The temptation to see Matthew Weiner’s The Romanoffs (Amazon Prime) as a copy of his previous TV show, Mad Men, should end when the main character of the second installment takes a hike in a park. As Michael Romanoff (Corey Stoll) follows his wife, Shelly (Kerry Bishé), to an elevated, rocky surface, feeling driven and guilty by a desire to push her off a ledge, he stops and sees yellow sunlight wash over green grass, moss, and plants. It’s possible to think that this sight would cause Michael to give up his vicious plan and embrace his marriage. In an unexpected, dramatically clever, and psychologically sharp bit of characterization, Weiner has Michael take this vision as a sign of what freedom awaits, as encouragement to lean into his wife.
As selfish, misogynistic, and disturbing as the main men in Mad Men could be, it’s hard to imagine Don Draper or Pete Campbell or Roger Sterling even thinking about committing such a heinous act. It’s especially unlikely to believe Weiner would’ve ever had one of them attempt murder while being surrounded by nature. Nature rejuvenated people on Mad Men; it made them feel alive and whole, like they wanted to return to what and who was essential. That the penultimate scene of his newest work’s second episode (“The Royal We”) goes so against the grain of Weiner’s previous masterpiece confirms a suspicion that develops early on in The Romanoffs: this isn’t Mad Men; it’s darker and crueler.
However, that spike in hostility isn’t a weakness; it often leads to uproarious humor. Telling the stories of people who claim to be descendants of the Romanov family, the dynasty that ruled feudal Russia until the Bolsheviks overthrew them, Weiner edits sequences and stages scenes that playfully convey the entitled, selfish, and pathetic aspects of these figures. For example, at some point in the narrative, Michael forces himself on a jury panel because he is attracted to another juror, Michelle (Janet Montgomery). During a horrifying murder trial, Weiner cuts together a sequence in which Michael ogles Michelle’s legs, back, and face while pictures of the ridiculously bloody murder scene and descriptions of the defendant’s idiotically feeble attempts to cover up his crime infiltrate the background. Later, in a marriage counseling session, Weiner has Michael sob into his own hands, which leads his wife to comfort him; the scene would be poignant if it wasn’t for the fact that Michael is sad that his consummated affair with Michelle seems to be ending, not that his marriage is crawling towards oblivion.
The Romanoffs’ harshness doesn’t just yield comedic pleasure, but also develops a gleefully nervous anticipation. “The Violet Hour,” the first episode, which features different characters and plotlines from the second, has a pivotal scene in which Greg Romanoff (Aaron Eckhart) decides to cheat on his girlfriend, Sophie (Louise Bourgoine). Greg, who has so far seemed like a hardworking, friendly, and nice man, does this so he can seduce a Muslim maid, Hajar (Inés Melab), who he has treated kindly and sensitively in a country where she faces racism. He hopes to exploit this bond to guilt Hajar into returning his aunt Anushka’s apartment, which Anushka (Marthe Keller) promised Greg before bequeathing it to Hajar while only knowing her for a couple of days. When Greg begins this disgusting process, Weiner crosscuts between him freshening up and tidying his hair in a pizzeria bathroom while Hajar sits alone outside, waiting for him to return so they can share the olive pizza he ordered. This crosscutting creates a pit in the stomach, a nauseous and enthralling mix of dread at realizing what Greg is about to do, terror at how he’s going to take advantage of Hajar’s innocent belief in him, eagerness to see if the apparently good-natured man can actually debase himself, and hope that he won’t. It’s excitingly revolting.
Living with this scum and roughness separates The Romanoffs from many of the anti-hero prestige dramas that populate the TV landscape, which tend to approach depictions of evil from a more delicate, comforting position: framing immorality as the unfortunate byproduct of an artistic sensibility, weirdness, a quest to get high from power, good intentions, never an upsetting and nasty choice, act, or deliberate process. However, what makes The Romanoffs remarkable isn’t that it confronts such sordidness, but that it finds the moments of life and beauty that exist alongside this filth, moments of warmth and happiness that perhaps only exist because of this ugliness. It might be cliché to praise Weiner in this way, but it’s why he’s great: he is attuned to how life can be exhausting and rewarding.
The Romanoffs’ hardened tenderness is often expressed in wordless, small, seemingly lightweight scenes. They aren’t buttressed by the presence of stirring dialogue or major narrative context, and they often still contain shades of nastiness. As a result, these moments are more powerful and moving than many of the “inspirational” scenes from supposedly empowering, feel-good, non-guilty pleasures that television creators and critics keep promoting as antidotes to prestige TV. The heart melts while viewing a side-angle shot of the weary, bitter Anushka shedding tears as she realizes that Hajar, the woman she’s treated in such a despicable and racist manner, looks beautiful while wearing one of her dresses, that she reminds Anushka of her youth as an alienated outsider far more than her nephew. Similarly, even though there is awareness that Greg is manipulating Hajar, it’s difficult not to get swept up as she rides on a motorcycle with him around Paris, soaking in the city’s historic sites, lights, and sounds, falling in love with a place that has treated her poorly because she’s falling for a man. It’s brutally uplifting.
It’s easy to frame The Romanoffs through the lens of Matthew Weiner’s last show, Mad Men, but doing so does a disservice to what Weiner has achieved now. Few TV programs can so effortlessly swing from events that are thrillingly callous to moments that are heartbreakingly joyful. The Romanoffs is messy, unlike most of what we’re used to on the small screen. It’s not TV or streaming. Not HBO or Amazon. It’s hell and heaven. It’s life. It’s a Matt Weiner show.
 The exception to this would be Greg, Joan’s husband who rapes her. However, Greg doesn’t count as a main character in Mad Men (certainly, he never plays a part as important as the one Michael is playing in this episode of The Romanoffs).
 The Romanoffs is an anthology series: each episode mostly changes cast and storylines.
 Hello, The Good Place, Riverdale, and Glow.