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TV Series Review

Russia’s Romanov dynasty has been gone for more than a century now. Its members have long since been dead and buried, then dug up and, perhaps soon, reburied. But you can understand the fascination with Russia’s star-crossed first family. The story of Nicholas II; his prickly German queen, Alexandra; their five children; and, of course, the mysterious and scandalous Grigori Rasputin is one of both tragedy and farce and laced with power, wealth, sex and intrigue.

No wonder the folks at Netflix were attracted to the tawdry tale. Too bad they botched it so badly.

From Russia, With Shove

This Netflix show is a curious hybrid of drama and documentary—about an 80-20 split, respectively, according to actress Susanna Herbert (who plays the Czarina Alexandra).

The opulent show grabs viewers by the collar and pulls them headlong into the equally opulent world of the Romanovs, an existence draped in diamonds and lived lushly in a litany of palaces.Then whenever it feels the urge, the show snaps its metaphorical fingers and brings us back to reality, where we hear a variety of authors and historians discuss the era's real history. (Or, at least, a kinda-sorta approximation thereof.)

In the broadest of historical brushstrokes, The Last Czars accurately introduces us to all of the right players. There’s Nicholas II, the all-powerful Russian monarch who isn't quite ready for the throne and who's torn between embracing unflinching autocracy and following his own, more moderate instincts. His wife, Alexandra, is a devoted wife and mother; but she's about as popular with the Russian people as New Coke was in the '80s. Then there’s Rasputin, a reputed man of God with (some say) the eerie power to heal. But he also believes that to be redeemed you have to sin. A lot. And so he does.

These three characters, along with a pressure cooker of political and social turmoil, send Russia on the road to economic ruin and, ultimately, Bolshevik-style communism. And that narrative sends all of our main characters to early graves.

It’s the stuff of prime-time soap operas, really. Which makes you wonder why Netflix felt the need to take this already stranger-than-fiction stew and dump a bunch of extra lard in it.

The Winter Fallacies

The problems with the show begin with its loose adhesion to historical details. A rather innocuous example: When Netflix gives us a shot of Moscow from 1905, the streaming network fails to edit Lenin’s tomb out of the shot. (Vladimir Lenin, as you probably know, is still alive and well in 1905. His tomb isn't completed for another 25 years.)

It’s not the most egregious error in the world, but it is a sign of things to come. And that mistake does remind us that, for all the educated talking heads The Last Czars serves up, Netflix doesn’t care so much about educating its audiences as trying to give them a cross between The Crown and Game of Thrones (minus the dragons, naturally). Fittingly—at least in comparison to the latter show—that means offering up a whole bunch of graphic, gratuitous nudity.

Despite taking place in such a cold climate, characters in The Last Czars will seize any excuse to take off their clothes and parade around in front of the camera. Often, such scenes have only the (ahem) barest connection with the narrative. The Romanovs weren’t enough of a draw, Netflix seems to believe. But naked Romanovs? Now there’s a winner.

Then there’s the language. The f-word and s-word are used with some frequency, despite the fact that most of their users are A) described as deeply religious, and B) members of the Russian aristocracy at a time when such language wouldn’t have been in the aristocracy’s lexicon. Perhaps this looseness with language is to be expected, given that none of the characters even bothers to feign a Russian accent or to speak in a way that feels more appropriate to the age.

Moreover, even though the experts make a big point of how important religion was in monarchist Russia—and how that faith contributed to the monarchy’s downfall, actually—the dramatic portion of The Last Czars seems to ignore it when possible or leverage it when it can for prurience. The opening episode, for instance, connects Rasputin explicitly with a wild, discredited “Christian” sect known as the Whips, and then ushers us into a lengthy orgy scene. History finds no such explicit connection, however, and Rasputin’s own daughter says that her father rejected the sect.

I have to admit, I’m a history geek who has always found Russia pretty fascinating. I wanted to like The Last Czars. Alas, the show fails—historically, narratively and morally. Like Nicholas II, it falls flat on its face. But, arguably unlike Nicholas II, it only has itself to blame.

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Episode Reviews

July 3, 2019: "The Chosen One"



Readability Age Range





Robert Jack as Nicky; Susanna Herbert as Alix; Ben Cartwright as Rasputin; Oliver Dimsdale as Pierre; Bernice Stegers as Minnie; Steffan Boje as Dr. Schmidt; Indre Patkauskaite as Ana Anderson






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On Video

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Paul Asay

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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