The Romanoffs currently has a 43% rating among “top critics” on Rotten Tomatoes. The Walking Dead, the zombie juggernaut no one seems to like anymore, more than doubles that score with 88%. Arrow, one of several interconnected shows about DC superheroes, is sitting even prettier at 91%. Even the largely maligned but seemingly immortal CBS nerd-culture comedy The Big Bang Theory rates a 75% among people whose job it is to tell you whether a TV show is any good. Outside of network publicists and Rotten Tomatoes itself, I don’t think anyone would argue that review aggregators actually tell you much about the quality of a given show. But looking at those numbers, I think they say an awful lot about the qualities of shows that critics find valuable, and it’s not anything good.
The Romanoffs wraps up its first (and, who knows, possibly only) season by doing largely what it’s done all along: using its massive budget and the creative free rein afforded creator/co-writer/director Matthew Weiner to tell kitchen-sink stories at a globetrotting scale, with the tone shifting nearly as often as the locale. Set in France, England, and Hong Kong and taking place over the span of several decades, “The One That Holds Everything” tells the tale of a young man named Simon (Hugh Skinner) — the black sheep of a broken family that repaired itself in part by leaving him out of its redesign — with a complex Russian-nesting-doll (sorry) story structure that peels back the layers of a life one by one.
As a boy, Simon loses his Romanov-descended mother in a terrifying house fire that nearly claims his life as well. He suspects the fire was set by Ondine (Hera Hilmar), the young babysitter with whom his veddy British father George (Ben Miles) was having an affair that his mom found out about only days earlier. Quickly swooping in to assume the role of lady of the house, Ondine, an ambiguously European young woman, starts her role as Simon’s new mom by implicitly threatening to kill him and explicitly threatening to cut his tongue out should he voice his suspicions to his father. Dubbed “King Tut” by his fellow schoolboys because of his “dead mummy,” he is eventually shipped off to boarding school by his father, Ondine grinning in triumph behind him.
Simon’s next act is as a dashing expat financier, living the high life as a bond trader in Hong Kong during the boom times of the Big ’80s. He and his extremely handsome coworker Christopher (Christopher Ming) conduct what looks like a sweet and exciting romance, until we learn that Christopher is closeted and engaged to marry a woman. During a wild bachelor party that he somewhat cruelly taps Simon to oversee (he’s the best man at the wedding, you see), Christopher gets a blowjob from one of the employees at a hostess club—but not before Simon, dolled up in lipstick by the club’s workers, awkwardly croons a gutwrenchingly sincere karaoke rendition of the Bangles’ “Eternal Flame” to Christopher, who reacts with a violence the rest of the partygoers assume is a joke.
Christopher is awoken the next morning by his furious fiancée Kiera (Jing Lusi), who shouts that the wedding is off because Simon told her “everything.” To Christopher’s visual relief, “everything” just means the hostess-club BJ, which the nervous groom-to-be passes off as an artifact of Simon’s terror at being left behind by people he loves, derived from his traumatic childhood. Christopher gets married, with Simon dutifully smiling in his role as best man, like nothing at all had happened.
The years pass. Simon loses touch with Christopher, loses his sense of direction and his career, and gains an addiction to booze and pills to self-medicate. Returning home to England to visit his dying father, he’s greeted only with cruelty and rejection by both George (on his deathbed no less) and Ondine, who has given Simon’s dad a second son who’s the apple of his eye while also “inheriting” the Romanov-heirloom earrings his beloved mom used to wear. Despondent, Simon tries to kill himself, but wakes up strapped down in a psych ward.
Simon tells much of this story to members of a support group we’re made to assume is for addicts or alcoholics or patients in the mental hospital he’s staying at or something. But when we finally see the other members of the group, we see that they’re all trans men and women. Just like that, Simon’s gender dysphoria snaps into focus.
Over coffee with one of the group’s elder stateswoman Dana (Rebecca Root)—who describes a brutal attack she suffered at the hands of soccer hooligans as feeling “like they were trying to turn me inside out”—Simon talks about how looking in the mirror in the morning could ruin a whole day, about getting “really good at being invisible,” about the how the conflation of strength and assertiveness with masculinity can lead to a state of permanent victimhood as a response. It’s a brutal litany of the problems faced by trans people, who “have to fucking announce yourself to the world” while cis people “just get to be the way you are.”
When next we see Simon, she—for this is how she’s finally free to identify, no matter what other people say—visits Ondine for one last ugly confrontation, demanding her mother’s earrings as her birthright. “They’re meant for the women in the family,” Ondine snarls. “You may dress like a woman, but that doesn’t mean you are one.” When Simon, whose new name we haven’t yet learned, retorts that Ondine is “just pretending” to be a member of the family, Ondine has yet another vicious response: “If you really loved your mother, you would have died trying to save her in that fire. That’s what my son would have done.”
Then, right on cue, that son appears—and that’s when the episode itself seems to turn inside out.
We’ve seen Simon’s half-brother Jack (JJ Feild) before. He’s a handsome writer whom we meet in the episode’s opening segment, during which he reveals to the intrusively talkative woman (Adèle Anderson) sitting next to him on a train that he’s the writer of the Romanov TV miniseries that John Slattery’s character wrote and in which Christina Hendrick’s character starred. The whole episode so far had been story within a story within a story. Jack’s fellow passenger had been telling him about a sad Romanov heir she once knew—this would be Simon—who tells his support group about the man he once loved—this would be Christopher—who tells his angry fiancee about Simon’s tortured childhood.
Now comes the prestige. Jack’s seatmate had said that her Romanov story is different from all the others he must have heard because it involves a murder, which we had every reason to assume was the possible death by arson of Simon’s mom at Ondine’s hands. But when she reaches the end of her tale, Jack realizes he’s been talking to his older sibling all along… and said older sibling, now named Candace in tribute to the nickname “sugar-candy” her mom bestowed on her all those years ago, has poisoned him in a final act of revenge against Ondine. This, Candace says as Jack quietly dies in front of her, is one of the advantages of being a woman of a certain age: Young men don’t really pay attention to you anymore. “If you had really looked at me when you sat down,” she notes almost ruefully, “none of this would have happened.”
Candace closes Jack’s eyes after he dies to make it look like he fell asleep, steals her mom’s earrings out of his luggage (presumably he’d retrieved them from a Swiss safe deposit box to give to his fiancée, whom we see waiting for him to arrive at the station alongside an aged Ondine), puts them on, and calmly exits the train, strolling right past her oblivious wicked stepmom. Earlier, the two women had agreed that Ondine was the only person who really saw the real Candace inside Simon all along; now she doesn’t recognize her at all, at the one moment it would matter most.
Normally, I try not to belabor the plot-summary portion of an episodic review if I can help it; if you want an actual “recap” of something, well, that’s what Wikipedia entries are for. But writing out the events of Candace’s life and the achievement of her vengeance in this way feels necessary, even instructive. In part, it’s a way of running down how much work this byzantine story required of its cast in order to pull it off, and how well all of them rose to the task—from Skinner and Goh, who have the difficult task of being simultaneously sexy and tortuously closeted; to Hilmar and Miles, who have to be villainous yet believable; to Feild, who has to shift from apparent protagonist to hapless patsy; to Anderson, who makes the inverse shift from harmless dingbat to joyously brilliant criminal.
Anderson emerges as the real star, in fact. Herself trans, she has to simultaneously embody the struggles of an entire persecuted demographic while also holding up the noble tradition of “it’s actually hella fun and cool to murder someone on a train and steal their jewelry” that stretches from Christie to Hitchcock to here. The burden of the transition from nuanced portrait to genre potboiler falls entirely on her shoulders, and she wears it as effortlessly as her hot-pink shawl.
But running through the entire affair illustrates another point, too, and it’s a point those Rotten Tomatoes scores make all too clear. By my tally, The Romanoffs was half good-to-great, and half okay-to-meh. In that light, perhaps a score hovering in the 40-50% range makes sense. But in a world where Arrow is nine percentage points shy of perfection? It’s pure-dee nonsense for a show this ambitious, involving this much acting talent, to get a failing grade. Even among critics, series that take no risks because they have no ambition are rewarded above those that do. You don’t even have to like The Romanoffs, let alone Matthew Weiner, to recognize that. And a TV landscape without room for wild, swing-for-the-fences use of unprecedented financial backing and creative clout, even if they strike out half the time—a world where reassurance, fanservice, and algorithmic crowd-pleasing hold sway—is a bleak one indeed.