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The Romanoffs - House of Special Purpose - Review: What's Real is Make Believe + POLL

20 Oct 2018

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My feelings for the first episode of The Romanoffs were lukewarm at best. Since then it has served up two more episodes - each one superior to the last.

“House of Special Purpose” is easily my favorite of the three now. Not just for its stellar cast, although Isabelle Huppert and Christina Hendricks certainly play a part, but for its rather sinister undertones and deviation into the strange. This episode felt like a kindred spirit to Netflix’s Black Mirror and I mean that in the best way possible.

An actress making her return to screen after a brief hiatus due to her mother’s passing, Olivia Rogers (Hendricks) is cast in Jacqueline’s (Huppert) international period television drama about her family heritage. Her family being the eponymous Romanoffs.

Whenever television or film features a story surrounding the making of television and/or film, it always develops a meta dialogue. Whether that dialogue is intextual or up-front depends on the show in question but it’s impossible to ignore it. Clearly in this case, we’re watching a show-within-a-show about the Romanoffs.

Olivia and Jacqueline clash almost immediately. Olivia doesn’t understand Jacqueline’s directing methods. She doesn’t rehearse, she lets actors run off book and sing strange ballads in the middle of scenes, there are no rules on this set. The leading actor playing Rasputin assaults Olivia in the middle of a scene and no one raises a finger to stop it. Olivia is seemingly the only one affected by the strange phenomena on set.

This episode veers into quite sinister territory. The opening scene involves a shot of soldiers dumping bodies into an open grave and lighting it on fire. It was the first sign, for me, that something was amiss and much darker than the previous two as the “actors” as the bodies didn’t look to be acting. Jacqueline wanted things to look as real as possible, but at what cost?

In the end, Olivia is forcibly taken by actors down to an underground bunker where she has been part of an elaborate set-up involving everyone but her. Lights, camera, action as all of the cast is massacred in the pivotal scene - including Olivia. She’s completely in the dark and hysterical as she believes everyone is being slaughtered in front of her. Except, it turns out this was just Jacqueline’s plan to pull a masterful performance out of her.

When the lights go up, everyone is fine… except Olivia who apparently, really died. The final shot of her glassy eyes is an unnerving one. It speaks to one of the themes in the series. Entitlement. Everyone in this episode felt entitlement over Olivia, her body, her mind, her work ethic. Jacqueline belittled her and forced her into uncomfortable situations at every turn. Samuel (Jack Huston) almost raped her in the middle of a scene. The personal assistant on set was told not to speak with her.

From the beginning, every choice made by other characters was to isolate Olivia. Even her own agent was willing to let her continue being in an uncomfortable situation because it was out of necessity to her career. It raises questions about bodily autonomy of actresses and what people with privilege are entitled to. Jacqueline considers herself royalty, her family legacy is untouchable.

What lengths was she willing to go to in order to get the performance she wanted from Olivia - a role that Olivia herself points out, Jacqueline was too old to play? How blinded is she by her own privilege and sense of superiority that she allowed her leading actress to die?

Then again, was it all just part of Jacqueline’s plan? The strange possession scene, the ludicrous improvisations, Huppert is undeniably enigmatic on screen and therefore it’s difficult to tell where Jacqueline’s duplicity begins and ends. It’s a masterful performance that will leave you thinking long after the credits roll.