Our Dark Summertime Binge: Netflix’s “The Last Czars”

Last Czars!

Rasputin (Ben Cartwright) and Alexandra (Susanna Herbert) oblivious to Russia’s coming vicissitudes.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: with weeks to go till vacation and no pressing obligations, my wife Anne and I have been bingeing a few different shows together, while I’ve done some additional grim watching on the side. Certainly not through careful planning on our part, each of the shows has had their own depressing and/or tragic aspects. As I wrote at the time, Veronica Mars season 4 fit right in once we finished the finale. Shocking developments notwithstanding, it wasn’t the gloomiest show on our scorecard.

Anne is a big fan of early 20th-century world history (strong emphasis on WWII) as well as basic-cable true-crime and true-history shows. She’s been known to indulge in costume dramas within certain boundaries. Neither of us has much use for sex scenes, which is why we skipped Netflix’s The Crown despite her keen knowledge of British royalty.

She’d heard a tad about The Last Czars, a project about the final years of Czar Nicholas, Czarina Alexandra, their daughters and one son, that meddling Rasputin, and the complete overhaul of the Russian government and way of life. The miniseries promised a hybridized format: one part documentary with historians chatting, one part serious costume drama, not just rote reenactments, that in theory would feature higher production values and better acting than your average potboiler episode of Snapped.

We launched into it despite the TV-MA rating, reserving the right to opt out if we felt it was less Russian history and more Cinemax Friday After Dark But On Netflix. I joked before pressing Play, “I’m sure there won’t be, like, Russian orgies or whatever.” This is an actual quote.

Twenty minutes in, cue the Russian orgies.

Longtime MCC readers may recall world history isn’t among my stronger book-smarts. Prior to bingeing all six episodes of this, my impression of early 20th-century Russian history summed up as follows:

  1. Once upon a time, there were czars, or “tsars” in the original British.
  2. They reigned, and reigned, and reigned and reigned and reigned. Reign, reign, reign. Reign, reign, reign.
  3. DreamWorks’ animated Anastasia falls about here, but I never saw it.
  4. Murder, death, destruction, and whatnot.
  5. Lenin wins.
  6. At some point Stalin kills Lenin and takes his throne.
  7. Somewhere in between, the wizard Rasputin haunts people, then dies, then is resurrected during WWII to fight Hellboy.

…blame my school system, the two colleges I dropped out of, and their collective, irresponsible failure to make sure every student had to learn a lot of world history. In sixth-grade social studies I learned a few world capitals and some imports and exports. In twelfth grade a World Geography class overseen by a psychology teacher taught me some more world capitals and how to find dozens of countries on a map, roughly 30% of which still exist today.

As I said, world history is not my forte. I try to glean what I can from my entertainment consumption and from Anne’s occasional long-form speeches she occasionally drops into conversation. In exchange sometimes I’ll help her with math if she’ll let me. Between the two of us our marriage strikes a balance.

Anyway: in terms of historical education Netflix showed me quite a bit of new info about Czar Nicholas (I forget if he had a number? I could go look that up, I guess?) and the poor judgment calls that would eventually turn his own subjects against him. I learned of the hemophiliac son who would be the next czar if he lived long enough. I learned of Alexandra turning in desperation to the man called Rasputin, reputedly a faith healer who inserted himself into their lives, claimed to be helpful, and over time drove a wedge between the royal family and the 99%. Meanwhile everyone else in their inner circles hated Rasputin and wanted him dead. Beyond their mansion walls, Russia also had a spot of war going on before World War I complicated matters even further.

I also learned Rasputin was the head of a weird Russian sex cult, hence the excuse for orgies. Though today even the most far-out scenesters would struggle to call him “hot”, by 1910s Russian standards of machismo Rasputin was perceived as a heartthrob by an alarming number of ladies who ‘shipped him and would’ve written naughty Mary Sue fanfics costarring him if they’d had the tools. More than a few had the chance to hook up with the man himself, as this show really wanted us to know at length. During those scenes I muted the sound so Anne and I could chat over them, and she could use those nekkid intermissions to inform me of any gaps that she thought she saw in the historical record as they presented it, by which I mean she went into nitpicking mode. Sometimes the historians would get to the points that she thought they weren’t covering quickly enough. Other times there’d be bigger things she spotted, such as “Uncle Sergey” being several inches too short. Then the characters would cover themselves and we could go back to watching.

As it turns out, Nicholas and Alexandra had a pretty healthy sex life (repeatedly reinforced for prurient Netflix voyeurs, as if their several daughters weren’t hints enough of that) until the Russian Revolution began to loom large and they had to flee for their lives, a major turnoff that signaled the end of their hawt bedroom sexytimes. The final two episodes feature very nearly no whoopie-making at all save one clothed, split-second, TV-14 dalliance in the finale. That’s as close as we get to lighthearted relief before the historians and the cast move on to the Romanovs’ tragic massacre in a dirty, Saw-like backroom. It’s an accurately ugly moment, diminished a smidgen when Anne noted a few of the actors were positioned incorrectly before the hail of bullets.

All of these past events are tucked inside a framing sequence that bookends each episode. Twenty-odd years later an adult woman claiming to be the still-living Anastasia turns up in a hospital and has to have her story rigorously vetted by a doctor played by an actor who was once a Prince of Wales on Downton Abbey. Those flash-forwards are cut-and-dry and the opposite of compelling.

By and large the historians were entertaining speakers, particularly a pair of British gentlemen who fairly shook with the sort of excitement that history professors get when they’re performing for an engrossed audience. The sets were sumptuous and the camera work appeared to be the handiwork of a crew that had all the technology they needed. The obvious standout among the actors was Ben Cartwright in the showy role of Rasputin, who deeply reminded me of the father from Robert Eggers’ The Witch, but I checked and it wasn’t him. Rasputin was sufficiently disturbing and intimidating, and if I concentrated really hard, I…well, no, sorry, I couldn’t envision a world where Rasputin was “sexy” no matter how many unclothed extras he’s swaddled in.

On the plus side, at least I learned some Russian history basics…or at least I thought I did. Judging by this scathing review and this even longer, more ruinous listicle, apparently I may need to forget what I watched, go back to Wikipedia and start over from the beginning. At least I can count on Wikipedia to contain 200% fewer Russian orgies.

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