“Bright and High Circle” presents a standard plot setup. Katherine (Diane Lane), a professor of Russian Literature at Occidental College learns that David (Andrew Ranells), the beloved piano teacher to her three boys is accused of some undefined crime and has to decide what to do in the wake of a vague but troubling accusation. At multiple points the story threatens to pursue any number of tired, overused storylines about frayed trust and the destructive cycle of gossip, but pulls away before committing to an overly clichéd direction. By choosing instead to tell a more restrained story, one that doesn’t offer any solid answers or absurd conclusions, it places the focus on characters in a quiet, engaging way. There is a similar shapelessness to “Bright and High Circle” that’s been a liability in previous episodes, but here it proves to be a strength that offers the most nuanced and engaging character-driven story of the series so far.
When Katherine first receives a visit from the detective that David has been accused of doing “something” inappropriate with a minor, it’s hinted at that her husband, Alex (Ron Livingston) may have be responsible for filing the initial report since Alex demonstrates a barely veiled antipathy toward David as he lingers in the family’s kitchen after the recital the family hosts in their gorgeous craftsman home. Fortunately for the story, Alex proves to be reasonable person who supports his wife and is looking out for his family. Also, Alex’s feelings toward David are completely vindicated since he’s shown through a series of flashbacks to be a very annoying, often overbearing person with little sense of boundaries. That tension between Katherine’s adoration and Alex’s annoyance establishes what a polarizing person David is, and how cultish those who adore him may seem. The show’s Romanoff-centered conceit compels you to make connections between the characters and the royal family, and viewed that way, it’s briefly possible to see David presented as a Rasputin-type character. This is mostly conveyed through his dynamic with Katherine and the circle of mothers she’s recommended him to. On top of being a piano teacher, he’s a friend, confidant (a bad one) and vacation partner. In one flashback, he gently, purringly assures Katherine that she more than deserves the house they purchased; effortlessly tossing aside her insistence that it’s too much or she has no right to such luxury. He’s a morale booster and an enabler. But Katherine isn’t Queen Alexandra. She’s an intelligent, self-possessed woman. She may love David, but isn’t enraptured by him. And more importantly, David is no Rasputin. When Katherine questions her children about anything that may have happened to them with David, they all eagerly come to his defense. Even when oldest son Julian admits David may have told some inappropriate blow job jokes, it’s completely reasonable when he explains to his mom that they were the product of a person who isn’t as funny as he thinks he is than an insidious monster priming children for abuse. David may be obnoxious, but there’s still a wide gulf between obnoxious and predator. Middle son and possible piano prodigy Henry retaliates the hardest against his mother’s questions, accusing her of treating everyone like a disposable servant due to her royal blood.
Even after speaking with all three of her children, Katherine is deeply ambivalent about what to do next. Fortunately, she happens to be doing a very plot-appropriate section on the poet Pushkin in one of her classes. A student reads the piece, “When your so young and fairy years” which is explicitly Pushkin addressing a victim of gossip. The episode title comes from a line in the poem; “Leave that high circle, bright and close”, a supplication for the subject to step away from a clique that only seeks to cut others down.
Katherine is calmer, but despite being told not to divulge the report against David, decides she at least has to inform her friend Cheryl (Nichole Ari Parker). In speaking with Cheryl, a more complicated picture of David emerges. While there’s still no hint of his being abusive toward his students, it comes to light that he’s a pathological liar, even going so far as taking Katherine’s Romanoff family history as his own. It’s troubling, to be sure, but still not the possible crime he’s under investigation for. My biggest fear for this episode was that this moment where Katherine confided in her friend would reframe the story and the rest would devolve into an increasingly ugly escalation of rumors as everyone tor each other apart.
Fortunately that isn’t at all the case. Ultimately, the episode chooses to focus on not what the accusation says about David, or a group of wealthy and often idle mothers, but about Katherine and how she handles uncertainty. At one point, sitting on the bed with husband, Katherine claims that she should have fired David at the first hint of possible trouble because that’s what a good mother would do. But that’s not true. To mindlessly react out of fear doesn’t make someone a good mother. Behaving that way looks like Debbie; the perpetually Lululemon clad mom who sneaks into people’s back seats in an anxious, over-excited frenzy of misinformation. There are still plenty of lingering questions. Even when the initial accusation against David is revealed that he bought alcohol for a minor and not something worse, David is still a deeply dishonest and kind of a shitty person. But what Katherine has experienced with him personally is a very good teacher and someone who has provided at least one of her children much needed attention and focus. So for now, at least she entrusts him with her kids. The door is not locked, it can be reopened at any time, but for now at least it can remain closed.
- Henry dressed in a Karate gi and hoisting a typewriter over his head for exercise is one of the best visuals of this entire series so far. Also his indignant line to his mom, “So you fired her for a teapot because we’re from a long line of rich assholes?” is fantastic.
- The sequence where Cheryl and David are hanging around in Debbie’s kitchen mocking her ugly home décor semi-behind my back reminded me of the scene from the “Guy Town” episode of Big Mouth where Mathew is dismissed by the older gay man for being just another young gay kid whose entire identity is being mean. I looked up the episode and was happy to learn that Andrew Rannells voices Matthew on the show, so what providence!
- “He bought a kid booze! …That’s like, right out of the child molesters handbook!” *waves off* “It could have been beer.” Ron Livingston’s oscillation between righteous fury and completely chill restraint turned his character into one of my favorites this episode.
- David sitting on the counter and drinking out of Alex’ World’s Best Dad mug was a nice touch.
- Katherine is proud of her Romanoff heritage, but also has a bunch of Bolshevik propaganda posters hanging in her office, a possible shorthand for the ambivalence she feels about her comfortable life.