The Americans: Comrades

“Why would you open a closed door?”

The second-season premiere of The Americans maintained the dreadful tension of the first season while ramping up the specific threats to the welfare and happiness of our favorite Soviet spies, the Jennings.

Last season ended with a near-miss between Stan and the Jennings: he (or his FBI comrades) shot Elizabeth and nearly discovered their Directorate S identities. That tension—will he or won’t he? Or maybe, when will he?—may be the dominant force of this narrative: discovery is what the Jennings must constantly avoid, and when they no longer have to avoid it, or are discovered, the show will end.

So, although The Americans maintains a clear sense of tension for the characters, the audience needs a bit more, and “Comrades” more than delivered. The long list of people who may want to kill the Jennings, and who did kill their friends, represents the threats beyond the FBI. Even the nefarious Granny is lurking somewhere in the background, albeit undercover as a suburban mom.

That threat—of discovery, of uncovering, of someone opening the closed door of the Jennings' lives—isn’t solely the province of spy games, though. Last season, Paige became suspicious of her parents, especially her mother’s fondness for late-night laundry sessions. As Elizabeth has been away, recovering from her wounds, Paige has perhaps continued her investigations: as Elizabeth points out, Paige happened to discover her parents in flagrante this time. How many times has she opened a closed door to find her parents gone?

I love the way that the show is collapsing Paige’s emergent sexuality as a young woman, her thoughtful inquisitions into her parents’ activities, and the far more political threat of being uncovered as spies: Paige’s life is more complicated than she has realized so far, and as she realizes those complications, she will transform from a girl to a woman. I just hope, probably against all logic, that she is never truly in the know about what her parents are up to.

Paige has always has a doe-eyed innocence, and I guess it’s no coincidence that Elizabeth encountered this week’s Most Obvious Symbols in the woods: the mama deer and her deerlings, which she nearly hit with her car. It’s a straightforward and painful reminder that threats can emerge from nowhere, just as they did for the Connors.

And—wow!—how awful was that? Not just the bloodbath in the hotel room, or Philip’s realization that the older son would walk into that carnage completely unprepared for the horrible life about to unfold before him—no, the worst part for me was the pure loneliness of Philip and Elizabeth needing to “see” their friends’ children at a distance, unable to interact with them for fear of blowing their cover, and always unable to fully explain how they feel about raising their children in the US. The simultaneous openness and reserve of the scene between the adults was indicative of just how much must remain hidden for the life the Jennings must inhabit.

That life appears to be taking its toll on Philip, who revealed himself to be quite willing to kill if necessary, as he did with the Afghans in the restaurant, but unwilling to kill in cold blood: his tone as he queried “Take them out?” showed just where he wishes he could draw the line. He can’t draw the line there, of course, because it’s not just the motherland at stake, but the safety of his own family. And while he and Elizabeth have clearly rekindled some elements of their relationship, he finds more solace in talking to his “real wife” Martha, who has no idea who he really is or what he really does.

Elizabeth may be more willing to make the hard choices, but her brush with death—or at least her brush with a bullet—seems to have made her realize that “we don’t use our kids” is an untenable position in this sort of undercover situation. Given the recent trend towards extreme violence in TV, I’m starting to worry about the safety of Henry and Paige: a few years ago, I would have said that killing a child was off-limits for even a cable channel. Now, I’m really not sure.

Philip’s and Elizabeth’s marriage isn’t the only one under strain, of course. I thought Stan’s desire to please Nina with a tear-jerker was sort of hilarious, as it seemed to reveal both Nina’s willingness to be emotionally honest (although spyingly dishonest) and Stan’s lack of understanding of the complexity of her character. Stan is really more suited for his real wife, perhaps just as much as Philip is, in some ways, more suited for the rather boring Martha.

The Americans has been a consistently well-done show, and I admire its skill every time I watch it. However, I also find myself rather emotionally disengaged: I didn’t get around to finishing the last two episodes of the first season until this week. I can’t quite put my finger on why the emotional lure of this show fails to draw me in, but on an intellectual level I admire the way the show is increasing both the political and the familial tension. Does anyone else feel this way?

Three out of four electronic mail robot things.

Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

3 comments:

Jane said...

Nice review Josie! I absolutely feel the same way you do about the emotional disconnect of the show. I admire the intricacy of the story and the writing very much. It's one of those shows that I watch with a knot in my stomach. Maybe I'm too much a child of the Cold War era to really understand how Philip and Elizabeth remain committed to the cause. Being a soft American I would have wanted to jump ship long ago if it were me - even without some of the things they are expected to do.

I do disagree that Philip is more suited to Martha. I feel like she isn't just boring, but also pretty needy. Ultimately he can't share his true concerns with her. Even with their issues he and Elizabeth really know each other.

Stan and Nina and the "French Lieutenant's Woman" cracked me up. My husband and I agree Nina is the most clear sighted person on the show.

ChrisB said...

Great review, Josie. I am one of the ones who has a deep emotional connection to this show.

Perhaps it is the fact that I was only slightly older than Paige in 1981 and feel a strong sense of nostalgia when I watch. Everything is so familiar, yet so different.

I am also completely invested in the Jennings, their marriage, and their kids. I love the way the writers have made their marriage feel so real. It is neither fairy tale happy nor ridiculously unhappy.

Unsurprisingly, I believe it will be their kids that forge that final bond between them. Their kids that are the true Americans.

The horror of that hotel room will stay with me for a long time. The look on Philip's face as he realized what that young boy was about to face was heartbreaking. The stakes are high and feel real.

Jess Lynde said...

I, too, am very emotionally engaged by this show. In fact, I'm often perplexed by how emotionally engaged I can be by all the players and their plights, even recognizing every one them comes across as "the enemy" at times. I'm particularly attached to Nina. I worry about her all the time. And now I'm concerned that this new guy at the Rezidentura, who doesn't seem to take the job seriously is going to do something that inadvertently compromises her.

So far, I'm liking the shift in focus from marriage to parenthood for this season. That's the bond with the most potential to truly test the Jennings' loyalty to the Motherland.

I was incredibly impressed that this episode managed to pull off not one, but two, shocking, "learning what's behind the closed door" scenes, and yet managed to make them shocking in completely different ways. The hotel one was definitely devastating, and the looks on Phillip's and Elizabeth's faces were indeed heartbreaking and haunting.