From the moment they hit the cultural scene in the early 1920’s, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were infamous for their wild public antics — and even wilder, and at times damaging, love for one another. As a dazzling debut author who managed to capture the voice of his generation, Scott was the more famous of the pair, and his life — and perspective on the Fitzgerald legend and marriage — have been the focus of cultural critics and biographers for decades. It wasn’t until 1983, when Nancy Milford published “Zelda: A Biography,” that anyone attempted to reframe the story from Zelda’s point of view.
The new Amazon bio-series, “Z: The Beginning of Everything” — one more entry in the company’s growing collection placing unsung women from history at the center of the story (RIP, “Good Girls Revolt”!) — is adapted from a later novelization of Zelda Sayres Fitzgerald’s life, but in execution it follows Milford’s tack: Focusing the Fitzgerald legend entirely on Zelda’s place within it.
As with any legend, what comes before the fame is just as important as what comes after. Thus, three full episodes of this short (10-episode) first season are dedicated to Zelda Sayres’ small, limited life as the daughter of a prominent Montgomery family — juxtaposing the relative excitement of wartime, soldiers billeted to local training camps descending on the Montgomery social scene every night, to the devastating social stagnation that follows when the war ends and all the soldiers pack up and leave.
In this context, Zelda (a luminous Christina Ricci) is the flashiest fish in a tiny, quiet pond — and in every interaction with family, friends, and local boutique owners, the will Zelda must exert over her frustration at the promise of a future as a Montgomery woman is evident in every tight smile, every clipped gesture, every silver-tongued polite Southern insult.
Enter any ambitious Yankee, then: Literally any single one.
Success, famously, is equal parts preparation and luck — and “Z” takes care to shows us that Zelda Sayres’ life was nothing but preparation for the luck of F. Scott Fitzgerald (David Hoflin) entering it. Was there some other alchemy, some brush of fate that brought them together? Maybe.
But the time and creative success it takes Scott to win Zelda’s agreement to marriage (a year, and the publication of “This Side of Paradise”) implies an opening, at least, for anyone else with just as much time and creative potential… Especially considering how throughout that year, Zelda lets a local golden boy — with an eye for needling, staid Southern sensibility — court her, too.
Sure: When Scott’s success finally does come through, Zelda does too: Hops on the first train she can, and marries him within hours of arriving in New York City. But through careful framing, “Z” makes clear that Zelda’s infatuation with Scott is as much about projection — her excitement over the certainty of a grand New York City life — as it is with him as a man.
“This is how New Yorkers do it,” she drawls to her sister when forced to make justifications for Scott’s slipshod planning of their wedding ceremony — which ends up preventing her other sister from attending. “I’d like my new husband to myself,” she declares in equal justification much later that night, addressing the wedding bacchanal — completely naked, when nothing else can get Scott’s attention, much less his friends out of their suite.
Scott Fitzgerald is the obvious villain of the piece, despite being Zelda’s romantic/existential object throughout. As portrayed, with devastating, success by Hoflin, Scott is a man who wants his wife to have and be the best in the world, and then resents her when she comes close to achieving either. He manipulates a shopping trip into existence to get Zelda out of her Southern ruffles, then fumes when her even more extreme style change courts universal appreciation. He encourages her to find a hobby, then explodes when what she chooses — acting — threatens to shift the gravitational center of their creative and financial reputation.
As anyone with a cursory knowledge of Fitzgerald likely knows, this hypocrisy isn’t limited to Zelda: He resents any success another person finds that he doesn’t, and any spotlight that shifts away from illuminating him alone, whether that be the affection of the American literary set as other debut authors threaten to steal his wunderkind mantle, or the perceived affections of Zelda as she cries into his college friend’s shoulder after the couple has yet one more fight. What’s more, he is blind to the devastation he wreaks in pursuit of “genius.” He steals (historical spoiler) unapologetically from Zelda’s letters for his first novel — and again from her personal journal, when his editor is disappointed by paltry early work on the second.
Zelda, “Z” shows us, is flattered by the former, and outraged and offended by the latter. The difference between the two? Time, and the glow of big city romance having finally worn off enough that Zelda doesn’t feel compelled to find justification, for herself or anyone else, of her husband’s jealous selfishness. As portrayed by Ricci — whose face manages, somehow, to express whole paragraphs of feeling while remaining nearly stone-still — this glow wears off visibly: She and Scott’s Princeton friends communicate entire schemes with just their eyes whenever cover is needed for Scott’s rising tempers; those same eyes broadcast her own incipient bad behavior whenever the couple is alone and she needs to provide cover by herself.
And this is what is most remarkable about how “Z” plays out: Big, wild things happen, but Zelda’s participation in all but the biggest, most singular moments is still and quiet. The whole show is still and quiet, from the title sequence that plays soft and slow over images of the Fitzgeralds partying hard, to the wide shots that isolate Zelda from the world around her: Either physically, in action the audience is kept too far to hear (dancing in Montgomery when Scott first sees her; swimming alone in the ocean when Scott is too busy to pay her any attention), or emotionally, in the middle of action swirling around her (a toxic gossip circle her first weekend in New York; passing silently through the drunken orgies around the Westport house when they invite their friends out for a beach weekend).
When Zelda and Scott return from a disastrous Princeton jaunt, to discover they’re being kicked out of the Biltmore for delinquency, we get both species of isolation: We see her, past the crowded hotel lobby and through the glass of the hotel’s rotating door, turn immobile as she processes what is happening… And calculates the exact size of scene she needs to make, to save Scott from making one of his own.
All this stillness ends up bringing Zelda full circle, both she and the first season of “Z” ending where they started: In Zelda’s hometown of Montgomery, surrounded by the limited dreams of her old Montgomery friends, in the middle of the beginning of everything.
If the series gets a second season, this year’s final moment gives us a huge piece of news to look forward to seeing the fallout from… Plus, history tells us that there will be plenty of juicy material, both fun and distressing, for the show to take on (including their friendship with Hemingway and their time in Paris).
But if a limited series is all we get, “Z” acquits itself gracefully: Ricci and Hoflin illuminating a snapshot of giants in our American cultural heritage that should inspire plenty of us to learn, and read, more about both.
“Z: The Beginning of Everything” is streaming now on on Amazon Prime.