As the series opens, we meet an older, crueler, and greyer Boris Godunov. Gone is the idealistic Oprichnik of the first few episodes of Season 1. Heavy lies the crown on the head that… etc. Nonetheless, as the Narrator reminds us, the first few years of Godunov’s reign were good: Like a proto-Peter the Great, he opened a window to Europe, sent the sons of noblemen to study in Europe, implemented economic reforms. The Russian state got wealthy raking in the tax revenues.
And then Mother Nature ruined everything: With endless rains, then drought, poor harvests, and then a famine. The Tsar opens up the state granaries to feed the hungry; but the peasants are not impressed. A snow storm in the middle of May — something apparently never witnessed before in all the 1,000 year history of Russia! — gets the superstitious village idiots mumbling about “God’s punishment” upon Tsar Boriska. Incompetent Russian peasants, indeed, who are incapable of handling a few snowflakes without wailing in panic and crossing themselves a million times. If you didn’t know better, you would think they were living in Atlanta, Georgia and not Moscovy!
Dream sequence: Tsar Boris is walking barefoot and just wearing his nightie, through the snow. A shrine falls down. Spooky! He looks down at his feet, there is blood. Are we about to learn that, all this time, the Tsar has been a young tranny girl in disguise and now getting her first period? Boris looks up to the heavens and screams a silent scream. Then wakes up in his own bed – whew, it was just a scary nightmare! His wife Masha comforts him and rubs ointment on his gouty disgusting feet as he tells her the content of his dream. Then the conversation switches, and they talk about their daughter Xenia, how she has matured and ripened, and they need to find her a husband, preferably among the princely tribe of Western Europe.
Speaking of which… In the upstairs maidens quarters, Xenia and her close friend Sofia are playing the “divining game” whereby they hope to catch a glimpse (in a bowl of water) of Xenia’s future hubby. (This gag is repeated in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, in the scene where Natasha and Sonya try to see their future hubbies in a mirror.) Sofia, if you recall, is the now fully-grown blonde child we met in Season 1, the daughter of the architect who was brought in to rebuild the Kremlin. In her formative years Xenia has taken Sofia into the Tsar’s household as a chum and sort of lady-in-waiting, thus raising her social status. This is an important plot point, as we shall see.
When she gazes long enough into the bowl, Xenia does indeed get a fleeting glimpse of her beloved: We will meet him later, his name is Ileika (or Ilya). Ilya is a Russian nobleman of good blood, but not quite up to the standards that Boris and Masha have set for their daughter. Or even for the more plebeian Sofia, as we shall also see.
Sofia looks out the window and sees a stranger lurking there. This is our first glimpse of the monk Grisha Otrepiev, the future Pretender. Apparently Grisha has a thing for Xenia and has staked out her quarters. A couple of musketeers spot the stalker in the courtyard and try to arrest him; but he runs away with great speed. We are already learning something important about Grisha: He is fast, and he is nimble!
In the next scene, we meet a troop of street performers. In Russian they are called скоморохи (skomo-rokhi). The preferred etymology derives the word from the Greek σκῶμμα (skomma) meaning “joke”. The word actually goes back even farther, to ancient Indo-European *sko-mors-os, and is also seen, with some consonantal transposition, in the Italian scaramuccia, Freddie Mercury’s most-feared Scaramouche! These Russian jokesters will do anything to entertain: They sing, they dance, they perform magic tricks, they do stand-up comedy, tumbling and acobatics, they are like the Cirque du Soleil and also the medieval equivalent of Pussy Riot: They travel around the cities and countryside performing skits and making fun of the Tsar. And, just like Pussy Riot, one of their skits lands them in trouble: As they act out the murder and resurrection of Tsarevich Dmitry.
The Two Musketeers continue to chase Grisha, past the Skomorokh performance and through downtown Moscow; but the lad gets away from them. Musketeer #1 is Nechai, and we will soon come to learn that he is Sofia’s boyfriend. Which halfway explains his rage at seeing Grisha in the courtyard; he might have mistakenly thought that Grisha was stalking Sofia instead of Xenia. Musketeer #2 is Nechai’s sidekick, Pronka, who also plays an important role in the plot development.
After escaping from the Musketeers, Grisha makes it back to his monastery where he is studying under his Thesis Advisor, Monk Pimen the Chronicler. Grisha already has an idea for the topic of his dissertation…
In the next scene we meet Fyodor Romanov (again; he was also a main character in Season 1). He meets with the Tsar in the throne room and tries to buck him up; because Boris is so depressed about the current situation in the kingdom. All the other boyars are plotting against Boris; Romanov is the only one he trusts now.
The Skomorokhi again, acting out the murder and resurrection of Tsarevich Dmitry in their street performance. The village idiots are lapping it up; one particularly idiotic woman starts intoning, “Tsar Dmitry … is still alive!” In the field of “social engineering”, the ideological ground is being prepared for a series of shocks. As the crowd starts to riot, the Musketeers intervene and arrest the likable young man who portrayed Dmitry in the skit.
The Treachery Of The Boyars
The Tsar has convened the Council to discuss the current crisis. Everybody is there, all the Tsar’s enemies — Shuisky, Romanov, Mstislavsky — and even including Future Pretender Grisha Otrepiev, who takes the minutes, using quill-pen technology.
Romanov chides the other boyars for hoarding grain and predicts popular unrest (Smuta) unless something is done quickly. Boris puts on his stern face and lectures the boyars, in his best Ivan Grozny imitation: “There will be no mercy for any of youse…”
Out in the courtyard, Nechai and Pronka are drinking watered-down mead purchased from a local vendor. Nechai shares that his girlfriend is Sofia (Xenia’s best friend). They are childhood sweethearts and always were set to marry each other when they grew up. Problem: When Sofia was taken into the Tsar’s household as Xenia’s bestie, she became, sort of, unavailable to him. They are turning this formerly plebeian girl into a fine lady, a doll in a doll’s house. Pronka reminds his pal that he is a simple musketeer (strelets) and should not get notions above his head.
We learn that Pronka has ulterior motives. As always, it’s all about Office Politics. Nechai is set to be promoted to Decurion, but Pronka (more exactly, Pronka’s wife) wants the job for himself.
When we meet the Pronka’s wife and baby in their simple farmhouse in suburban Moscow, the wife turns out to be that same village idiot who has been sowing popular dissent about the snowflakes and going on about Tsarevich Dmitry. She is Trouble, with a capital T.
Next, we meet the rest of the Tsar’s family, as they gather to marvel at the spectacle of a live parrot in a cage. Xenia’s younger brother Fyodor is the rational member of the family, healthy in both mind and body: a fine strapping teenage boy who is interested in studying foreign languages and opening a window to Europe. Fyodor hopes to bring Russia out of the Dark Ages via Education and Enlightenment. Too bad he never became Tsar, he would have been a nicer and less neurotic version of Peter the Great.
Meanwhile, at the Shuisky Estate, we see a greenhouse full of bonsai plants and various other interesting botanicals. Shuisky tends to his plants while he and Mstislavsky plot against Boris. I never could figure out exactly what these scenes in the greenhouse are supposed to imply — that the boyars are poisoning Boris (?)
While this is going on, a different type of betrayal: Sneaky Snake Pronka has penned a denouncement of his friend Nechai. Accusing Nechai of a horrific crime: Wooing the Tsarevna’s chambermaid in order to get close to the Tsar’s treasury. Pronka’s hope, in ruining Nechai, is that he will get the Decurion job and thus bring home more money to his starving family. The Tsar’s “Denunciation Mailbox” is an earlier and more mobile version of Ukraine’s current Mirotvorec website. After just a moment’s hesitation, Pronka drops his denunciation into the box.
Nechai is back at the local market, buying a scarf for his beloved. He encounters Pronka, who is about to steal an egg from a local farmer. (People: Always buy your produce local, whenever possible.) Nechai tells Pronka the good news: Sofia has agreed to marry him, and he wants Pronka to be his best man at the wedding. Consumed with guilt (as well he should be), Pronka rushes off to retrieve his denunciation, but it’s too late: The box has already been delivered up to the Tsar’s office in the Kremlin.
The Tsar’s Consigliere reads out the Daily Denunciations and legal complaints while the Tsar plays chess against himself. [That’s how the Russian medieval judicial system actually worked: People just wrote complaints about each other to the officials. And if you were unlucky enough to be the object of a complaint, you’d probably be arrested and tortured while the investigation was still ongoing, and long before you ever got a chance to defend yourself in court. Not unlike the current American legal system!] When he gets to Pronka’s denunciation of Nechai, Boris is not all that impressed. It’s just girly stuff, after all. The conversation turns to a more serious matter: The rumor that Tsarevich Dmitry is still alive. Consigliere reports on the timely arrest of the treasonous Smomorokh who portrays Dmitry Ivanovich in a skit that is wowing the rubes.
Last item in the box: A denunciation against Fyodor Romanov. The father of the future Tsar is accused of plotting against the current Tsar, natch. But Boris doesn’t want to believe that. Yet. He burns the anti-Romanov denunciation in his candle.
In the next scene we meet Sofia’s father again, the Kremlin architect. He is admitting the per diem workers for their daily assignments. Daughter Sofia shows up to plead her case: Papa, please give your blessing and allow me to marry Nechai the Musketeer. Papa agrees. Nechai steps forward and is about to greet his future father-in-law, when catastrophe strikes: Other Musketeers rush at him and arrest him, right there in front of Sofia. They beat him up and take him away, while Sofia sobs helplessly in her father’s arms.
Nechai is unceremoniously tossed into the dungeon, and, as we see later, horribly tortured. For some reason this harsh treatment embitters him and eventually turns him against Tsar Boris, to whom he was previously a loyal subject. See, folks, that’s what happens when you mistreat your employees. We will see, in future episodes, that Nechai has the most complicated story arc of all the characters, excepting only Grisha Otrepiev. He will be (SPOILER ALERT!) a Musketeer, a Forest Bandit, a Henchperson of False Dmitry, and eventually back to being a regular Russian soldier. Not sure if he ever did get that Decurion job that he was bucking for.
In the next scene there is a nice brother and sister moment between Xenia and Fyodor. A gender-based division of labor: Xenia embroiders while Fyodor reads Giles Fletcher’s latest bestseller, about how evil the Russians are. Fyodor is unhappy with all the propaganda and fake news. He promises, that when he becomes Tsar, he will make sure that all books print only true facts. Conspiracy theorists claim that is the reason (SPOILER ALERT!) why he was assassinated at such a young age.
Sofia comes dashing into the room with the horrible news that her boyfriend Nechai has been arrested. Xenia promises to intervene on his behalf, and goes to talk to the Tsar. She almost succeeds in buttering Papa up until Evil Mama Skuratova enters the room and shuts her up, even threatening to drag her daughter by the hair.
24 hours earlier: Sofia is having a flashback about that day (yesterday) when she was smooching with Nechai in the woods. He was bragging about his future promotion and said it was time to send the matchmaker. That’s when she told him she would go to her father herself, like her own matchmaker. Well, we all know how that turned out… Xenia returns with the bad news that Papa won’t budge.
In the next scene, Nechai is being tortured in the dungeon. They have him strung up on chains, and the dwarf is preparing the hot poker. The Chief Interrogator picks his nose while reading out the charges, and manages to extract a particularly large booger. He threatens to go after Sofia herself if Nechai won’t confess and tell them where they have (allegedly) hidden the treasure they stole from the Tsar’s family. Sheesh, these charges and accusations are escalating every time…
Nechai is whipped like a dog and tossed in the same cell with the Skomorokh. They become friends.
Maria Godunova puts her daughter in the carriage and takes her to the local sorceress for another “divining” ceremony to get a vision of her future hubby. Who will be a Danish Prince, of course. Probably a chubby guy named Hamlet. On the way the two women pass a “feeding station” where Fyodor Romanov’s people are giving out free grain and bread to the people. Making sure to advertise how great Romanov is, and what a cheapskate Boris is. Maria sees what game Romanov is playing; but the Consigliere tells her it’s hopeless to try to turn hubby against him. Many have tried…
In the cathedral, Grisha Otrepiev is giving singing lessons to the choirboys. A mysterious old woman approaches, calling him “Yushenka”. Turns out, she is his biological mother. Apparently he was “Yushenka” (the son of a simple Musketeer) before he became “Grisha” before he became “Dmitry”. Grisha is rude to his mom and tells her to go stuff herself.
Maria and Xenia arrive at the cottage of the sorceress. A scared Xenia goes in alone. The sorceress makes her pick up, Kung Fu style, a hot ember from the fire. The ember scorches her hand, but leaves a sooty image (supposedly of her fiancé) on her palm. As the episode ends, the sorceress predicts a heavy road ahead for the frightened young girl.
Conclusion: This first episode is rather good. It introduces (or re-introduces) all the main characters; and it launches, with fairly seamless editing, most of the major plotlines and story arcs.
[to be continued]