Image: Amazon Studios

During an era of television specializing in prickly characters, Mad Men excelled at presenting a protagonist who was obviously not a good person in a compelling, sympathetic way. This was helped in no small measure by Jon Hamm’s brick-jawed handsomeness and troubled, pensive energy that practically invited every man and woman to be the one to help him come to the light. But it also benefited from being a long-running series that provided the space to really examine a person. It’s possible, given seven seasons, we could construct an intimate enough understanding of Olivia (Amanda Peet), the protagonist of “Expectation”, but with just the one episode we’re merely given another hour with a deeply unpleasant person. Unlike Michael, the deeply unpleasant person from “The Royal We”, here we’re given a lot of shorthand that’s supposed to convey Olivia’s bona fides as a good person: she helps a woman struggling with a stroller into a department store, she works for a homeless shelter, and seems to have a sharply-felt sense of social consciousness. But since she mostly manifests that last one solely by being irate with everyone in her life, none of these indicators dilute the fact that for the hour we spend with her, she’s almost exclusively difficult to watch.

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The expectation of the title takes on multiple meanings. Olivia’s daughter Ella (Emily Rudd) is past her due date for her first child but won’t schedule an induced birth. Ella’s husband is on a business trip to Singapore and likely won’t be home in time to witness the birth. All of this information is conveyed over brunch between Olivia and Ella at a posh restaurant where Olivia rails against Ella for her lack of urgency about the birth, and criticizes her for choosing to be an insanely wealthy kept woman instead of just the regular rich working woman Olivia is. She’s so aggressive in her denouncements and Ella so unfazed by what must by now be a familiar screed, it’s hard to side with Olivia’s point of view. Along with the literal baby, Olivia has high expectations of people’s behavior, of herself, and especially what is expected of her now that she’s about to become a grandmother.

Still irritated from her time with her daughter, Olivia reaches out to Daniel (John Slattery), an old family friend. Olivia’s husband Eric (Jon Tenney) is descended from the Romanoffs, and Daniel consulted with him to write his book, The Romanovs: The Savage and the Strong that’s already popped up a few times this season (He mentions here how he’s sold the rights to the mini-series being made in “The House of Special Purpose”). The two meet up and it’s instantly understood their relationship is deeper than just friendship. They get into an argument at the bookstore, shot wordlessly and from a distance, that’s revisited more intimately and close-up in segments over the course of the episode. It’s revealed that Daniel, and not Eric, is Ella’s father. Daniel feels resentful of being shut out of Ella’s life and now wants to have a presence at the birth of the baby. Olivia, who’s dictated the terms of Daniel’s involvement over the years won’t allow it.

Olivia picks up Ella’s in-laws from the airport who, aside from standing slightly to Olivia’s left on the spectrum of folksy to opulent and providing a few new faces for Olivia to be rude toward, don’t serve much purpose to the episode. Still they all agree to have dinner that night. Afterwards, Olivia shows up for a few hours’ work at the shelter with a couple of drinks under her belt. This spurs a flashback where Olivia recalls an attack from a client that sent her home. Instead of her husband, Daniel arrived with food and comfort. Back in the present, she discloses her infidelity and struggle with being in love with the two men in her life to a mentally ill man in her office, comfortable that his tenuous hold on reality makes him the perfect worry doll to unload her fears upon.

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Image: Amazon Studios

Later at home , Olivia provokes a fight with her husband over his offer to pay for Daniel to join them on some getaway. Olivia lashes out, furious with what she sees as Eric’s royal patronization. Her accusation of snobbery echoes the same criticism she made of her daughter at the beginning of the episode. Her attacks are either self-deceptive or displaced anger about her own ambivalence on her comfortable life, coming as they do from someone who works a half day at the shelter before returning to her massive, marble-encrusted town home. She envisions herself finally confessing to Eric about the truth of Ella’s parentage. In her fantasy, Eric not only claims to have known the whole time, but calmly exclaims that it was worth it, because he’s the one who ended up with her. It’s the kind of wildly best-case scenario —both consequence-free and even complimentary— we all imagine when we finally admit to our mistakes. Knowing reality won’t be so kind, she merely apologizes for her outburst.

While at dinner, the stomach cramps that have plagued Olivia all day culminate in her passing out at the dinner table. We learn that what seemed like stress-induced pain are, in fact, gallstones that will require surgical removal. Olivia naturally frets that the surgery may force her to miss out on the birth of her grandchild, but has achieved a certain measure of acceptance. Ella, with minimal prompting, calls Daniel for Olivia implying that even if Eric doesn’t know, Olivia isn’t alone in her secret.

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Ultimately, this was a fairly dull episode suffering from what’s been plaguing the rest of The Romanoffs so far. Characters are either thinly-drawn, unpleasant, or both. Olivia’s gallbladder stones are supposed to signify a turning point, but instead of expending even more words, why not summarize it all with a light-hearted cartoon? Thanks for reading.


Stray observations

  • So the other thing about Olivia’s gallstones is from a story perspective, they’re in line with Hippocrates principle of the four humors. Yellow bile is responsible for the choleric disposition of fire, which contributes to the traits of decisiveness and leadership. An excess of yellow bile produces aggression and, I guess general demanding dickishness. The gallbladder was thought responsible for the production of yellow bile, so stones could be the consequence of a surplus of yellow bile that informed Olivia’s controlling, argumentative personality.
  • I am beyond disappointed Belle and Sebastian’s “Expectations” didn’t play over the closing credits. So here’s a link to the song.
  • I briefly thought the woman who assaulted Olivia in her flashback was Elizabeth Moss. I’m still not a hundred percent certain it isn’t.
  • The brief flashback sequences to Olivia and Daniel’s youth are the most engaging and affecting scenes of the episode. They’re wordless and filtered through an amber hue, and capture brief moments of poignancy that are otherwise absent from the episode. Plus, young Daniel looks like William Petersen from Manhunter.

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