THE ROMANOFFS FINAL EIGHTH EPISODE : OF THE TALES WE KNIT FROM MEMORY AND IMAGINATION

THE ONE THAT HOLDS EVERYTHING

Dramatis Personae :

Hugh Skinner as Simon.

Hera Hilmar as Ondine.

Ben Miles as George.

Adele Anderson as Candace.

Oliver Zetterstrom as young Simon.

Deirdre Mullins as Natalie.

Rebecca Root as Dana.

Christopher Goh as Christopher Ming.

Jing Lusi as Kiera Ming.

J J Field as Jack.

*****

As you, my readers, know I have devoted nearly a dozen blog posts on this amazingly original Amazon Prime miniseries that occupied my weekly imagination for two months, given its eight episode run. I relished each installment on the wide screens of my television and the visual panorama of this series befits that dimension. I am happy to say the images and narratives have lingered with me, always a sign that the artistic creation has managed to convey something meaningful, beyond the archetype of consuming them for momentary pleasure. THE ROMANOFFS is far more insightful than any average work and in its global character delves deep into intense, intimate experiences among adults.

Now, I have procrastinated on writing about the final episode so here I am, grasping the continuum of tales that emerged from a script where someone was descended from royalty but their place in the immediate present was all that mattered. The creators and writers ( most of them from the iconic crew of MAD MEN) made their presence felt with a mature, intriguing conceit and then building on it with extremely human tales of individuals whose desire for recognition and trappings of wealth never distanced us from their pursuits.

It was a worthwhile journey and the novelistic technique worked in its favor as each mini film, lasting 60 to 80 minutes, gave the impression of flipping through minute details and exactitude of short stories, with the eloquence of words finding a facsimile in the clarity of the images on screen.

I will write very briefly about the final episode because I want viewers to find its storytelling for themselves, as it handles its thrilling central idea of tales knit from memory and imagination in a frame narrative. The multiplicity of voices is intact and the strength of its compendium style finds fruition in a tale that takes place through many years. Condensed in its present form, THE ONE THAT HOLDS EVERYTHING finds the true pulse of storytelling, which is what THE ROMANOFFS is all about. The last bow, hence, is impactful in the best ways.

*****

In THE ONE THAT HOLDS EVERYTHING, we begin the multidimensional odyssey in the beautiful Grand Terminus of Paris where Jack( J J Field), a successful writer, arrives to board the train to London. This is shot with the same evocative sense of space and ethos by cinematographer Christopher Manley, with David Carbonara’s score punctuating the structure’s grand design and wondrous character. ( Both had been regular contributors on all seasons of MAD MEN too in their respective capacities) They trace this journey from the very word go.

In a series that has managed to make us privy to some truly remarkable locations and its own distinctive, sublime style , the camera manages to go inside the classical European space of this station. As Jack boards the train, he is seated next to Candace ( Adele Anderson), an enigmatic middle aged English lady who is particularly loquacious as opposed to Jack, a reserved young man who would rather read and mind his own business on this short journey. As an Indian, I instinctively understand that we are never accustomed to the idea of privacy, especially on train journeys where almost everyone is liable to start a conversation from scratch with absolute strangers. I guess it’s about the ubiquity of communication, that striking up a rapport on journeys is universal and not just relegated to a cultural preoccupation.

What I can say is that Candace, with her perpetual sly smile and fox like appearance, is not here for the sake of small talk and Jack, being the gentleman he is, obliges. The point that piques their common interest is the Romanoff history. As we will discover, relaying a story about someone she knew who hailed from the royal background on the part of Candace is offset by the fact that Jack has written a series on the dynasty, the fictional recreation of which occupied the brilliantly twisted third episode of this series HOUSE OF SPECIAL PURPOSE starring Christina Hendricks and Isabelle Huppert. He is oblivious of what the verbose stranger has to offer and she weighs in multiple stakes in a life script with many parallel lines. This ticks off the idea of the episodic title. The One That Holds Everything can be the narrator or the listener. Or the shifting stakes of the tale told and the reliability on facts or lack of it. Fact and fiction align with personal histories here and you need to watch it as three fold stories come from different perspectives of people, all somewhere connected to the other, the beginning, middle and end all positing an exciting epilogue about the art of storytelling. Candace begins it and then many narrators dive in. Jack is the passive listener who receives a monumental twist in the end, a sting in the tale that hits home for him and this mysterious bookend is like classic reading material ala Agatha Christie. You have to watch it to appreciate its multiplicity. The difference is in the realism and naturalistic approximation of intimate human bonds.

****

There’s the first part that deals with an adult Simon (Hugh Skinner) dealing with the life long pangs of a cold, dismissive father( THE CROWN ‘s Ben Miles) and a woman younger than him Ondine who has become his son’s stepmother( Hera Hilmar)

The quiet melancholy of parental neglect and the backlog of losing his beloved mother years ago as a child is there to haunt him every waking moment. I could relate to his pangs and the unwanted suffering thrust upon him since years past owing to a tragic familial foregrounding and a feeble father who’s blind love for the other woman leads to ultimate disintegration. Simon suffers silently, never able to rise above his station or situation, weighed down by his own inadequacy as a youngster and bearing a secret that directly implicates Ondine in the unraveling of his life, especially his mother’s untimely death.

The narrative then switches to Hong Kong where a heartbroken Simon finds financial stability in the booming Asian corporate echelons. What he finds is love and friendship with Christopher ( Christopher Goh), the kind that fills a void and alleviates his pain. However, Christopher soon gets engaged to be married and a rupture in this tender bond reveals societal hypocrisies that allow many to lead double lives. Christopher is willing to do that but Simon won’t. When overcome by another sad turning point, he discloses Christopher’s indiscretion from his bachelor party to his fiancĂ© Kiera (Jing Lusi) ; then the narrative shifts to the former. When confronted by her, Christopher blames it on Simon’s overwhelming sense of loss, deep friendship with him and the insecurity of his marriage affecting their amity. But more than these to save his skin, he reveals the intimate part of Simon’s childhood that he was made privy to.

Simon, the child ( Oliver Zetterstrom) then comes to the picture as his seemingly fraught family life implodes, even his beloved mother Natalie (Deirdre Mullins), who is shown as a Romanoff descendant, gets consumed by it and Ondine takes over, his once favourite babysitter whose passive cruelty, beauty and involvement with his father changes the scenario. From becoming a mute witness and sent to boarding school to years later relegated to the absolute sidelines, owing to the birth of his stepbrother who is showered all his parents’ love, his is the kind of melancholic lifescript life throws on unsuspecting few since a young age. I even found the younger Simon’s travails to be Dickension, as the child bears the weight of the world and cannot make sense of it all. The image of his burning home and his mother dying is haunting. The complexity of the seemingly civil, doting mother Ondine cuts deep too. We never really know the internalizations of evil in others. The mystery about her appearance at the time of the home being on fire haunts Simon forever.

What I liked is that even though Christopher operates out of fear of discovery by Kiera and preserves his duality (as Simon is true by disclosing his actions from the night of the party) , he somehow shares facts about the lifetime of alienation that has befallen Simon and in turn Kiera acknowledges that he has endured too much to let his friendship go. Maybe his love for Simon is preserved through this intimate recounting. But by Kiera saying Simon may love her fiance with a chuckle, the double edged mindsets come into play. Empathy, thus, is hard won and is seldom exercised with sincerity. Simon is essentially a loner.

To his painfully caustic reunion with a dying father, confrontation with Ondine, meeting with his grown up and intellectually sharp stepbrother to the sum of his life’s history coming to a moment of seeking self identity above everything , THE ONE THAT HOLDS EVERYTHING grasps his trajectory with empathy and does it without making it downright depressing, as the outline / content may suggest. The novelistic back and forth of perspectives keeps us guessing as to which parts are true and which pure fiction, suited to the narrator best. The standout is a scene of genuine camaraderie between Simon and Dana ( Rebecca Root), an acquaintance from a support group, and for the first time, seeds of change don’t really warrant a lack of independence for him. Identity is paramount here.

****

Ofcourse the progression returns to Candace and the volte face of the climax is effective. It’s sudden, unexpected and maintains the yen for versatile multiplicity that makes this last entry for the miniseries extremely watchable. It’s a contestable idea as to what transpires between Candace and Dana in the end on the train, in fact within the confines of their seats with neither moving away from it to facilitate any action. The muddled dynamics of bitterness lingers. The tenousnessness of truth as well lingers, never in one hands and often colored by personal agendas.

****

As is par for the course, THE ONE THAT HOLDS EVERYTHING is wonderfully performed and mounted on a technical scale including the costumes by Mad Men’s punctilious Janie Bryant.

It leaves us with the form of exciting storytelling shorn of excess and thriving with the verisimilitude of lived experiences, never mind the climactic U turn.

*****

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