Posts Tagged ‘The Americans’
Like the spies it chronicles, The Americans plays the long game. Back when it cast Alison Wright as Martha Hanson, the lonely FBI secretary main character Philip Jennings began to work and woo in an attempt to gain access to the Counterintelligence office’s inner sanctum, there was no reason to believe she’d have a bigger part to play than any of the other marks and assets the Jennings and their rivals targeted. Now Martha’s at the center of the story, arguably the series’ most exciting and excruciating one to date. And like she’s done for several seasons now, the actor playing her is delivering one of the finest performances that prestige drama as ever seen. Martha’s own career as an agent may be going up in smoke, but it turns out Wright was just the right woman for the job.
The Americans is that special kind of good television where you know it’s good–and I mean this sincerely–because it’s nauseating to watch. With each passing moment the dilemma into which Philip and Elizabeth Jennings have placed themselves feels more and more intractable, and the violations of others for which they are responsible more and more unforgivable, to the point where my reaction is one of literal physical revulsion. There were times during “The Rat,” this week’s episode — such as when, in the safe house to which they’ve retreated believing her cover to be blown, “Clark” held Martha’s hand and told her everything would be alright, “I promise, I promise” — where it watching felt less like spectatorship and more like complicity. It leaves a bad taste in your throat, which is as high a compliment as I can pay it.
The way some people talk and write about The Americans, it’s like they’d never listened to New Wave or had sex until Elizabeth & Philip Jennings did. This is a great show, one of the best shows, and there’s no question its astute pop-music cues and explicit sex scenes factor prominently into that. But is the combination of Yaz and oral really all that exotic? Jeez, just put the kids to bed early and put on some Berlin already. It’s the grim morality play, not the Big ’80s hits and the cowgirl position, that are irreproducible elsewhere.
This, I suppose, is my way of saying that the desperate “Under Pressure”–soundtracked fuckfest that concluded “Clark’s Place,” last night’s episode, left me a bit deflated. This is not entirely The Americans’ fault: Fear the Walking Dead shit the bed so badly with its try-hard use of “Five Years” during last weekend’s season premiere that David Bowie is going to be very difficult to enjoy on any other series for quite some time, especially in light of the likelihood that the late genius’s catalogue will be every TV show’s go-to for EMOTIONAL RESONANCE for the rest of the year. I can’t lay that at the show’s feet, any more than I can in good conscience protest that the lyrics were, to use the single worst phrase in any TV critic’s vocabulary, “too on-the-nose” — not after The People v. O.J. Simpson proved time and time again that when it comes to period-appropriate pop, blunt can be beautiful.
No, in this case, the problem is unique to the song itself, I think. Simply put, “Under Pressure” is so perfect, such a marvelous showcase of both Bowie and Queen’s equally sorely missed Freddie Mercury, that an intensely personal relationship and a set of associations with the track are almost impossible not to form. Invested though I may be in Philip, Elizabeth, Stan, Martha, Paige, and the rest of the gang, I’ve also drummed along on my car steering wheel to the “Can’t we give ourselves one more chance?” so hard and so often that my hands can feel the sense-memory as I type this; the emotions it brings up can’t help but drown out the ones the story demands. A strategically deployed anthem can be a knockout blow on a show, as it was last season with Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” for instance, or on Mad Men when Don Draper listened to “Tomorrow Never Knows” like he was trying to decode a message from an alien culture. (Which, in effect, he was.) In this case, though, the song overwhelmed the sequence whose spine it provided, Keri Russell’s bare ass be damned.
I reviewed this week’s episode of The Americans for the New York Observer. I think I write well about this show, for whatever that’s worth, same way I thought I wrote well about Downton Abbey.
Elizabeth Jennings dreams of death. As she lies in bed, burning with fever from an adverse reaction to chloramphenicol, the powerful antibiotic that gave last night’s episode of The Americans its title, her mind takes her back to her childhood in the Soviet Union. She’s tending to her late mother, suffering from her own early brush with mortality in the form of tuberculosis. The woman gives her daughter instructions on what to do if she dies, though in reality her death is still decades away. When Elizabeth awakens, she’s determined to give her own daughter the same gift her mother gave her, at least according to their liaisons at the Centre: the knowledge that she died loving her child. If the Centre goes through with the plan to murder Pastor Tim and his wife Alice, their own daughter, Paige, will never forgive them, never understand that the love they say they feel for her is real and not a Soviet mind game. After all they’ve put her through, isn’t sparing her that the last they can do?
I reviewed this week’s episode of The Americans for the New York Observer. I’m proud of this piece.
My favorite moment of this week’s The Americans was silent. Told that she’s been found guilty, that the only question is whether she’ll survive her punishment, triple-crossed triple-agent Nina is handed a letter written on her behalf by Anton Baklanov, the kidnapped scientist she was instructed to monitor but befriended instead, risking her life and that of her estranged but supportive husband to help him make contact with his son. We don’t know what it says, don’t even see the writing on it, let alone have it translated by subtitles or read aloud by Nina. But whatever it is, in that grey room, in her grey prison clothes, it makes her smile. Moments of happiness are so few and far between in the ironically optimistically titled “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow,” last night’s episode—the next closest things were Paige Jennings watching her oblivious brother Henry play video games, Stan Beeman figuring out that Martha Hanson is the mole in his office, and Agent Aderholt agreeing to help him figure it out; none of these characters have much happiness in store if things proceed in their current direction—that this has the impact of an explosion.
I’m a reactive audience member when it comes to good TV. I hoot and holler, I gasp and curse, I laugh and cheer, and at the best of times I cry. Even so, it’s not often I get to the end of an episode and literally applaud. But that’s what I did when the closing credits rolled on this week’s installment of The Americans. Normally that’s a reaction reserved for crowded theaters where you’ve just watched a good movie on opening night, or seen the curtain come down on a play whose performers can, you know, actually hear you clap. This time it was just me, sitting in my living room, watching a TV show, spontaneously responding to a job well done.
“Is everything alright?” “No.” Hashtag: #SummarizeTheAmericansInFourWords. This exchange between Martha Hanson, the hapless administrative assistant who suffered the singular misfortune of working in the wrong FBI office at the wrong time, and Philip Jennings, the spy who seduced her, used her, and has now killed in her name, says pretty much all you need to know about The Americans, television’s most profoundly unhappy show. I mean “profoundly unhappy” in every sense of the phrase, by the way. Most everyone in the series is miserable, and the series’ misery runs deep, cuts deeper, and reveals the ugly buried truth about living a lie, whether personal or political.
I inexplicably forgot to link to this last week, but I’m reviewing The Americans for the New York Observer again this season. If it’s not the best show on television now, it’s a photo-finish.
3. Game of Thrones: Cersei Lannister
Westeros’s queen of mean, currently using religious fanatics to menace the family of her kingly son’s wife.
“When it’s a parent who’s trying to drive a wedge between spouses, one [of which is their] child, in a sense, that’s no longer parenting. They’re just being … evil. Now they’re manipulating, they’re interfering, they’re purposefully going against another person who happens to also be their child. In a sense, it’s compounded by the fact that it’s a loved one. For a parent to go against their child in that way, I would say, is the ultimate in betrayal.”
Over at Vulture, I interviewed Dr. Donna Tonrey, director of the Counseling and Family Therapy Master’s programs at La Salle University, about bad TV parents.
“I feel like shit all the time.” So says Philip Jennings in “March 8th, 1983,” the season finale of The Americans—and that’s before he murders a man whose prize possession is an adorable toy robot collection. Philip is talking about Annalise, the woman he and Yousaf both had a long-term sexual relationship with before Yousaf killed her and they stuffed her broken naked body in a suitcase. But he could be talking about almost anything he did this season: semi-seducing a teenager; driving a woman he tricked into loving him to the brink of collapse; inducting his daughter into a lifetime of danger and duplicity. Philip has a horrible fucking job, but none dare call it evil. None except someone equally horrible.
Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech, delivered on the date that gives the episode its title, is the act of rhetorical violence this season finale uses as a substitute for the physical kind. It’s a skincrawling suck-up to evangelical Christianity, and a gobsmacking exercise in false equivalence between birth control and Stalinism, delivered by a grown-ass man who cops lingo from Star Wars and whose hunger to refer to teenage girls who have sex as “promiscuous” is as self-evident as his hypocrisy on this point is well-documented.
But The Americans juxtaposes this address, which we sophisticates in the 2015 New Golden Age of TV Drama recognize for the religious and chauvinistic fanaticism it is, with the intimate and heartbreaking and damn near identical characterization of the Soviet Union and its agents by a teenage girl. Paige Jennings echoes the Leader of the Free World’s condemnation of the USSR when she calls up her own evangelical audience, Pastor Tim, and is born again in the truth.
Agent Frank Gaad is making a list, and with the help of Stan Beeman, he’s checking it twice. He knows there were times he discussed highly sensitive information in his office, when such conversations are supposed to be held in the Vault, a soundproof, bugproof room designed for just that purpose. His office may have felt like a sanctum sanctorum, but the security provided by its closed door was just an illusion, shattered by a microphone hidden in his pen. So now he’s in the Vault, (un-bugged) pen and paper in hand, writing down everything he remembers about everything he shouldn’t have said outside its confines.
To Stan’s surprise, his boss isn’t doing this at the behest of the inscrutable internal security officer Walter Taffet, but out of his own guilt and desire to reform. To put it another way, he’s taking the fourth step for any counterintelligence workaholic and making a searching and fearless moral inventory of himself. “I coulda been more careful, a lotta times,” he explains. “Well, you assume you’re okay in there, we all do,” Stan reassures him. “Yeah, well,” Gaad retorts, “that’s why we’ve got rules. They built us a vault for it.”
It’s a striking line, and an ironic one: a paean to secrecy that reveals so much about this show. The concept of the Vault is the key that unlocks “One Day in the Life of Anton Baklanov,” tonight’s predictably great episode of The Americans, and many other episodes besides. It cracks the code of how many scenes in the series are shot and staged to emphasize the structures, literal and metaphorical, people employ to keep others out, and their secrets in. Breach them at your peril.
I reviewed tonight’s preposterously good episode of The Americans for the New York Observer. That was one of the best sex scenes I’ve ever seen on TV, by the way.
In tonight’s episode, there’s a moment after Jim brings Kimmy home drunk from a frat party where he tells her, “unlike your friends, you’re very real.” You get the sense that as much as anything else, she’s just desperate for someone to talk to who will listen.
Absolutely. He’s kind of the only one, it seems to her, who’s paying attention. That’s huge, especially for someone who’s 15 years old. They’re not a kid, but they’re not an adult, they’re at a really weird age. She’s like, “he’s giving me what I want, and I’m feeling satisfied. It’s the attention that I want someone to give me.” It’s not even attention, it’s care. It’s being acknowledged. If a person feels like “they’re not acknowledging me” … That’s a very important feeling in life, even if it’s not romantic. She doesn’t get that acknowledgment at home.
…at this stage in its evolution, The Americans is a show that can not only sustain but reward a close reading of its formal technique — never empty formalism, always a method of revealing character and articulating the unspoken, occulted moral and emotional meaning of a scene. From my notes: “god this is good”; “keeeeee-rist”; “these fades are killing me dog”; “jesus that was harrowing.” I’m talking about camera movements, not chase scenes. This show excels at both.
Once upon a time, Carmela Soprano walked into a psychiatrist’s office. Her mobster husband Tony was depressed, angry, unfaithful. Could their marriage be saved? Her therapist’s answer was not one she wanted to hear: To hell with the marriage — it’s her soul she should be worried about. Tony is a monster, and she’s morally responsible for helping him feed. “You’ll never be able to feel good about yourself,” this Dr. Krakower tells her, “never be able to quell the feelings of guilt and shame that you talk about as long as you’re accomplice.” Carmela equivocates, backtracks, rationalizes, wriggles away from the words, but with no more success than a worm on a hook. “What did I just say?” he says, not budging, not allowing her to budge either. “Leave him. Take the children—what’s left of them—and go.” She frets about child support, and he interrupts. “I’m not charging you because I won’t take blood money, and you can’t either.” Then comes his final line, the last one we ever hear from this character, who never appears again and whose advice ultimately goes unheeded. “One thing you can never say: that you haven’t been told.”
On “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?”, tonight’s grim episode of The Americans, Elizabeth Jennings met her Dr. Krakower, and killed her.
Philip and Elizabeth are not the only members of the Jennings clan capable of digging into the lives of others. When Elizabeth paints their daughter Paige a very selective portrait of their pasts in the civil rights movement, the kid does some digging of her own. Using the microfilm machine at the local library — a skill as lost to time now as telegraph operating or alchemy — she investigates her mom’s claims, discovering that their activist ally Gregory had a lucrative second career as a drug kingpin. When she confronts her mother with this information, Elizabeth insists “he never stopped fighting for what’s right.” “So was he a criminal or wasn’t he?” Paige asks. “Things aren’t that simple,” Elizabeth replies.
In “Divestment,” last night’s episode of The Americans, things rarely are. Right and wrong, justice and vengeance, loyalty and betrayal, love and blindness: The boundaries between these qualities are fluid, porous, rendering the states they separate not so much contrasts as complements. Those who straddle these crooked, dotted lines are right to believe that there’s at least as much overlap as opposition between them. But when they act to blur those lines themselves, they raise the question: Is their moral universe truly illuminated by these shades of gray, or is this merely a sophisticated pose they strike to hide their crimes in the murk?
I reviewed last night’s typically excellent The Americans for the New York Observer. As I wrote it I thought “this is one of the best things I’ve written in a long, long time,” and that does not happen very often. I dunno if it’s true, but there you have it.
Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 album Rumours is a crystalline collection of immaculately produced pop-rock that has sold in the neighborhood of 40 million copies. That’s approximately 8 million copies per each of the five members of the band whose romantic partnership ended during the album’s recording. Given that there were only five people in Fleetwood Mac, including a pair of couples, that’s one hellacious track record. Count ‘em: Guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and his longtime partner Stevie Nicks, two of the band’s three main songwriters, broke up acrimoniously. The third songwriter, Christine McVie, left her husband, bassist John McVie — for the group’s lighting director. Finally, drummer Mick Fleetwood got a divorce from his wife Jenny Boyd. (PS: Boyd had conducted a lengthy affair with the band’s ex-guitarist Bob Weston; Fleetwood would go on to have a secret relationship with Nicks, which ended when he broke up the marriage of Nicks’s best friend by having an affair with her. BuzzFeed’s Matthew Perpetua has the best summary of the turmoil if you’re searching for a scorecard.) Lindsay, Stevie, and Christine all chronicled their changing fortunes with savage honesty and/or dizzying romanticism in the songs that formed the album. And in the only instance of the entire group collaborating as songwriters, all five band members co-wrote the record’s centerpiece, classic rock’s most vicious anthem of romantic recrimination: As they all fell apart, “The Chain” quite literally kept them together.
It’s well worth thinking about Fleetwood Mac in the context of The Americans. In a sense, the two are inseparable, and not just becauseMatthew Rhys is Lindsey Buckingham’s spitting image: The show’s pilot began with an eight-minute espionage sequence set to an extended remix of“Tusk,” Buckingham’s bizarro paean to sexual paranoia. And tonight’s climactic use of “The Chain” will, yes, keep them together as well. But the songs are on the soundtrack for a reason. Long before Mick’s opening stomp emerged from your speakers tonight, this was a show obsessed with the ways in which couples in varying degrees of estrangement could nevertheless come together to achieve something greater than they ever could individually. “Walter Taffet,” this week’s episode, contained enough examples to make the Mac’s Behind the Music blush.
Getting outsmarted by a TV show: It’s a high I chase like Ahab chased the white whale. It’s not that I’m some supergenius drama savant, or conversely that every series, even in the New Golden Age of Television, is #actually dopey. Rather, it’s that even the best, smartest, most surprising shows pull their shocks and showstoppers from a painstakingly assembled deck of dramaturgical cards. When you get past that initial jaw-on-the-floor reaction to a particularly impressive or unpredictable scene, you almost invariably follow that feeling up with “Ohhhhh, of course.” Whether transcendent moment or twist, it was retrospectively inevitable. That’s exactly what makes for a good show, usually! So when a show completely laps your ability to click its pieces into place, when it does something you know you could have sat in its writers’ room for months and still never have come up with, hoo boy, chills. That’s something special.
With a lede graf like that, it has to be good, right? I reviewed this week’s brilliant episode of The Americans for the New York Observer.
Symbolically speaking, secret rooms are always full of treasure. Whether the door opens to reveal C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, Willy Wonka’s chocolate forest, or Bluebeard’s slain wives, the hidden chamber is the heart of the story, the source of its power, the place where it all really begins. The effort to suppress the secret only reinforces its importance.
In “Salang Pass,” this week’s episode of The Americans, we get a glimpse into Phillip Jennings’s secret room, and inside we find sex. This is not uncommon. But it’s sex endured rather than enjoyed, sex performed rather than participated in, sex made to “feel real” rather than be real. In subsuming his sexuality into a series of KGB-mandated liaisons with partners of all ages, appearances, body types, even genders, Philip, we learn, honed the techniques of seduction that have helped make him such a formidable deep-cover agent. But this means that he entered the secret room not to find something, but to lose something instead: the core part of himself that can assert, with certainty, that yes, these is his want, his need, his desire, his identity. While a necessary loss, perhaps, for the purposes of his protean career, it is nonetheless a grievous one. As a spy, he is well served by an ability to shape-shift to the needs of the moment, both sexually and ethically. But as a husband, a father, a human attempting to draw moral distinctions? Where do the chameleonic contents of his secret room leave him then? This is the central dilemma of The Americans. And as even Philip’s avuncular handler Gabriel points out, its resolution has rarely been of such immediate importance.
The Americans is TV’s tensest show — that’s a given. It can make life-and-death cat-and-mouse suspense out of something as banal as big clunky cars moving at the speed limit through suburban streets, or couples snooping around a divorcé’s home office during an open house. (And that’s just last week.) But to keep an audience on the edge of its (toilet) seat in a scene where nothing happens because nothing can happen? Because someone’s desperately searching for something that doesn’t exist? That takes skill bordering on virtuosity. And it takes really, really good synthpop.
No disrespect to Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, but this was Vince Clark and Alison Moyet’s episode. As Yaz, the duo’s combination of Clark’s chilly electronic melodies and Moyet’s heartwrenching marvel of a voice was one of the early ‘80s most influential sounds. (Their album Upstairs at Eric’s probably should have been issued by the City as an educational measure for anyone attending a concert in New York during the early to mid ‘00s.) Here, it gave Agent Stan Beeman’s search for evidence that the Russian defector Zinaida is in fact a double agent a lunatic urgency. The thwap of the drum machine, the stabbing synth hook, Moyet singing her goddamn guts out — it transformed a slightly (if justifiably) paranoid man’s ransacking of a women’s restroom into an action setpiece. As uses of music on TV this year go, it’ll be tough to top.
But damn if the show didn’t try before the episode was even out. In his new guise as Jim, a dashing beer-industry lobbyist and fake-ID expert (quite a skill set), Philip is creepily, unhappily wooing Kimmy, the rebellious teenage daughter of a high-ranking CIA Afghan Group agent. The soundtrack of seduction: Yaz, Upstairs at Eric’s, the very album he’d given to his own teenage daughter Paige as a present after learning about it from Kimmy. As the almost impossibly sweet and romantic “Only You” plays, Kimmy dances for “Jim,” doing her best Audrey Horne, before snuggling into him for comfort. Watching Philip try to split the difference between giving himself over to the honeytrap like he’s done so many times before and pulling back due to the impossible-to-miss immorality of the act, you can’t help but wonder how he’s hearing this song, who he imagines singing it to.
Sorry for the illness-induced delay in posting this, but I reviewed this week’s typically fine episode of The Americans for the New York Observer.
Historically, The Americans’ biggest flaw has been portraying the crimes of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings primarily through their emotional impact on the perpetrators, leaving the suffering of the victims as an afterthought. But if you emphasize the role of vulnerability in that violence, the equation changes dramatically. Strip a victim naked, break their bones, pull their teeth, and you’ve placed them in situations that exist on a continuum with experiences all of us have had, experiences that leave us exposed and at the mercy of others we’re forced to trust. Our empathy is triggered, our innate reluctance to see ourselves in the victims shattered, when the violence is treated as a violation first and foremost.
In this week’s episode, of course, the victimhood is voluntary. Plagued by debilitating toothaches ever since her rumble with Agents Gaad and Aderholt a couple weeks back, Elizabeth submits — there’s no better way to put it — to an ad hoc tooth extraction by Philip. Maybe this is a fucked-up thing to say about an episode in which actor Keri Russell spent the better part of a scene bareassed, but to hell with it, we’re a 50 Shadesnation now: This was the sexiest scene of the series.
For one thing, the exchange of trust is total, and that’s vital to truly good sex, especially when power dynamics come into play. And it is an exchange, not just a one-way street: Elizabeth must have faith that Philip won’t hurt her any worse than he has to, yes, but Philip also must have faith that Elizabeth won’t hate him for hurting her in the first place. What’s more, it’s as suggestively staged as any of their spy-game seductions: Elizabeth leaning back, eyes wide, mouth open; Philip looming above, inserting his instrument into her open body. We’re all adults here, presumably — this is genuinely adult entertainment, not just because of the TV-MA rating, but because of the complicated and specific ideas about relationships the scene works through. You have to level up to play along.
I reviewed last week’s The Americans, and possible revealed a bit too much of what I’m into, for the New York Observer. I should add that at this point I think the show really is as good as people have long said it is.
Move over, the Mountain and the Viper—the past year of TV has a new most disgusting moment. But let’s not oversell the gross-out aspect of the act that gave “Baggage,” this week’s episode of The American’s, its sick-joke title. Yes, the sight of Philip, Elizabeth, and their murderous Pakistani asset Yousaf breaking the bones of a nude, dead woman to fit her into a suitcase (making this the second season of the show in a row to open with a brutal murder in a hotel room) was stomach-turning enough to make even a veteran gorehound like yours truly physically recoil from the screen. But in the hands of smart filmmakers, spectacle, violent or otherwise, is more than an end in itself. Like the eye-popping violence in that Game of Thrones episode, the packing of Annalise — the physical reduction of a human being to inert trash to be toted away and discarded — is depicted so shockingly not just for shock’s sake. The Americans uses that shock, employs it to batter down our usual defenses and force us to acknowledge the horrifying ideology beneath the horrifying act.
I reviewed last night’s episode of The Americans for the New York Observer. It was right in my wheelhouse.