‘A Gentleman In Moscow’ Episode 1 Recap & Ending Explained: Is Nikolai Dead Or Alive?


The reason behind the casting of a gloriously mustached Ewan McGregor as the protagonist in Showtime’s latest British drama, A Gentleman in Moscow, is really simple. Other than him being a terrific actor, it’s also practically impossible not to adore the wholesome charm that the man exudes. Even for the uninitiated, the immediate premise laid out in the pilot makes it evident that it’s paramount for Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov to be likable. You’re to base the entirety of your feelings about the show and even Amor Towles’ book of the same name on how the protagonist’s plight makes your heart ache. And I’m happy to say that, from the looks of the pilot, A Gentleman in Moscow seems to be on just the right track.

Spoiler Alert

Why is Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov under house arrest?

Let me give you a little background first. Around the year 1917, Russia underwent a massive sociopolitical shift thanks to Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik party. The Bolshevik Revolution/October Revolution wasn’t so much about establishing democracy after overthrowing the Tsarist regime in Russia. What made it a dictatorship was the extremism around handing control to the proletariat. While speaking for the working class was well and good, after the Bolshevik Revolution, Russia became a graveyard for the aristocrats and the people of royal blood. The Bolshevik Army was handed the authority to lay waste to the “gentlemen” who didn’t work for a living. A death sentence for his kind was the norm around the time Alexander Ilyich Rostov came back to his motherland from Paris. He missed the weather, apparently. You can imagine why it’d baffle Vyshinsky and Ignatov—the men reluctantly maintaining a semblance of decency when all they want is to put a bullet in Alexander. The only thing that saves him from such a fate is a poem he authored in 1913: “Where is Our Purpose Now?” Given that the poem was in favor of the Revolution, the higher-ups granted him the right to live on. But the count wouldn’t evade punishment. Ever since the Red Army set his palace on fire, he’s been living in suite 317 of the Metropol Hotel (which does exist and is fully functional in real life).  In lieu of death for the crime of being a “social parasite,” Alexander is to live out the rest of his days in the confines of the Metropol Hotel. 

How does Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov handle his new life?

Alexander’s sweet nature can’t only be attributed to the politeness he internalized in his aristocratic upbringing. Not all of them are sweet, are they? But it’s as though there’s not an unkind bone in Alexander’s body. Even the constant look of disapproval in Osip’s eyes is met with kindness and a friendly dose of humor by Alexander. He doesn’t groan much over the unpleasant change of his quarters, from a luxury room to the attic cabin previously meant for the servants of the aristocrats. His long-standing appointment with Yuroslav, the barber responsible for that mustache he wouldn’t be himself without, is now not such a sure thing. Those who were waiting in line despite being the first to arrive now have a right to hold their claim up to the faces of the previously rich. Alexander rather enjoys the few remaining reminders of the life that’s gone. Despite the ingredients being replaced by more modest alternatives, his meals are lovingly prepared by the hotel chef, who’s relieved to have the guest with refined tastebuds back. Other than that one employee who does wait on him but not without communicating that he would rather not in whatever ways possible, Alexander is still loved by the regulars. His days blend together as he not only learns but also makes it a ritual to take care of himself against the backdrop of his newfound lack of free will. He’s frustrated, sure. But always having his game face on is just his way of making sure that the Bolsheviks know he’s not backing down. 

How does Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov befriend Nina?

Well, maybe the order of the names in the heading should’ve been the other way around, considering little Nina is the first to approach the count. But it hardly would’ve turned into a wholesome friendship had Alexander not reciprocated the friendliness. Here’s a fun little spoiler that I’m passing off as trivia: in case you haven’t figured it out yet, the adult narrator who claims to owe her life to Alexander is none other than Nina. What little girl isn’t fascinated by the idea of the ways of royalty, especially princesses? Nina perhaps wishes to escape her proletariat father’s boring pragmatism around the relief that is the demise of an elitist society. How sincerely she laps up Alexander’s anecdotes about princesses and how they spent their days says everything about why Nina chose to befriend Alexander. Even for those who haven’t read the novel, the first episode of A Gentleman in Moscow makes it abundantly clear that they’re about to become each other’s lifelines in their claustrophobic circumstances. The past that keeps coming back to Alexander exasperates his misery and soothes his longing at the same time. Perhaps how off guard he is around Nina, as he makes her eyes light up with an intriguing tale about the duel his godfather seconded in the Metropol itself, makes him go back to those bygone days even more. In passing, his flashbacks have betrayed his most intimate miseries to us. He lost both his parents around the same time. And his dearest sister, Helena, was taken from him too. As the hotel manager laments over titles of honor losing their usefulness under Lenin’s rule, it gets harder for Alexander to hold back the flood of thoughts. We’re to read between the lines as we’re subtly told about how he once defended his sister’s honor by shooting a lieutenant—probably with the same antique gun that’s even now hidden behind a painting in the manager’s office. 

Why does Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov refuse Prince Nikolai Petrov’s offer to flee?

For Alexander, the only familiar faces in Metropol are the people who’ve worked there for a considerable amount of time. His compulsion to maintain a certain unfazed air is his way of showing that he has not accepted defeat. But underneath, it’s obvious that he’s going a bit stir-crazy. Running into Nikolai, whose position as prince was taken along with his palace, barring one room, was like seeing a friendly face in a crowd of strangers for Alexander. Nikolai, once only serenading the royal guests with his mastery as a violinist, now plays for the dinner crowd at the Metropol. Itching for a life away from this hell, Nikolai’s frustration is in direct contrast to Alexander’s calm in the face of the humiliation. There’s this anecdote about a certain Vladimir Obolensky from his childhood—the boy who beat him in a game of draughts and made him throw a tantrum. Reminiscing over this incident that played a part in shaping him into the man he is today, Alexander encourages Nikolai to never give the winner satisfaction. But more importantly, it lets us in on something crucial about understanding Alexander. His grandmother raised him to be a man who values his identity and honor over anything else. From teaching him the mechanisms of a grandfather clock to imploring him not to be a sore loser, Alexander’s grandmother made him the man who now would rather accept lifelong imprisonment than the loss of his identity. So rejecting Nikolai’s offer to make use of his connections, who’d forge the papers they need to flee the country, comes easy to Alexander. He’d rather be Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, the prisoner, than be a free nobody in a country that is not his home. Moreover, he couldn’t dream of parting ways with the portrait of Helena, the last memento of his beloved sister. 

Why does Nikolai get shot by the Red Army soldiers?

A Gentleman in Moscow does a smart thing by never moving in the direction of giving you all that unnecessary anxiety over whether Alexander will try to escape the hotel or not. They evidently don’t need cheap tricks to manipulate you into caring about him. It’s abundantly clear that we’re to follow Alexander’s time in Metropol without the hope that the setting will shift anytime soon. Yet, at the same time, it wouldn’t necessarily be realistic to portray Alexander as someone who’d never budge from his ideals. When he was of the idea that he wouldn’t be bothered as long as he never stepped outside the boundaries of the Metropol, it was relatively easier for him to set the goal that he’d actually live his life upholding his honor under house arrest. But the conversation with the hotel manager was bound to shake him up a bit. The manager, although under the threat of death if he so much as speaks against the Party, discloses to Alexander that the Metropol is like a zoo to the Bolsheviks. Alexander and the likes of him aren’t really safe in the Metropol. They’re under constant observation by people who’d like nothing better than to pull the trigger. This scare was bound to make Alexander reconsider his decision to stay. Holding a wad of cash, Nikolai and Alexander dream of impersonating Red Army soldiers, making snow angels, and walking 200 miles to the train that’d take them to a land where they’d be free. But even as you see them building their air castle, somewhere deep down, you know their dreams of freedom won’t come true.

Stuck in a life where there’s no foreseeable end to his misery, Alexander doesn’t see why he shouldn’t submit to Nina’s whims—even if it only proves to be a distraction for the time being. Somehow, Nina’s gotten hold of a master key that opens all the doors in the Metropol. Following her around as she relishes finding a new playmate to take on what seems to be her daily adventures, Nina shows Alexander parts of the hotel that he didn’t even know existed. While the adventure is the same, their experiences are their own. To Nina, a room full of relics of a forgotten time is just a room full of things. But to Alexander, the room holds the memories of his life. The things his fingers brushed against as a child were witnesses to his happiness and his losses. And it’s not just Alexander who longs for what’s gone. In a secret room, a maid whips up a king’s meal out of leftovers for her little kid. They’ve never experienced what they’re emulating. Alexander has lived what this kid still dreams of. Now, he’s forced to come to terms with the fact that life will never go back to the good old days. 

In this bizarre escapade through the hidden nooks and crannies of the Metropol, Alexander stumbles on a secret room of Kremlin-like importance. He was probably just starting to wonder if this was the room the Bolshevik officials covertly operated out of when he came across a list of suspects with Nikolai’s name and face on it. Secretly listening in on Vyshinsky and Ignatov’s exchange, Alexander’s increasingly concerned about Nikolai. They sound bloodthirsty enough to make up crimes just so that they can kill the elites. Even though he warned his friend as promptly as he could, a mole in the hotel, who happens to be the rude waiter, had already passed the information on to the Red Army. In the ending sequence, Alexander had to helplessly watch as Nikolai played his last set. Something in him, maybe his survival instinct, stops him from crossing the threshold, even though he walks after the soldiers as they pull his friend away. All Alexander hears is a gunshot. Of course, he’ll regret not doing more to save his friend. But walking out would’ve been suicide. Osip’s already on to him, considering he knows Nikolai had papers for two people to leave the country. They’ll be keeping an eye on every step he takes. But the narration from a hopeful adult, Nina, can be taken as a reassurance that his time in the Metropol will be anything but mundane. 

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Lopamudra Mukherjee
Lopamudra Mukherjee
In cinema, Lopamudra finds answers to some fundamental questions of life. And since jotting things down always makes overthinking more fun, writing is her way to give this madness a meaning.

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