Our coverage of the 8-part Amazon Prime series The Romanoffs from Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner continues with Lindsay Stamhuis’s analysis of the sixth episode, “Panorama”
If there’s one thing that can be said about Matt Weiner’s rather sprawling 8-part series, it’s this: it certainly doesn’t shy away from the realities of the haves vs. the have-nots. We’ve encountered Romanov/Romanoff descendants in every episode, and each time they’ve presented themselves. or been presented, as living in rarified air. Whether they deserve what they have at the end is always up for debate, which is nice; in some episodes (“The Violet Hour” comes to mind) it’s fairly clear that the audience isn’t supposed to side with these heirs apparent to the most mysterious of European bloodlines; in others, like this week’s episode, it’s less clear how we’re being conditioned to feel.
Of course, what we’re supposed to feel about the events in this episode is telegraphed fairly clearly—a Mexico City-based journalist is striving to uncover the truth behind a charlatan doctor attempting to “cure” various diseases so long as his patients can afford to pay him handsomely for the privilege; boo! hiss! bad doctor! There’s no doubt here.
The camera follows our intrepid undercover journalist, Abel (Juan Pablo Castañeda), from his apartment in one of Mexico City’s poorer enclaves straight up to the gate of the sprawling private compound where the doctor’s office is located, which seems to be on a hill above the city, so a literal ascent from poverty to wealth; we hear Abel’s voiceover describing to us that the people who seek this doctor’s intervention are drug lords and CEOs of heartless multinationals; many of them unworthy of grace by virtue of the businesses they’re in. Abel is called a socialist directly in one scene later on, but it’s clear from this early introduction that he leans to the left.
Here at this clinic, where he is pretending to be stricken with incurable leukemia in order to gain access and information to the clinic for his story (with a little help from what appears to be an ex-girlfriend), he meets Victoria (Radha Mitchell) and her son Nick, who is there for treatment of his hemophilia. Victoria, we learn, is a Romanov descendant; her son has inherited that most notorious and dreaded disease of royalty, and she’s willing to fork over considerable amounts of her estranged husband’s money for a miracle. Here is someone worthy, Abel thinks.
It seems simple enough, because haven’t we all seen this story before? Abel will write his story. He will also simultaneously fall in love with Victoria. He will write the expose that takes down the doctor and, with it, Victoria’s hope for Nick’s recovery, but love will conquer all somehow. End credits.
That’s not the direction in which Weiner & Co. take it, which might be better but also might be worse, depending on how you look at the 80 minutes of “Panorama”. Abel is found out by the unscrupulous doctor early on in the episode’s runtime, and his story takes a backseat as his access to the clinic is suddenly nonexistent. Sure, he’s still trying to take down the rich nogoodniks, and he does discover that the doctor is harvesting stem cells from the women at a small health clinic that services mostly poor, indigenous populations, which adds even more fuel to the class bonfire that should erupt any moment (but never does–I’ll come back to that). But he’s also spending an inordinate amount of time with Victoria and little Nicky, showing them the sights of his hometown. The Zócalo, the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Palacio Nacional, Teotihuacan—all the major highlights are mentioned, along with a healthy dose of Mexican history, from pre-contact all the way up to the Mexican Revolution.
It’s a lovely little diversion, partly because this episode is scored with sparse (some might say stereotypical) acoustic guitar, which adds to the kind of romantic mystique that Abel has, and partly because Mexico City truly does look beautiful and vibrant, and the 21:9 aspect ratio (h/t to The A.V. Club) used here showcases that well.
But it’s confounding as well.
“Panorama” doesn’t really seem to point to anything here the way that other episodes in this series have done, and done well. My colleague Cæmeron Crain put it best when he said that this is a show which tends towards ambiguity; it works in places and doesn’t in others, and I’d argue that this week, it doesn’t work well at all. Abel is a confusing mass of listless contradictions; he wants love and he wants justice, but settles for vague “Latin lover” platitudes that play infinitely better in telenovelas than in a supposed Prestige TV offering of this calibre. Victoria, as the titular Romanoff (though the captions give it as Romanov), feels no pride in her bloodline, but rather than explore the gulf between the romantic fiction and the grim reality of being a royal descendant, she is portrayed as a modern day Virgin of Guadalupe, sacrificing everything for her son but with no personality of her own.
But the most frustrating part of “Panorama” is that the promise of justice is never realized, and nobody seems to have told the showrunner that. In one of the more moving scenes in the episode, Abel takes Victoria and Nick to see the Diego Rivera murals inside the Palacio Nacional. “The History of Mexico”, as these murals are called, were painted by Rivera between 1929 and 1935 and portray the major scenes and key players in, well, the entire history of Mexico. I saw them once during a visit to Mexico City several years ago; they’re truly a sight to behold, and Abel is right to show them off the way he does, by asking his guests to close their eyes until they’re right at the foot of the staircase and are able to look up at the broad expanse of the murals, this palace wall-sized triptych.
There are indigenous men and women and conquistadors and poets and ironworkers and Catholics and Soviet flags and Porfirio Diaz and even Rivera himself, painted right there along with wife Frida Kahlo and Karl Marx, who is depicted holding his Communist Manifesto. “All of history happening at once” Abel says. It’s a line that comes up again when Abel takes Victoria to Teotihuacan, the pyramid complex north-east of Mexico City, where that sense of timelessness underpins a romantic subtext; here, it’s meant to give power to the revolutionaries, to the resistance, and one can’t help but see Abel’s fight to expose the clinic framed in this light, as a struggle of the poor against the rich, the have-not against the have.
So Abel writes his piece, and he asks the doctor for a comment. But as the doctor declines through an assistant, one gets the impression that this refusal is calculated: the doctor knows that nothing will happen to him as a result of the article. The rich always win. Abel turns in the piece to his editor anyway and is basically told it’s crap, and then he quits his job, because he knows he’s not cut out for journalism. He and his editor share a toast and have a laugh. The expose is never brought up again.
Then, in the final scene, Abel walks across the Zócalo, past a singing woman dressed as La Catrina, and the square fills with characters from Rivera’s mural. There are indigenous men and women and conquistadors and poets and ironworkers and men holding a banner proclaiming “Tierra y Libertad” and there’s even Rivera himself, walking right there along with wife Frida Kahlo and Karl Marx. (Vladimir Lenin makes a cameo as well.)
The ending is at such odds with what we’ve just seen that I can’t seem to make sense of it. Abel seems to have given up the fight, and yet here he is walking shoulder to shoulder with the great socialists and equalizers of Mexican history, who fought and bled and died for freedom from tyranny, which is being liberally dosed out by an unscrupulous doctor. I don’t care about the indigenous women carrying corn across Mexico City’s central square; I care about the pregnant indigenous women in the health clinic whose stem cells are being harvested, possibly without their knowledge, so that the rich warlords and graceless billionaires can beat whatever it is that afflicts them. “Panorama” made me care about this story and then provided no closure; no justice. Abel doesn’t fight. He puts down his pen. Does he deserve to walk with these fighters seeking land and liberty? I don’t know. I don’t think The Romanoffs knows, either.
All in all, this was a beautiful episode to watch, and a frustrating episode to process. This feels more like a love letter to the Distrito Federal than any part of a coherent narrative that The Romanoffs is trying to build. But then again, maybe that’s not the point of The Romanoffs at all.
Want to talk more about The Romanoffs? Join this sub on Reddit, and/or hit me up on Twitter: @linzstam & @caemeronCC. I’ll be back next week with the Episode 7 analysis before Caemeron and I round out this series with a finale discussion/roundtable. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!