If I had to select a “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” knockoff declarative lede for a glossy magazine-style profile of Julia Wells, the wealthily careworn protagonist of The Romanoffs’ latest episode, “Expectation,” it might be this: Julia Wells can’t settle down.
Played by Amanda Peet — who seems to somehow become fuller and realer in the role as time passes — Julia spends most of the hour, during which she is almost continuously on-screen, moving from one place to another, and always with another, further destination in mind. She takes a couple of subway rides, catches a couple of cabs, mills around in a couple of famous New York retail establishments, gets dressed for two separate meals out at two different restaurants. Her big errand for the day involves picking people up at the airport and dropping them off at their hotel. Her workout of choice is moving in place on the elliptical machine, and her post-workout visit to the gym locker room just entails her walking through it, navigating other women’s bodies. Even her job entails helping the homeless and the transient. And if she pauses for more than a minute, her mind does the wandering for her, flashing back to events from decades ago, years ago, hours ago, minutes ago; she daydreams about resolution and absolution that are not forthcoming. Wherever she goes, there she isn’t.
Julia’s problem is that despite what seems like a very settled and nearly picture-perfect life — a great husband, a great apartment, a walk-in closet that’s nearly the size of the aforementioned locker room, a noble career, a daughter who will never have to work a day in her life, a grandson on the way despite youthful good looks that make the descriptor “grandma” sound vaguely absurd — she’s lost at sea. She resents her daughter’s bourgeois, regressive complacency. She’s worried about her grandson’s overdue delivery. Her in-laws, even wealthier than she but vaguely midwestern, irritate her. She’s been attacked on the job (after closing the door to her office, naturally).
Most of all, she’s tormented by her big guilty secret: Her daughter, nominally a descendant of the Romanoffs on her father’s side, is in fact the child of another man, her husband’s dashingly literary best friend, Daniel. He’s played by John Slattery, reprising his cameo as the Romanoff historian from episode two and the author of the book on which the fictional miniseries of episode three is based — and rehashing a mid-to-late-season Mad Men storyline involving his character Roger Sterling while he’s at it. Their affair is revealed in wordless flashbacks, shot in the dreamy chiaroscuro of Red Shoe Diaries soft-core smut.
Only when Julia is hospitalized for gallstones — Julia Wells, slowed down? Why, the very gall of it — do things finally come together for her, kind of. Though she does not go through with the confession to her husband that she fantasized about making earlier that night — a fantasy in which her confession was met with the revelation that he knew the secret all along and had accepted both his wife and his daughter anyway, in silence, years earlier — she attains release through an unexpected channel: her spoiled and extremely pregnant daughter, Ella (Emily Rudd).
After the doctor and the nurse and her husband clear out of the hospital room, Ella, who’s come to sit vigil by her mom’s hospital bed rather than the other way around, breaks the silence by asking, simply, “Do you wanna call him?” Ella goes to her mom’s purse, takes out her cell phone, and, without any instruction, dials Daniel’s number. Julia, who had had a public row with Daniel in the middle of the Strand bookstore over the way he feels she’d pushed him away from his biological daughter all these years, fills him in on her situation. “I love you, too,” she says, at the conclusion of their conversation, of which we hear only her side — which is the side Ella can hear, too. Ella knows. Ella, it seems, has known. Mother and daughter effect some kind of understanding. Forced by her own body to settle down, Julia’s mind can settle down, as well.
Of the three previous Romanoffs episodes, “Expectation” has the most in common with the pilot, “The Violet Hour” — another tale of infidelity, unexpected pregnancy, and equally unexpected acceptance among good-looking rich people in a Great City, without the murderous genre flourishes of “The Royal We” or “House of Special Purpose.” Yet it has a feel to it all its own. In part, it’s the peripatetic nature of the script, by director and showrunner Matthew Weiner’s longtime collaborator Semi Chellas. (It’s a rare episode in which Weiner does not have sole or shared credit as a screenwriter.) Set in a single day rather than spread out over the course of weeks or months, it relies on Julia’s rambling course around New York City and her equally rootless thoughts and memories and fantasies for its dramatic framework. It feels more like a short story than a novella.
And though it’s on the short side for a Romanoffs ep (it clocks in at the perfectly acceptable prestige-cable running time of an hour or so), Weiner lets the material breathe. The episode opens with nearly five minutes of Julia just kinda moving around silently, lost in thought, talking only to the woman whose bulky stroller she helps jam through the family-unfriendly revolving door of Bergdorf Goodman, before she exchanges so much as a word with any of the other main characters. The camera, and we in the audience, simply linger with her in the subway, in the cab(s), in the locker room, in her closet, and on the street. Even her big fight with Daniel is at first observed from a great distance, rendering it inaudible, emphasizing the cavernous physical space in which the argument takes place more than the argument itself. We’re made to take our time getting around, just as Julia does, until her aimlessness gets under our skin as much as it gets under hers.
Throughout, the things that tend to work on The Romanoffs work here. There’s a brief cameo by a luminous Diane Lane, playing a relative; deft supporting work by Mary Kay Place and Michael O’Neill, boisterous and taciturn respectively, as the in-laws; marvelous and attentive wardrobe choices from costume designer Wendy Chuck, who knows how different the rich like to look inside and outside Manhattan; some hell, yes, that’s it, right there moments in which the dialogue verbalizes things we all feel but struggle to articulate: “Obviously I decided, I guess,” says Julia of her life choices, “but even though you do things it feels like they’re just happening to you.” And there are great little asides, like a subway perv who reacts to Julia’s disinterest with a bemused, oh-well shrug that I found as funny as Kerry Bishé’s “You Had Me at Merlot” T-shirt in episode two. (These moments are the inverse of the simple image of Isabelle Huppert talking to people only she could see in episode three, which punched hard above its weight class in terms of creeping me the hell out.)
And the things that work less well on The Romanoffs work less well here, too. Julia’s out-of-nowhere outburst at her son-in-law’s parents during their ride from the airport is the kind of goofball moment that worked on Mad Men because we’d gotten to know its meticulously developed characters well enough to appreciate instances in which their usual façades break down to comic effect, but this show’s anthology format is incapable of building that kind of lasting connection, and gags constructed in this manner have a much harder time landing. Even otherwise great bits like Julia’s trying to earn the trust of a client with paranoid schizophrenia by divulging her secret to him — for the first time, ever, to anyone — get undermined by that lack of foundation; the confession itself is a convincing turn for the character, but without really knowing how people in this world operate, playing the homeless man’s condition for laughs feels retrograde and crude, since all we have to go by is how portrayals of such people tend to work elsewhere.
That said, I find myself looking forward to each new story quite a bit as the weeks go by, at least in part because weeks go by. Scarfing down ten hours of television in a weekend may work for some viewers and streaming services, but The Romanoffs depends on its ability to create a headspace for us to inhabit at length and, like Julia, to wander around in, slowly, until it all shakes out.