meal at Bergdorf Goodman. Their bitterness at one another in that scene, earlier in the same day, indicates at least a noticeable incongruity with the ending sequence. Even if what appears to be the case is so, that Ella knows that Daniel is her father, the ending still wallows in what Murno describes as “all lies.”

Just as the ending of “The Love of a Good Woman” doubles down on the possibilities of deceit, “Expectation” exposes how Julia’s lie has now contaminated Ella’s life, with another generation of potential liars waiting to be born. Munro’s narrator comments upon the perpetrator of Mr. Willens’ death: “You cannot live in the world with such a burden. You will not be able to stand your life.”

Such is the theme of “Expectation,” an Aristotelian tragedy that stays razor focused on one day in Julia’s life, lived under the shroud of harmful deceit. Munro and Weiner’s fictions may be built on lies, but they speak a great truth about our ability to hurt each other.

–Walter Metz