The Americans: Trust Me

“I’m not a spy.”

My emotions regarding The Americans are complicated. On the one hand, it is sharply written, brilliantly acted, and is just excellent all around. On the other, I don’t love it. I just don’t. I enjoy it when I watch it, but I don’t look forward to Wednesdays at 10:00. Why? I think I've figured it out. I don't have a team in the game. The KGB battles against the FBI and I just can't help wanting everything to be okay. I want Elizabeth and Philip to succeed in their spying. I want Beeman to catch them. I want the KGB to figure out who the mole in the embassy is and I want the mole to be okay. I want Beeman to give into his obvious attraction to Nina and I want him to recommit to his wife. I want everyone to win in what I know is a zero sum game. It makes watching the show an exercise in stress.

Speaking of stress, this week, Philip and Elizabeth are kidnapped and tortured by the people they work for while their children are simultaneously picked up by a creep with a knife.

It’s a symptom of my love for this site that whenever I see someone being tortured in a TV show, I think of Billie and how much she hates torture scenes. These weren’t so bad, at least until Elizabeth got involved. It makes sense that Elizabeth was the one to lose it when they discovered the identity of their abductors. Philip is the one who questions orders, who occasionally doubts. Elizabeth is a good foot solider, so it’s completely logical that she was the one to feel the most betrayed.

There was betrayal enough to go around this week. Elizabeth betrayed Philip. This is not news to the audience, as her reporting on Philip was mentioned in the pilot episode. It is news to Philip. His recent progress with his wife hasn’t been completely negated, but it has been set back.

I feel like Philip is more committed to making their marriage work than Elizabeth. Elizabeth seems to be looking for a reason to give up. When things hit a rough patch this week, she immediately calls Gregory, her (ex?) boyfriend. Whether it’s reasonable or not, Elizabeth feels a bit betrayed by Philip in turn. Her reporting was just part of her job. She was just following orders, not to mention that it happened before their marriage was in any way real. She wasn’t betraying her husband, she was reporting on her partner.

Oh, the kids. This story really stressed me out. Apparently the eighties were a simpler time, a time before children were taught that getting into a car with a stranger is a ridiculously stupid move. In this situation, Henry was the most sensible. He immediately distrusted Nick. He was the one who caught Nick in his lie about having to go to work, the one who spotted the knife, and the one who thought to hit the creep in the head, and the one who told his big sister to run. Spy in the making, perhaps? We can hope.

I don’t know what Nick had planned for the kids. At first I thought it might have had something to do with mommy and daddy being kidnapped, but it seems likely Nick was just a creep. Maybe he was creepy but harmless, or maybe the kids’ mutilated bodies would have been found the next day floating in that lake. Thankfully, we’ll never know.

In other news, Nina’s pseudo prostitutional affair with Vasili continues, until, that is, Beeman frames him for being the mole and he gets sent back to the Soviet Union. I really like Beeman and Nina. They have great chemistry and they feel like one of those ‘it’s so wrong, it’s right’ couples. I love that Beeman saved her with diamonds, a symbol of love and constancy.

Also handing out sparklies this week is Philip. He’s still working the pitiable Martha for intel, but refusing to sleep with her despite his alleged attraction. I wonder why. He has no qualms about cheating on his wife for work, why not sleep with Martha? Is he afraid she’ll get too attached or start asking too many questions?

What’s interesting about The Americans is that the spy games aren’t the show’s main focus. On Alias, the spy fun was an end in itself. The show was about putting Sydney in wigs and skimpy dresses and watching her work her double agent magic. On The Americans, the spy trappings are there to further character development. From a pure plot perspective, the story of Philip and Elizabeth’s abduction went nowhere. We ended the show more or less where we started, but things changed drastically for our characters’ relationship due to that revving of wheels.

Soviet Bits & Communist Pieces:

I can’t believe Philip didn’t have a better cover story prepared than “I’m not a spy.” Shouldn’t he have at least attempted to explain away the incriminating details of his life? I’m not sure much could have been done, but he might have tried.

It’s so creepy when adults tell young girls they're going to grow up pretty.

I had my first sip of beer when I was 11. I didn’t like it. I still don’t like it.

Elizabeth’s face when Philip asked her for a piece of jewelry was priceless. It was so petty of him to ask.

Quotes:

Interrogator: “We know who you are and what you are, Mr. Jennings. You commie prick.”

Beeman: “Should I get my Carmac the Magnificent turban?”

Nina: “You know what they do to people suspected of treason? They put them on a plane back to Russia, no discussions, no questions, they get them a trial and a lawyer, and they find them guilty. And I am guilty.”

Beeman: “You know those Africans the criminal investigations guys busted a few months ago with the diamonds in their asses? [...] I’d like to request some of the jewels.”
Gaad: “I don’t think your wife’s gonna appreciate it if she ever finds out where they came from.”

Nick: “I mean, seriously, without a higher power, we’re no better than wild dogs.”

Elizabeth: “We’ll die before we talk.”
Philip: “We know how to do that.”

Elizabeth: “You’re not the only one who got hurt today, okay? I was ripped from my house, I was attacked by the people I believed in, the people I trusted most my whole life.”
Philip: “Yeah, I think that says it all.”

three and a half out of four bottles of beer

11 comments:

Billie Doux said...

I had a lot of thoughts about this one.

You have a point about rooting for these characters, Sunbunny. I find it easier to root for Phillip. He's still doing his job, but he's questioning everything about it and trying his best to throw off a lifetime of indoctrination. He was thrown that Elizabeth told their keepers about him enjoying American life too much because he would never betray Elizabeth. He thinks of their marriage as a real one, and she doesn't feel the same way. And yet, Elizabeth could have confessed much more about Phillip's desire to defect, and she didn't.

The torture did bother me, but mostly (and I know this is odd) when it was Elizabeth hurting Claudia; I was hoping Margo Martindale's stunt double did most of it. Elizabeth completely enraged at the betrayal of her keepers to the point of violence was fascinating; it's what we would expect the man to do, not the woman, but it was definitely in character. I don't like Elizabeth any where near as much as Phillip, but she's a terrific character. This incident might push her further into Phillip's camp. We shall see.

The situation with the kids was seriously disturbing. I haven't thought all that much about their position in this situation, but when the KGB guy was talking about sending Paige and Henry to Russia, he was only saying what American spies might say. The Jennings children were the real victims in this episode. Their mother didn't pick them up when she was supposed to, and they obviously didn't have nearby family or family friends to call upon, and they wound up in a seriously dangerous situation. Not many kids would have had the guts to hit an adult with a beer bottle, and it made me think that Henry, at least, has subconsciously picked up on what's really going on with his parents. How could they not sense that something about their lives is different at some subterranean emotional level?

I keep thinking that something horrible is going to happen to Nina, and I rather liked that Stan deep-sixed her boss to protect her. But I think Stan also did it not just to protect an asset, but to save Nina from having to prostitute herself. He and Gaad could have chosen someone else to frame, someone more likely to be a spy than the boss. Right?

Terrific review, Sunbunny. When I saw that comment about me, I thought Josie had written this one!

Josie Kafka said...

Oh, the kids. This story really stressed me out. Apparently the eighties were a simpler time, a time before children were taught that getting into a car with a stranger is a ridiculously stupid move.

This is going to sound crazy, but I think you're not wrong about it being a simpler time. I was born in the early 80s, so I didn't live through these allegedly "simple" times, but it was in the 1980s that a few, well-publicized kidnappings led to parents getting much, much stricter about children being alone in public places, on the streets, or even in the front yard.

The national panic was so extreme that my mother and I created a "code word." If anyone other than her tried to pick me up from school, I had to check that the person had been given the code word by my mom. If they didn't know it, I wouldn't get into the car with them.

The only result of our spy-craft games? My mom's best friend tried to pick me up one day in a pre-arranged car pool, and I refused to get in the car with her because she hadn't used the word "encyclopedia." This was before cell phones, so sorting that out took a few hours. :-)

TJ said...

"I want everyone to win in what I know is a zero sum game. It makes watching the show an exercise in stress."

Sunbunny, you captured the exact words that I couldn't find myself. Although I am loving this show, it is very stressful to watch, which makes the experience, yes, complicated.

I was too very concerned about the kids. I kept thinking what would happen if the family got caught and deported to Russia, these children would end up in a country they feel no connection to. They would probably be treated badly as well. They would be children without any real nationalities. Yes, they are the real victims in this icy cold game.

Although I'm rooting for the whole family, I still have troubles with Elizabeth. I find her a bit of an icequeen, and very subjective. Philip on the other hand shows much more humanity and perspective, he can think out of the box and be objective.

This is a fascination show, I can't even imagine (which is not like me) where they will go with all this.

TJ said...

Oops.
I meant "a fascinating show" of course...

Jess Lynde said...

I think all the contradictions in the "zero sum" rooting game are part of what I really like about this show. I just love that I find myself rooting equally for Phillip, Elizabeth, Stan, Nina, and Stan's wife. I guess I like having to think about all the sides, and being "forced" to have sympathy for "the enemy" and to see all the players as human. It's such a refreshing change of pace in our polarized times.

For me, Phillip is the more sympathetic character in our core relationship, but I think Elizabeth may be the more fascinating character for me. I'm certainly enjoying the ways her toughness contrasted with her efforts to get past her conditioning and to let Phillip into her life more. She still seems to want to make it work. It wasn't entirely clear to me that she was welcoming Gregory back into her arms; it's just that he's one of the few people she feels she can truly trust to keep her children safe.

I didn't enjoy the kids storyline as much as the rest of this episode, because it felt like Paige was being needlessly stupid. But I'm glad they got out of the situation relatively unscathed.

Josie, my parents gave me a code word, too! I never had to use it, but I still remember it all these years later.

Heather1 said...

I understand the stress of rooting for everyone when you know not everyone can win. But I agree with Jess.. that's what makes this show fascinating. It is rare to not be able to predict who will win. Usually, we understand that despite the odds, our heroes will prevail. Who are the heroes in this show? The last time I can remember being so conflicted and unsure was when I was watching La Femme Nikita, with Peta Wilson and Roy Dupuis. At the end of every episode of that show, I would look at the screen and said aloud, "That is one crazy world!"... and I loved it. And I believe The Americans ratchet that tension up a notch.

Suzanne said...

I love this show and loved this episode, even though I felt incredibly tense throughout the whole thing. I agree that the storyline about the kids could have been executed better, but I found myself feeling incredibly anxious for them even before they got picked up by the creep. They were so alone, and I kept thinking about how they have no one to turn to if and when things go wrong for their parents. What a horrible situation to put one's kids in, especially considering Phillip and Elisabeth seem to love their children a great deal.

Another thing I liked was the way that the two kids acted in ways their parents seemed to predict. The boy was incredibly smart and brave about things just as his parents seem to predict.

ChrisB said...

Great review! Unlike most of the rest of you, my team is Phillip and Elizabeth. I like Beeman and Nina and the others, but I am solidly on what, from an American point of view, is the wrong side.

I was surprised by the kids' story as well. I was all grown up in 1981, but I spent my childhood being told in no uncertain terms never to get into a car with a stranger. I was very glad that it all worked out in the end.

sunbunny said...

ChrisB / Josie / Jess - So it's not just the times, the kids were being dumbasses. I remember very specifically my dad making me practice not getting out of the car for a stranger. I was in the car and he said 'Now pretend I'm a stranger' and asked me to get out of the car. I did, because he was my dad. He yelled and then made me try again. Let's just say it took him a while to get me out of the car and into the house when he was done, erm 'teaching.'

Scott Riggan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scott Riggan said...

I really love this show. And, although I hadn't realized it until now, you've articulated exactly why it grabs me; I feel a real sense of peril for these characters, even though part of me knows I should be only rooting for my team...

The kids haven't made much of an impression yet, and others (John Boy, for example) are just stock characters so far. But I'm seriously invested in Phillip and Elizabeth's story. Beeman and Nina too. And in only 6 episodes.

Interesting that the same thing that's keeping you from really liking The Americans is what, for me, makes this show compelling and addictive.