“End of the Line” is the best episode of The Romanoffs since its third, the psychological horror movie in anthology-TV-show form “House of Special Purpose.” It’s arguably the best, period. Either way, it has more in common with that Christina Hendricks–starring installment than quality: They share an atmosphere of dislocation and paranoia that goes beyond the mere fact that they’re both about Americans abroad. (So were two or three of this season’s other episodes, after all.) There’s something about them that feels … I dunno, sick. Sick, and being lied to by the doctors telling you you’re going to be fine, and by the loved ones promising to stay by your side to the end.
Written by director Matthew Weiner’s longtime collaborators Maria and Andre Jacquemetton, “End of the Line” succeeds in its grim task in part by casting two of the most likable actors on the series so far. Kathryn Hahn and Jay R. Ferguson, ebullient comedic talents who count Bad Moms and Mad Men among their diverse credits, play Anka and Joe Garner, an American couple who travel to the Russian port city of Vladivostok to adopt a baby after years of failed attempts to have one themselves. They find Russia to be a cold, bleak place: Government officials are openly corrupt and actively homophobic, the water is dirty, the health-care system is shoddy, and heavily armed military police are omnipresent. Thank goodness they’re there to whisk some poor child away to America where she’ll never have to worry about any of that stuff again, right?
At first, the episode seems like it’ll be another comedy of manners, with an emphasis on how Russian cultural customs, which tend toward the miserable in The Romanoffs’ telling, contrast with the couple’s nauseously giddy anticipation of becoming a family. Both Anka and their contact at the children’s home from which they’re adopting the baby, Elena (The Americans’ Annet Mahendru, still carrying some tinge of that show’s dark energy with her wherever she goes), have to keep reminding Joe not to smile, since the locals — especially the armed ones — think this makes you look crazy. Joe obliges every time with hilarious intensity, as if Ferguson were switching back and forth between comedy and tragedy masks he borrowed from the local high school drama-club.
This gag gains real bite when Anka and Joe meet their daughter for the first time. Gone is the playful infant they’d viewed in videos over the internet. In her place is a child who’s mute, limp, unresponsive, covered in a horrible rash. (The condition, we learn later after Anka decodes a cryptic word repeated by one of the other children at the home, is a result of fetal alcohol syndrome.) A painfully prolonged close-up from a perspective that roughly aligns us with the baby herself tracks the couple’s faces as their joy gives way to the awful realization that something is very wrong. If Hahn and Ferguson weren’t so naturally fun to watch, this wouldn’t be nearly as painful to witness.
Nor would the absolutely brutal argument that ensues when they return to their hotel at the end of the day — the first fight of this kind that reaches Mad Men levels of intense, weaponized intimacy. (It reminded me of the “That’s what the money’s for!” battle between Don and Peggy in “The Suitcase.” How’s that for high praise?) The disagreement is devastatingly simple, all the more so for how long it takes each to realize what the other is really saying: Anka, feeling crushed and defrauded, does not want to adopt this baby; Joe, feeling empathetic and obligated, wants to do so no matter what.
The debate over the child herself is bad enough. For one thing, proper names and feminine pronouns disappear from Anka’s vocabulary entirely: The baby isn’t “Oksana” or “she” or “her” to Anka anymore, but “that baby” and, awfully, “it.” Soon, they bring out the axes for one another. Anka accuses Joe of martyr syndrome and says he has no idea what it was really like to go through years of failed fertility-clinic guinea-pig treatments and dashed hopes. He accuses her of eschewing adoption in America for Russia half out of a deluded connection to her Romanoff ancestors (who, he angrily notes, were actually German) and half out of a racist desire not to adopt a black baby. She replies that he wanted to go to Russia just to avoid ever having to worry about the kid’s birth parents ever reentering the picture.
Over it all hangs the fate of the baby herself. She will likely have a short, painful, and neglectful life, in an orphanage where the caretakers accept bribes and sell clothes meant for their charges on the black market, and where at least one other kid was found by his adoptive mother (Clea Duvall) to have cigarette burns all over his thighs.
We’re primed by, well, pretty much all fiction to take Joe’s side in this fight. He’s the one saying he’ll care for this kid no matter the emotional cost, and that’s what parents are supposed to do. But in so doing, he’d be forcing his wife, who put her brain and body and bank account through sheer hell to come up empty time and time again, to take her lumps right along with him. Anka knows that on a certain level she’s being selfish, but surely the one silver lining to all her horrible troubles conceiving and carrying and adopting is that she has the chance to get exactly what she wants, right? That’s the trade-off she’s made in her mind with all the parents who never faced this struggle, the reward for suffering where they cruised right through. It’s the mark of a genuinely adult drama that, no matter what you yourself might choose, no choice is obviously right or wrong.
Joe and Anka nearly break up. They have portentous nighttime encounters with a stray dog (Joe) and a sex worker (Anka), who call to mind what life is like when no one cares for you (in the former case) or when your choices are so limited they may as well not exist (in the latter). Earlier, Joe had seen a dead dog frozen in the snow; later, when they return to the children’s home, Anka sees two empty chairs (evocative of the ones in the “House of Special Purpose” where the Romanoffs were murdered; this is one of the first times the anthology format has really worked in the show’s favor, making intuitive rather than linear connections and letting our imagination do the rest). These sights fill them each with evident, and in the latter case almost supernatural, dread.
In the end, Joe compromises his values — and, one assumes, Anka buries the painful knowledge that he must blame her for making him do so. When Anka refuses to adopt Oksana, and Elena and the director of the children’s home protest, Jay steps in to defend his wife, saying she has every right to make this decision. He’s ready to flee with her when those chairs give her a bad feeling. But finally, in a last-ditch effort to preserve the deal, Elena and her colleague drop the bullshit they’d been feeding them all along and produce a healthy baby to give them instead. Joe and Anka bluff their way through the old switcheroo in front of the judge in charge of the custody hearing, and jet home to America, smiling at the little one all the way.
Only … not really. When they pose for a photo outside the orphanage to commemorate the happy occasion, Joe’s smile is more like the grin of someone who’s deeply confused about what’s going on but understands he’s meant to be smiling anyway, or perhaps the grin of someone who’s trying to tough out a persistent physical pain. In the episode’s final shot, he turns from Anka and “Oksana” and looks out the window, dropping his smile as suddenly and severely as he did at the customs checkpoint when they arrived. The baby isn’t all he’s bringing home: life-overshadowing guilt, marriage-destroying resentment, and the kind of sorrow that can prematurely age you are all coming too.
And I think it would be a mistake to believe Anka’s problems have all been solved because she got the healthy baby she wanted. She has years ahead of her in which the joy of parenthood can subside long enough for her to remember that on a fundamental level, the man with whom she’s chosen to spend her life thinks she’s some kind of monster. Both of them spent so much time thinking about how trapped they felt in their inability to have a baby, and then about how trapped the baby they initially received and then rejected would be in her own illness and poverty, that neither gave any thought to the trap they’d just sprung on themselves. They’ll have a lifetime to think about it now.