‘The Romanoffs’ Recap: Scared Silly

A review of “The House of Special Purpose,” this week’s The Romanoffs, coming up just as soon as I blame it on the Method…

“I’m sorry, I… I feel like I’m losing my mind here.” -Olivia

In conversations with fellow critics about this series, “The House of Special Purpose,” which follows an actress who is being tortured by her director, has either been their favorite or least favorite of the three episodes Amazon provided us in advance. No middle ground. I fall in the latter group, though I can see what those in the former appreciate about it. As a (very) slow-burning horror story, it’s the biggest departure from what we’ve come to expect from Matthew Weiner(*) and this show’s concept so far. Its ending is startling, but it’s meant to be, in a way that Greg and Hajar’s declarations of love for each other in “The Violet Hour” were not. And though it tries to juggle too many concepts at once, it still feels more focused than “The Royal We.” On top of that, Isabelle Huppert is wonderful as the emotionally manipulative showrunner  — a gender-flipped stand-in for Weiner (who co-wrote this episode with Mary Sweeney) himself? — who scares Christina Hendricks’ poor Olivia into an early grave.

(*) Though one of my favorite Mad Men episodes — Season Five’s “Mystery Date,” where Don is consumed by dark thoughts around the time of the Richard Speck murders — is basically a horror story.

Still, I found it alternately enthralling and exasperating. As the inscrutable Jacqueline, Huppert gives the series’ most interesting performance so far, and Hendricks brings depth to a character who’s fairly thin on paper. Individual set pieces — Jacqueline literally grabbing Brian by the balls to improve his performance; Jacqueline apparently being possessed by the ghost of one of the Romanovs during dinner with an investor — are glorious, but the thing as a whole is a glorious mess.

Where last week’s installments were each at least a half-hour too long, this one feels simultaneously too long and too short. Somehow, over the course of 90-odd minutes, Olivia is barely fleshed out as more than the confused straight woman for a long, sick joke that ends in her own death. There are occasional attempts to provide her with a backstory and motivation (her recently-deceased mother covers both), but mostly she’s a comfortable movie star who’s more demanding than some in her position would be, less demanding than others. She’s less invested in her craft than the obsessive-bordering-on-abusive Sam, and her manager Bob bluntly describes the realities of being a woman in Hollywood by reminding her of the advice he once gave Meryl Streep that female performers primarily need to do three things: “Learn lines, hit your mark and diet.” Olivia and Jacqueline occasionally bond over Jacqueline’s own days as a desirable actress. But Jacqueline’s contempt for her new leading lady seems to have little to do with jealousy and everything to do with whatever madness has gripped her over the course of production. Olivia being frightened to death by a Method recreation of the Romanov massacre feels like neither an appropriate punishment nor an ironic one — just something that happens to her because that’s the end of the story. More time could have better fleshed her out and made the conclusion matter as something more than a macabre twist.

Failing that, we’re back in the problem area that the Anushka/Hajar and Michael/Michelle scenes hit in the two opening tales: the same handful of tonal and story beats repeated well past the point where they’re effective. Some degree of narrative patience is required as we toggle between the notion that this is a legitimately haunted production and various scenes revealing that Jacqueline is just screwing around with Olivia (and the other actors) in hopes of kicking loose a stronger performance. Some of these reversals work, while other moments — like Jacqueline having no issue with Brian eschewing his dialogue for the lyrics to “Suspicious Minds” — are so strange as to defy explanation. (Unless the explanation is, as Olivia starts to assume, that the director has simply lost the capacity for rational thought.) But even as the supernatural level rises (Jacqueline’s outburst at dinner, the little girl disappearing into Olivia’s wardrobe), the whole thing starts to feel less creepy than it should.

In the Mad Men days, Weiner liked to talk about how there’s a bit of him in almost every character he writes, and The Romanoffs has had some fairly clear author avatars, including Michael last week and Jacqueline this time out. If they’re meant to be self-portraits, they’re fairly lacerating ones. Jacqueline’s showrunner is an irrational tyrant, searching for an emotional truth she can’t articulate well enough to entrust power to anyone else along the way. There’s a version of this story that dials back on the haunted castle aspects just enough to give us more of the push and pull between her and Olivia — how much is driven by jealousy versus arrogance, if there’s method to the madness, etc. A deeper exploration of that might have made the whole tale feel rich enough to justify the time spent telling it. Instead, much of it feels like smoke and mirrors to get us to the moment when it seems as if Olivia has been transported back in time to die with the real Romanovs, then is revealed to have been manipulated by her director, then dies anyway.

Like Olivia herself, there were moments through this journey where I gasped at what I was seeing. But there were many more where, like Olivia herself, I rolled my eyes at the indulgence of what I was seeing.

Some other thoughts:

* Weiner and Terence Winter have gone in very different creative directions since The Sopranos ended. (You could look at Mad Men as the successor of Sopranos‘ sociological and psychological concerns, and Boardwalk Empire as its Mob drama prequel.) Still, the two have made by far the best use of Jack Huston in his career so far, Winter by casting him as disfigured Boardwalk sniper Richard Harrow, Weiner by letting him work in his native English accent as Sam. He is believable and charismatic as the kind of artist who uses his process as a license for bad behavior.

* Paul Reiser (as Bob) and Mark Valley (as the film’s investor) are both actors who easily could have turned up on Mad Men at some point, but didn’t. Reiser’s got the period experience (his breakout role was in Diner) and Valley’s got a square enough jaw to play someone Don Draper would both respect and loathe.

* More episode-to-episode connective tissue: For research, Olivia reads a Romanovs book by Daniel Reese, the John Slattery character who gave a cruise ship lecture in “The Royal We” and will apparently be more prominent in an upcoming story.

What did everybody else think?

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