Famine. The people of Moscow are dying like flies. Tsar Boris knows perfectly well that the boyars are hoarding grain. A little Marxist education: Medieval Russia was an oligarchy, in which the main landowners ran the government. Technically the Tsar (who is the biggest landowner of all) is supposed to offset the power of the boyars by serving as a type of Ombudsman for the regular people. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the power to arrest the grain-hoarding aristocrats; just hisses and mutters ineffectual warnings and alludes to “God’s judgement” at some point in the future. He points his finger at Romanov and Mstislavsky, hisses “You murdered these people.” Meaning the ever piling-up corpses. Boris climbs to the top of the bell tower and prays to God for some relief from all these trials and tribulations.
A group of Danish tourists is travelling through the forest on their way to Moscow for the opening of the FIFA World Cup. Oh wait, they’re not tourists, and football hasn’t been invented yet!
This is the delegation bringing Xenia’s bridegroom to Moscow. Recall in the last ep how Mama Godunova took Xen to see the sorceress to divine her future hubby? That was all just a sham, Xen’s parents already had her hubby lined up. Along with Prince Charming we meet Ileika (Ilya), one of the leading characters in the series. This young boyar has been away from Moscow for many years now, studying in Denmark. Now fluent in both Russian and Danish, Ilya got himself a job as the Prince’s interpreter. He tells the Prince how wonderful and beautiful Xenia is (he once caught a glimpse of her); the Prince smiles: “You sound like you are in love with her yourself!”
Speak of the devil, through seamless editing, Xenia is busy praying in the church, when she unexpectedly runs into Grigory the monk, aka Grisha Otrepiev, the future Pretender. Actually, Xenia is having a secret rendezvous with Sofia, that’s why the two girls are acting so sneaky. Grisha is doing his choir practice thing again with the little boy sopranos, but when he spots Xenia he goes on the hunt. Grisha hurls himself to the floor and grovels at the girl’s feet; but then starts to crawl towards her in a menacing fashion. Xenia is properly appalled by his ugliness and sexually harassing behavior. She tries to buy her way out of this awkward situation by tossing him a coin, like a bone to a dog. Grisha is offended, but still takes the coin. For the rest of the series he will wear it around his neck, like a talisman.
Next we are back in the Shuisky greenhouse. Shuisky and Mstislavsky are tending to some interesting bonsai plants while uninterruptedly plotting against Tsar Boris. Mstislavsky first raises the issue of the “Dmitry is still alive” meme, and all the rumors swirling around Moscow. They both know this is B.S., but it sounds like a promising conspiracy to latch onto.
But first, in this deadly Game of Thrones, they must do away with competitor Fyodor Romanov. Recall that, in Season 1, Romanov was finally able to marry his beloved Xenia (not to be confused with Godunov’s daughter Xenia), and is now the proud father of a boy who, by all indications, will grow up to become Michael Romanov, founder of the new dynasty. When we first meet young Misha, he is playing “hide and seek” and waving a wooden sword, which he thrusts into his father’s groin. The first in a long line of frisky Romanov children! With the child safely put to bed, Fyodor and Xenia finally have a chance at conjugal sex together. The series writers pull out all stops to make this family adorable. Well, they and their two-headed eagle are after all the “ideological predecessors” of the current Russian Government – LOL!
Another happily married couple: Boris and Masha. But not quite as lovey-dovey. Masha, who is more in tune with the popular mood, has her own agenda: She is still trying to warn Boris about the boyar plots, and to hopefully turn him against Romanov. She has told him, numerous times, about Romanov’s supposed scheme (in reality he is being framed by Shuisky) to embezzle state-owned grain, hoard it in his own silos, and then give it out free to the hungry people. Masha is ticked that, up until now, Boris won’t listen to her. Boris and Romanov have been friends and comrades since their youth. Up until now…
But red-headed Masha finally gets her way. Tsar Boris, his patience at an end, organizes a confrontation with his old friend and comrade, Fyodor Romanov. Whom he accuses of betraying him; and of spreading pro-Dmitry propaganda among the addled masses. With the aid of Holy Fools, boyars and Street Performers, all playing from the Gene Sharp regime-change playbook, the masses are led to believe that the Tsarevich Dmitry is still alive, and will someday return to restore order. Not to mention, bring them FOOD. Boris accuses his old friend of seeking the crown. They get into a fight. Boris. who is rapidly becoming a caricature of Ivan Grozny, strikes Fyodor across the face with his staff. Fyodor parries with an upper-cut, then manages to get Boris into a half-nelson, Boris breaks free and manages a few blows with the staff, then Fyodor twists him into a full-Nelson; and then the court Musketeers intervene to break up the fight.
Fyodor Romanov, rightfully worried that the Tsar will get even with him by going after his boy, Misha, sends the lad away, far away, from Moscow. He enlists the Moscow Patriarch Varlaam (who is also Grisha’s boss) to intercede on his behalf. Varlaam comes to visit Boris, he implores him to do as Jesus says and “forgive thine enemies.” Boris agrees, but as soon as the Patriarch leaves, the Tsar whispers to his Consigliere: “As a man I must forgive. But as a ruler, I am obliged to punish.” The Consigliere smirks and slinks off. Message received.
Back in the monastery, Bishop Varlaam is grading Grisha’s term paper. Turns out Grisha has been reading forbidden books in the course of his research. When challenged, Grisha goes into full-on foaming anti-Boris rant. Varlaam has had just about enough of this nonsense. Monk security are brought in to arrest the troublemaker. With superhuman strength Grishka beats them up and escapes out the window, just like in Pushkin’s play! As he escapes, the future Pretender encounters his biological mom once again. She is apparently stalking him. “Yushenka! Yushenka!”
Fyodor Romanov and his wife are summoned to the Kremlin to learn their fate. There is good news and bad news. The Consigliere delivers the good news: The death penalty has been waived – yay! The bad news: Romanov has been convicted of “sorcery” and sentenced to a monastery. He will “get the haircut” and become a monk. So, they allow sorcerers to become monks now? I thought you had to actually study for the order, silly me… Meanwhile, Xenia, the wife, will also “get a haircut” and become a nun. But at a different monastery. (In Russia, they are still called monasteries, not convents.) Romanov goes into a rage and beats up a couple of guards, but they subdue him before he can get them into half-nelsons. They force him into the carriage while Xenia sobs like a banshee. The Consigliere bullies a woman from Romanov’s household staff. “Where is Mikhail Fyodorovich?” [the future Tsar]. “He vanished,” the woman replies dully. It is fairly clear at this point that a murderous Tsar Boris would have little Misha disappeared, if he could. But unbeknownst to him, he has bigger fish to fry…
The Black Death
The Danish convoy encounter carts full of dead, plaguey bodies. Masked men are burning the bodies right out int he open. They turn back hastily. The Prince is appalled: “What kind of people are these, who do not even bury their dead?” A little girl is crying, begging for food. Despite Ilya’s warning not to touch the ill child, Prince Hamlet climbs down from his horse and hands the kid a scrap of bread. Their fingers touch. By thus doing, Hamlet inadvertently becomes infected by the plague. Remember, people: Proper hand-washing is the key to good hygiene!
Back in the dungeon, Nechai has been pasted back onto the wall for his routine Torture-Therapy Session. Finally he is ready to confess and reveal where he has hidden the money that he (allegedly) stole from the Tsar’s treasury. He offers to lead the Interrogator to that exact location. The greedy Interrogator doesn’t want the other torturers, especially the dwarf, to get in on it. He cuts Nechai lose, along with the Skomorokh. Nechai leads them to a root cellar. The Clown goes in first, to make sure it isn’t a trap. When the guard isn’t watching, Nechai grabs his (=the guard’s) sword. Nechai is like a superhero. Tortured and weak as he is, he stabs the guard and strangles the Interrogator. Then releases the Clown, and they go running off into the forest to join the circus become forest bandits. In Russian the word for “forest bandits” is razboiniki, and they are very popular; you will encounter them in just about every Russian story, song, or poem.
But before they even get a chance to become razboiniki, the escaped duo encounter the Danish convoy. Ilya confronts them, then gives them a loaf of bread.
While relaxing at the river side, they chat. Nechai shares that he recently arrived in the forest from Moscow. Ilya shares that he is a native-born Russian, but recently resident in Denmark, hence the strange outfit. He points out Prince Charming, who has been chosen to marry Xenia Borisovna. At the name “Xenia” Nechai pricks up his ears. He asks Ilya if the latter is going to meet with the Tsarevena. Ilya replies in the affirmative.
Nechai shares that his girlfriend lives in the same dormitory with Xenia. He begs Ilya to carry a message to Sofia Fyodorovna, daughter of the Chief Architect in Moscow. The message: “I am alive and I will find you.”
Speaking of the devil: In the next scene we see Sofia crying in Xenia’s room as Xenia shares the news that Nechai has escaped. I was kind of wondering about that. When Boris and Masha threw the Musketeer under the bus, I wondered if Sofia would be arrested too, or at the very least expelled from the palace. Since she is sort of … at the center of whatever plot the slanderers accused Nechai of… But no… Sofia is still hanging out with the Tsar’s family. Despite the fact that she (allegedly) fornicated with a Musketeer and helped him steal money from the Tsar’s treasury (?)
Annoying kid brother Fyodor enters the room with news that the Danish delegation has arrived in Moscow. He is smugly proud that he was able to deliver the news of Xenia’s wedding ten seconds before their mom bursts in to announce it. Xenia is happy… sort of…
Boris and his son arrive in the throne room, the boyars grovel and pretend to respect them. A banquet table has been laid out with tons of delicious food. There is also a balalaika band to entertain. Ilya enters the room, escorting Prince Charming. With Ilya providing the simultaneous translation, Boris greets the foreign dignitary, and the latter greets him back in fluent Danish. Bishop Varlaam says grace, and they all chow down.
Upstairs in the women’s quarters, Masha entreats Xenia to peek down through the grate to get a look at her future hubby.
As the band plays on, Prince Hamlet lifts his goblet full of poison mead, and prepares a toast. Through the grate Xenia can only see the back of his head, but he looks nice enough. Mom: “He looks too skinny, they are all like that, well never mind, we will feed him well.”
And then suddenly – YOWSA! Xenia gets a glimpse of Ilya, the interpreter, standing near the door. Kid Brother Fyodor engages the handsome stranger with his favorite topic: Books and printing presses. What a nerd!
Xenia asks about the interesting stranger. She thinks he even looks familiar. Sofia comes to take a look as well. She recognizes her old childhood friend Ileika. [I can’t remember now, but I think there was a scene in Season 1 when Sofia is just a little girl and she finds a chum, that might be Ileika. Would have to go back and watch that ep again…]
Later that night:
Sofia rushes outside for a previously arranged rendezvous with her old chum, Ileika. They hug ecstatically. Don’t worry, they are just platonic friends — Sofia still loves Nechai, and Ilya will go on to be Xenia’s beloved (SPOILER ALERT). Lordy, Sofichka is a bold one: She was already accused of fornicating with Nechai, and now she risks being spotted with another handsome muzhik. Xenia watches jealously from the window, we can see that she is falling in love with Ilya. To the point where she resents his platonic relationship with Sofia.
Sofia dashes back into the dormitory and tells Xenia the good news that Ilya brought her: That Nechai is still alive. From this moment on we see the formation of the incipient Scooby gang, of the two sets of teenaged lovers: Xenia-Ilya and Sofia-Nechai. Their chat is broken up when Kid Brother comes dashing into the room with very bad news: Prince Charming has just keeled over and fallen into a coma. The German doctor already delivered the diagnosis: It’s the Black Death. The wedding is called off.
The episode ends with a final scene, in the forest, where Grisha is camping out with a group of superstitious peasants. They are bitching about the hideous situation in the country, and dissing Tsar Boris. Grishka shares with them the recent rumor that the “true Tsar”, Dmitry, is actually still alive. And goes on to recount the fake-news story, how Boris sent evil-doers to Uglich to murder the Tsarevich; but he was miraculously saved and whisked away “by an honorable man”. Grisha caps his story with the revelation that he himself is Dmitry! The peasants, superstitious as they might be, don’t believe him, they beat him up and drive him away.
Moral of the story: If Grisha is to sit on the throne, then he needs a more influential support base than just random peasants.
[to be continued]