As many of the male artists accused of sexual malfeasance during the #MeToo movement clamber back toward the spotlight, it feels inevitable that we’ll soon be confronted with art fueled by the shock and anger—whether deserved or not—wrought by those allegations. The ever-prolific, increasingly beleaguered Woody Allen was one of the first artists to protest through his work that the shifting cultural tides were actually a vicious inundation. The result was Wonder Wheel, a queasy and ham-fisted screed against an aging (wannabe) actress whose destructive impulses stem from her sexual jealousy of her nubile stepdaughter—apparent stand-ins for Allen’s former partner Mia Farrow, who has accused the director of molesting her daughter Dylan, and Soon-Yi Previn. (The man caught between the two women, a young playwright born during the Depression, also shares more than a few similarities with his creator.) And now, #MeToo has seemingly inspired another response: the fifth episode of The Romanoffs, Matthew Weiner’s follow-up to Mad Men. Titled “Bright and High Circle,” the 70-minute tale is a much subtler, but no less uncomfortable, fable about the perils of too easily believing the worst about an innocent man.
Outwardly, “Bright and High Circle” has much in common with the rest of The Romanoffs’ debut season, in which each self-contained installment features a different descendant of Russia’s most famous dynasty. Starring Diane Lane as Katherine Ford, a professor of Slavic literature and a mother of three boys, the episode is set amid genteel wealth and the mommy wars. A law enforcement officer informs Katherine that her sons’ gay piano teacher, David (Andrew Rannells), has been blamed for, but not formally charged with, “misconduct with a minor.” Katherine isn’t to let anyone else know about these allegations, but of course she does. As everyone’s minds turn immediately to sexual impropriety, David unknowingly verges on the cusp of losing his livelihood and his social circle, as the high-strung mothers of his students cluck their way into tear-stained paranoia.
In the end, the intentionally vague phrasing that the police used to describe David’s alleged misdeeds turns out to refer to a not-quite-credible allegation that he bought a teen some alcohol. Still, just the possibility of inappropriate behavior has soured the two younger boys on their music lessons. (The eldest has already left for college.) It’s then that Katherine’s slightly homophobic husband, Alex (Ron Livingston), who recants his suspicion, delivers the moral of the episode, which is aimed at an accusation’s bystanders.
“A good person doesn’t ruin someone’s life over some random accusation. … Bearing false witness is the worst crime that you can commit,” the man instructs his sons. “Otherwise, anyone could say anything, about anybody. And just saying it ruins their life, no matter what they did. Does that seem fair?” In Alex’s worldview, and the episode’s, the compassionate thing to do in the face of an accusation is to resist believing the charge and act as if it never happened. “In your heart, you have to stretch yourself,” he continues. “Make everything just like it was. It’s not phony. It’s the right thing.”
It’s entirely possible that Weiner, who directed and co-wrote the episode (with Kriss Turner Towner), conceived of this story well before he himself was accused of serial sexual harassment by Kater Gordon, a Mad Men writer who was dismissed from the series shortly after her Emmy win and has since left the TV industry entirely. (Weiner has disputed Gordon’s claims while praising #MeToo’s potential as a movement.) But the specious framing of the episode’s central debate, as well as the superficial similarities between Weiner and David—prestige-laden, artistically inclined men with a reputation for effeminacy—overwhelmingly suggests “Bright and High Circle” to be the showrunner’s defense against the accusations against him. Moreover, both the fictional case and the actual one share vague umbrella terms that invite certain imaginations to run wild. “Misconduct with a minor,” like “sexual misconduct,” can take myriad forms with a panoramic range of insult and damage. As Alex points out, there’s even a significant difference between a scenario where David purchases a six-pack for a 17-year-old and one where he buys a bottle of vodka for a much younger child. The parsing implies, reasonably, that it’s unfair for euphemisms (and headlines) to lump relatively minor infractions together with more egregious ones.
Other than the Romanoff connection, Weiner doesn’t bring any fresh reference points to the ongoing debates about how such allegations should be handled. A friend of David’s refers to the whisper network forming around the piano teacher as a “witch hunt”—a phrase that partly alludes, via Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, to the McCarthyist purgings of the ’50s, which torpedoed the careers of many artists in Hollywood and has become a common rallying cry from the political middle and the right about the chaos that engulfed the entertainment industry in late 2017 and most of 2018. Meanwhile, the possibility of sexual malfeasance involving children recalls the Satanic Panic of the late ’80s and early ’90s—another common refrain by anti-#MeToo protesters. After hearing some gossip, Katherine wonders whether David’s anonymous accuser is a fellow mom acting on a grudge she holds for a catty but fleeting comment from the piano teacher about her decorating choices. Based on these examples, it’s easy to admonish, as Alex recalls his father doing, “You listened to the mob instead of thinking for yourself.”
But if “Bright and High Circle” is indeed meant to comment on Hollywood’s reckoning with #MeToo, it takes a few too many artistic liberties to serve as a truly illuminating analogy. David is under the constant threat of homophobia, but in real life, it’s the largely female accusers who are institutionally disadvantaged, and thus have just as much, if not more, to lose as the accused. (Just ask Christine Blasey Ford, who hasn’t been able to return to work or her home since her Senate testimony against now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.) That asymmetry of power against the accusers isn’t acknowledged in The Romanoffs. David’s sexuality and class also stack the viewer’s sympathy in his favor; unlike most of the Hollywood targets of #MeToo, his existence is more vulnerable than those who would jeopardize his vocation. The episode seems to ask, Would such (theoretically) baseless accusations be OK if the alleged wrongdoer was someone without the privileges of wealth and heterosexuality? That question largely isn’t applicable to the cases in #MeToo, and it implies that it’s those privileges that have placed targets on the accused, rather than their own behavior, or at the very least denied them their due sympathy. No wonder the episode feels so full of rancor and self-pity.
David isn’t a saint; he tells white lies to make himself seem more glamorous, and thus desirable to have around, to the wealthy women upon whose good graces he’s financially dependent. But “Bright and High Circle” feels closer to a PR strategy than art, because the framing of the debate between the competing desires of the accused and the accuser is so distorted, even disingenuous. His accusers are secure in their place in the world, but for real-life accusers, no matter how apparently wealthy or powerful, we’ve seen too many times that there are no such protections.
The Hollywood blacklist of the ’50s gave rise to a slew of cinematic parables decrying Joseph McCarthy’s unwarranted persecution, including High Noon, Inherit the Wind, and the aforementioned The Crucible. It remains to be seen whether the artists, writers, and comics attempting to come back from #MeToo—and there certainly seems to be an appetite for their returns—will have the self-awareness, and perhaps the introspection, to make any artistically significant work about their experiences. So far, the answer is no.