Poor Boris is having another bad nightmare. In this one he re-encounters Ivan the Terrible in the hot tub. But the bathhouse is all cob-webby and everything is falling apart. Ivan looks like a zombie, with scabs all over his face. The ghost of Grozny mocks Boris with the news that his fake son will soon overthrow him and ascend the throne. Then Ivan offers him a horribly moldy and wormy apple to eat. Ugh! Boris wakes up gasping for air. Masha comforts the scared old ruler while simultaneously mocking him for his weakness.
The year is 1604, the narrator informs us. Polish mercenaries have invaded Holy Rus to bring down the Russian government and acquire more lands. Polish cavalrymen wear racks upon their back, upon which are mounted tall feathery wings. God’s avenging angels!
The Pretender’s army inexorably approaches Moscow. False Dmitry is studying Polish in his spare time, and learns how to pronounce “Dzień dobry, Pano Marino” – “Good afternoon, Lady Marina!” when Princess Marina arrives to visit with him in his tent. She is impatient to reach Moscow and be crowned as Empress. Grishka informs her that the Roman Pope has blessed their enterprise. The fortresses are falling to his army one at a time, without a shot being fired. She must be patient. But she is impatient.
When Marina turns to leave, Grishka grabs her, he reminds her that both Sigismund and her own father handed her over to him (=False Dmitry) as his prize for conquering Russia for them. A Russian (e.g., himself) has to sit on the throne, but if she plays her cards right, she can sit beside him. Marina disses him contemptuously: “Everybody know that you are an Imposter. But I can transform you into an actual King.” After this verbal foreplay the wicked duo enjoy a bout of rough sex.
In the next scene, Ilya and the Danish convoy are fleeing from forest bandits. The bandits are led by Nechai! The bandits shoot a couple of musketeers and wound Ilya, knocking him off his horse. It goes without saying that Nechai doesn’t know it’s Ilya, he would never hurt his chum (who was the best man at his secret wedding) if he knew it was him.
In the Kremlin apartment: Fyodor Godunov comes to chat with his sister. They have a serious conversation. Xenia is depressed about everything that is going on. She asks Fyodor why he wants to be the Tsar. He says he loves Russia and its people, he wants to be a good ruler and help them thrive. Fyodor mansplains to sis how she can do her part to save Russia. She can marry a European prince to ensure a strong peace. That’s all Xenia is now, just a Prize Uterus for sale.
In the bandit encampment, Ilya comes to. The Clown rushes to inform Robber Ataman Nechai. Ilya is not thrilled to see his friend living this criminal life style. The two men engage in a spirited political debate. Ilya is still loyal to Tsar Boris, whom Nechai despises. Turns out, Nechai has drunk the Kool-Aid, he actually believes that False Dmitry is Real Dmitry, haha. Ilya just shakes his head and rolls his eyes. Nechai justifies his banditry on the grounds that (sort of like Robin Hood) they are raiding the big estates and giving out grain to the hungry. Their longer goal is to meet up with Tsarevich Dmitry’s army and help him storm the Kremlin. Nechai invites Ilya to join their crusade, but the latter refuses. Nechai recommends that he (Ilya) return to Moscow on the sly and there await the arrival of the “legitimate” Tsar. Once Dmitry ascends the throne, he (Nechai) will put in a good word for his friend Ilya. He recommends that Ilya take good care of the Tsarevna Xenia. “But if you see my wife, Sofia, please don’t tell her I am a forest bandit. Just tell her I’m alive, and we’ll meet up soon.”
Okay, and here is an important plot point: This entire conversation between Nechai and Ilya was witnessed by a local landowner whom the bandits have captured and tied up while robbing his estate. When watching this scene, at first I thought this boyar was Vasily Shuisky, because their faces are somewhat similar and all the boyars have long shaggy hair and beards at this point (plus, my facial recognition skills are not among the best in the land). But no, it’s just some other boyar, whose name I don’t know, in a non-speaking role. Anyhow, remember this, because it comes into play later, and is also reminiscent of one of the main plot lines of Pushkin’s story “The Captain’s Daughter”; namely, that bit where the hero is falsely accused of consorting with bandits, on the eye-witness testimony of a captive who saw him conversing with some of Pugachev’s men.
Meanwhile, back in the Kremlin: Tsar Boris greets a defiant Maria Nagaya. The old man begs her to address the addled populace. She needs to tell the Russian people in very clear language that her only child Dmitry is dead as a doornail. Nagaya gives Boris the silent treatment. Maria Godunova enters the room, and a terrific catfight breaks out between the two Mashas. While Boris screams at the top of his voice “FOR THE THOUSANDTH TIME, I DID NOT KILL YOUR BOY!” Masha Godunova grabs a candlestick and threatens to burn Nagaya. This scene is more riveting and only slightly less violent than an episode of Desperate Housewives!
In the next scene, False Dmitry greets his new razboiniki recruits, led by Ataman Nechai. “We came here from Moscow to serve you loyally, Your Highness.” The Pretender jumps up onto his soap box and gives a little speech. He accepts their fealty and promises the robbers, that whatever booty they might acquire in the course of battle, is theirs to keep. Hoorah! The bandits are super-excited.
Sofia Fyodorovna is shopping in the local outdoor marketplace. Suddenly Ilya appears right in front of her. What with everything going on, he never returned to Denmark, like he was supposed to. Instead he snuck back to Moscow, knowing vaguely that he will be needed there to help protect Xenia during this Time of Troubles. True to his promise to Nechai, he doesn’t tell her that her hubby is a forest bandit. “Nechai is alive and well. Well-fed and happy.” “Happy?” That doesn’t go down well. “I meant to say, he is miserable without you.” Sofia agrees to set up a rendezvous between Ilya and Xenia. Slowly but surely, the Scooby gang is coming back together.
Ilya Framed For Treason
The Russian Deep State (Shuisky, Mstislavsky, and that other boyar who doesn’t have many lines) are plotting and scheming, as usual, while they await the arrival of the Pretender’s army. The big question on their minds: Whose side will Romanov take? Shuisky assures them that Romanov will come over to their side, when the times comes.
Ilya appears before Tsar Boris, with his glib explanation why he never made it back to Denmark. “We were attacked by forest robbers… The robbers stole every damned thing we had.” Boris, now with a palsied hand, accuses Ilya of treason and helping the Pretender. Ilya denies that allegation: “Sire, I am no traitor!” But Boris has an eye witness on tap: The local landowner who doesn’t have any lines and resembles Shuisky. The man walks in, eyes Ilya, and nods his affirmation that, yes, this is the man who was seen consorting with the Pretender’s razboiniki. “Why did he let you go?” Boris demands. “I convinced him to let me go,” Ilya responds lamely.
“And yet these bandits have murdered so many good peoples on the highways… Why did he spare you?” Boris keeps drumming on. With nothing left to lose, Ilya tells the truth: That he and Nechai used to be comrades, that’s why he was spared. That was the wrong thing to say, you should never utter the word “comrade” in front of the Tsar, it smacks too much of Bolshevism. Boris screams in a rage: “Take him away!”
The guards drag him away, and now it’s Ilya’s turn to be hideously tortured by Godunov’s henchpersons, including the sadistic dwarf.
Boris himself enters the torture chamber to confront his prisoner. The Tsar is still just hissing on about “treason, traitors, treason, traitors…” and Ilya blurts out that he is in love with Xenia. He loves her, and she loves him back. Boris is not impressed. Russia is still 200 years away from the “Romantic” age.
Next we are back in the men’s monastery with Fyodor Romanov. Apparently he has passed his “Anger Management” course with flying colors, and the Bishop let him back in to his old room. He even has a new monk name now: Filaret. A guest arrives: his old Oprichnik comrade Vasily Shuisky. Shuisky brings him a letter written by his boy, Misha (=the future Tsar), in block letters. Romanov is touched by his child’s academic progress, but the conversation soon turns to politics. Boris needs to be replaced. By the Pretender. Romanov/Filaret can’t believe that Shuisky actually kissed the cross for that rogue, False Dmitry. With a strong right hook he punches Shuisky right in the face. So much for that Anger Management certificate – tear it down from the wall!
Back in the Kremlin, Boris is a limping time bomb. The German Doctor delivers the bad news: The Tsar’s health is in shambles; everything is failing: joints, liver, kidneys, he has Lou Gehrig’s Disease; the works. The slow poisoning engineered by the boyars is not helping either.
The Tsar’s Consigliere (whose name I just learned is “Stepan”, I probably should have known that before) reports that they have intercepted letters from the Pretender. False Dmitry has the support of the boyars and the people. It’s not too late for Boris to flee from Moscow. Boris is a stubborn old fool and refuses to budge. Masha Godunova catches up with Stepan in the corridor. Then she starts coming on to him and stroking his face. All these years he served the Tsar loyally, asking nothing in return. He has no wife, no children of his own, she mocks him. Masha’s behavior is very unprofessional and borders on sexual harassment of her employee. Then she asks the befuddled Consigliere to undertake a secret-agent spy mission for her, to the Pretender’s camp. He is to infiltrate the camp, posing as a blind beggar, and assassinate False Dmitry!
Back in the kitchen, Xenia and Sofia are brewing up some herbal medicines (that were given to them by the German doctor) for Papa. Suddenly Sofia gets nauseous and rushes out to barf. The German doctor enters the kitchen and shares with Xenia what he overheard when treating her dad; namely about the recent prisoner named Ilya who confessed, under torture, that Xenia loved him. Xenia rushes out of the kitchen, extremely upset. Sofia re-enters and tells the doctor about her symptoms. His diagnosis: She is pregnant. (Which is okay, because she was married in a church, albeit it was a secret wedding.)
Xenia angrily confronts Dad, pleading for her boyfriend’s life, now that she just found out he is downstairs in the Kremlin torture chamber. “He’s a traitor,” Papa insists. “No, he’s not!” she retorts.
Boris loses his temper and strikes out at his daughter. Xenia falls backward and almost hits her head, but Boris catches her and cradles her in his arms. This is a rather effective scene, in which the set designers deliberately imitated the famous Repin painting of Ivan the Terrible; except this time with his daughter instead of son; and this time he stopped short of killing her. Overcome with remorse that he came this close to killing his favorite child, not to mention morphing into Ivan Grozny, Boris agrees to release her boyfriend from the dungeon. Supposedly.
In the next scene, Xenia visits Ilya in the dungeon, he is in pretty bad shape after all the whippings. But suddenly he is free, they are back upstairs, all is well, they are kissing and smooching like crazy. Oh no, that was just a fantasy sequence — he’s still in the dungeon, trembling from fever and pain. But Xenia is with him, hugging him close, and this totally doesn’t make any sense, because didn’t Boris just promise his daughter he would let Ilya go (?)
In False Dmitry’s camp, the Skomorokh is entertaining the mercenaries with his brilliant rooster imitation. False Dmitry is very amused, until he suddenly spots a familiar face in the crowd: It’s the Tsar’s Consigliere in disguise! Nechai seizes the suspect and drags him into the Pretender’s tent. Stepan the Consigliere pretends to be blind, but they soon catch him out on that ruse. The two men recognize each other: Grisha knows Stepan from the Kremlin; and Stepan knows Grisha as the guy who used to take minutes at the Council meetings.
Grisha orders Nechai to leave them alone; which is a mistake. Stepan, even with his hands tied behind his back, sees his opportunity and ambushes Grisha, kicking him down and stomping on his neck. Grisha fights back and stabs him numerous times with his knife. The Consigliere falls down dead. RIP. The Pretender emerges from the tent, all shaken up. He hears a child singing and recognizes the voice: It’s the choirboy whom he used to tutor; and who sung at the funeral of Pronka’s baby. Warning: This is an extremely disturbing plot line. False Dmitry realizes that this boy, now apparently resident in the Pretender camp, is still one more person from his past; who could recognize him and identify him as the former monk Grisha Otrepiev. The Jesuit priest warns Grisha: “This boy could recognize you. He must not see you.” Grisha: “Then make it so he will not see me.”
Back in the Kremlin: At the Tsar’s meeting with his Boyar Council, there is bad news after bad news: All the fortresses are falling, one by one, to the Pretender, without even a shot being fired. Only Novgorod still stands, proud and tall. [Maybe, just speculating here, ’cause Novgorod still remembers what Ivan Grozny did to it, and refuses to be enthralled by Ivan’s bratty Pretender-child.] Sneaky Snake Mstislavsky delivers the final crushing blow: The Tsar’s loyal Consigliere, Stepan, has crossed over to the side of the Pretender. (That’s a blatant lie, but Boris believes it.) Boris throws a fit and foams at the mouth. Later his family gather at his bedside, along with the German doctor, and also Bishop Varlaam, probably to deliver last rites.
The German doctor visits Shuisky’s at his greenhouse to stock up on more herbs. All these years Shuisky has been slowly poisoning the Tsar, but now it’s time to up his game with a faster poison. Shuisky exerts mind-control over the Doc, tells him that his (the Doc’s) wife has been arrested as a witch and accused of poisoning the Tsar. The Tsar personally ordered her to be tortured. The only way to save her is to kill Boris! With a little homemade herbal concoction, heh heh… Take these grasses to the Kremlin, please…
In the next scene, Boris is gulping down his yummy goblet of poison medicine, as delivered to him by the German doctor, right to his bedside! That’s concierge service for you. A dying Boris blesses his beloved children. He tells his wife how much he loves her. He has always loved her since Day #1. It’s a very sad scene. Boris then gets up, gets dressed, and climbs the bell tower to pray one last time. Before he even gets to the top, the poison starts working on him. He claws his way to the top of the bell tower, prays to God to watch over his children, sets the bell ringing, and then keels over and drops dead.
And thus, with the series not even halfway done, we have lost our titular hero!
[to be continued]