Two episodes in is too early to hazard a guess as to what ties Matthew Weiner’s anthology series The Romanoffs together. But there’s no reward without risk, right? So here goes. Based on “The Violet Hour” and its followup, “The Royal We,” The Romanoffs might be so titled not just because its lead characters share ancestry with slain Russian royalty, but because they have nothing else to share. Both episodes feature antagonistic protagonists as hollow as Anastasia La Charnay’s Fabergé egg; the drama, and in this episode’s case in particular the comedy, arises from what they choose to fill that egg with.
This time around, Kerry Bishé and Corey Stoll star as Shelley and Michael Romanoff, an inertly married normie couple living in the American suburbs. When we meet them they’re already in therapy, mostly due to Michael’s lack of interest in doing anything with his wife, or on his own for that matter. Figuring she might as well get some good use out of his family name (her own heritage is “Scottish, Irish, whatever, who gives a shit”), the ebullient and optimistic Shelley books them passage on a cruise for Romanov descendants.
Then Michael meets a stunning British expat and ex-ballerina named Michelle (Janet Montgomery) during jury duty for a murder trial, one in which the woman clearly takes a gleefully, even erotically, morbid interest. Driven to distraction — she follows the prosecution’s case by taking meticulous notes; his own consist of the words “dirtbag” to describe the defendant, “Old Crow” to remember the name of the booze he got wasted on the night he murdered the hell out of an old woman, and a drawing of Michelle’s foot in a high-heeled shoe — Michael does the only thing a reasonable person under his circumstances can do: grind the deliberations of this open-and-shut case to a multi-day halt so that Shelley’s forced to go on the cruise without him and he can have the long weekend to pursue Michelle on his own.
Admittedly, he does this with some skill, or at least with more skill than he shows when drawing her feet on his notepad. He playacts the concerned citizen well in the jury room, and plays off Michelle’s true-crime passion by staging an unauthorized expedition to the scene of the crime, then booking it from the building as if he’s been spotted and needs to make a fast getaway. They wind up slow-dancing to the Cowboy Junkies’ version of “Sweet Jane” in the bar where the killer got loaded before the murder. (Corey Stoll’s big awkward white-guy attempts to dance in a sexy manner are a scream, right down to the way he looks over his shoulder at one point and nods as if to apologize for the display to the bar’s, like, two other patrons.) They have their tryst in the family lakehouse to which Shelley earlier said he never likes going, and he even sprinkles in a dom/sub roleplay dynamic to make it interesting, though his lack of commitment to the bit requires Michelle to take charge when he wavers. (“No. Stop it.” “…really?”)
While Michael is cosplaying 12 Angry Men to get in the pants of one lovely woman, Shelley is participating in cosplay that’s even more literal. The (mostly elderly and goofy) Romanov descendants on the cruise stage an elaborate ball, complete with a live horse and a cringe-inducing skit in which the Czar and Czarina, their family, and the mad monk Rasputin are played by little people. (Joffrey Baratheon, call your lawyer.) The romance she strikes up with another cruisegoer who married into the line, played by Noah Wyle, is based in large part on their shared realization that their real lives with their Romanov spouses are also basically a mummer’s farce. “I thought we were there to work on our problems,” she says of her time in couples therapy with Michael. “Then I wondered if we were there for his problem. And now I realize that I’m there for my problem, which might be him.”
Yet even so, she can’t go through with cheating on him, seeming to take her initial attempt to get into the wrong room as a sign that this wasn’t meant to be. “I’m a basically happy person,” she’d said earlier; she has an integral core that alleviates the need to grab ahold of the first interesting thing she sees and say this, this is me now, this is what I want and this is who I am.
Not so with Michael. If anything, this dork is simply a strip mall outlet-store version of Anastasia La Charnay from the pilot episode. With no real distinguishing characteristics apart from his heritage, he too is a personality void, only instead of filling that void with racism and misanthropy he fills it with…well, with nothing. As we learn in the couples therapy scene that opens the episode, it’s not just that he has no shared interests with Shelley — he has no interests at all. He resents the time he has to spend at his job, running the test-prep company he and his wife own. He apparently sorts his students into one of two categories: “dumbshit or hardon.” His sole pastime is playing one of those endless smartphone-app games — and not even, like, Angry Birds or Animal Crossing or freaking Subway Racers or something that might bring him into some kind of commonality with his fellow human beings slash smartphone-app gamers.
Yes, he sobs to the couples therapist about how he’d rather die than live without “someone to really know me.” But what is there to know? When it becomes clear Michelle is a murderino, he becomes one. When she gets up to dance, he dances. He susses out that she’s into power exchange as a sex thing, but again, it’s her kink, not his. Even smoking cigarettes and talking about his Romanov ancestry, the two things he does to strike up an initial conversation with her, are actually Shelley’s interests, not his. What does he really see in Michelle? A sexy woman who isn’t his wife. Wow, how exciting for him!
When his interest in Michelle starts tipping over into murderous obsession, we see he has no idea what that’s about, either. Like he’s no doubt seen in the movies, he sets up one last rendezvous with her by calling from a convenience-store parking lot, but because this is 2018 he uses his own cellphone and not the anonymizing payphones best suited for such a thing. When she breaks things of with him for good and leaves, he meticulously wipes down his car for evidence of her presence, despite the fact that a) she’s not involved in the plot, and b) there’s no need to scrub his own car down if he’s gonna find some way to murder his wife outdoors, and c) convenience-store parking lots have security cameras.
Then there’s the murder attempt itself, which is like watching slow-motion footage of two outfielders crashing into each other to catch a high fly ball. He gets so winded during the hike up to the top of the trail from which he intends to push her that I suspected he might keel over and fall off the ledge himself. Working up the courage to actually try to kill her is probably the most attention he’s ever paid to anything in his life, but he never bothers to figure out if the fall would be fatal. When she (thankfully, hilariously, furiously) survives, his responses to her outrage are a joke unto themselves. He either slipped, or he didn’t do anything, or he’s been really crazy lately, or he just gainsays her. (Her, shouting: “You tried to fucking kill me!” Him, with the tone of a little kid going “nuh-uh”: “I didn’t.”) I really can’t remember the last time I enjoyed watching someone get their physical comeuppance as much as when Shelley maces him, knees him in the balls, peels out of there, and leaves him blubbering on the pavement. He deserves it for trying to murder her, but he also deserves it for just sucking really hard.
The whole shebang is a terrific showcase for the comic talents of Stoll and, especially, Bishé, whose reaction-shot face game has been peerless ever since she spent Halt and Catch Fire watching the antics of the show’s less grounded computer geniuses with bemused horror. There’s a great bit in particular after Shelley gets home from the cruise and Michael returns from the final day of deliberations. He looks miserable the second he walks in, and her face falls the moment she hears him walk in the door. But by the time they actually come face to face they’re both beaming with utterly bogus joy to see each other. They hug, and we get a great look at Shelley’s face resting on his shoulder as she says “I really missed you.” Her voice sounds sincere, but her eyes look as if she just discovered the family dog isn’t quite as housebroken as previously believed.
That, I think, is the takeaway from this episode, rather than the smile of empowerment that eventually breaks across Shelley’s face like sunshine as she drives away with Cake’s version of “I Will Survive” playing on the car stereo. It’s funny to see assholes be recognized as such, and made to suffer for it. Wasn’t this the logic behind so many of the pitfalls and pratfalls that befell Mad Men’s hapless shithead-in-chief, Pete Campbell, at least when Weiner and company weren’t utilizing him to examine what it’s like to have so much handed to you and still feel like, as Pete says at one point, you have nothing at all?