When Dr. Steve Romanoff (Wilmer Valderrama) collapsed to the ground at the end of tonight’s spectacular Romanoffs finale, I felt as if I, too, had been shot by the cryogenically-preserved pistol originally used to assassinate Grigori Rasputin and — concurrently — Archduke Franz Ferdinand. In retrospect, that Dr. Steve should fall prey to the same shadowy conspirators that toppled Tsarist Russia, rang the bell of war in Europe, and had no particular involvement in the Kennedy assassination is the only way this beautiful time-twisting puzzle of a season could have ended. While Dr. Steve lies dying in the catacombs of Paris, his twin sister Dr. Stacy Romanoff (Wilmer Valderrama) at last uncovers their true lineage with the culmination of her season-long reverse Mamma Mia plot, which reveals that their mother is none other than Joan of Arc herself — or in the original French, Joan d’Romanoff. And all this is to say nothing of that breathtaking cliffhanger with their half-brother Bud “Big Jefe” Romanoff (John Goodman) in the dusty Arkansas oilfields. Where’d that big cliff come from, why is Bud so out of breath, and what manner of shenanigans will Big Jefe and the boys get up to in season two?
I repeat: wow.
The Romanoffs, Season 1, Episode 8: “Roamin’ Off”
Written by Matthew Weiner and Alexa
Directed by Matthew Weiner
But let’s back up. At the end of last week’s penultimate episode, “Please, Tsar, Can I Have Tsome More,” the stage was set for a showdown between Dr. Steve’s telekinetically-connected group of demographically diverse friends, the Romanoffs, and the secret worldwide crime syndicate headed up by Master Septimius Romanoff III — also called the Romanoffs. Joey Romanoff (Matt LeBlanc, in the role of a lifetime) had just revealed himself to be a double agent of the Romanoffs, and Norma-Rae Romanoff (the always game and incredibly talented and fantastically beautiful and flawless actress, Tatiana Maslany (I gush, but it’s okay — I’m a critic; and also Tatiana, if you ever want to meet me and talk about how much I know about your actressing, it won’t be weird — I’m a critic)) in turn revealed her own long-hidden allegiance. It was to the Romanoffs.
With all that chaos in the air, it was a welcome respite to start this week’s finale with a flashback to an event I suspect most of us have been hoping to hear more about all season: the Romanoff Family Reunion Karaoke BBQ of 2006. The show has hinted at the significance of this day a few times before, but — in a thematically-appropriate if frustrating refutation of narrative payoff — this opening flashback shows only the calm before the storm. We see Drs. Steve’s and Stacy’s father — Head of Neurosurgery Dr. Clint Romanoff, Ph.D — lead a game of flag football alongside none other than Master Septimius Romanoff III himself, in the flesh, before whatever tragic incident that stole the use of his legs, arms, and face. What a shock it is to see this villain as he was before, unmarred by his bitterness and grotesque physical deformities, laughing, playing, running with his family — happy. At one point he even exclaims, in a delicious bit of dramatic irony: “Nothing bad will ever happen to or amongst the Romanoffs! Or my legs, arms, or face!” What caused this clearly affectionate familial relationship to sour and morph into a mutual lifelong vendetta backed by a centuries-old conspiracy theory?
But substantive answers to this and every other mystery raised this season will have to wait. Matthew Weiner and co. clearly have a plan in mind — they’re brilliant TV auteurs — but whatever it is, they’re playing the long game. One possible clue comes to us courtesy of commenter desmondismycontent23, who pointed out that the ironic tee shirt Septimius wore a few episodes back may very well allude to the nature of his falling out with Dr. Clint: “I Need Brain Surgery Like I Need a Hole in My Head!” Innocent japery, or a sinister anti-doctor ethos writ x-large?
But enough prelude — let’s talk about that scene. Spoiler warnings ahead!
Lady Romanoff (Lady Gaga) may have deserved a more dignified send-off than being stripped fully but tastefully but still titillatingly nude and stabbed in egregious closeup by hundreds of shish kebab skewers, triggering her genetically-transmitted hemophilia and turning her into a darkly humorous human colander of blood, but boy — talk about powerful imagery. Only the master Weiner himself could have shot such an excessively violent scene with such inspired chiaroscuro so as to render it not only sophisticated but — indeed — beautiful, and therefore not problematic. Chiaroscuro is an Italian word that means I’m better than you.
For each of the Romanoffs on this season of The Romanoffs, legacy is the name of the game. “We are all children of history, and we all of us deserve to suckle at her teat and drink of her sweet milk,” as Big Jefe explains to the judge at his DUI hearing. In this humble critic’s assertion, this egalitarian ethos is at the heart of The Romanoffs’ narrative philosophy. Ontological equality has been the thread patching together all the jarringly disparate storylines this season: the simple idea that each of us, no matter who we are — white or other, rich or upper middle class, important doctor or merely important doctor adjacent, also assuming we’re a secret descendant of the Romanoffs, also attractive — is worth making a TV show about. With many of the main characters dead and the smoke still clearing from that big battle scene that cost as much as some actual wars, it will be interesting to see how this theme plays out in a possible season two. If season one was all about reckoning with grounded themes of personal legacy (and superpowers and global conspiracies and some not-technically-zombies zombies and I think a mysterious creature made entirely of fog? did that really happen? sounds made up), then I have a feeling season two is where this show will really start to explore its meaty premise. Meditative character studies are all well and good and whatever, but this show-stopping finale proves that The Romanoffs is ready to start being watchable, too.
Scraps From My Notebook; Go On, You Dogs, Lap Up The Scraps
- Nadia Romanoff, rebuffing the advances of fellow Romanoff Chad Romanoff: “I have a personal policy against interoffice Romanoffs.”
- You know an episode is good when Lady Gaga and Eduardo Fresco pull off a breathtaking karaoke duet of Boney M.’s Rasputin and it gets relegated to the endnotes. A little on the nose for this show, but I’ll allow if for sheer auditory joy and raw sexual energy.
- Novel idea: a ferociously handsome TV critic, MK Altra, discovers a secret CIA plot to hypnotize people through TV show propaganda. Why him?? It’s cause he’s so smart and good at understanding TV shows. Also he’s dating Tatiana Maslany.
- To those of you cheering on the coming Valderramaissance, please see this week’s casting news that Wilmer will be playing Venom in Disney’s new live-action Spiderman reboot, Hey, Who Turned Off the Dark?
- Which of you will be the first to make a meme of Dr. Steve’s rousingly defiant, already-classic final line? “Aw, shit! I’m getting killed!”
- Am I alone in thinking the end tag with Captain Romanoff portends the development of some sort of Romanoff Cinematic Universe? Yes, please!
- I could sure go for a glass of wine and a chiaroscuro platter right about now.
- That’s all for season one of our Romanoffs coverage. No word yet on a renewal, but if the past is anything to go on — the Romanoffs will be ruling our cathode ray tubes for centuries to come.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
MJ Alba is the editor-in-chief and minority shareholder of MJ Alba Dot Com. He was recently approached by two large Eastern European men in the alley behind his mother’s nursing home. They had thick accents and thicker mustaches. They suggested he write something positive about the Russians.
Get in touch with MJ at his Twitter page or in the alley behind the ████████ Long-Term Care Facility in ████████.