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The Romanoffs: “House of Special Purpose”

“House of Special Purpose” brings The Romanoffs to Austria, to the making of “The Romanovs: A Six Part Miniseries”. Its third episode, written by Mary Sweeney and Matthew Weiner, and directed by Weiner, finds Christina Hendricks as an actress coming to a set under the rule of an aged actress-turned-director played by Isabelle Huppert, and the wheels coming off a madhouse.

Olivia Rogers (Hendricks) travels through the darkness, on a road she was not expecting. It is not a road to the hotel, but rather to the set, just in time to see something rather unnerving. It’s all to director Jacqueline’s (Huppert) design, a foreboding beginning to a strange and hazy trip into the Romanov adaptation. Things only turn south from there, with Jacqueline’s strange demands and choices for the adaptation causing Olivia to wonder if she’s on the set from hell.

The filming of “The Romanovs: A Six Part Miniseries” is a play within a play, Olivia locked inside of something where the screws are loosening on what’s reality and what lies beyond it. Sweeney and Weiner have concocted an episode that holds a wonderful dream-like quality, with the immense amount of fog enveloping certain shots, subtle changes to the background, people saying one thing and the opposite being the case, and Olivia’s confusion to the madness around her. Perhaps it’s a mind game, on both Olivia and the viewer, questioning what our eyes see and ears hear when the simplest explanation is right there in front of us. Or something more sinister, where reality is blurred when so close to art, and it’s a comment on history repeating itself through art.

Hendricks is wonderful as Olivia Rogers, grasping hold of the strangeness and playing the part of an actress caught up in something out of her control, but also out of control in general. Olivia’s frustration and need for a stable environment is so palpable, and as conditions worsen, Hendricks is able to sell its manic nature as well as its decomposition.

Huppert is out of this world, as always, a harsh force of nature uncompromising in what she wants and how she gets it. The production is like a limb, where it cannot be cut from her, and any hint of kindness or softness is soon lost to the demands of the job. Huppert is a perfect addition to this episode and helps elevate every scene she’s in.

Jack Huston as Samuel, Olivia’s co-star, is a strange beast in this episode, obsessive over his work and becoming a hard read as he blurs character with reality at times. Paul Reiser, with a number of Power Rangers helmets posed behind him, is a fun choice as Olivia’s agent Bob, trying to make the best of a situation he only can surmise through her description of it. His reaction to a bizarre reveal is one a comic actor like Reiser pulls off with genius.

Weiner continues to film his episodes in grand and beautiful gestures, every location shot with a keen eye. The palace set, the hotel where Olivia and the others stay, even a costume trailer, all are gorgeously shot. The writing in this episode is smartly layered, blending and tricking you as it weaves toward something not entirely unexpected, but still executed in a way that leaves a good impact.

“House of Special Purpose” takes a turn previous episodes had not, where the Romanov family name is on display through the madness of the filming of a miniseries, and the cracking visage that holds it all together. It does fall into some absurdist boundaries, but quickly dips its toes back out, a little to its detriment. But it’s another solid episode, like the one before, that is bringing The Romanoffs back from a slightly rocky start.

★★½

The Romanoff’s third episode, “House of Special Purpose”, is available for streaming on Amazon’s Prime Video on October 19th.

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