It is a tenant of the American Dream that every parent wants better for their children than they have had, wants to improve the lives of their offspring as much as they can. This isn’t an exclusively American idea (I’d venture everyone whose ever had a child wants the same), but it is an explicitly American one. It is part of the core …
Browsing: The Americans
This season of The Americans has been largely about the relationships between parents and their children and the way Philip and Elizabeth are coming up against the limits of how much they can protect their kids. Mostly, this has played out ideologically, as Paige becomes involved with the Church and Henry becomes more obsessed with…
“Stealth,” is, perhaps unsurprisingly, all about people struggling to be seen or to remain unseen, to be noticed and acknowledged or to remain in the shadows. It has a lot of heavy lifting to do to set up The Americans for the final two episodes of this season, and yet it manages to be an incredibly tense, subtle, and thrilling hour of …
“Yousaf” begins with a late night coupling in the Jennings kitchen and ends, as if post-coitally, in a shared cigarette. Between those two moments, pretty much everything within the episode deals with sex, the ways it is used to bring people closer together, the ways it can push them apart, the ways it defines virtually every relationship on this show in one way or another. Both Elizabeth and Philip use sex as one tool in their espionage toolkits, a way to get marks to talk or keep assets on their side. But the question always arises, for them and for their spouse: just how real is this theoretically manufactured intimacy? When Philip has sex with Martha, Elizabeth learned earlier this season, he is different than he is with her. Elizabeth got jealous then, and her efforts to ameliorate that jealousy were devastating. Tonight, Philip admits that he does not take the idea of the woman he loves sleeping with someone else lightly. Of course, he admits it to a woman he is only pretending to love, but Philip sends Annelise in to sleep with Yousaf to keep Elizabeth from doing it. Philip lies even as he tells the truth; he is honest only through deception. This is the game the Jennings play every day. And it takes a toll.
The Americans trades in tiny glances, brief connections and missed opportunities, small decisions and their titanic emotional aftermath, better than just about any show on television (give or take Mad Men, which is just about the king of this type of subtle storytelling). “Martial Eagle” is perhaps the best episode in the show’s second season so far, weaving together the espionage and the private lives of our three leads nearly seamlessly, and telling a quietly tragic story of Philip Jennings becoming unmoored by having to do the things he does just one more time.
What does it mean to be a good person? What does it mean to be a good spy? Philip and Elizabeth chose their profession, in part at least, because they believed in the cause. They believed that they were doing the right thing for the Motherland, for the future. But the deeper into espionage they get, the harder it can be to tell where and how they are doing good, and when they might cross the line. It is easy to view the job as inherently good, and to let that justify whatever it is you do in it. But when you’re watching a protégé strangled to death, or weighing whether to shoot a shaking man in the woods, it can be hard to imagine this is all in service of anything worth serving.
At bottom, the job of most of the characters on The Americans is to get close, to figure out a person’s weak points, to get what they know. This means that the show is expert at little moments of intimacy—the way Philip kneels to take off Elizabeth’s boot in last week’s episode, say, or the way Nina pulls both Stan and Oleg in just a bit closer tonight. “Arpanet” is masterful in the way it executes close-ups to bring us in too, to push us toward an emotional intimacy with the characters, regardless of what they are doing or how they feel about it. Perhaps my favorite moment of this in the episode is when Nina looks over to the corner of the room by the door during her polygraph test. A lesser show would have had Oleg materialize there, to remind us why she is staring at this particular empty place. But The Americans trusts us to get inside her head, to understand where she is coming from, to know her.
What would you fight for? What would you die for? The answer is likely to change over the course of your life, no matter how tightly you cling to your beliefs. When you are younger, it is easy to cloak yourself in ideology, to cling to ideas that could change the world and to give yourself over to the revolution, whichever it may be. But as you get older, the things you are willing to give your life for may shift, even if imperceptibly. Tonight, Elizabeth has multiple conversations with Lucia, her Sandinista recruit, and it seems clear that she sees a lot of her younger self in the fiery rhetoric Lucia spouts. But while Elizabeth risks her life for her country all the time, her priorities have subtly been shifting over the course of this season. Would she die for Mother Russia if push came to shove? I have no doubt. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t more invested in her family, her marriage, her children, and the life she has built. She’s still fighting the good fight, but the fire is dying ever so slightly. Her passions now burn elsewhere.
Loyalty is a difficult concept the more abstract you make it. Understanding a connection between two people, a fealty built over time, is one thing. Being loyal to a best friend, to a lover, to a brother or a sister, is something that is almost innate, a sense of honor that feels natural, that feels easy to quantify but inborn somehow. But what does it mean to be loyal beyond that—loyal to a sports team, to an alma mater, to a religion, to an ideology? What does it mean to be loyal to a nation? The idea of loyalty is deeply ingrained in the DNA of The Americans, and in “The Deal,” the show examines the cost of abstracting loyalty. The episode asks us to contend with the very notion of nationalism, with the idea of a home or a homeland, and with the cost of patriotism over time. Being loyal to one person isn’t easy, but it is something that is understandable. Being loyal to something as diffuse as a nation, with a shifting agenda and an ideology so diverse it is virtually impossible to completely track, though, is far more difficult.
“So what are you gonna do?” “I don’t know.”
That simple question, and its open, tentative answer seem innocuous out of context, but they are, ultimately, what “A Little Night Music,” and The Americans as a whole are about. Philip asks Stan that question when he mentions his affair, and it is a conversation between two men who are not sure of their positions in the world, nor of who they really are without the deceptions they cloak themselves in. Stan can tell Philip he is having an affair, but he can never reveal the reason the relationship is doomed. Philip can reference the rough patch he and Elizabeth had, but he can never reveal it in all its thorny complexity. Honesty sandwiched in lies is the way of life for these two, and they have to get by on whatever morsels of their real selves they can dole out.