The Americans: Baggage

... in which Philip and Elizabeth help Yousaf out of a jam, then insist he return the favor.

You know, I do love when an episode title has multiple meanings, but the literal representation of this week’s title was pretty damn horrifying. I watch a lot of dark, disturbing television, and I was still totally unprepared to watch Philip and Elizabeth break and bend Annalise’s dead body and then stuff it into a suitcase. Seeing such a thing happen to anyone would be bad enough. But to watch two characters we’ve come to care about (and likely sympathize with more often than not) do that to someone else we’ve come to know and perhaps feel sympathy for --- and to be so workmanlike about it --- was just awful. It really presented a new challenge on the “how can I possibly finding myself rooting for these people?” front.

And yet, I do care, and I do often root for the Jennings. I care about all the damaged people in this world, despite the horrible things they do to each other and others, because the show lets us see the humanity in all of them. We see their strengths along with their flaws and weaknesses. We see their values and their capacity for love. We understand what motivates them: love of country; commitment to ideology; love of family; a need for human connection. Even though I kind of hate Stan for what he did to Nina and Vlad, and understand and sympathize with Oleg’s desire to punish him, I also completely felt for Stan making that phone call to his family and then going to Sandra after his brush with death. Yes, he’s done terrible things and made mistakes. Yes, he’s deeply hurt people he loves. But we understand that in most cases, he believes he’s doing these awful things for the right reasons. He’s trying to protect his family and serve his country. He’s fighting enemies of the state and seeking justice for fallen colleagues. Just like Oleg. Just like Philip and Elizabeth. At times, they are monsters, but the show also lets us see they are also all-too-human. It is a hard thing to reconcile.

The baggage sequence is a fantastic demonstration of this duality. Even as it clearly shows us how cold and monstrous Elizabeth and Philip can be in their methods, it also powerfully underscores Philip’s very human and completely understandable fears about the Center’s plans for Paige. “I don’t want her putting people into a suitcase, and I don’t want her ending up in a suitcase!” Although we’re repulsed by what he has done to poor Annalise, we still sympathize with the father terrified about what might happen to his daughter. We share his fears for Paige, and boggle at Elizabeth’s desire to steer her child toward this kind of life.

Of course, as we learned this week, Elizabeth’s perspective is complicated. She’s not necessarily envisioning Paige doing the kind of work that she and Philip do. She’s picturing her in more of a “desk job” version of their work, not out on the front lines. She’d be positioned to pass intelligence along when the need or opportunity arises. That’s all the Center wants from her. As Philip points out, Elizabeth is fooling herself if she thinks that’s all it would ever be. “Until something changes. It always changes.” They’ll eventually demand more. More information, more risk.

Some part of Elizabeth likely recognizes this and worries about the possibilities. But the Center’s request gets at deeper issues than Elizabeth’s desire to be close to her daughter or wanting Paige to follow in her footsteps. Like Philip, she wants to protect their daughter, just in a different way. She wants Paige to understand and face the harsh realities of life. She wants to stop sheltering Paige, and to teach her how to be strong and stand for something in this ugly world. Elizabeth is also feeling like she needs to live up to her mother’s example. “She didn’t blink. She told me to go and serve my country. When I was called, my mother didn’t hesitate.” She’s keenly feeling her mother’s absence and impending death, and she wants to honor her memory and make her proud. She doesn’t want to shirk her duty the way her father, the deserter, did. “He ran away. They shot him. He was a deserter. The memorial isn’t for him.”

All completely understandable, but a tad misguided, I fear. Elizabeth is not raising Paige in the same kind of world she grew up in. Of course Elizabeth’s mother would encourage her to join the service. It gave her a shot at some semblance of a better life. “Maybe she’s a little happier now, because her daughter is alive and she’s grateful she’s making a difference in the world.” (That Gabriel is a pretty smooth manipulator.) Nadezhda’s mother wanted more for her daughter than what she could give her. Elizabeth is not in that position. She can give Paige a shot at a comfortable and purposeful life without conscripting her into the dangerous world of espionage. She can send her to Pepsi Georgetown University, and encourage her to pursue a career that lets her serve her own ideals.

Or can she? Elizabeth is right that the Center won’t let this go. “This stuff with Paige. It’s not going to just go away.” Philip knows this. Knows that even if the two of them agreed Paige should be kept out of their world, the issue wouldn’t just go away. So what options do the Jennings really have? Take their kids and run? Turn traitor and ask for asylum in the U.S.? As we can see with the representative from the United States-Canada Institute, that’s not something the Center is likely to let go either. They’d have to go into hiding or protective custody. How would that be giving their kids the life they want for them? Can they resist the Center’s pressure, and risk having them go after Paige without their participation in the process? Probably not, after what they saw happen with Jared. They are caught between duty and their love for and desire to protect their children, and it remains to be seen if they can work together to address the situation.

Other Thoughts

These last few episodes have left me wondering if I would be able to find any religious or ideological extremist sympathetic if given this kind of “understand the person beneath the actions” focus. Is there a point at which the methods or actions become too abhorrent for me to muster compassion? Is there something specific to this group of characters and the way they’ve been presented that makes it possible to keep rooting for them in many respects, or is there a point at which they cross a line I can’t get past?

Nina!!! So she wasn’t pretending with Oleg, huh? How can we be sure? Is this the truth, and she just wanted Oleg to know that she really did care for him before the end? Or is she saying this in an effort to somehow sway his father to her side? She remains an enigma, and that’s why I love her.

The defector’s enthusiasm for chocolate spoke volumes about why she might be fleeing the Motherland. “This is so good.”

As much empathy as I felt for Stan in his pained sit down with Sandra, I was glad to see her stick to her guns. She needs more honesty in her life than he can give her.

Elizabeth: “What do you want, Philip? A guarantee that life’s gonna be easy?”
Philip: “For my daughter? Yeah. “

Elizabeth’s tooth issue is bound to reach critical mass soon. At least she’s smart enough to know that the FBI will be checking dentists.

Last week I referred to the new woman at the Rezidentura as the “new Nina,” but I’m now getting the impression she’s in a more powerful position. Nina was a secretary, whereas Tatiana seems to be a colleague of Oleg’s, or possibly a superior, but not a subordinate. “Propaganda is more important than anything. I want you to start to understand this.”

Igor: “Parents are always trying to understand our children better. To do what’s best for them. It’s our great misfortune.”
Nina: “Why a misfortune?”
Igor: “Because we’re so often disappointed.”

Final Analysis: Another disturbing episode that leaves me marveling at how I can still manage to care about and root for people that do such terrible things. On all sides.

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

1 comment:

ChrisB said...

This episode may have been the turning point for me. I understand that the writers are trying to push us out of our comfort zone, but between Philip's actions last week and the scene with the body this week, my comfort zone is in another time zone.

I could feel my sympathies for these two people being dialed way down. Even in that final scene, while part of me recognizes the struggle and what it is doing to them, the other part of me just felt as though they had brought this all on themselves.

We shall see.