Warning: Spoilers ahead of The Romanoffs episode “House Of Special Purpose.”
Within the first 10 minutes of Amazon Prime Video’s latest installment of The Romanoffs, “House Of Special Purpose,” viewers get the sense something isn’t quite right on the set of limited series-within-a limited series, The Romanovs, based on Russia's last royal family. The episode’s heroine, A-list actress Olivia Rogers (Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks), is taken to a pitch-black set in the middle of the woods, rather than her hotel, as she expected. After a few odd conversations, including one with enigmatic actress-turned-director Jacqueline Girard (Isabelle Huppert), Olivia watches some Romanovs soldiers dump the bodies of their enemies into a hole during filming. They set the entire area on fire.
The scene is meant to recreate gruesome moments from the Bolshevik Revolution. However, it feels a bit too real. All of sudden Olivia — and viewers — are left wondering, “Were those bodies real?” The question of whether the fiction of Jacqueline’s Romanovs series is much more real, and deadly, than a television show should be only intensifies throughout “Special Purpose’s” 80-minute runtime.
By the end of the episode you realize what all the ratcheting terror was for: to drag the best performance out of Olivia on the Romanovs set and craft the most intense, immersive experience possible for the Romanoffs viewers at home. And, creator-director Matthew Weiner’s gamble works, to haunting effects on both parties.
The horror of “House Of Special Purpose” hits its crescendo after the Romanovs production is allegedly called off for good. Olivia, in her full empress costume, wanders into the woods, desperate to get off of the crumbling set of her series. Rather than find a way to her hotel, she stumbles upon an encampment of supposedly fictional Bolshevik soldiers. But, the men are far from set, in full costume despite the fact the plug has been pulled on the show, holding real-sounding weapons, and yelling in Russian — rather than the Austrian that local background actors should be using. Olivia, still dressed as her character, an adaptation of the real-life Empress Alexandra, claws her way through the forest until she ends up right back on set.
By this point, the audience should be convinced the murder-y vibes of this set are real. Especially when Olivia finally finds her way home to the hotel and falls asleep… only to be woken up in the middle of the night by Jacqueline’s crew. They are dressed in full Bolshevik uniforms, down to the guns, and one of them (Morten Suurballe) slaps Olivia hard across the face. This isn’t pretend.
Soon enough, Olivia is being corralled by the Bolsheviks through a sinister stone building. It looks exactly like the titular House Of Special Purpose, where the real Romanov family was executed in 1918. Her hair is dripping, and she can’t stop crying. Olivia, like us, is convinced the crew has blurred the lines of TV fiction and fatal reality, and plan to kill her.
Finally, Olivia is tossed into a blindingly bright room, which looks identical to the Romanoffs’ bloody title sequence, down to all the scared looking Romanov occupants, who are Olivia's co-stars. And, as the opening credits go, soldiers brutally execute the entire “family.” Olivia watches as all of her fellow actors are murdered, their blood pooling on the floor. She screams in terror, until she grasps her chest and falls to the ground.
Then, Jacqueline yells cut, and you realize it was all an act. Olivia's fellow actors aren’t dead — they were in on the ruse. Yet, Olivia is dead. She seemingly suffered an actual heart attack from the abject horror of, in her mind, watching multiple innocent people be executed by an unstable director and her cultish crew.
“Olivia, you’re going to win an award,” Jacqueline tells the actress. Yes, maybe. But it will be posthumously.
Upon learning what Jacqueline’s final scheme would be, certain formerly eerie elements of “House” make a lot of sense. Throughout the episode, there is a mystery around the hotel bar. Upon arriving at her hotel, Olivia gets a call from the front desk and is informed Jacqueline would like to see her in the hotel bar. But, when Olivia makes it downstairs, she is told that Jacqueline has been asleep for quite a while, and there isn’t even a bar on the property. Yet, by the mid-point of the episode, Olivia stumbles upon the entire cast and crew in the hotel bar. The manager who told Olivia there was no bar is the bartender.
At the end of the episode, it becomes clear the whole bar saga was a mind game, with one of two purposes. Either Jacqueline set up the bar mystery to make Olivia feel more alienated and therefore appear more raw in front of the camera. Or, Jacqueline wanted to make Olivia begin to question her perception of reality early, only to make her final trick — the House of Special Purpose stunt — actually work.
Certain other details from the episode fall more in line with the second aim. Jacqueline’s bizarro director bit on the last day of shooting — complete with a vampire-chic outfit and new lipstick — makes more sense if she used those antics to convince Olivia she was working with an unstable director who might murder her cast. Even the apparent kidnapping of Olivia's co-star Samuel Ryan (Jack Huston), which is explained away by the Romanovs crew, becomes more understandable through this lens. Either Jacqueline hoped Olivia would see the terrifying moment and assume it were real, or the director put Samuel through a final day of shooting that was as intense as the one that killed Olivia.
Although a lot of “House” makes sense in pragmatic, human terms through hindsight, like all horror projects, there are still some creepy hanging question marks. Because, it seems the Romanovs production might also just be haunted.
Jacqueline has a full conversation with a ghost without any connection to torturing Olivia. The accidental dinner séance seems to be more related to Jacqueline’s actual connection with the supernatural than the director’s puppet mastery of her leading lady (however, did the victim of that otherworldly display actually shut down production? Or was that a lie created by Jacqueline to trick Olivia?). There is no way Jacqueline could have been behind the ghost girl appearing in Olivia's room.
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