Every season, the Drama After Dark team gathers ‘round the (currently virtual) conference room table to watch the latest and greatest in all things drama. This month, our colleagues at MASTERPIECE are bringing us Atlantic Crossing, a historical dramatization of the relationship between U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and Norwegian Crown Princess Martha set against the backdrop of WWII. I’m here to recap the show as it happens.
We’re starting the week off with a monologue from the one and only FDR. While he prepares for the day with a morning swim, we get a voiceover about how he has big dreams, which are challenged by world events. He goes on to say that World War II is an inevitability, no matter how much everyone wishes that wasn’t the case, but America will NOT be joining the fight. This monologue, by the way, seems to be drawn from both a speech FDR gave in Chautauqua, NY in 1936 and a campaign speech in 1940, which is a pretty cool screenwriting choice. Regardless, it’s probably not the message any of the Allied powers (including our Norwegian friends) are eager to hear.
But there’s no time for global politics NOW: Martha has to worry about getting her new place set up. The kids are pretty jazzed to finally have their own space, and to get to unpack.
Middlest Kiddo: Oh wow, look, it’s our dog’s chew toy! When is she coming here, btw?
Oldest Kiddo: Uh, she can’t.
Martha: Shhhhhhh, be cool!
Middlest Kiddo: But why?
Martha, employing the age-old parenting trick regarding beloved and dead pets: She can’t travel alone! She’s much happier on the farm upstate, anyhow.
And before any of the kids can think about that too much, Martha whips out Olav’s patented parenting move of “I’m a bear and I’m going to eat you.” It’s cute and fun, and works for the younger kids, but the oldest just gets upset, missing her dad. Once she starts crying, it sets the other ones off too, until everyone’s just piled up on Martha and wanting to go home. Fair, TBH! Later, Martha and Ragni head to a Norwegian church, where Martha will be making a speech to rally the community. Martha clearly has a massive case of nerves, and isn’t comfortable with public speaking.
Norwegian Ambassador, the opposite of helpful: Oh hey girl! Huge crowd out there! Anyway, here’s your speech.
Martha: Oh, no, I’m good, I have my own, and I’ve been practicing.
Norwegian Ambassador: Yeah, but this has a couple of critical improvements. Can’t be too careful talking about war and stuff!
Martha: Ok, I’ll do my best!
Norwegian Ambassador, again unhelpful: Just relax, you’ll do great.
And so Martha heads out to give her speech, and joke’s on the ambassador, because it does not go great. She’s not a natural performer, and struggles to get started, but the real kicker comes when she gets one of her patented stress nosebleeds, which the assembled crowd finds pretty unsettling. Martha scampers out of there to deal with the blood, and the priest quickly swoops in and starts everyone on a hymn. So yeah, not an ideal situation. After the service, while Martha and the kids try to leave, the ambassador hands her some flowers, and asks a favor: Can she get FDR to meet with him?
Martha: Look, the president has already done a lot for me and the kids. I don’t want to take advantage.
Norwegian Ambassador: Just like… put in a good word!
Martha: I’m not trying to get involved in politics, man!
Norwegian Ambassador: It’s not politics! Liberating our people from the Nazis is personal; I would have thought you’d feel the same. Please, I just need one meeting.
Martha: I’ll try.
Later that day, Martha keeps setting up the house (and clearly is working on the assumption that these furnishings are temporary, and will be going back with the family to Norway soon which… yikes) when who should drive up but our pal FDR. And he didn’t come empty handed: He’s brought a much nicer bouquet of flowers than the ambassador’s paltry offering, and a book of stamps featuring King Grandpa’s likeness for the kiddos. At this point, it becomes clear that any reservations Martha had about the children referring to FDR as “godfather” are well and truly out the window. Frankly, I get it: the guy is friendly, warm, and taking an interest during a challenging time. It makes sense to ground that in a familial relationship, rather than “the weird man spending so much time hitting on our mom.” Anyway, FDR takes a look at a photo album from right before the family fled Norway, and that seems to dial back his flirting thrusters significantly: it's quite clear from the pictures that this is a happy, cohesive family unit.
Martha: Yeah, so we’re all just doing our best. How’s your campaign going?
FDR: It’s going to be close.
Martha: But you’re the better candidate.
FDR: Thanks, but my opponent has an advantage: he’s an outsider, so he hasn’t made any mistakes or enemies… yet.
Martha: Why don’t you just drop out of the race?
FDR: The war. I just don’t think anyone else could handle it, especially an amateur like my opponent.
Martha: So it’s duty, huh?
FDR: Yeah, I super don’t want to be president anymore. 8 years was more than enough.
Martha: What would you do if you weren’t the president and could do whatever you wanted?
FDR: Just go chill out in nature. But I’m stuck in this chair dealing with a never-ending stream of people who want something from me. You have that same sense of duty and responsibility, but at least if you’re tired you can get up and walk away for a bit.
Moved by her friend’s anguish, Martha walks across the room and clasps his hand to offer some comfort.
FDR: What about you, Martha? What would you do if you weren’t the future queen?
Martha: No one ever asked me that.
Before she can reply, Ragni interrupts this cozy “what if” conversation to let Martha know that Olav is on the phone from London. As you might expect, he wants Martha to set up a casual dinner party and invite Norwegian Ambassador and FDR, but after the “everyone always wants something from me” chat of, well, 30 seconds ago, Martha feels kinda bad about that plan.
Olav: Look, just get them in a room together, the Ambassador can take it from there.
Martha: FDR is a super busy guy normally, and right now he’s in the middle of a campaign! He’s got better stuff to do than have dinner with me and our weird Ambassador!
Olav: He’s visiting you right now, clearly he’s got time. This is super important for our country, or I wouldn’t ask!
Martha: Ok, I’ll try.
And with that, the conversation is over. FDR is already on his way out, possibly because the kids have decided to give him a makeover in Martha’s absence. Obviously, it’s actually because of the aforementioned campaign, etc., and with hugs for the kids and a repeat invite to come swim in the White House pool whenever they like, he makes his escape.
FDR, probably unintentionally twisting a metaphorical knife in Martha’s heart: Well, I just wanted to say how much I appreciate having someone to talk to who DOESN’T have a hidden agenda. It’s rare, and I appreciate the fact that I can relax around you.
FDR: If there’s anything you need to make this easier for you guys, don’t hesitate to ask.
Martha, hesitating: Look, I’m sorry, I have to ask: can you please just talk with our dumb ambassador?
FDR: Oh. So you do have an agenda.
Me: Don’t be a jerk, guy, Martha hasn’t had an agenda a day in her life! Blame Olav, if you must!
Martha: UGH I’m so sorry :(
FDR: No, don’t worry about it, all the European ambassadors want to meet with me these days, and they all want the same thing: for us to sell them munitions. But I can’t do that if we’re going to be neutral, ya know? I hope you know that the thing I want most is to punch Hitler in the face, but alas…
Martha, getting fired up now: You want to fight the Nazis but you’re telling all the voters you won't?
FDR: That’s showbiz, baby! It’s all about playing your cards right.
Martha: So this is a game to you? Bad news, man: As a person who had to literally flee my country after a brutal attack, this doesn’t seem like much of a game to ME. Thanks for coming.
I’ll tell ya what, I like Martha even more for having the backbone to stand up to FDR and call him on his hypocrisy. You go, girl! Later, at the Norwegian embassy, Martha gets a lecture from Norwegian Ambassador, who accuses her of not trying that hard and being blind to the magnitude of the situation. First of all, guy, she was actually in Norway when stuff went down unlike you, and second, you haven’t been able to get in to see FDR and it’s your literal job, so maybe cool it.
Martha: I’m very aware of the situation; Why do you think so many of your counterparts are out here trying to meet with FDR? And you know you represent a tiny-ass country, right?
Norwegian Ambassador: And so do you. Guess I shouldn’t have expected anything more.
And with that, he rudely escorts Martha out of the office, where she gets into the car to tell the waiting Ragni how frustrated she is.
Martha: Ugh, I am SO bad at this.
Ragni: I know you did the best you could.
Martha: Yeah, but it’s not good enough.
Chin up, Martha! I believe in you! Anyway, before she can mope too much, it’s election night, and it’s a close one. In the White House, Advisor Harry and Missy listen to the returns on the radio and stress smoke, which is a big mood, even though smoking is bad. They’re not the only ones: the rest of our cast, in the U.S. and U.K., all listen with bated breath to find out if FDR will defeat his rival Wendell Willkie (spoiler alert: he does). Alone in all of this is the man himself, who sits in the oval office getting progressively grumpier, and yells at Advisor Harry when he tries to enter the fortress of solitude.
The next morning, the papers report what we already know: FDR won (by a MILE btw: 449 electoral votes to Wilkie’s 82). Weirdly, Martha isn’t that happy about it, which confuses Ragni.
Martha: Just because he won doesn’t mean we should get excited. It’s no guarantee that he’ll do anything to help us. Now, if you don’t mind, get rid of those flowers he brought.
To be fair, FDR is also pretty grumpy about winning, which makes sense given how much he claims to not want the job anymore. Back at the Norwegian church, the royal kids chow down on some cake when Middlest Kiddo notices a gentleman sitting in the corner who happens to be a double amputee. Confused about that, she heads over to ask Martha what’s up.
Martha: Ok first of all, it’s so rude to point at a stranger, so stop it.
Priest, actually answering the question: He’s a sailor. His legs were amputated because they were damaged when his ship was torpedoed.
Middlest Kiddo: Uh, details? What does "amputated" mean, anyway?
Martha: Eesh, sorry about that. Kids will be kids.
Priest: You know about this already, right? Four of our ships got torpedoed; He’s one of the few survivors. He hasn’t been able to see any of his family back in Norway for months, he’s super worried about them.
Martha, being Martha, decides to go talk to him despite the priest’s suggestion that she maybe NOT do that.
Martha: I’m really sorry about what happened to you. Our sailors are very brave.
Sailor: You literally took the gold and ran, how much can you admire your sailors? You, and the cabinet, and the king all cut and run while our people were slaughtered. You should be ashamed!
The priest comes over to intervene, but you kinda can’t unring that bell. Later, at the house, a decorator tries to talk to Martha about her curtains, but she’s distracted by a newspaper article about attacks on convoys in the Atlantic. She tells the decorator to just pick what she thinks is best, and leaves to go to a hospital to visit Alfred, the sailor from church.
Martha: Look, I wanted to say: I understand why you feel that way about my family. Also, I did some research on your family. They’re safe. Your wife had pneumonia but is ok now, and the kids are doing great in school. They all send their love.
This is all way too much for Alfred, who, overwhelmed with emotion, immediately starts crying. He thanks her, and then grabs her arm.
Alfred: Look, the Americans HAVE to help us. We need them. They’re our Obi Wan Kenobi-style only hope.
All fired up from that encounter, Martha heads straight to the Norwegian embassy, and into a meeting with Norwegian Ambassador.
Martha: I’m sorry FDR didn’t want to meet you. But I can do you one better. A direct line to him, any time. Me. Let’s role play it out: Pretend I’m FDR, and you have an hour to tell me all the important stuff I need to know.
Norwegian Ambassador: Uhhhhhhh
Martha: Look, pal: you’ve pointed out that I’m not politically savvy. This is your chance to fix that. Now light my cigarette and let’s get to work.
And then, in a pretty solid impression of Kyle MacLachlan as FDR, she tells him to sit down and start talking. Amused, and bemused, he complies.
Norwegian Ambassador: Ok, well, your highness —
Martha: You mean Mr. President.
Norwegian Ambassador: Right. Mr. President. The Norwegian gold is in America, which puts us in a rather good position to purchase weapons and other equipment right from your manufacturers. This wouldn’t be a military deal, and it would help everyone. We can do this in a way that doesn’t compromise America’s neutrality.
Over the next few days, Martha spends a lot of time with the Ambassador understanding his plan (which apparently was backed by Churchill, of all people), and, presumably, picking out her version of a power suit to wear when she strides into the Oval Office.
Missy: Woah, what the heck? You can’t just go in there! Sorry, she got past me.
Martha, entering the oval: Listen up, fives, a ten is speaking.
FDR: Oh hey, how’s it shakin’, bacon?
Eleanor: Well, it seems that my status of barely being in this show is destined to continue. Guess I’ll leave.
Martha: Eleanor, I’d like you to stay, because I’m about to make a request on behalf of the Norwegian cabinet.
FDR: Sounds awfully serious.
Martha: Yeah, dude, it is. We want you to sell us weapons, planes and equipment.
FDR: I told you, there’s a neutrality thing, I can’t!
Martha: Hmmm, then what’s the deal with the 50 destroyers you sold to Great Britain?
Eleanor and Advisor Harry, internally: Oh ho! A worthy opponent at last!
FDR: Well, technically we didn’t sell those. We gave them old boats, they gave us some navy bases. Fair tradesies!
Martha: So what I’m hearing is you CAN work around the Neutrality Act.
Eleanor: Well a lot of people felt like that trade was against the law. We wouldn’t do it again.
Martha: I heard that Churchill is pushing you to do it again so you can keep helping the British. Why not us?
FDR: Martha, you know where I personally stand, but I made a promise to my voters.
Martha: Franklin, you have sacrificed so much to stay in power. But if you aren’t using that power to govern according to your convictions, what’s the damn point? Anyone can sit here and just do what the voters want; It takes a strong person to do what’s right. Look, when I was pregnant with my oldest, we had a house fire right before she was born. Our neighbors came to help immediately, because that’s what neighbors do.
Eleanor: Well that was nice of them…
Martha: Nice, and also smart. Fires spread. And Europe is on fire right now. Help us.
And with that, she saunters out of there, like the boss we knew she was all along. Later, a visitor arrives at Martha’s house, just in time for Christmas. It’s Olav! And he brought Nikolai too! Both couples have… enthusiastic reunions. We also finally get some news about the Ragni’s older kids, who are alive and relatively unscathed back in Norway. Unfortunately, Martha soon figures out that the gentlemen won’t be staying for long.
Olav: I know, it sucks, but I was barely able to arrange a visit. Dad thinks I’ll die if I’m out of his sight.
Martha: He’s a grown adult, he should know you want to see your own kids.
Olav: Yeah. I’ll stay as long as I can, I promise.
Martha: The kids are gonna be bummed out.
Olav: I’ll get them some really really good presents tomorrow.
Martha: And let’s wait to tell them you have to leave until after the holiday.
And that’s not the only omission Martha has up her sleeves, because the next morning, as the kids decorate their Christmas tree, they ask what their surprise gift is. When Olav comes in, everyone loses their dang minds with excitement. Pictures are taken, carols are sung, and later, at a party at the white house, FDR chugs whiskey like it’s his job (a time-honored holiday tradition I can wholeheartedly endorse!). Eleanor explains that, following the Norwegian custom, presents will be opened on Christmas Eve.
Children, as one: YAY!
FDR, grandstanding: Well great, I guess I’ll open all my presents first, since I’m the boss.
Children: Booo! You’re not our boss, you’re just grandpa.
FDR: Ugh, fine. But can I at least give the first gift?
Children: Yes, but you’re on thin f*cking ice.
Me: I have a bad feeling about this.
FDR: Great! Because this gift can’t wait. Come here, Norwegian kiddos. Please check out this giant box!
Guys. GUYS. He gives them a freakin’ puppy! Everyone, predictably, is super excited, except for Olav, who probably realizes that in the great tradition of dads and dogs, HE will be expected to care for the pup. Alternatively, he might just be jealous that FDR is getting to spend so much time with his family while he’s off in the U.K. with King Grandpa. Later that night, while servants clean up the wrapping paper, the adults appear to be getting increasingly drunk and having a grand old time.
FDR: Listen, I’m being serious. I’m going to introduce a bill before Congress.
Missy: Uh, excuse you, we had a “no shop talk” rule!
FDR: I’m the president, so I exempt myself.
Eleanor: BS, but continue.
FDR: We’ve been working on this for a while. The argument is that by supporting Britain, we’re basically just building our own defense: If they go down, Hitler will probably eventually attack us.
Eleanor: See, that sounds like a reversal of the Neutrality Act.
FDR: Noooo, it’s not! I promise!
Missy, sarcastic: Well, explain how; clearly the rest of us aren’t as smart as you.
FDR: We don’t actually sell the arms to the Brits; we lend or lease them. At the end of the war we get them back. It’s called… The Lend-Lease Act. Thoughts?
Advisor Harry: Well it’s a political disaster.
Eleanor: Completely against the Neutrality Act, and puts us in danger, I hate it.
Missy: And it endangers your legacy.
Advisor Harry: Congress won’t go for it.
Eleanor: And it will 100 percent get us into the war.
FDR, sassy: Oh, so you don’t like it?
Martha: Personally, I love it.
Missy: Big surprise.
Martha: If the U.K. goes down, you’ll be an island of democracy, surrounded on all sides by totalitarianism, and your neutrality won’t protect you. Look what happened to us.
FDR: What she said!
Now, if that sounds like a hop skip and a jump away from the Truman Doctrine, which got the U.S. into Vietnam on the premise of containing communism, that might be because Truman was FDR’s vice president, and they had similar ideas about foreign policy. Later that night, as the family prepares to head home, everyone agrees that it’s been a great holiday. Olav, in particular, is impressed (and turned on) by Martha’s newfound political mettle. But back in the White House, a fight is brewing. Eleanor is unhappy about both the plan AND the timing of said plan.
Eleanor: TBH, I think you’re doing this because you’ve got the hots for Martha.
FDR: What, are you jealous?
Eleanor: Honest to god, I don’t care about your affairs, but I do care that you’re letting this cloud your judgement and impact your policy decisions.
FDR: It’s not. This isn’t about doing the right thing, it’s about doing what we need to do.
Eleanor: Fine. But it isn’t going to end well.
That political hurdle ignored, FDR announces his bill to the press, and in the process, he even uses a version of Martha’s house fire analogy. Martha and Ragni celebrate what they see as a political success. The American public, on the other hand, are downright hostile to the idea. As Olav and Martha walk down the street, excited about the future, they run into a group who, reacting to the announcement, begin ominously chanting “America first.” Alarmed, the couple quickly flee the area, just as a man angrily throws a stone at the appliance shop where the crowd had been watching FDR’s address. Yikes! How will Martha cope with her new, isolationist political enemies in DC when Olav heads back to the U.K.? Will Eleanor get more screen time in the future? And who’s gonna walk that dog? We’ll just have to watch episode 5 next week to find out.