The Romanoffs: “House of Special Purpose” (2018)

“The Fall of the House of Romanov; or, Rasputin, a Real Mad Man”

Episode three of Matt Weiner’s The Romanoffs continues to demand attention to the way great authors construct tightly-contained short stories. In “The Importance of the Single Effect in a Prose Tale (1842),” Edgar Allan Poe praises the skills Nathaniel Hawthorne displays in his prose tales, such as “Young Goodman Brown” (1835). Implicitly reconstructing Aristotle, Poe displaces the importance given to epic poetry in lieu of the new genre of short-format writing being developed in the United States by Washington Irving, Hawthorne, and Poe himself.

Despite Aristotle having developed the concept of the three unities (of time, place, and effect) in reaction to the plays of Sophocles, Poe argues that the single effect finds its apotheosis in the short story: “A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents—he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect.”

Weiner’s show keeps delivering, week after week, astonishing endings that follow Poe’s instructions to the letter, and result in devastating singular effects. Episode three, “House of Special Purpose,” concerns an American actress, Olivia (Christina Hendricks) arriving in Austria to film a miniseries about the Romanovs. As if caught in a Poe story—or perhaps a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, the European pre-cursor to the short story—Olivia’s mental health is threatened repeatedly in the old dark house in which she is staying.

Figures #1 and #2: Olivia in her hotel room, dominated by the red with which the credit sequence associates the murder of the Romanovs

The director, Jacqueline (Isabelle Huppert) flits in and out of bipolar rage at her own fading beauty and her star’s lack of acting skills. Olivia’s co-star, Samuel (Jack Huston) playing Rasputin, a real mad man, sexually assaults her, not in rehearsal, but afterwards while the scene is actually being filmed.

Figure #3: Isabelle Huppert as Jacqueline, the director of the miniseries on the Romanovs

Weiner constructs his “Fall of the House of Romanov” on the burning embers of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839). In the middle of the traumatic shoot, Olivia begins having visions. One night while asleep in her bed, she is awoken by a spectral young girl (presumably one of the murdered Romanov children), disappearing into her dresser.

Figure #4: The spectral girl in Olivia’s hotel room

The next morning, Samuel searches the furniture and finds no hidden door through which an actual child could have escaped. Weiner places Olivia in the gender-reversed role of Roderick Usher, confronting his spectral sister, Madeline, purportedly buried in her tomb, but nonetheless wandering the halls of the family mansion.

Poe concentrates his story’s ending on the incestuous demise of an American family: “For a moment [Madeline] remained trembling and reeling to and fro upon the threshold, then, with a low moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated.”

The narrator of Poe’s story flees the collapsing house, witnessing its collapse: “[T]he deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the House of Usher.”

Weiner reassembles these pieces to starling effect in “House of Special Purpose.” Late in the shoot, Olivia is dragged out of bed by Bolshevik soldiers. She is led to a basement in which the Romanovs are huddled. The soldiers begin spraying the room with bullets, blood splattering everywhere around Olivia. She falls amid the chaos.

Figure #5: Bolshevik soldiers threaten Olivia during a break from filming

Figure #6: The Bolshevik soldiers kidnap Olivia in the middle of the night

Figure #7: The recapitulation of the credit sequence

Figure #8: A terrified Olivia believes the execution is real

The director yells cut, and the actors stand up, cheering the success of the shot. To overcome her American movie star’s shortcomings, Jacqueline has gaslighted Olivia into a true-to-life performance. However, when the crew goes to help Olivia up, they discover, like Roderick Usher before her, she has died of fright.

Figure #9: Part of the gaslighting of Olivia, one of the investor’s wives pretends to have a heart attack while Jacqueline pretends to channel a dead Romanov

Figure #10: Olivia recapitulates the investor’s wife’s terror

Weiner spends the entire episode languorously putting into place what Poe calls “incidents” to deliver this final macabre effect, of the American Olivia’s death at the hands of a decadent European crew. As in a good short story, we are at sea for most of it, not quite sure why the events occurring to Olivia should matter to us. All of that anxiety is released in the single effect, the discovery of Olivia’s death.

Figure #11: The crew discovers that Olivia is really dead

Figure #12: Like Roderick Usher before her, Olivia has died of fright

The script that Olivia receives as she arrives in Austria is for a miniseries about the Romanovs. Weiner’s self-reflexive gambit here is that we can process both his multiple fictional stories about possible Romanov descendants, and simultaneously a meditation about how and why a filmmaker would tell such stories in the first place.

Figure #13: At the beginning of the episode, Olivia reads the script for the final episode of the miniseries

The end of “House of Special Purpose” is not just the filming of the end of the fictional miniseries about the Romanovs within the episode, but also a re-enactment of Weiner’s show’s brilliant opening credits sequence for every episode.

Weiner modulates the single effect at the end of each episode, but here the ending modulates the beginning of the series, and of all the episodes. Weiner’s credit sequence, while as gory as that which kills Olivia, is also absurd and possibly comic. The lush red splendor in which the Romanovs bask is replaced by their dead bodies on a dirty wooden floor, set to Tom Petty’s anachronistic rock song, “Refugee.”

By assembling many short stories into one anthology, Weiner demands that we wait until the final single effect to understand each tile’s purpose in the larger mosaic that is The Romanoffs. While this torture will not drive me to die of anticipation like Roderick Usher, it is figurately driving me mad, like Rasputin.

–Walter Metz