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The Romanoffs tells a frightening story of ghosts and unprofessional work environments

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Part workplace farce, part creeping phantasmagoria, “House of Special Purpose” is the most interesting episode of The Romanoffs so far. But the lack of cohesiveness to the story’s assorted moods, pokey pacing that drains the tension the episode attempts to create, and an ending that essentially turns the episode into an over-long, pedigree Twilight Zone episode drags it down. At this point, none of the episodes in the series have justified their movie feature length run time. The series has the air of a person who walked into a room, only to immediately forget what they’re doing there. In previous episodes, that was an issue since all that valuable time could have been spent developing characters. Here, it’s because the languid run time dulls the episode’s jagged psychological edge down to a butter knife.


Olivia (Christina Hendricks) is flown in to take over the role of Alexandra Romanov for a television mini-series on the Romanov family, the previous actress having left under a cloud of conflicting rumors. Olivia meets with Jacqueline (Isabelle Huppert), the show’s director and a former actor whom (I think) Olivia greatly admires. It’s also possible that Jacqueline is a spiritual medium, in touch with some supernatural agent forcing itself into the production of the series. Everyone Olivia encounters in town or as part of the crew treat her either dismissively or with scorn. She’s walled off and isolated. Samuel (Jack Huston), the actor portraying Rasputin oscillates between admiration and dickishness. Everyone involved, and even the location itself, seem afflicted with a schizophrenic energy.

The episode plays around with this energy as a world split in half that loops into itself. One evening, Olivia’s key inexplicably won’t work for the door to her hotel room. She goes down to the lobby, only to find a mirrored version decorated differently than the one she’s familiar with; retracing her steps, she emerges in the space she knows. Toward the climax, she quits the production and leaves the grounds on foot in hopes of reaching town. Disoriented, she wanders through the forest, sees some imposing-looking Bolsheviks in the distance before circling back and reemerging onto the crew who offer no indication Olivia ever left.. In the most disturbing example of this parallel synchronicity, Olivia and Samuel walk over to where the crew is filming the disposal of Rasputin’s body (“That’s me!,” Samuel declares excitedly). The bundled corpse is tossed into the river and the men rush back to the idling car, with one man stopping long enough to pick up a hat he dropped on the cobblestones. Later, Olivia watches from the hotel as a drunken, rambling Samuel is grabbed by the crew and stuffed into the work van. Again, one man pauses briefly to pick up a fallen hat. These symmetrical moments hint at two realities circling around each other and create a mood of maze-like disorientation.


But for all the possible supernatural goings-on, the most engaging aspects of the episode are the more conventional portrayals of what a monumental hassle it is to put anything to film: last-minute script changes, stubborn co-workers, muddled communication and unhelpful direction. Olivia’s co-star Brian (Mike Doyle) approaches his Czar Nicholas with an earnest dopiness and endearing simplicity.


There are strong currents throughout the episode about the intrinsic difficulties women face in the entertainment industry. An unscripted sexual assault during a scene staged by Samuel as Rasputin rightly leaves Olivia feeling pissed off and betrayed. During one of their intermittent truces, Olivia and Jacqueline commiserate on how difficult it was for them to claw their way into a professional place of some respect after years of being nothing more than objects of desire. And Olivia’s agent Bob (Paul Reiser) —supposedly her advocate— both dismisses Olivia’s concerns about the shoot and coerces her to stay onboard, then suddenly turns up to help extricate her from the series, saying he’ll cover her departure by blaming Jacqueline, claiming she’s incapable of handling a production of this scale. It’s all neat texture and character moments, but none of it ever rises up to feeling like it’s informing the episode’s overarching identity. It doesn’t have to, of course. These elements help bring the characters into focus, and women are mistreated all the time at work whether they’re also being haunted by the gasoline-soaked ghosts of royalty, but it reinforces the idea this episode doesn’t know what it’s about. It’s just a bunch of crazy shit all up there to sift through.


I suppose Olivia’s heart giving out is supposed to be a culmination of the unsettling vertigo of events she’s been subjected to leading up to the assassination scene. A kind of final consequence of the possibly haunted, definitely unprofessional work environment she’s been trapped in for a week. But it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like a feint that undercuts everything that came before. The episode’s ambiguity doesn’t require answers. It’s perfectly swell if we never learn if this unlucky television series is trapped in a time loop with the trauma of history, or if everyone is just nuts. And jerks. Perhaps it wouldn’t feel so tacked on if Olivia hadn’t confidently stated after the botched investor’s meeting that it simply isn’t possible to die from fright. That kind of lead brick foreshadowing doesn’t do the climax any favors.

Ultimately, the only thing we come away from the episode knowing for certain is Jacqueline is either a very bad director, or a very bad director who communes with the dead.


Stray observations

  • With no offence to Christina Hendricks, who is always fantastic, Isabelle Huppert’s prickly, erratic Jacqueline is the highlight of this episode. Her furious attempt to get the dopey Brian into the head space of a czar yields the episode’s greatest line: “You are god’s own emissary on earth and someone is fucking your wife and he is dirty and filthy and his cock is bigger than yours!”
  • There’s just the faintest touch of Suspiria threaded through the hotel scenes here; mostly through the ambient sense of menace and the occasional swatches of neon-saturated color hues. This is reinforced by the Suspiria poster hanging on Paul Reiser’s office. But then again, there’s also a couple of Power Ranger helmets and one of those collectible old-timey Americana gas pumps, so maybe the only thing it says for sure is that Bob is an asshole.
  • This episode features the second mention of the book written by John Slattery’s character introduced in “The Royal We”. He’s featured prominently in the show’s previews, so it’s probably just a matter of when, not if we get to see his character further developed.
  • Fashion corner: I love every single permutation of black jeans, heels, and draped half-capes and shawls Christina Hendricks wore this episode. So fantastically witchy.
  • Samuel’s hotel room all made up like a bargain-basement Russian Orthodox church kind of makes him the Jared Leto of period-piece mini-series.

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About the author

Nick Wanserski

AV Club contributor, illustrator, insouciant oaf.