“Panorama,” the peculiar new episode of The Romanoffs, seems straightforward enough. A muckraking Mexican reporter named Abel (Juan Pablo Castañeda) is investigating a ritzy medical clinic in which grievously ill, extravagantly wealthy, generally contemptible patients are being sold snake oil by a shifty doctor. During the course of his investigation, he unexpectedly falls in love with Victoria (Radha Mitchell), the concerned mother of a 12-year-old kid who inherited hemophilia along with her Romanoff genes. Both the exposé and the love affair end up unconsummated.
But then, as Adam Curtis might say, a strange thing happened. As a street performer sings a cloying tune to the general effect of “you take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have the facts of life,” Abel ends the episode by walking through a magical-realist live-action recreation of artist Diego Rivera’s massive mural The History of Mexico, flanked by Rivera, Frida Kahlo, her sister (and Rivera’s lover) Cristina, Marx, and Lenin as they stroll off into the proverbial sunset.
It’s audacious, I’ll give ’em that!
I’m not gonna sneer at the audacity, either. Directed, like every episode, by Weiner from a script he co-wrote with Dan LeFranc, “Panorama” aims for the effect referred to in the title: a sweeping portrait of haves and have-nots, rich and poor, white and brown, predator and prey, with Abel and Victoria’s short, sweet, sad relationship at the center — the same position Rivera occupies in his massive mural, as Abel points out to Nicky earlier in the episode. Driving this point home with a rupture in the fabric of reality that feels nothing like what’s come before isn’t the kind of move you see from highly lauded, allegedly surreal shows like Legion or Maniac, shows so larded with explanations for their inexplicable events that the dreamlike life is often crushed right out of them. Whatever else it is, the ending of “Panorama” is weird in a way that even shows that aim for surreal weirdness rarely manage.
But lots of things can be weird without being, y’know, good. And things can be weird without being earned, too. The recreation of Rivera’s mural by extras in period costumes has only the most tenuous connection to anything that actually happens during Abel’s investigation (there’s a rich vs. poor angle we’ll get to in a minute), to Victoria’s parenting of Nicky (Rivera lionized the Marxist-Leninist tradition that led to her ancestors’ execution), or to Abel and Victoria’s courtship (he takes her and Nicky to see the mural as a way of finagling a date with her after their meet-cute at the clinic). Their story is really rather a small one, with no pretensions to being anything bigger right up until actors dressed as ancient Mexica and armor-clad consquistadores start strolling past the camera.
It’s only when Abel talks to the staffer (an apparent ex-flame of his), who helped him smuggle his bogus blood samples into the clinic when he posed as a patient, that he stumbles across the darkest part of the story, the one with some real sociopolitical heft to it. It’s not just “the degenerate patients and Dr. God” that caused her to hate her job badly enough to help destroy it from within, the technician says: The doctor sources the fetal stem cells he uses in his bogus “experimental” treatment from a maternity clinic that treats poor indigenous pregnant women and their babies. When Abel briefly visits the place and sees the people literally getting the life sucked out of them, his voiceover narration speaks of the rich harvesting his country’s poor like the trees the conquistadors pulped to make the Bibles they forced on the people they conquered.
The most chilling part of the story is the doctor’s off-screen reaction when Abel returns to confront him with what he knows. Instead of being cowed into an interview to defend himself, he simply has one of his minions tell Abel he has nothing to say, and is fine with the story running as-is. Why shouldn’t he be? No one will give a shit, least of all the obscenely wealthy sociopaths who fund the practice, and as the presence of a heavily armed security guard to escort Abel off the premises indicates, the cops will be on his side as well.
Which makes the reaction of Abel’s editor to his reporting all the more baffling. “It’s not a story,” he says after reading it. “It’s a poem or something. It’s godawful.” The editor wonders aloud if Abel is trying to get fired, but Abel says no, he’s decided to just go ahead and quit and start over again anyway. Smiling, the two toast to the fact that Abel is, or I suppose was, a terrible journalist. But even if the doctor thinks he can get away with it and the editor doesn’t like Abel’s purple prose, surely the underlying facts are the stuff of blockbuster exposés regardless, right? Especially given the editor’s interest in doing dangerous reporting about the disappearance of student activists, his indifference to this story of the depredations of a global network of rich and powerful people makes no sense.
Neither does Abel’s behavior when he finally reveals his ruse to Victoria. By then, he’d already come clean to Nicky, only to discover that the kid had him pegged all along: He’s seen a lot of sick people, after all, enough to know Abel isn’t one of them. Victoria, by contrast, is taken by surprise, though fortunately for them both her reaction is mostly relief that Abel isn’t terminally ill. Yet this reaction isn’t instaneous, and for a painfully prolonged period it seemed like she felt genuinely betrayed and taken advantage of.
This, you’d think, would be the perfect time to follow “I’m not sick” with “I’m actually a crusading reporter trying to uncover medical fraud by the doctor to whom you’ve entrusted your son.” If it were me, I’d have made that clear in the very same breath where I admitted the deception to begin with. But like last week’s episode, in which Ron Livingston telling a whole long story about getting reprimanded for accepting gossip among local bullies at face value without noting that the bullies happened to be right, The Romanoffs once again glides right past believable human behavior to wring more drama out of a scene. It’s such a strange thing to say about a show from the creator of a series as observant as Mad Men, but here we are.
This tiny miscalculation, like the not-so-hot music cue that accompanies the climax, gives us all the more reason to be skeptical of that final swing for the fences. The Romanoffs has its moments, and sometimes whole episodes’ worth of them, but even though I enjoy the show overall I’d be hard pressed to argue that this is Weiner working at the top of his game. Which is fine — artists don’t have to constantly do their best work, or else how would we know what their best work was to begin with? But if you’re gonna appropriate a Marxist masterpiece for your sad love story, you have to put in the work to justify it. As a wise man once said, from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. Lacking the ability, “Panorama” also lacks the need.