This review of The Romanoffs contains spoilers.
The Romanoffs Episode 4
Is Matthew Weiner obsessed with affairs? Between his former show, Mad Men, and his current offering, Amazon’s frustratingly indulgent The Romanoffs, extramarital affairs have featured as a prominent narrative crutch. The plot point has become so repeated for a Weiner piece that I’m starting to wonder if the writer/director is capable of creating tension that extends further than “will X character find out that Y character slept with Z character?”
We’re back doing the same song and dance, returning to midtown Manhattan for the Romanoffs’ fourth installment, “Expectations,” but this time with some added paternity ambiguity to attempt to make things fresh. Weiner seemingly cannot help but thumb through his old playbook looking for new ways to traverse ground that was well-traveled in his Mad Men days, albeit this time from a female perspective. After last week’s odd dip into the paranormal, Weiner is back in comfortable territory, sitting in posh NYC dining rooms with white, upper class characters dissecting privilege, aging, and identity. With familiar faces like John Slattery around, it all seems squarely in the Mad Men czar’s wheelhouse, for better or for worse; last week’s episode may have had its faults, but at least it was Weiner operating in a mode that we’re not used to and felt challenging. “Expectations,” with its secret relationships and soapy drama, is a fine if unsurprising return to form.
Fortunately, “Expectations” features strong performances and a standard hour-long run time that makes the episode worth the watch. Criminally underrated actress Amanda Peet stars as Julia, a mother anxiously awaiting the arrival of her first grandchild. The new addition to the family tree isn’t just stressful because Julia’s snobbish daughter Ella (Emily Rudd) insists on delivering the baby in solitude away from her family, but because it conjures memories of Ella’s birth, a baby that was conceived not with Julia’s husband and Romanov descendent Peter, but with family friend and author Daniel (Slattery). Throughout a day waiting for Ella to go into labor, Julia reflects on her relationship with both Daniel and her husband, feeling guilt for the things that Daniel knows and Peter does not.
Slowly unraveling due to the past unexpectedly intruding on her thoughts and an unknown medical condition rearing its head, Peet is simultaneously defensive and vulnerable, on the verge of completely losing it at any moment. She lashes out at strangers and family alike, but you can instantly see her remorse and confusion after these impulsive reactions, searching for where they’re really coming from. Peet is a dynamic performer, and matched with Slattery, who foregoes Roger Sterling’s brash bravado for something much softer and wounded yet equally charming, they milk the emotion out of Weiner and Semi Chellas’ script. They’re my favorite characters that The Romanoffs has rolled out thus far.
Beyond the soapy realities of Ella’s true father, Julia’s New York day-in-the-life features compelling conversations with her daughter and sister-in-law (Diane Lane, promised to return in a later installment) that at times feel a little too writerly, but never oversell their point or overstay their welcome. In particular, I could have watched Julia and Ella’s opening brunch scene for much longer and was disappointed when the episode decided to move on, something that definitely never happened in the bloated previous episodes. Taking shots at each other’s privilege and the ways in which they choose to address or embrace it, Julia admonishes Ella for deciding to be comfortable in her lifestyle versus being her own person while Ella asks her mother to get over her moral superiority and see that she’s not exactly the perfect feminist herself. It’s a lively argument that I could have imagined Peggy having with Betty on Mad Men.
Another highlight is Julia’s imagined confession to Peter. Stark, stirring, and played so naturally, Julia’s confession only feels like a gut-punch when it’s revealed that the conversation never actually happened. The Romanoffs is obsessed with the way that history can inform our present, but in “Expectations,” instead of some perceived royal lineage impacting a character’s current predicaments, the only haunting history is deeply personal.
Nick Harley is a tortured Cleveland sports fan, thinks Douglas Sirk would have made a killer Batman movie, Spider-Man should be a big-budget HBO series, and Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson should direct a script written by one another. For more thoughts like these, read Nick’s work here at Den of Geek or follow him on Twitter.