Imagine, if you will, a version of the fall of the Romanovs that combines the soft-core sex of late-night 1990s Cinemax with the talking heads of the History Channel. “Why would anyone ever imagine that?” you might ask. Well, that’s a good question, one I frequently found myself pondering while watching The Last Czars on Netflix. Weirdly, though, I wasn’t entirely mad at it.
The Last Czars is neither a straightforward historical drama nor a traditional documentary with experts, archival footage, and maybe some light reenactment here and there. No, it’s a docu-drama, with both those things thrown into a blender, resulting in a moderately lavish period drama heavily interlaced with expert interviews. As Deadline explained in initial coverage, it was commissioned by the company’s non-scripted series division, as opposed to the higher-end Netflix Originals stuff, not that you can really tell in the final presentation. And while the show is surprisingly engrossing, there are a few lumps in the resulting mixture; the effect is occasionally whiplash-inducing. Largely because of all the sex.
The series first came to my serious attention when my colleague, Jezebel video producer Jennifer Perry, asked whether I had watched and informed me, “I cannot get over the knockoff Gerard Butler playing Rasputin.” This was my first indication that, while it really does look very good, The Last Czar is not a version of The Crown dedicated to the last days of Tsar Nicholas II.
There is a startling amount of on-screen sex in this show. I counted seven fairly explicit sex scenes, four of them featuring Rasputin. (The others feature Nicholas and Alexandra.) This might seem unremarkable in the age of Game of Thrones, but that was across the four episodes before things really take a turn for the dynasty. So it really comes across as: The History Channel Presents: Russia Fucks.
In one sense, this is appropriate, since reproduction is critical to the entire project of monarchy, and also Rasputin’s weird sexual magnetism is an important part of the story of the fall of the Romanovs. The idea that he might be in a sexual relationship with the tsarina was integral to the way the moment spun out of the Romanovs’ control. But there’s just no getting around the whiplash of watching Rasputin drunkenly cavort with a trio of bare-breasted women, then cutting to historians. At one point, you see Nicholas pounding Alix into the lushly carpeted floor of his office. She urges him to stay inside her for as long as possible to ensure they have a boy, and then bam—historian. My favorite instance is their depiction of a wild night out by Rasputin, when he gets drunk and brags about his close relationship with the tsarina. I watch a saucy barmaid help him piss into a pot, and then cut to popular history author Simon Sebag Montefiore recounting, “Rasputin got blind drunk, pulled down his britches, and pulled out his penis,” which of course I’d just seen in all too much detail.
I wish I had kept track of the number of times somebody said some variation of the word “fuck.”
I wish I had kept track of the number of times somebody said some variation of the word “fuck.” Fuck this, fuck that—even Alexandra gets in the game. This is late in the series, when she has gotten heavily into drugs. At one point, as the workers are massing outside to storm the Winter Palace, she does a bump of some powdery substance off her hand. The effect is frankly Scarface. Nor do they miss any available opportunities for gore: When the hardliner Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich is assassinated, his wife picks his hand up out of the wreckage. Suddenly, in addition to all the breasts, we’ve got Ken Burns by way of Vincent Price.
Best of all is Rasputin, who is—as I was promised—a knockoff Gerard Butler. At one point, there’s a showdown between Rasputin and a couple of leaders of the Greek Orthodox Church. And he informs them: “You need to start treating me with some fuckin’ respect,” sounding for all the world like he is about to glass someone in a pub, and then punches a guy. I expected him to rip off his shirt and shout, “THIS IS SPARTA!!!”
Ironically, the fact that the show looks so high-end hurts them. It really does look like a serious costume drama and is at least mid-tier Masterpiece level quality. But that makes mistakes and clunky moments more glaring, in a way they wouldn’t be if the show were more casually NatGeo educational. For instance, as the Guardian reported, they’ve got a shot of Red Square in 1905, prominently featuring Lenin’s Tomb. (Obviously, Lenin had a lot more time left on the clock in 1905.) At times, the dialogue is so obvious, it might as well be in 32-point type. In the opening scene, a character announces he took a job with “The Romanovs… Russia’s royal family.” Another early scene has an advisor urging Nicholas: “God chose you—divine BLOODY right,” just in case anyone missed that the Romanovs were the last great autocratic monarchy.
All of that having been said, I enjoyed it! It was entertaining in much the same way as the camp Turkish soap opera Magnificent Century, about the great Ottoman Suleiman the Magnificent. It’s random enough to be entertaining; it’s not offensively wrong like the Trotsky series Netflix licensed from Russia, which comes across as a bald-faced attempt to rehabilitate Stalin. It hits a sweet spot familiar to anyone who got drawn into the History Channel late at night as a tween.
What’s perhaps most amazing about Netflix is how it has gradually become, essentially, your entire old basic cable package rolled into one. You scroll endlessly, listlessly, looking for something to watch. You don’t feel like getting into Stranger Things right this minute; everything else is reruns. Sure, you’ll watch a six-episode semi-scripted miniseries about the fall of the Romanovs featuring an inexplicable amount of explicit sex. Why not, right? They might want to edit out Lenin’s tomb, though.
The Last Czars is currently streaming on Netflix.