by Jess Lynde
Just as Philip K. Dick used his Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to explore those qualities that make us human, The Americans uses its own ‘Electric Sheep’ to explore the quality of empathy in the world of spies: specifically, the potential dangers of too much empathy versus the danger of not enough.
Throughout this episode we get a number of threads in which characters are driven to rash and potentially very dangerous actions, out of a desire to protect, rescue, or stay close to people they’ve grown to care about. When faced with never working with Elizabeth again, Hans brutally murders Todd to protect his cover. Martha decides to set aside her desire to have a family and to commit herself to aiding Clark in his espionage, because she doesn’t want to lose the man she loves. Philip insists that they can trust and continue to work with Martha, because he’s become fond of her and he can’t bear the thought of the alternative. And Stan and Oleg team up in a dangerous play to ferret out Zinaida’s loyalties, in an effort to get Nina back to the United States.
In all these cases (and in many that have come before), empathy or emotional attachments are shown to be a potential weakness in the spy game. You need to have objectivity. You need to simultaneously “make it real” and distance yourself from any feelings for your colleagues, assets, and targets. Your only devotion should be to Cause and country. Anything else leaves you vulnerable.
But as we see in Elizabeth’s story, the danger in divorcing yourself from empathy is that you risk becoming a monster, incapable of recognizing the horrific nature of your choices. We’ve seen Philip wrestling with the line between man and monster for awhile now. But Elizabeth has always been the “true believer” of the two. She views herself as a soldier fighting for glorious revolution. She rarely flinches from what her duty requires, and this season we’ve seen her casually murdering and disposing of a lot of people. Annalise. The Northrop employee. The delivery woman in the alley during the operation to grab Venter. Although visibly disturbed by the brutality of Venter’s death last week, this aspect of her job rarely seems to faze her. She accepts it as a cost of war, and tells herself that the terrible things she does are necessary for the greater good. She’s even attempting to indoctrinate her daughter with this message, telling Paige in recent weeks that sometimes you have to do hard and illegal things for the “right reasons.”
But this week she’s confronted with the hard and unpleasant truth that these things she does aren’t really the actions of a good person fighting in a noble cause. Moreover, she is forced to see one of her victims as an actual person. An innocent woman, with a family, a past, regrets, and fears, who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Someone who didn’t deserve to die, whom Elizabeth would typically treat as nameless collateral damage. But not this time. This time, Elizabeth is killing a person. A person who wants to live, and who won’t let Elizabeth tell herself comforting lies about who and what she is.
Mrs. Turner: “Do you have children?”
Mrs. Turner: “And this is what you do?”
Mrs. Turner: “By yourself?”
Elizabeth: “With my husband.”
Mrs. Turner (bewildered): “Why?”
Elizabeth: “To make the world a better place.”
Mrs. Turner: “You think doing this to me will make the world a better place?”
Elizabeth: “I’m sorry, but it will.”
Mrs. Turner: “That’s what evil people tell themselves. When they do evil things.”
It will be interesting to see how this experience affects Elizabeth. Will she begin to see through the lies of the Center and the Cause as Philip has? Will she come to the same realizations regarding Gabriel, and determine that her first loyalty should be to her family? “My job is to look out for my family. Because no one else will.” It’s taken Philip a long time to reach this point, and I don’t imagine that this one experience, though clearly upsetting for her, will turn Elizabeth around overnight. But I hope it gives her serious pause, particularly regarding what she’s doing with Paige. And I hope that, maybe, this is the first step in Elizabeth coming back to Philip’s side, so that they can form a united front regarding their daughter. Before Elizabeth goes too far with Paige and does something else monstrous that can’t be undone.
While Philip and Elizabeth are out planting bugs and murdering old ladies, their kids are at home playing video games and reading the Bible. I love that they included that little scene to really underscore the horror of what Elizabeth was doing.
As I was watching Oleg and Stan cooking up dangerous plans to save Nina, it occurred to me that Oleg’s father presents an interesting reverse parallel to what’s happening with Elizabeth this season. He doesn’t want his son to be part of the spy business, and is trying to get him out. To no avail.
I keep wondering if Stan’s paranoia and desire to save Nina is going to end up making him look like the mole in the office. Aderholt seems like a savvy guy, and he might be the one to catch Stan meeting with the enemy.
Mrs. Turner (re: her husband’s war service): “What he saw --- it stayed with him.”
Final Analysis: Another fantastic and painful exploration of the line between human and monster, and how things like ideology and patriotism can blur that line.
Jess Lynde is a highly engaged television viewer. Probably a bit too engaged.