The Americans: EST Men

... in which missions go horribly awry, and the Center’s desire to recruit Paige continues to cause tension between Elizabeth and Philip.

In many ways, the season premiere gives us business as usual for The Americans. The KGB, CIA, and FBI are continuing to wage their countries’ ideological war at home and on the world stage. Philip and Elizabeth are taking meetings with their Center handler and running various ops. Philip is dealing with sexual hijinks with his assets, while Elizabeth is grooming new assets and fighting her way out of trouble.

But not everything is the same. The Jennings have a new handler (who turns out to be their old handler, Gabriel). Nina is gone and has been convicted of espionage and treason. Annalise is a redhead. And the asset Elizabeth is attempting to develop is Paige.

Elizabeth doesn’t see things that way, of course. She believes she’s merely creating a closer relationship with her daughter, and is just telling the Center what it needs to hear. But Philip has it right. Elizabeth’s idea of a closer relationship with Paige is being spies together. She wants to recruit Paige into the KGB, wants her daughter to find out who they and she really are. Yes, it will change everything, but in a good way. She’ll take after them, join the family business, and they’ll fight for glorious revolution. Together.

Elizabeth: “I told him what he needed to hear. What the Center needs to hear.”
Philip: “And that is exactly what you want. [pause] Elizabeth, we are so close now. We are so close. Couple years, she goes to college, she’s an adult. She can have her own life. We owe her that. Don’t you get it?”
Elizabeth: “I get it. I get everything.”
Philip: “You’re assessing her. You’re developing her.”
Elizabeth: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. She’s my daughter.”

For Elizabeth, training Paige will be a wonderful parental rite of passage, in which she gets to pass down her knowledge and skills to the next generation. As she was teaching her fellow young agent how to tail another vehicle, you could see her pleasure at helping him learn, likely anticipating getting to do the same work with Paige. She told Gabriel that it’s going to take time to lay the groundwork for initiating Paige into the spy world, but if her opening memories are any indication, she’s chomping at the bit to just throw Paige into the deep end to force her to learn how to swim.

Now that Elizabeth has learned her mother is dying, she’s going to want that continuing connection with Paige even more. And, unfortunately, that looming loss is going to make it even more difficult for her to see that her desire to bring Paige into the fold, to keep her close, is not only bound to fail --- she has no interest in the Cause and would rather watch The Jeffersons than the news about Brezhnev’s death --- it is seriously messed up!

I can understand Elizabeth wanting her daughter to know who she really is and to share her ideals. I’m a mother. I get it. But why in the bloody hell would Elizabeth want her daughter to be a spy? What parent wants that kind of future for their kid? The double life, the constant deceit, having to use your body as a sexual weapon, getting bruised and battered and shot, not to mention the ever-present threat of prison or death hanging over your head. How in the world could Elizabeth possibly think her Christian, God-loving daughter would want to ruthlessly kill people for a living? Why would she want that for her? How could she want her daughter to become the kind of person that can stand in a room with the dead body of the woman she just got killed --- a woman who trusted her --- and try to convince her killer that she can help him?

Because that’s what the spy life requires. It requires you to be an inhuman monster in the service of some higher ideal. To use people in service of your own ends. To make them trust you or fear you, and then squeeze them until there’s nothing left. We’ve seen it again and again and again. Nina. Lucia. Jared. Annalise. Even Larrick. Likely Martha someday. And as it destroys the people you’ve used, it slowly destroys you, too. Bit by bit. How many times have we watched Elizabeth and Philip struggle with the pain of their choices? And now we’re seeing Arkady, Oleg, and Stan carrying the weight of what’s happened to Nina. The spy life is not a happy one. And not what most people would want for their children.

Other Thoughts

CIA Contact: “You have a daughter? [...] Mine’s nineteen. Sophomore in college. Three days ago she calls me, says she’s decided to major in political science. Wants to be in the CIA, like her mother.”
And here you are, so embittered by your career choice that you’re turning over intel to the enemy. Not exactly a great gig, is it?

EST Trainer: “You assholes haven’t had a single real experience your entire lives. You’re living in the realm of non-experience, which is why your lives don’t work.”

Stan and Philip going to the EST meeting was deliciously ironic. As the EST Trainer and Sandra tell us, the whole premise is that you should live honestly, experience oneself as whole and complete in the present moment, and be satisfied with who you really are. They argue that most of life’s problems come from broken agreements and not keeping your word (thank you, Wikipedia). And yet dishonesty and exploiting the misery that comes from broken agreements is pretty much Stan’s and Philip’s bread and butter. Of course Stan would think it’s total bullshit.

EST Trainer: “Sex is one of the few things we have --- almost getting killed is another --- than can jolt us into feeling fully alive.”
Maybe that’s why Elizabeth wants the spy life for Paige. All the sex and nearly getting killed will let her feel “fully alive.” (Yes, that’s sarcasm.)

I wonder if that footage the Rezindentura folks were watching was real. I hope not. I have avoided watching the recent string of “recruitment” execution videos for a reason. Fake murder in the context of a fictional television show or movie is one thing. Watching a real person actually die is another. That said, I did appreciate the stark reminder that even as things change over time, much remains the same.

Oleg: “This isn’t back home. We have to speak freely here in order to do our jobs.”

The Jennings certainly have a very different relationship with Gabriel than what we saw with Claudia and Kate. I can see why they didn’t react well to his previous reassignment.

So Paige is 14 years old, huh? Maybe when the series started, but she’s clearly older than that now. Ah, the challenges of working with young actors when the passage of time is shorter in your show than in reality (see also, Carl on The Walking Dead and Taller Ghost Walt from Lost).

I’m just going to assume that although Nina is facing execution, Oleg will find some way to save her. Possibly with Stan’s help, since he was tailing him. We are not going to lose Nina!

Martha’s still got that gun. And she’s learning to use it.

Philip to Annalise: “I’m glad you like him, but you do have to be careful. [...] You have to be objective to do the job.”
And yet nearly every spy we’ve met on this show wrestles daily with objectivity. The core mission that the Center has given "Elizabeth" and "Philip," and the one they are now strongly pushing, defy objectivity!

You can always trust The Americans to keep pushing the “sexual situations” boundaries for basic cable. Last year it was ‘69’ and this year it’s the Kama Sutra.

The scene with Elizabeth listening to her mother’s tape was beautifully done. We didn’t need a translation to know who the tape was from or what was being said. Keri Russell did a fantastic job.

Final Analysis: A solid start, with many promising new threads to spool out over the season.

Jess Lynde is a highly engaged television viewer. Probably a bit too engaged.

1 comment:

ChrisB said...

Good opening episode for the season. I like where the story is headed and I am looking forward to watching it unspool.

I am not a mother, but my feelings about what Elizabeth is doing mirror yours exactly, Jess. Why is the question that keeps coming into my head.

I was disgusted at what Philip did this episode. I'm not sure why, but watching him allow that beautiful young woman to die so brutally for another purpose really upset me.

Fantastic review, Jess.