Here we are at the finale of Matthew Weiner’s elaborate, decadent, and befuddling experiment in tangentially Russian royalty-themed mini-series. It’s been a frustrating experience. Or at least it was at first, when my expectations were much higher. As the series meandered on, my feelings have liquefied into more of a sense of confusion about how you can have so much amazing talent, strong direction, varied and exotic locales, and even little flashes of brilliance, all in service of very mediocre television. Out of eight episodes, none were flat out terrible, but only one was truly great. I wouldn’t qualify “The One That Holds Everything” as an exceptional episode of The Romanoffs, but it was entertaining, and the series would have been better served if more episodes had shared its energy and audacity.
True to its name, “The One That Holds everything” has a matryoshka doll structure that nests stories within stories. At times the show does this to the point of being comical, such as when characters that exist within a flashback launch into another flashback. It’s slightly goofy, but also propulsive, and in keeping with the gonzo tone of the episode. The outermost layer begins as Jack Edgar (JJ Field), the scriptwriter for the mini-series being filmed in “House of Special Purpose” hops on a train to return to his fiancé and mother. He takes a seat next to a woman, Candace (Adèle Anderson), who immediately engages him in the kind of dedicated conversation dreaded by commuters across the globe. He discourages this intimacy by not asking her name or anything about her, avoiding her eye, and doing everything he can to silently push her away. Finally, he lamely attempts to break off the conversation, but she’s insistent and promises him a story full of betrayal and murder. Jack, his interest piqued, helps himself to the cocktail she ordered him and listens.
The woman begins the story of Simon (Hugh Skinner), who has such a poor relationship with his father, the only thing he has to show from a visit to his deathbed is a bottle of stolen pills. Back at his apartment, Simon downs the pills along with great amounts of vodka, leaving a note on fish tank to feed the fish.
In a group session taking place an unspecified amount of time after his suicide attempt, Simon begins to openly explore the events of his life that lead to his self-harm. He recounts the one time he was in love with a co-worker in a financial firm in Hong Kong. This section of the story was so textural and well told, the whole episode could have been a gay, Hong Kong-Wall Street love story and I would be pretty happy. Simon and Christopher (Christopher Goh) appear to have as solid and loving a relationship as time and place allow, until the obligations of the outside world intrude. Christopher tells Simon that he proposed to a woman and wants Simon as his best man. Simon is obviously deeply hurt, but Christopher seems surprised that it’s not just understood that there’s no way what the two men share could ever be permanent.
For Christopher’s bachelor party, a cadre of chino-clad bros and their escorts all go out to a karaoke bar, where in a fit of drunken resentment, Simon straddles Christopher and serenades him with “Eternal Flame”. Kicked to the ground for being so obvious, Simon goes off to sulk, only to eventually stumble on Christopher receiving oral sex from one of the women at the party. Later, when Christopher’s fiancé confronts him with his behavior and calls him out as a degenerate, we’re surprised that Simon attempted to break apart the relationship by telling her of the blowjob, and saying nothing about their entire months-long affair. Simon’s love for Christopher is a secret so massive he can’t even admit it to himself. In attempt to deflect the accusation, Christopher tries to explain away Simon’s behavior by sharing a story Simon confided in him about losing his mother, whom, as Christopher is compelled to add, was a duchess and descendant of the Romanoffs. She died, as Christopher tells it, in a house fire shortly after learning her husband and the family babysitter Ondine (Hera Hilmar) were having an affair. Simon, barely escaping the blaze himself, spots Ondine lurking in the crowd gathered around the house. Later, he questions her about her role in the fire and she goes dark, responding that if he should say anything about it, she’ll cut his tongue out.
It’s an astonishing and frightening pivot. Simon’s father and Ondine wed, and Simon is immediately pushed aside. It becomes increasingly obvious that their ostracization has as much to do with Simon’s deviant sexuality as it does with Ondine and his father’s focus on starting a new family together. Alone, Simon attempts to draw comfort from a pair of gorgeous, art deco earrings family heirlooms of his mothers that his father has passed on to Ondine. Now back to the group session, Simon discusses his self-loathing and displacement in his own body. As the camera pans around, it becomes obvious Simone is in a group of primarily trans men and women. Soon after, Simon confronts Ondine to reclaim the earrings, and she’s begun her transition to a woman. The meeting goes poorly, as Ondine, just as cruel and sharp as she was when Simon was a young boy, refused to give up the earrings. Before she Simone leaves, her half-brother, Jack, arrives to take Ondine to lunch.
Using Candace’s trans identity as a means of misdirecting the viewer from the big reveal is either clever, exploitative, or some awkward combination of the two. I lean towards the former, since Candace didn’t transition in order to kill Jack; it just provided her with an unintended benefit in getting closer to her victim without his notice. And for what it’s worth, the actress who plays Candace is herself trans, so the show was at least smart enough to reach out professionals within the community to take and inform the role.
Candace poisoned Jack’s drink, telling the dying man that killing Ondine would be worthless. After, all, she’s an old woman. Killing Jack would be the only way she could return any of the pain Ondine had caused her. As Jack succumbs to the poison, Candace reaches into his luggage and reclaims her mother’s earrings. She is, after all, a Romanoff.
For a while, it seemed as though “The One That Holds Everything” was telling a fairy tale similar to “The Violet Hour,” complete with an evil, magical stepmother and endangered, if somewhat unconventional princess. But as Candace stepped off of the train —a princess who has disposed of her rival and consolidated her power through an act of elaborate cruelty so brazen the czars of old would be proud— it feels a lot more like royal intrigue. It’s a startling conclusion. And while by rights we shouldn’t be celebrating the person who murdered an innocent man, the whole scheme was executed (ha ha) with such gleeful confidence it’s hard to not be impressed by this beautiful, spite-fueled engine of revenge.
- Thanks for reading along. I’m still trying to process the entirety of this high-concept, mid-execution series. Taken in it’s entirety, it feels like indulgent, bouji magical realism. Like a Márquez story printed in a Pottery Barn catalog.
- Ondine is the an alternate name for undine, a mythological water spirit in the form of a beautiful woman. According to some versions of the creature, undines lack a soul until they can marry to a man.