Friday, October 26, 2018

The Romanoffs--Episode Two (Spoiler Alert)

The second episode of the Romanoffs is set in America.  Its treatment of the legacy of the Romanov/Romanoff name centers around violence.  In the first episode, the theme of violence was muted, but still somewhat present.  For the Romanoff widow tells her servant that her magnificent French apartment was once occupied by Nazis, and that one of these Nazi leaders raped her young sister there. The description of this violence is disturbing on its face, but the story actually implies several levels of brutality that serve as a backdrop to the rape.  First, we know that the Romanov royal family was executed, and that other branches of the Romanov/Romanoff family were displaced by violence or the threat of violence.  Were it not for this violence, the widow and her sister would probably have not been in Paris at the time of its occupation.  Second, the widow tells her servant that the Nazis chose her family's apartment as a headquarters precisely because they knew the Romanoffs would be sympathetic to them.  Historically speaking, the Romanoffs were the inveterate enemies of revolution, and inveterate allies of counter-revolution.  That is to say, Nicholas II used violence to put down revolutionary protests, then died at the hands of revolutionaries.  And after his death, his relatives continued to lead the charge against Communist Russia, even if that meant hosting Nazis in their apartments.  There are repeating cycles of violence here.  The Romanovs killed rebels, and were killed by rebels.  The Romonoffs embraced fascism, or at least Right Wing political parties, and suffered a rape by way of compensation. 

The second episode deals with violence more directly.  Its protagonist has almost no direct knowledge of Romanov traditions. He knows that a branch of his family was murdered by Bolsheviks, and we eventually discover that he and his wife made the decision to book a cruise on a Romanov family cruise.  The theme of violence first manifests itself in a murder trial.  In order to romantically pursue a fellow juror, this Romanoff elects to join the jury himself.  Thus, a courtship takes place in the context of a brutal murder trial.  When this Romanoff first talks to the female juror, he causally mentions that his own family was murdered.  Later, in attempting to escape his marriage, he attempts to push his wife off a cliff.

Thus, this episode's Romanoff is a psychopath:  he's fully immersed in violence, and immune to any negative connotations associated with it.  He knows a part of his family was murdered in 1918, but seems not to care very much about this fact.  He knows that a woman has been brutally murdered, but he elects to continuously stare at a lovely woman rather that at the crime scene photos being presented to the jury.  And finally, he's willing to kill his wife in order to give him a better chance of staying in a relationship with a married woman who does not love him. 

The theme of violence is complemented by the theme, carried over from episode one, of invented history.  Ironically, the protagonist's wife, rather than the "real" Romanoff, goes on the Romanov/Romanoff-themed cruise.  On the cruise, people dress up as aristocrats, drink vodka, watch wild Cossack dances, observe a giant Faberge egg, and enjoy the kind of entertainment once reserved for the tsars, i.e., dwarf comedy a la Peter the Great.

Historically speaking, the episode seems to suggest that traditions can be both fake and real at the same time.  On the one hand, it's clear that most of the Romanoffs on the cruise have very little authentic connection to Russia, or Russian history.  Their vision of the Romanov family legacy, and Russian culture more broadly, is a tourist's:  superficial, symbolic, and often grotesque.  When the Romanoff's wife is asked about her heritage, she professes not to care.  She's a mix of European ethnicities, and believes the whole subject is ridiculously unimportant.  On the other hand, in therapy she reveals the fact that she had learned that the Romanovs were, in general, deeply damaged people.  For this reason, the trip has helped her to sympathize with her husband.  She's listened to a lecture on the Romanov family tragedy, and now understand her husband's ambivalence about life itself.  Her epiphany represents a paradox:  going on the cruise, she cannot help but see that the Romanoffs are trying to recapture a past that has utterly escaped them, but somehow their very desperation for an imaginary past demonstrates its continuing vitality.  Romanoffs like her husband aren't Russian or aristocratic, but they're Russian and aristocratic past continues to haunt them.

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