The Romanoffs: Bright and High Circle

Our coverage of the 8-part Amazon Prime series The Romanoffs from Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner continues with Lindsay Stamhuis’s and Caemeron Crain’s discussion of the fifth episode: “Bright and High Circle”

LS: So, Caemeron, we’re back with Episode 5 of The Romanoffs and this was an…uncomfortable episode in places. It was “cringey” as the kids say these days. Let’s dispense with the unpleasantness right off the top: did you read the whole “false accusation” plot as a big ol’ commentary on #MeToo or was that just me?

CC: Yeah, by the end at least it was pretty unavoidable to think in that direction. I don’t know about #MeToo in general, but at least I couldn’t help but think about the accusations against Matthew Weiner in particular, which he has denied and so on. And then we’ve had the whole Kavanaugh thing, which of course presumably happened well after this episode was made, but it definitely had an influence on how it struck me. Ron Livingston’s line about falsely accusing someone being the worst thing you can do definitely made me cringe in this regard. I am going to suggest that the “message” may be more ambiguous and more interesting than that, but I was certainly making the associations, so I agree with talking about this up front. How are you thinking about it?

LS: Well I enjoyed the episode up until that point because the central drama—whether or not the piano teacher, David (Andrew Rannells), had acted inappropriately with his young students—had been somewhat engaging. I felt myself being pulled along by Katherine’s (Diane Lane) fears that her children had been victimized, even though there was no credible evidence to suggest they had been. I wanted to unravel the mystery and find out if he did it. So in that sense, I suppose her husband’s speech to the kids about false accusations could have been directed at people like me (and others in the audience) who viewed this story as a form of entertainment. Which is a charge that could certainly be pointed at #MeToo, at least insofar as some media outlets have sensationalized it for the sake of keeping our attention. But yeah…the whole thing about those accusations against Weiner from the Mad Men days really taints it. I don’t know how you can be nuanced when you’ve been accused of a crime yourself and now you’re downplaying the seriousness of it, you know? Not to say you can’t have a nuanced discussion of #MeToo, it’s just that maybe Matt Weiner isn’t the right person for it. I don’t know.

CC: I agree that his position of enunciation is really problematic. He was accused of harassment, not assault, OK, but he also didn’t experience negative consequences the way others did. It’s that, too. If we take Alex (Ron Livingston) as Weiner’s mouthpiece, or something like that, it’s just really discomfiting. It’s not that he’s wrong—bearing false witness against someone is definitely bad—but that false accusations of sexual assault are actually really rare, and pale in comparison to the number that don’t get reported. This is why I couldn’t help but think of Kavanaugh, or the aftermath of those hearings, where you saw all of these people expressing worry about how false accusations could ruin a man’s life and so on. It’s like, “Yeah, sure, that’s possible; but it is not what tends to happen!” It’s not like Brett Kavanaugh’s life was ruined, or Weiner’s, and plus I don’t think the accusations against either were false. There’s a difference between ‘false’ and ‘unproven’ you know?

But, instead of taking Alex as a stand-in for Weiner, we might take him as a stand-in for (problematic) men in general, like those who have gotten all worried about their vulnerability in light of #MeToo and Kavanaugh and so on. (The way he talks about beer also just makes this association so strong for me, sorry.) Maybe that’s not Weiner, or maybe there is fruitful stuff to think about if we can bracket those non-diegetic concerns that relate to the auteur or whatever. I actually thought it was made sort of intentionally ambiguous at the end whether David was innocent, which complicates things. How did that strike you? Did the hour leave you thinking our piano teacher was an innocent man?

Katherine Ford (Diane Lane) looks on as David Patton (Andrew Rannells) questionably places his hand at the end of The Romanoffs "Bright and High Circle"

LS: I honestly can’t say. In fact, by the end, I didn’t even care. I think the most striking thing for me was how badly Katherine seemed to want this whole thing to simply go away. David made her feel special; she’s jealous when she realizes that her relationship with him isn’t the same as the one other mothers have with him. She really only turns on him when she realizes he’s usurped her story about being a Romanov descendant, but gives him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his potential crimes. That was weird wasn’t it? I found myself almost angry with her at a few points because her priorities seem to be really messed up. Like, who cares if the conversation with your kids is awkward, lady?! Don’t you want to know if they’ve been molested? So then the way she closes the door on the piano lesson at the very end, so deliberately…I can’t square that circle, if I’m being honest. Has she stopped caring? Does she believe in his innocence? She doesn’t seem like a negligent mother, but in that final moment I think her own desire to sort of float above it all trumps her desire for answers or the truth or whatever it is. How did you feel about that?

CC: This is what it got me thinking about—the desire for the accusation to be false, because it would disrupt things and so on; the desire for some tentatively plausible belief that the accusation was false, even, so that you can go on with the ordinary course of things. Alex mentions wanting to give his sons the “privilege of a normal childhood”—that phrase struck me; the idea that normality is a privilege, but I suppose perhaps it is?

And Katherine is our Romanov here, as you noted, so there’s that running theme about caring about status and image to think about. I think it is fair to suggest her priorities are out of whack. Despite seeing David place his hand where he does, then, I think she has decided that the threat has passed and “normalcy” can continue. It is not necessarily that she believes he is innocent, so much as she has decided to do so, if that makes sense.

LS: Brilliantly said—“It is not necessarily that she believes he is innocent, so much as she has decided to do so.” That makes perfect sense. It’s almost a choice then. Which is a weird way to think about something like criminal justice, I suppose, but then that’s what we do when we say “I believe her” isn’t it? Making a choice to believe in the veracity of one story over another. It does seem odd that she appears to hold the desire for normalcy above keeping a potential predator away from her children.

CC: You mention his lies, though. The one about being a Romanov may be central, but we’re keyed into others. Did he go to Julliard? Perform for Elton John? etc. What do you think about all of that? And there’s also Alex talking about creepy guys picking him up in the driveway, and other things that at least call his moral character into question…

LS: The lies were big red flags to me–were they for you as well? There’s so much of it! But now my question to you is how much of what we see of him is a put-on and how much is projection on the part of the storyteller? David is exactly what each person needs him to be to fulfill the narrative they’re telling: he’s comforting with Katherine during the move, bitchy with Cheryl (Nicole Ari Parker) behind Debbie’s (Cara Buono) back, predatory when Alex remembers him sitting alone in their kitchen (with his “World’s Best Dad” mug in his hand). Was that all true or was it all merely artefacts of the subjective memory of the person telling the story?

CC: Oh, I hadn’t even thought about that! I naively just presumed it was what actually happened. That’s interesting to think about, though. Perhaps all of these scenes are tinged by the perspective of the person recollecting them? I like that. It still definitely feels like David was less than trustworthy, or a bit suspect as a person, though, with the lies and all. There is a certain shallowness to the character, or at least a worry about inauthenticity. He’s all surface. But doesn’t that parallel what we were just talking about with Katherine in a way?

I’ll be honest; I laughed at him drinking out of the “World’s Best Dad” mug. Whether it was meant as a subtle middle finger, or just a sign of obliviousness, it’s the kind of clear faux pas that isn’t really well-grounded in rational terms. Anyway, all of this stuff doesn’t mean he is a child molester, and I guess the show wants to make us think about those kinds of distinctions. (Weiner has admitted to being an asshole while denying the specifics of Kater Gordon’s accusation, for example.) Maybe that’s fair, but it also points to how there is probably some basis even for the unproven, or false (reserving that term for those that have been proven to be untrue) allegations out there.

David Patton (Andrew Rannells) drinks from Alex Myers' (Ron Livingston) World's Best Dad mug while talking to him The Romanoffs "Bright and High Circle"

LS: Good points. I think there’s definitely some kind of surface-level posturing going on for David, which is what made me think he played the roles others had cast him. Maybe there’s more to it. I don’t know. But I like the not-knowing, if that makes sense. That ambiguity is nice.

And if that does mirror Katherine, I think it’s intentional. They seem to share a different kind of relationship, at least as far as Katherine remembers it, and maybe there’s a certain kindred spirit thing going on there. Maybe that’s another reason why she needs him to be innocent; why she needs those allegations to remain unproven.

I wanted to ask you about Alex’s remembrance of Alan/Ellen, his friend from childhood. I don’t know how to interpret that. Alex says some fairly homophobic things when David is first accused of whatever it is he did (we never really find out for sure, do we? it’s still all hearsay and innuendo), so finding out that he had a possibly transgender or gender-fluid friend growing up doesn’t really seem to go anywhere for me. I don’t know. I feel like I missed something there. What’s your take on that?

CC: There is a lot of ambiguity here that I ultimately appreciate, yeah. I think that also relates to your question about Alan, or Ellen. It seems like Alex’s point is that all of these other kids were jumping to conclusions, and how there was something wrong about that. And you get the lecture from his dad in there and so on, with this thrust about thinking for yourself and not succumbing to peer pressure, that sort of thing. Not a bad lesson: don’t make fun of the weird kid just because others are doing so.

But, then, Alex’s own relation to the story seems odd, as you noted. He first presents it in the context of talking about false accusations, as though the other kids were falsely “accusing” Alan of being a girl, but then he reveals that he was… Sorry, I am flailing with the gender pronouns here, because presumably we’re talking about a transgender kid: Alan/Ellen.

It is true that Alex says some things that at least tend in the direction of homophobia when Katherine lets him know that David is under investigation; like he was always suspicious of him. I guess I find that to be a little ambiguous, too, though. To what extent was he suspicious because David was gay, as opposed to because of his behavior/those “creepy” guys in the driveway he mentioned?

I’m not defending him, but this is where I am tempted to say the episode does something more nuanced, maybe. Alex isn’t even thinking about transgender issues I don’t think when it comes to his story about Alan; that Alan was Ellen is to the side of his point. He’s equated the ungrounded with the false, which is what I wanted to say earlier we should not do. His reveal to Katherine about Alan’s gender is a throwaway line to him; he seems to think it isn’t relevant to the point he was making.

Of course he isn’t “getting it” there, but this is something that feeds into my idea that he isn’t meant to be a stand-in for Weiner, but that something more complex is going on. Everything we said before is still fair, but maybe the episode is trying to call Alex and Katherine into question more than it is trying to defend/excuse them?

LS: I think you’re right on the money there. It is a complex issue. I can’t think of anything else to add here—you’ve summed it up very nicely.

Can we bring it back to the Russian connection for a second? It didn’t seem to be all that present at first glance but of course Katherine is a professor of Russian literature. There’s the Pushkin poem that plays a central role in a scene where Katherine seems to question her role in the David’s potential downfall. And there’s the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff mentions as well. I know you have things to say about this so I’m gonna turn it over to you—how does this episode seem to fit together?

CC: She does seems to be that, yes. The Pushkin poem feels a little on the nose, maybe, but it’s right in there in terms of the theme of false accusation and so on. Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff are only really in there musically, but I wanted to mention how both allude to Anna Anderson (who claimed to be Anastasia Romanov). With the former, it is that she took the name Tschaikovsky for a bit before she came to be known as Anna Anderson. Then it was with the latter (Rachmaninoff) helping her that she came to the U.S., and it was then that she took on the name Anna Anderson. So I thought that was interesting to note.

What do you make of the scene with the student complaining about the grade that she got on her paper and so on? It struck me that Katherine says that if she had claimed that Tolstoy had no position to make the kind of critique implied by Anna Karenina she would have accepted that, for example; though she isn’t saying she would agree with that critique I don’t think. I know we both teach. I don’t know if that’s relevant or not, but I wondered what you thought of that scene in the broader context of the episode.

LS: It definitely makes sense that these all come up in this episode. Interesting too that Anna Anderson either lied or didn’t and we can’t know the truth…sort of like David and his lies, eh? Hmm indeed…

I honestly read the scene with Katherine and her student as one of those “these entitled Millennials think they deserve the world” sidebars so common in media today. But there might be something to the broader theme of this episode being about having your own ideas instead of parroting others’. Katherine admonishes her student for ripping off Tolstoy’s opening lines as well as Katherine’s own book, which is fair—as educators we want our students to use their minds and not simply regurgitate what they think we want to hear—but the irony is that Katherine (rather uncritically, at least initially) regurgitates the accusation against David first to Alex and then Cheryl, and then to Debbie as well, which was something I kept waiting for her to get in trouble for doing. Is she thinking for herself, or is she guilty of doing the same thing Ms. Zhang did in her paper? I found that intriguing.

CC: I mean, I guess, but I think it is a little tougher than just a criticism of Millenials. Your student tells you that they worked really hard on the paper, and you want to be sympathetic to that if you believe them, but that’s not the point. The point is whether it is good enough. Maybe that relates to a generational thing; I’m not sure.

But, yeah, I think what you said is definitely at play. She’s holding to this thing in the academic setting, but maybe not so much in her life. That’s interesting to think about.

And I guess that’s what I want to say overall—even though this episode made us discomfited in those ways we hit on at the top, this show provides a lot of food for thought, and I appreciate that.

Any thoughts about how Diane Lane’s character appeared in last week’s episode, in light of what we saw in this one?

LS: I had noticed that the name inconsistencies you brought up in last week’s column relate directly to this week’s for sure. Peter Ford was the name in question, and Ford is the quintessentially American surname that Katherine’s grandfather chose when he immigrated to the United States. So that has my brain in gear for sure. What do you make of that?

CC: Her last name is Ford. I am guessing she is his sister? Also interesting to me is that in both episodes we have wives who apparently did not take their husbands’ names. Which, cool, but here in particular if this Ford name is just that—something her grandpa picked because it seemed American—it seems a little odd that she’d want to hold onto that, doesn’t it? Maybe there is something else to think about here. I don’t know.

LS: Also, why is this episode titled “Bright and High Circle”? I still can’t figure out the meaning of it…

CC: The title is a reference to Pushkin’s poem, though I don’t know if that fully clarifies the phrase…

LS: Okay that definitely escaped me when I watched. Thank you for that! It seems then that this episode all along positions Katherine alongside David. Pushkin’s poem underscores the fact that she views herself first and foremost as his friend, someone whom she wants to protect from the world’s cruelty, from being “smeared by the gossip’s noise”. Why does she identify with him so much? I’d suspect unrequited romantic affection, but that seems trite and unlikely. David is a social climber, the opposite of Katherine who, as a supposed Romanov, likely considers the upper crust her birthright. Not only is he a social climber but he’s possibly lying to make himself appear to be something he’s not. It comes back to the Anna Anderson thing, maybe, or the idea I mentioned earlier about Katherine only getting riled when David claims her family’s story as his own. But at the end of the day, her last name is invented, anyway, so why does she care. There’s something vaguely—forgive me, I can’t find the right word—genealogical about her concerns, and I find that rather intriguing.

I also fear I’m not making sense…but that’s where my thoughts are at.

CC: I think that makes sense. There is all of this stuff about the bloodline going on in this show; being a Romanoff. I find it hard to connect to, personally, but I can recognize it as a thing. And I think there is all of this weird stuff about meritocracy that goes with that; as though you have earned something by having the blood, or need to live up to it. Or it is noblesse oblige—which I recall you mentioning explicitly in regard to one of the first two episodes, even before we got a character explicitly saying it last week—or something like that? I’m not sure she thinks of him as her friend…

LS: I don’t know either but I get the sense that she is protective of him in a way, or at least protective of their relationship. I could be wrong though.

CC: I get that. Is she protective of their relationship, or of her social status, though? She recommended him to everybody, they say…

LS: I just think back to her recollection of moving into the new house, and how he made her feel…she seemed to need to hear what he said and appreciated him for saying it. But I suppose all he did is reaffirm the fact that she deserves her stature and then act as a sounding board for her own less-than-kind views about pianists who don’t play professionally, right? So maybe it is about status…that would be a very Romanov thing to concern oneself with, eh?

CC: I think that is who he is: a kind of sounding board for others, there to make them feel better about themselves. Judge that as you will. He’s a people-pleaser; someone who wants you to like him above all else, even if it means playing loose with the truth. And that’s not the worst thing, in and of itself. Maybe it is bad, but maybe it is forgivable.

LS: Indeed! Thanks so much for chatting, Caemeron!

CC: My pleasure, Lindsay! Glad to have your insight in working through this one!

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