“Bearing false witness is the worst crime that you can commit,” says a character in the most recent episode of the Amazon series.
“Bright and High Circle,” the fifth episode of Matthew Weiner’s Amazon series, The Romanoffs, takes its title from a line in a poem by Alexander Pushkin, one that the character Katherine (Diane Lane) teaches in her Russian-literature class:
When your so young and fairy years
Are smeared by the gossip’s noise,
And by the high word’s trial, fierce,
Your public honor’s fully lost;
Alone midst indifferent crowds,
I share with you your soul’s pains
The poem expresses solidarity with someone whose reputation is being slandered; Pushkin (a notorious womanizer, for what it’s worth) seems to rage against “cruel” accusations and “hypocritical damnation,” and advises the subject to rise above them. This sets the theme of “Bright and High Circle,” which is about vague and gossipy accusations leveled at a piano teacher, David Patton (Andrew Rannells), in a wealthy community in Los Angeles.
“Bright and High Circle,” for all its dull plotting and impossibly ponderous pacing, is hard to interpret as anything other than Weiner’s response to #MeToo, a movement sparked by accusations of misconduct against men in the entertainment industry, including Weiner himself. It’s notably the first piece of art to emerge from someone implicated by #MeToo that directly addresses the movement, and so it presents an intriguing opportunity. There’s room within fiction for nuance—for wrestling with the dynamics of power and performance that make the entertainment industry’s problems with harassment so tangled. And yet this episode of television isn’t much more than a 70-minute extended cut of the words witch hunt. (That specific metaphor even features in the episode, in case the message wasn’t clear enough already.)
Over the course of the story, Lane’s Katherine learns that the beloved piano teacher of her three sons, Rannells’s David, has been accused of misconduct with a minor. The exact nature of what happened isn’t specified; Katherine is contacted by a detective in the Special Victims Unit of the Los Angeles Police Department who mentions vaguely that accusations have been leveled against David and asks if Katherine has any knowledge of him behaving inappropriately with her children, while telling her not to share what she’s learned with anyone. Katherine panics, contacts her friends to see what they’ve heard, and sets off a chain reaction of wealthy women agonizing over whether they’ve opened up their home to a child molester.
It’s Kafka, by way of The Real Housewives of Occidental College. The women gossip and chatter and take sides: One mother, Cheryl (Nicole Ari Parker), immediately defends David, while another, Debbie (Cara Buono), condemns him, in part—it’s hinted—because David once criticized her French-themed kitchen (“It’s like Versailles threw up in here,” he says in flashback). Katherine is less certain. Her children love David and are adamant that he’s never done anything worse than tell off-color jokes. David, though, is also revealed to be a liar and a fantasist who’s co-opted Katherine’s Romanov heritage for himself in conversations with other women.
In the end, the episode declines to specifically categorize what actually happened. Weiner and his co-writer, Kriss Turner Towner, don’t seem to think it matters. Katherine learns that David was accused of buying alcohol for a 15-year-old boy but not whether David actually did so, or under what circumstances. Her husband, Alex (Ron Livingston), is furious, regardless. “A good person doesn’t ruin somebody’s life over some random accusation,” he rages. Later, Alex tells his sons that they have to continue their piano lessons, because what’s happened to David is simply unconscionable.
“When you accuse somebody of something, whether they did it or not, you make everybody look at them differently,” he says. “Bearing false witness is the worst crime that you can commit. Otherwise, anyone can say anything about anybody, and just saying it ruins their life. No matter what they did. Does that seem fair? It’s not fair.”
There’s a lot to process here. Is bearing false witness really the worst crime a person can commit? Is it worse than physical assault? Sexual assault? Murder? Is David’s life ruined? “Bright and High Circle,” in fact, ends with nothing happening to David at all, despite the fact that he apparently broke the law and crossed a whole host of squishier ethical lines. He goes on teaching piano as he always has, even if the episode ends with Katherine shutting the door on her son’s lesson because the accusations against David have permanently lodged in her mind in a way that makes her anxious. David seems not to have suffered any serious ramifications in the wake of the clumsy and ineffectual police inquiry. But his reputation, Weiner seems to say: It’s been irredeemably smeared by the gossip’s noise.
This is the place where it feels unavoidable not to mention the specifics of what Weiner was accused of, perpetuating the same cycle he’s critiquing in this very story. In November 2017, Weiner’s former writing assistant Kater Gordon—a woman who won an Emmy for an episode of Mad Men she wrote with him before being fired under hazy circumstances—stated that Weiner once told her she owed it to him to let him see her naked. Weiner denied at the time that the interaction had ever happened. In a September interview with Vanity Fair’s Joy Press to promote The Romanoffs, Weiner went into slightly more detail. “I really don’t remember saying that,” he told Press. “I’m not hedging to say it’s not impossible that I said that, but I really don’t remember saying it.”
If “Bright and High Circle” is an allegory within which Weiner works through some feelings about what happened to him (and it’s truly hard not to read it that way), then it’s markedly similar to the other first-person defenses that emerged around the first anniversary of #MeToo. From John Hockenberry’s Harper’s essay to Jian Ghomeshi’s New York Review of Books piece, these reflections tend to have a common theme. They focus at length on the damage done to the man who’s been accused of misconduct, paying no heed to the feelings of the accuser. They express terror and dismay at what is perceived as a larger phenomenon of mob justice, wherein any man can have his reputation sullied in an instant. They convey some disdain for the modern world, a place where gossip and hypersensitivity fail to make space for the complicated genius of brilliant men.
David, “Bright and High Circle” suggests, is a gifted teacher. “You are the key that has unlocked the mystery of talent,” one mother tells him, fawningly. David himself says he takes altruistic pleasure in teaching. “I get to be the good thing in someone’s life when everything else is bad,” he tells Katherine. The accusations against him threaten that. Katherine, despite her best intentions, sees him differently. So do her sons. Similarly, we as viewers can no longer immerse ourselves in an episode of television written and directed by Matthew Weiner without thinking about what he, too, has been accused of doing.
This is actually a reasonable point, and it’s one that doesn’t summon an easy answer. For men who feel they’ve been unjustly accused of harassment or assault in a public forum, what is the best way to answer the charges? There is no perfect response. But there has to be a better way than simply trying to manifest sympathy for the men whose reputations have been ruined. For one thing, that sympathy already exists, despite the fact that it’s so conspicuously not being returned. “I feel sorry for a lot of these men [implicated in the #MeToo movement],” The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg wrote in September, “but I don’t think they feel sorry for women, or think about women’s experience much at all. And maybe that’s why the discussion about #MeToo and forgiveness never seems to go anywhere, because men aren’t proposing paths for restitution. They’re asking why women won’t give them absolution.”
“Bright and High Circle,” which minimizes David’s accuser to the point where he exists only in theory and is said to have “behavioral problems,” doesn’t seem compelled to imagine what it’s like to be on the receiving end of unwanted advances. All it really wants to do is assert that if calling out instances of abuse and harassment in society means ruining the reputations of men—whether they’re guilty or otherwise—then the cost is too high. It’s an argument so clumsy and lacking in imagination that it’s hard to imagine it coming from a writer of Weiner’s caliber. And it suggests that nuanced explorations of #MeToo from artists who’ve been personally caught up in it are, at least at this point, too much to expect.