EPISODE 7 – END OF THE LINE.
I had given you a little insight into the penultimate episode of the Amazon miniseries THE ROMANOFFS and suffice to say that this one, in particular, opens windows to social networks of human complexity like no other. The story centring around a middle aged couple which has left its hearth in Los Angeles to arrive in the antithetical ( in terms of the physical, behavioural, mental and emotional) environs of Russia to further a promise of the future and ensure their parental desires are fulfilled is one directed with great restraint and is like a secret whispered around the two leads who constitute the couple and their local agent Elena (Annet Mahendru) , their host and personal gateway to ways of the world on the other side of home. Every society has its secrets and so do we and we are sucked into the layer by layer vortex of the core issue here: adoption. It’s not made clear in the beginning and the time it takes to reveal the purpose of this significant overseas trip for Anka and Joe is temporally logical. The languid pace is right on cue.
The real time unraveling is poised for effectiveness here in terms of realism and storytelling as the two, man and wife, looking for greener pastures to take an orphaned infant home, land in Vladivostok, clear formalities, weather the icy personalities of residents and find one spark in Elena’s foster care representative who embodies the place and its customs with diligence in more ways than one as we discover. We can call her a mouthpiece as she is directly reflective of her surroundings all too well yet looks out for them both. She is friendly yet distant, street smart and key to their redemption. An admixture of warmth and steely resolve that she and her compatriots are accustomed to, as in any other small town or backwater globally. The weather only compounds that, it seems. Mahendru is a welcome presence who has her base in the pragmatic professionalism of Elena and yet suggests other layers with her support for the American couple. It’s kind of an interesting, intersecting dynamic given the social ties between both nations since years.
END OF THE LINE hence, as a title, designs a beat on the end of a familial legacy as regards a childless couple’s woes and the apprehensions attached to it and the end of patience that this journey extracts from them, taking a toll on this committed, decent couple’s present and future experiences. A TUSSLE OF COMPLEXITIES is the apt title then for this post. The emotional rigmarole is more pronounced here than the one dictated by internal wheeling dealing within contentious annals of childcare – both ‘child’ and ‘care’ separated by several apathetic degrees.
In a more extended way, END OF THE LINE relays the struggles of protocol and interpersonal heartburn that lay hidden behind the triumph of adoption for well off individuals. It’s a bumpy road and is made clear especially by how they gift some perfectly commonplace items as chocolates and other knick knacks to the orphanage and have been made to follow this custom of the land by Elena, both as a courtesy and a prerequisite. Looking closer, the exchange of money beyond these items informs us of the presence of bribery / money minting and is directed with the same satiric awkwardness befitting the experience for someone viewing it and on top of it, desperate for parenthood. Anka and Joe are privy to it and we, as viewers, are as well. We know through this beat that it’s easy to waylay ‘others’ by such methods in other or should I say ‘our’ territories because the same people who know of its internalizations back home are vulnerable and in a different location. The apprehension of being away from home is a very urgent reality and this unexpressed xenophobia stays with us through multiple passages and travels. The outsider status, that of strangers in a new place is complex, multidimensional and manifested in unexpected ways. This episode achieves that. The naturalistic performances enhance its indoor spaces and claustrophobic embers that are released to fan the flames of a striking confrontation between man and wife.
Joe and Anka are exposed to the poverty and lack of opportunities besides teenage pregnancies in the region that has made hordes of babies orphans in their own land and a belief in reinstating the baby, chosen by them through long distance and thorough internet communication, to normalcy leads them to a passage of hope. Kathryn Hahn’s smile, a distinctive feature of her performative repertoire, is here and the moment she spends time with the baby she is bound to take home as her own, is etched in my head as joy makes way for something unimaginable. This epiphany is brought with expertise of writing and direction and Jay and Kathryn, in an extended tight close up, maintain the balance of initial hurrah and the eventuality of unfolding horror. The passive baby is an omnipresent figure and we silently internalize her doomed fate. The tales of neglect and abuse on the little ones who are now part of the orphanage hit home and dreams turn to bitter reality for closure. So institutionalised corruption melds with biting truths of a personal nature for the couple and they unravel with unblinkered honesty. Hence the focus on social realities of an universal nature never leaves the room.
There’s space for the Romanoff bit too as Anka ( the name says it all) comes to Russia so that she can preserve a bit of her ancestors’ original land and legacy by adopting a baby here and in a later part her connection to Victoria ( the part played by Radha Mitchell from the previous episode PANORAMA) as a cousin is revealed just like there have been subtle, unobtrusive clues of interconnectedness regarding few individuals in the weekly tales( you’ll have to figure them out by watching the series)
The intertwining of their relation is important since it informs the central conflict when in the face of systemic deception by Elena and the authorities, they discover they have been made to adopt a baby who suffers from a particular physical condition. Anka makes it clear she is not going to make any more sacrifices since the physical challenges /side effects of years of trying to conceive and IVF have maybe already exposed her to early menopause and cancerous risks. She has had enough to grapple with and will not accept a baby with slim chances of survival in infancy itself and whose special needs in the future ( if she makes it) will only add to the burden of a heavy parenthood. Joe, on the other hand, expresses fidelity to caring for the baby unconditionally. I know we may be shocked at Anka’s confession but come to think of it, her blunt admission reflects our deepest fears, limitations and uninhibited honesty, especially after the heartbreak attached with fifteen years of infertility has consumed one.
The scene is wonderfully articulated by writers MARIA and ANDRE JACQUEMETTON – regular contributors to Mad Men as well – and the direction lets us grasp the marital stakes and unsaid backlog of tragic internalizations for Anka and Joe . Viewpoints clash here among spouses but they matter to each even if they are not on an equal footing. The pain and bleak realism is accentuated by the silent background, keeping the naturalistic tone of direction intact for such a monumental volte face in scripting. A lesser script would have served platitudes and a conventional happy ending . This one settles for more than an iota of honesty. The conversation is the heart and soul of END OF THE LINE and will remind everyone of thorny issues that were brokered through uneasy communication. The act of betrayal by dint of nature ( in terms of her infertility and that Joe’s cousin can have six children is inserted into the conversation naturally) and by the foster care system back in Vladivostok stokes her inner fire to not mince words this time around at a crucial crossroads of life.
Additionally, the accursed Romanoff bloodline presents itself as she relates that given the circumstances of her situation, Victoria, her cousin, too wishes to have a different life( her son was shown to suffer from hemophilia in the previous episode PANORAMA) ; the financial difference between them and her is strikingly put out too (‘and they’re rich’, Anka says)
she’s not being cruel, just stating the cold fact. The idea of raising special children and the mental toll it takes on parents, women and their inherent reproductive challenges get subsumed here. Watch this episode to know contours of how human life is often dispensable in terms of the baby who has been abandoned and suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome . The final resolution where they go home with another, perfectly ‘normal’ and healthy baby is a profound moral triangulation with the final triumph of parenthood offset by Anka’s beaming smile and the dejected, faraway look of Joe. The decisive embers of the final minutes is grippingly told. It’s courageous, heartbreakingly complex and greatly divisive. We’re only human at the end of the day and END OF THE LINE realises that with contemporary urgency.
Some other pivotal thoughts :
a) Clea Duvall has a welcome cameo too as Patricia, another American mother blessed with a baby boy in Vladivostok. Her moments of conversation with Anka are au natural. That moment where Anka makes a statement about her supposed sexuality and Elena tells her that Patricia is just a single mother who she helped is another measure of how judgement rests in all of us and how Elena may have a broader view of granting parenthood to ostracized and distressed individuals, nationality no bar. Or maybe it’s just clockwork precision of duty. You figure out by watching this episode. Clea Duvall has been a part of films like GIRL INTERRUPTED and was seen in THE HANDMAID’S TALE too as Alexis Bledel’s partner who she is tragically separated from owing to the Gilead siege.
b) Anka’s conversation with the beautiful young girl in the hotel lobby who commits to world’s oldest profession to make ends meet is an enlightening heart to heart about the stereotypes and actualities of this and other backwaters that offer nothing to women. The lighting and casual charm invested in it is like a throwback to classic Mad Men. In an earlier moment, Elena too comments on how you can be a social worker here or…….. she cuts the conversation midway. That blank is filled by our own assumptions or the reality we instinctively know.
c) Elena relaying points of common stereotypes like not to smile too much or people will think one is a mental patient, this reminded me of how Russian public and authorities were trained in the art of smiling during a recent sports event, a fact that’s funny, absurd and realistic ; when she talks about being sad in the midst of such happiness, ‘you really are a Russian’ as Anka is taken aback by the visit with the baby and then the awkward laugh she releases like it was an act of formality to leaven the situation. Or how they can go visit the home of Yul Brynner. Annet Mahendru’s performance is a highlight of this episode.
d) The moment where Joe tells Anka the Romanoffs were originally German. Questions of identity rest here.
e) the idea of empathy /apathy ingrained in cultures and individuals find the strongest representation here in END OF THE LINE. It displays the other side of compassion where reality is stark and unsparing but doesn’t make us inhuman in the acknowledgement of it.
f) ‘I am not a saint’ – the line by Anka haunts us.