A grieving but determined Fyodor Borisovich Godunov ascends to the throne of his father. The teenager looks out at the same sea of two-faced boyar faces. Bishop Varlaam entreats him to be strong and depend on “these helpers” while Maria Godunova utters sarcastic comments under her breath. Shuisky and Mstislavsky utter hypocritical best wishes while smirking under their moustaches. An embittered Maria entreats her son to be cruel and harsh as a ruler.
No problem there: the heretofore likable Fyodor is already, out of the gate, showing signs of harshness. Xenia entreats her kid brother to release her boyfriend Ileika, who is still rotting in the dungeon despite Papa’s promise to free him (?) But Fyodor mansplains to her that he will not release anybody until the Russian judicial system, such as it is, has either run its course, or they run out of whips to beat the prisoners with. (But… but.. he is Tsar now, doesn’t he have the right to pardon unconditionally?) Xenia and her mom get into a hair-pulling fight, and Fyodor yells at the women-folk to get back to their confinement room and out of his hair. He’s trying to Tsar, sheesh… Well, Fedya, enjoy your power while you have it, it won’t be all that long, snark snark…
Meanwhile, back in the Pretender camp everybody is thrilled at the news of Boris Godunov’s death. Grisha’s Jesuit confessor says this is proof that God is on their side. (By that logic, God turns against everybody sooner or later.) The Jesuit tries to convince the Pretender to publicly convert to Catholicism; but the latter refuses, knowing the Russian people are not quite ready to put a Catholic on the throne. Grisha still nurtures the coin that Xenia once tossed to him and promises her ominously: “Soon we shall meet again, Ksusheshka! Very soon!”
Back in the women’s harem, Sofia bucks up a depressed Xenia: “You are the strongest woman I know.” Sofia reveals that she is pregnant, with Nechai’s baby. Very soon her bump will start to show, and she needs to be out of the Kremlin before then, since people will think she is an unwed mother. Hence, she will remove herself in search of Nechai. Xenia is happy for her friend, but still can’t shake herself out of her depression. Sofia sternly reminds her that she is the daughter of Boris Godunov and the granddaughter of Maliuta Skuratov. And they need to put the Scooby gang back together one last time, to rescue Ileika!
Enter the German doctor. He gets down and his knees and begs Xenia to free his wife and child, who (he thinks) are in the Kremlin dungeon. What an opportunity: Xenia and Sofia see a way to free Ileika as well. Xenia sneaks into the torture chamber in disguise. The dwarf tries to stop her, but is intimidated when he recognizes her. Sofia and the German doctor follow her closely into the dungeon. Xenia blackmails the dwarf, threatening to accuse him of touching her (an arrestable offense), unless he does exactly what she says. He complies and opens the lock. The trio search through the cells. They don’t find the Doc’s family (so, Shuisky was bluffing after all!), but they do find Ileika. Which was Xenia’s goal in the first place anyhow. The girls rescue him and hustle him out. A seriously damaged Ileika is put in a cart, and Sofia bribes a peasant to drive him away to safety. As we learn later, the peasant takes him directly to the Rebel camp.
In the throne room, the new boy Tsar Fyodor gets word that the Pretender’s army is approaching the gates of Moscow. Fyodor is dwelling in sort of a daze. The boyars advise him to take his family away and hide; but he refuses: “No. I am the Russian Tsar. My place is in the Kremlin.” “Well, at least send your mom sister away [you idiot]!” Fyodor: “You can ask them yourselves, but I already know the answer. We are Godunovs. We don’t run away.” Okay, fine. Get ready to die.
The Rebel army have reached as far as the Shuisky estate just outside of Moscow. Standing up on his soap box, Ataman Nechai reads out the new decree issued by False Dmitry. Dmitry greets the people as their Liberator and promises to bring them both Food and Freedom. The crowd goes “Hurrah!” In the crowd we see Nechai’s former Musketeer comrade, Pronka (the one who betrayed him and forced him to become a bandit), accompanied by his son. Pronka is happy to see Nechai still alive. (Nechai never found out that Pronka was the one who betrayed him.) The crowd starts screaming against the Godunovs, and a riot erupts. Musketeers still loyal to the Tsar attempt to break up the demonstration. The crowd fights back. Things get out of hand.
In this scene we see the true bloody nature of the “Russkiy bunt“, the “Russian revolt” as Pushkin described it, along with advice never to allow this sort of misbehavior again. The mob makes mincemeat of the musketeers, then tears through Vasily Shuisky’s estate, consuming everything like locusts. Innocent children die in the crush, there is blood everywhere. Pronka’s little boy is one of the casualties. And, by the way (I will comment more on this later), this TV series is very cruel on children. In every episode there are so many images of children suffering, crying, starving, tiny kids scared out of their wits, being crushed, being murdered, even having their eyes gouged out. I personally think this series is okay for parents to watch with their kids, but they must be prepared to reassure the latter that all of this happened in the distant past; and, besides, these are just actors playing at make-believe.
In the melee, the German doctor finally finds his family. Turns out they were living at the Shuisky estate, as hostages. (So that Shuisky could blackmail the Doc into poisoning Boris.) Unforunately, it is not a happy reunion. Both wife and son are dead and lying in pools of their own blood. Killed by the mob. The Doc is heartbroken. Pronka also vows vengeance when he recovers the body of his child: “Nechai! You killed my son!” When he returns home carrying the body, his wife goes mad from grief. There is a sort of karma, though: Recall that Pronka’s wife was the village idiot who agitated some of this dissension locally, turning people against Tsar Boris and in favor of the Pretender. Now she sows the harvest of Unintended Consequences.
The Deep State boyars are cut up when they learn about the mob destroying Shuisky’s estate. Karma for them, too. Class divisions in Russian society always have a way of breaking through, even when the elites think they are controlling the chaos.
Shuisky threatens to expose “Dmitry” as the fraud that he is. “It’s a bit late for that,” the other boyars chide him. The most important thing is to restore Law and Order, otherwise their property is in peril. The Deep State makes the decision: They will let this farce play itself out and actually put False Dmitry on the throne. As for Fyodor Godunov and his family… [throat-cutting motion]
In the women’s quarters, a visibly upset Sofia tells Xenia about the horrible scene, and how the musketeers were butchered by the mob. Somebody calls to her from outside, in the courtyard. Sofia runs to the window. It’s Nechai! She lets him in, and the happy couple are reunited. Sofia gives him the good news: She is pregnant with his child! But Xenia confronts Nechai: “I heard that you are a Dmitry-supporter. In which case, you are now our enemy.”
Nechai placates her by giving her more good news: Ilya is alive and well … in the Rebel Encampment. Awkward… Xenia (disappointed): “Then he is with you.” Nechai [playing on the dual meaning of the preposition “with”]: “He is with us [physically], but I won’t say that he is with us… He is still unconscious.” Whew!
Xenia poses an awkward question to Nechai: “You are commanding the Pretender’s army. When he arrives at the Kremlin tomorrow and gives the order to murder us, what will you do?” Nechai: “I’ll think about it.” An irritated Nechai orders his wife to pack her stuff and leave with him. Sofia refuses. She won’t go anywhere without Xenia. Fine. Xenia should pack her stuff and come with them. He’s a big bogatyr of a man, he will protect her against the Rebs. Xenia refuses. Just like her brother said, she isn’t going anywhere. Sofia makes her choice: She will stay with Xenia. She smacks Nechai a couple of times and orders him to leave.
The blonde boyar whose name I never could figure out, arrives in the Pretender’s camp with a treasure chest of gifts. False Dmitry picks out a ring for himself that he particularly likes, then appoints the boyar Moscow Governor. He orders the Prince to “clean out the Kremlin” and kill all of the Godunovs, except for the girl, whom he is determined to have for his mistress.
As the assassins approach the Kremlin, Vasily Shuisky tries to stop them. “Don’t kill anyone,” he implores. But it’s too late for second thoughts. “Don’t touch Maria,” Shuisky begs. [Recall that way back at the beginning of Season #1, Shuisky was in love with Maria Skuratova and was actually planning to marry her, until Boris snapped her up. Turns out he still has feelings for the old girl.] Again, it’s too late, and he doesn’t get a vote any more. Poor old Shuisky has become a Shakespearean character, a more sinister version of King Lear. He set things in motion, and now has no control…
A Stain On Russian History
The Russian government and Church of the modern day weep copious tears over the death of the Romanov family at the hands of the Bolsheviks. They even, hypocritically, turn Nicky Romanov and his brood into Church Saints to ensure that nobody is allowed to cast criticism on those parasites. Well, they should spare their tears for the true Crime of the Millenium: The murder of the Godunov family. [End of rant.]
Tsar Fyodor walks out calmly onto Red Square to greet the rent-a-crowd, who bay for his blood. The mob is not impressed by his good posture and bearing. Prince Mstislavsky, at first pretending to buck up Fyodor, suddenly rips off his mask and reveals himself as a Pretender supporter: “Long live Tsar Dmitry!” he encourages the mob. Maria hisses at him: “You dog!” The emboldened mob attacks, and the Godunovs retreat back into the inner chambers of their palace. Mstislavsky announces that they are under arrest.
The Godunov sibs await their destiny calmly and heroically, hand in hand, and reminiscing about the past. Maria cannot be calmed: She sees everything clearly now, realizes how deep the plot went; that the boyars poisoned her husband. The fatal moment arrives, this is one of the worst moments in Russian history. The assassins enter the inner chambers. Young Fyodor attempts to defend his family, armed with a single knife. They coldly kill his mother first, and then the boy, stabbing him multiple times. Only Xenia is left alive to face the horror. The image of Fyodor’s childhood rocking chair rocking emptily — very effective!
In the next scene we see the boyars burying the dead Godunovs and awaiting the arrival of the Pretender. The blonde boyar (now Moscow Governor) lies to the people, telling them that Maria and Fyodor poisoned themselves. (Hence, the closed coffins, to disguise the fact that they were stabbed multiple times.) Bishop Varlaam enters the courtyard and objects to what they did, calling them Judases. The mob pelts him with rocks and then stomps him to death.
Xenia is lying in the dungeon, probably in that very same cell where Ileika used to live. The floor is wet and muddy, and all her fine clothes are ruined. The bars of the cell are encrusted with cobwebs.
Sofia and her Papa are among the crowd awaiting the arrival of the Pretender. Also lurking there is Grishka’s biological mom. She mutters: “People are saying that my son Yushenka is the Tsarevich?” The village idiots chuckle at the addled old bird.
The Imposter prances into Red Square, accompanied by Nechai, Ileika, and the Polish mercenaries. Grishka’s horse rears, and the Imposter almost takes a tumble, right in front of the crowd. Embarrassing! Righting himself pompously, Grishka addresses the crowd, while Shuisky watches bemusedly, stroking his beard. Oddly enough, the crowd is not enthused and start to boo the Imposter. [In Pushkin’s play, I believe this is the moment where Pushkin writes: “The people are silent.” But in this version, they boo.]
We see a still very woozy Ileika, dressed in his foreign garb, riding alongside Nechai. Nechai warns his friend not to speak Russian: The deal is that Nechai passed him off to the Rebs as a Latin interpreter for the Poles. If they knew who he really was, they would kill him. As the Pretender is greeted by the Metropolitan, his biological mom bursts out of the crowd: “Yushenka!” This woman is like Banquo’s ghost, popping up everywhere and at highly inconvenient times! As the Polish mercenaries march by in their back-feather gear, the Russian people maybe start to get an inkling that they are under foreign rule now. Just like the 1990’s!
The Imposter greets the boyars in the throne room, naming each boyar by name; but quickly skipping over Shuisky and Mstislavsky. Those two rogues murmur among themselves: They know that he is Grisha Otrepiev, and he knows that they know. Grishka takes up the rod and scepter. He is ready for his crowning, but “Where is the Patriarch?” It is explained to him that the Patriarch was “driven away” by the mob. A new Patriarch needs to be found. Er…. all this time in my recaps, when I was calling Varlaam a Bishop, was he actually the Patriarch? Church ranks are confusing to me, I apologize to my readers.
Bucking up his courage, Grishka finally addresses Shuisky: “I see by your facial expression and body language that you don’t believe I am for real. You, Shuisky, you are the man who swore under oath that I, as a child, cut my own throat with my own knife!” Shuisky: “Sire, I always believed in my heart that God had spared you.” Grishka: “Then go out to the people and tell them that you lied to them then.” Shuisky: “As you command, Sire.”
Hence, the new Tsar quickly issues orders: Vasily Shuisky, the man who originally investigated the Tsarevich’s demise and pronounced the verdict of “accidental death” is ordered to appear before the people and change his story. Henchpersons are to hurry off to Uglich and bring back his “mother”, Maria Nagaya. The Pretender will not sit on the throne until she recognizes him as her own son. This scene shows the masterful acting style of Evgeny Tkachuk, who is absolutely perfect as the brazen Pretender. In real life Tkachuk doesn’t have that big wart on his face either; it’s a paste-on.
On the way out of the throne room, Grisha sees Ilya lurking around and challenges him. The tolmach (=interpreter) isn’t supposed to be there, he’s supposed to be at the Polish Embassy. Nechai quickly hustles his friend away. Ilya, it goes without saying, is trying to find out what happened to Xenia.
Speak of the devil: False Dmitry comes to visit the Tsarevna in her dungeon cell. “Do you recognize me?” he challenges her, tossing the coin back at her. “You are Grigory Otrepiev, and you murdered my brother.” Xenia rejects Grisha’s advances, and he brutally rapes her, right there on the floor of the dungeon. This scene is hard to watch. If you have kids, you shouldn’t let them watch this scene, that is my recommendation.
Meanwhile, Fyodor Romanov, in his monastery cell, gets word of the latest news from Moscow. Apparently he has been appointed the new Moscow Bishop (or is that the Patriarch?) He goes into the woods and consults with his hermit friend, the one with the bear. What to do next? The Pretender has promised to return his wife and son to him if he agrees to play along with this farce. The Hermit advises him to pray for God’s guidance. Fyodor Romanov has a difficult road ahead of him, navigating all these murky waters.
The final scene of this episode is horrendous and disturbing. Recall how, in previous episode, Grishka ordered the Jesuit to “make it so the choirboy can’t see him.” And here we see the result of that ominous hint: The choirboy is limping along the road, singing and begging for alms; and as the camera pans up we see that both of his eyes have been gouged out. Once again, this historical soap opera is very cruel on children. But those were cruel times, indeed. In the words of Pushkin, Pray god we never see such times again…
[to be continued]