If you want to return to the world of Matthew Weiner, you’d best prepare for a rough reentry. We’re not just talking about the opening titles to The Romanoffs here, which replace Mad Men’s falling silhouette in a suit with the trickling blood of the massacred royal family of Russia as its connecting thread. Mere minutes after the last notes of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Refugee” close out the credits, we’re subjected to an almost unbearable torrent of racist invective — in subtitled French, no less — from an aging descendant of aristocracy to her grin-and-bear-it Muslim caregiver.
The younger woman, Hajar (Inès Melab), has to stand there and take it as the older woman, Anastasia La Charnay (Marthe Keller) — Anushka to her friends, and there are precious few of those — rolls out her bigoted litany. Anushka accuses Hajar of terrorism, suspects her of assassination by poison, recites half a dozen historical military victories of Christendom over Islam, brags that the traditional French croissant is the West’s way of literally eating the crescent that symbolizes her faith, and tells her, as she admires the La Charnay family’s heirloom Fabergé egg, that she “will never, ever have that.”
To Anushka, the egg means literally everything: wealth, respectability, Paris, France, Frenchness, humanity. All of it, held perpetually out of reach of people like Hajar by sad old white folks clinging to triumphs (whole Arches of them, in fact) they themselves did nothing to earn except through accident of birth. Behind Hajar’s placid grin you can all but hear her thoughts in response: “Look, lady, I just work here.”
For all its initial, confrontational unpleasantness, “The Violet Hour,” the first self-contained installment in Weiner’s ambitious anthology series for Amazon, soon settles into a familiar story pattern. Too familiar, perhaps: From my notes, I see I first predicted where the story was going at the 18:05 mark, approximately 32 and a half minutes before the inevitable big reveal. Nevertheless, some stories are worth retelling, whether because they force us to confront unpleasant truths or comfort us with resolutions that, in the real world, are much harder to come by. This episode is a little from Column A, a little from Column B.
Hajar has been hired to tend to the needs of Anushka — whose combination of hypochondriacal miserablism and cutting Continental cruelty reads like a cross between Livia Soprano and Marie Calvet, two grandes dames from Weiner’s televisual past — by her nephew Greg, played by Aaron Eckhart. An American in Paris, Greg is shacked up with low-rent hotelier Sophie (Louise Bourgoin), a divorcée with no discernible personality traits aside from avarice and beauty. Yes, “beauty” is a personality trait in Weiner’s world — cf. Draper, Don — and in that regard Greg is no exception. Handsomeness and handiness, in that order, are his primary contributions to his little world.
As Anushka’s only surviving relative, Greg feels obligated to care for the mean old martinet. He also stands to inherit her palatial apartment, once the home of a czarling’s mistress. But despite countless flareups and fakeouts, his aunt holds on, seemingly drawing strength from the misery she inflicts on others.
But after a legit scare during which only Hajar is around to help, Anushka — whose intense racism and blinkered nostalgia for the bygone glories of the aristocracy are an even poorer substitute for passions and personality than being really really ridiculously good-looking is for Greg and Sophie — warms to Hajar. She refers to the younger woman’s prayers with envy: “You clearly know something I don’t.” She holds her hand as she drifts off to sleep after they return from the hospital.
She also reveals the ugly side of the family history. Recognizing natural-born anti-Communists when they saw them, the Nazis boarded in the La Charnays’ apartment when they invaded Paris, enslaving Anushka’s family and raping her sister. “They were animals,” she says flatly. “They took everything.” Then the kicker: “That egg is a fake.” All the supposed glories of Western civilization, reduced to a ravening horde of war criminals and a fancy-looking fraud.
The world-historical tragedy that befell her was not the end of her sorrows, either. Her son drowned (hence, it seems, her heart-stopping panic when the beloved pet dog who effectively replaced him seemed at risk of doing the same), on a night when the blue light of the Paris night went inexplicably violet for a time. When she turns back to Hajar after confiding this, there are actual tears in her eyes, for the first time. Now she’s willing to dress the younger woman in her own fancy clothes just for fun, diamond-encrusted tiara and all, like Pygmalion by way of Le Pen.
See where this is going yet?
Whether from actual gratitude and affection or out of pique against her nephew and his partner, Anushka wills her apartment to Hajar out of the blue. Hajar’s parents, worried about how this kind of thing will look to the other surviving La Charnay (cf. Pete “Not great, Bob!” Campbell’s mom), tell Greg, who tells Sophie, who berates Anastasia for it and is paid back in kind.
It falls to Greg, whose two talents according to Sophie are to “flirt [and] fix the water heater,” to set things right. This he does, sleazily, by injecting a mainline dose of Paris romance directly into Hajar’s veins one night over dinner, a leisurely stroll, and some quick first aid when she falls and skins her knee.
They have sex. The next day Hajar refuses the apartment, and gets fired as a result. A few weeks later, Greg — back in his aunt’s good graces — has a beard, and Hajar has a bun in the oven. (Did you know: Being a character in a movie or TV show increases your chance of conception during a one-night stand by over 500 percent?)
Then something completely nuts happens: During what is supposed to be the big confrontation that will let everyone get what they deserve for this mess, Hajar and Greg realize they’re in love. “This is all I wanted!” Anushka proclaims. “For the line to continue!”
The episode ends with Hajar (hair down like a Disney princess) and Greg (bearded and resplendent in an archduke’s cognac-scented smoking jacket) staring out the window beatifically, as Anushka looks on by candlelight. She retires to bed. The light in her window shifts from blue to violet. And they all lived, and presumably died, happily ever after.
True to form, this lunatic fairy-tale ending casts the 80 or so minutes that precede it in a whole new light as well.
So much of Weiner’s best work is based on building characters so painstakingly, from episode to episode and season to season, that even their most outlandish and out-of-character moments feel earned and organic. That just can’t be a factor here, and won’t be for any of the one-shot stories that follow, either. Anastasia’s double-barreled racism, Hajar’s model-minority acceptance of it, Greg’s aw-shucks emptiness and Sophie’s dimwitted mean streak (she winds up making off with the egg, not knowing it’s a fugazi) — as written and directed by Weiner himself, it all reads rather one-note.
Then that ending comes along, and it feels as much of a rupture of realism as the visible pencil eraser in “Duck Amuck.” We’re watching a story, in which the meek inherit and the wicked witch sees the error of her ways. (Sort of.) A life based on treating the people around you poorly because you’re in a position to get away with it, and a parallel life of putting up with it because your relatively humble status enables you to see good in an authority figure who perhaps can’t even see it themselves, wind up revealed as mere prologue to the magical forgiveness and fulfillment that follow.