You have to admire the premise of The Romanoffs, the ham-fisted new Amazon series by Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner. Each of the episodes involves a contemporary person, or people, claiming to be descended from Russia’s last royal family, who were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. This conceit combines great narrative flexibility with the potential to tap into evergreen human concerns: fear of death, anxiety about the path of history, concern with legacy and remembrance, and the feeling each of us has that, in some way, we stand out from the crowd. Unfortunately, the writing in most episodes of The Romanoffs is so maladroit, and the characters are so unpersuasive, that the series is painful to watch.
And then there’s the awkward timing: The Romanoffs is appearing at a time when democracy is experiencing setbacks around the world, and some political leaders are cultivating nostalgia for autocracies of the past. Jair Bolsonaro, the new president of Brazil, has openly pined for the years of his own country’s dictatorship. These real-world developments cast a harsh light on the Amazon show’s slight but perceptible romanticization of the Tsarist legacy. Admittedly, this is in keeping with the century-old public fascination with the Romanovs’ fate and afterlife. Hence the success of Anastasia, which was based on the legend that one of the Tsar’s children survived the massacre.
That apocryphal story gets a nod in the Amazon series’s credit sequence—surely one of the worst in the history of television. After a gratuitously literal opening that depicts the family’s murder, with blood trickling past photos on the floor, the credit sequence shows a young woman fleeing through a forest, before exiting a subway into a modern city. The blue cloak and hood the woman wears in the forest give her the appearance of a fairy-tale figure.