Posts Tagged ‘The Americans’
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.
However you slice it, The Americans dodged the [prestige-drama "wife problem"] bullet. The show stars a wife who not only doesn’t oppose her husband’s awful antics, she leads the charge. Elizabeth Jennings isn’t Philip’s suspicious sweetheart or nagging conscience, she’s his partner in crime. Indeed, actor Keri Russell receives top billing over Matthew Rhys, and her character’s ideological fervor outstrips his; in the series’ pilot, he’s ready to turn himself in and defect, while she wants to continue the mission. Comrades the Jennings may be, but Elizabeth is first among equals, and The Americans is the story of her antiheroism above all.
But what does that amount to, exactly? For the purposes of that discussion, let’s put aside the tonally broader, plot-hole-ridden first season. Everything the show is interested in — spy-thriller action and suspense; the uncomfortable eroticism of the Jennings’ undercover work; secondary characters like FBI Agent Stan Beeman, the Soviet agents of the Rezidentura, and the Jennings’ kids; the steely, wiry physicality of Russell and Rhys that makes their characters so convincingly commanding even buried under pounds of big glasses, bad wigs, and spirit gum — got tighter and sharper in Season Two, to the point where few of the first season’s flaws remained.
With one major exception, that is: All the terrible things that Elizabeth and Philip do, the show acts as though they’re being done to them, not by them, and that’s a problem. The anhedonia of Don Draper, the depressive rages of Tony Soprano, and the world-collapsing panic of Walter White are all gut-wrenching to behold, but their shows come across a lot more clear-eyed about the pain they inflict trumping their own. By contrast, even though Elizabeth and Philip are basically always miserable, never seeming to take any pleasure at all from what they do or the skill with which they do it, we’re rarely asked to linger on the suffering they cause except insofar as how hard it is for them to live with it. (This is where the lack of a long-suffering spouse of whatever gender hurts the show structurally.)
If this moral dynamic sounds familiar, that means you’ve been reading your pop-culture thinkpieces over the past few weeks. If Mr. and Mrs. Jennings worked for the USA during the Iraq War instead of the USSR during the Cold War, we’d basically be talking about American Sniper, which has been held up as an inspiring exploration of how hard it must have been for a man to kill for his country. The people who got killed had it a lot harder, you know? And that’s true whether your flag is red white and blue or red and yellow. Empathy is valuable, but it must be tempered with moral clarity; the plight of a murderer pales in comparison to the plight of the murdered. Paradoxically, it’s by making Philip and Elizabeth so torn up by their awful vocation that its real awfulness is obscured.
I reviewed the season premiere of The Americans, and really The Americans generally, for the New York Observer. Very excited to be covering the show this season.
It’s hard to review the series premieres of New Golden Age prestige cable dramas because, like most series premieres, they play to the cheap seats. It’s all about hooks and making an impact and keeping butts in seats for subsequent episodes, right? So you begin your series about undercover superspies with Felicity sucking some dude’s dick. You use central-casting KGB and CIA heavies spouting patriotic Cold War boilerplate that hindsight gives us the ability to see right through. You do a lot of stuff where the cute all-American kids eat breakfast and like ten feet away there’s a defector tied up in the trunk with a gimp gag in his mouth. You play it broad, and you hope two things when you do so: 1) That “broad” will get the audiences you want to come back, and 2) That the critics you also want on your side will remember that series no less august than The Sopranos and Breaking Bad and Mad Men (and more recently Girls) started with their broadest episodes, too. Enough landmark series started this way that you almost forget it could be done differently.
But it can, and that’s The Americans‘ problem. The most obvious example is Homeland, which will one day be remembered as the punchline in some inside-baseball “You know what beat the Mad Men season with the Mystery Date/Signal 30/Far Away Places/At the Codfish Ball/Lady Lazarus run of back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back masterpieces for Best Drama?” TV-critic joke, started with a drum-taut yet intriguingly elliptical episode dealing with many of the same subjects but completely devoid of “You’d betray the Motherland?!”-style evil-Soviet dialogue. Oh it got there eventually alright, but it took a season and a half. Twin Peaks‘ pilot was probably the weirdest thing ever to air on network television up till that point but its weirdness, like all of David Lynch’s best stuff and unlike any of his imitators, was rigorously observed, and rooted in empathy for human suffering and a desire to probe what drives us to cause it. (The empty desk in the classroom is the structuring absence of the whole series, really.) Lost‘s opening 10 minutes were among the most thrilling opening-10-minutes of anything committed to film by anyone that decade, but they drew much of their strength from the un-thrilling emotion of panic. Even in the violent black comedies that were the pilots for The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, there were character moments (Tony staring at the painting, Walter talking into the camera) and images (the ducks and the pants, both flying away) that iced anything The Americans did in its premiere despite having, quite unnecessarily, twice as long to do it in.
So I’m left wondering what it is I’m going to get. Will it tighten up and calm down, or is this as good as it gets?
A few things make me worry it’s the latter, and make me worry a lot more than even the broadness does. Top of the list: It’s just way too early to have our undercover anti-heroes Phillip and Elizabeth dance right up to the edge of defecting. Way, way too early. By sticking that right in the premiere — by having Phillip actually start doing it, only to change his mind in order to white-knight for his wife when he finds out the captured defector he’d planned to exchange for a life in witness protection had once raped her — you’ve shown us that at any moment, the characters are capable of solving their story’s equation. This sleeper-agent life is untenable if they want to preserve their lives and their children’s happiness in the face of an increasingly implacable Reaganite enemy? Simple: Turn yourselves in, collect literally millions of dollars, move on and live the life you’re more or less happy living already.
So it falls on Elizabeth to erect an artificial obstacle to the obvious, story-ending solution. Writer-creator Joe Weisberg assigns Keri Russell the thankless task of preventing Phillips eminently reasonable and moral decision to defect by swearing her fealty to Mother Russia and, in the immortal words of Alvy Singer, “screaming about Socialism.” Just as it was unfair of Homeland to make poor Dana Brody a mouthpiece for skepticism regarding the danger of her father’s situation, danger we in the audience knew to be very real, so too is it too much for The Americans to ask of Elizabeth to justify the entire show’s existence with jingoistic horseshit on behalf of a system we know is just years away from collapse anyway
Unfortunately, unlike her fellow ’90s-network-TV refugees cum Great Drama leads Bryan Cranston and Claire Danes, it’s not immediately clear that Russell’s bringing much to the table beyond simply having been cast against type. She’s a stunning human being — that hair, unf; feel guilty she has to straighten it but not that guilty — and the show uses that physicality to make her both convincingly sexy and convincingly powerful and dangerous as a physical combatant, but her shaky Russian accent and emotionally depthless delivery of Russian-villain speeches make the performance and the character feel as hollow as a chocolate Easter bunny. I believe that this Elizabeth could do what she does for as long as she’s done it, but I’m left guessing as to why — particularly when you see what the Soviet system did to her in such astonishingly graphic terms.
About that: Having skimmed some reviews of the show my main takeaway was that it was some sexy-smart spygame stuff, largely on the strength of Russell’s take-charge sexuality. Again, she’s a radiant presence on screen, and her forthright expression of her sexual desires and expertise on that tape recording her husband plays back in particular is totally hot stuff. But is that even really her? Doesn’t Phillip smile despite it all because he’s impressed by how she put on a big show and played the guy? And does it cancel out the rote, seen-it-a-million-times eros’n'thanatos vaudeville routine of Elizabeth and Phillip fucking in their car after disposing of a body? And most importantly, does it square with her sudden and brutal on-screen rape by a higher-up in her KGB training program? Obviously people who have been raped can and do subsequently lead full and enthusiastic and zesty sex lives all the time. But I can’t say that watching these two hours, my takeaway was “Wow, hubba hubba!”
No, if I’m to return to The Americans it’ll be for other things. For starters, it has a sense of humor about itself, a trait almost totally absent from Homeland from day one; this episode is like if Homeland had started out with that marvelously mordant sequence in the woods from Season Two instead of it being a one-off flash of Sopranosism. And unlike that other show, this one appears willing and able to recognize that undetectable superspies with limitless penetration into American life require a suspension of disbelief; that this is totally fine; that you can in fact play with that suspension and wring terrific thriller sequences out of it but only if you acknowledge it exists, otherwise we’ll just go “c’mon, you’ve gotta be kidding me.” I could use a show that treats War on Terror-style paranoia as something of an absurdist farce instead of pretending its manipulations are on the up and up at all times.
I’m also impressed with the quiet work of Matthew Rhys as Phillip. I enjoy the easy confidence with which he slips into other identities — the jocular neighbor, the kind but concerned intelligence officer duping the secretary into giving up secrets, the rough-and-tumble contractor who beats a pedophile up after one of those “secret agent and pedophile” department-store meet-cutes that I’m sure happened to Aldrich Ames all the time — because it’s always clear the confidence is entirely outwardly directed, but inside he’s not quite sure why he’s doing what he’s doing. (Elizabeth is sure, and that’s the problem, because she’s sure about stuff that’s not worth being sure about.) He looks and carries himself like he could be the tougher older brother of a Zach Braff character; his FBI-agent neighbor’s “nice guy, but slightly off” assessment is dead-on.
I’m fond of that neighbor, played by ubiquitous supporting actor Noah Emmerich, as well. Maybe more fond than I have any right to be given how well trod this “well-meaning law-enforcement agent who’s almost got it but not quite” territory is at this point. Coasting on the goodwill generated by everyone from Hank Schrader to Carrie Mathison to Dale Cooper is only going to get Stan Beeman so far, but particularly in those moments where he’s forced to recall an obviously trying stint undercover with a white-power group, he balances expertise and weakness in a way that took all three of those characters some time to arrive at. Again, I think it’s probably too soon to have moved his suspicion of Phillip as far along as the show did, and I’m not sure how they’ll be able to play this thread out for another season, but I’m willing to watch them try. That thread’s what’ll pull me to the next ep. Who needs all those hooks?