Posts Tagged ‘The Americans’
“Why are we looking at this for so long? Ohhh, that’s why.” The Americans loves to set us up like this, drawing out scenes and storylines for as long as it can before pulling the trigger on our understanding of what the show is doing and why the show is doing it. “The Midges,” this week’s episode, features what’s bound to be one of the most talked-about examples of the technique yet. As KGB agent and reluctant CIA asset Oleg Burov exits the Soviet supermarket he’s investigating for corruption, the camera follows him through the aisles for a while but eventually allows him to exit the store alone. While he leaves, it stays behind, watching the shoppers browse the sparse shelves. Most prominent in the frame is a woman in a headscarf, one of many in the store. But the shot lasts too long for her to be just another extra. Is she a spy sent by the US or the USSR to keep tabs on Oleg? Is she about to do something unusual or unpleasant, or is something unusual or unpleasant about to be done to her? Wait—is she…familiar looking? Her face turns toward the camera just as the scene’s focus on her becomes impossible to ignore. Behold: Martha, Philip’s wife and asset and victim, going about her new life in the country that took away her old one. “Is it hard, pretending to be other people?” Paige asks her parents elsewhere in the episode. Philip tells her yes, it is. Martha could no doubt do the same.
When Philip and Elizabeth Jennings take a trip to the local Bennigan’s for a family dinner, they don’t come alone. Yes, they bring their fake adopted son, secretly a Vietnamese spy, and the family of their target, a Soviet defector who claims to be working for the Department of Agriculture but seems to be part of a bioweapons program. But they, or more accurately the filmmakers behind their show The Americans, also bring a lingering shot of the bustling salad bar…accompanied by the sound of people coughing and sneezing. You can’t see the culprits, but they’re there, somewhere, and their bodies are coating the food with filth.
I reviewed this week’s paranoiac episode of The Americans for the New York Observer. By the way, I have a crazy theory about where it’s all headed: Paige kills Stan.
The Americans likes to let it linger. Ever since the show hit its stride toward the end of its second season—before then it was a perfectly fine spy thriller with sexy leads and a killer soundtrack rather than the prolonged moral autopsy of patriotism it became—it has specialized in letting both storylines and individual scenes simmer, or perhaps fester, for longer than most would dare. On a macro level, the revelation of undercover KGB agent Philip Jennings’s true identity to his duped “wife” Martha and her reaction to it spooled out over the better part of two seasons. Last year, his real wife Elizabeth maintained a friendship with her charming South Korean immigrant target Young Hee for episode after episode before the series revealed her intentions. And on a micro level, the show has specialized in rubbing its viewers’ faces in the horrifying nature of the Jennings’ trade for minutes on end. Think of Philip shattering the bones in the nude corpse of his informant and lover so that he and her killer could stuff her body in a suitcase. Think of Elizabeth having a heart to heart with the kindly older woman who ran a repair shop she’d infiltrated, both of them knowing all the while that death was on the way. Think of the necklacing of the apartheid-era South African enemy agent they helped capture, of how he screamed and sizzled during his seemingly endless immolation.
“Amber Waves,” The Americans’ fifth season premiere, closes with another case in point.
I reviewed the season premiere of The Americans for the New York Observer, where I’ll be covering it all season. Let’s just say that contra some other takes you might have read, it doesn’t make me pine for the so-called simpler times of the Cold War.
Vinyl: “Wild Safari” by Barrabás
“Think back to the first time you heard a song that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up,” Richie Finestra bellows at his record-label employees. “Made you want to dance, or fuck, or go out and kick somebody’s ass! That’s what I want!” Vinyl showrunner Terence Winter had similar goals, but virtually none of the musical elements of his period drama clicked. This despite the imprimatur of co-creators Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese, who know a thing or two about making magic with music, and supervisors Randall Poster and Meghan Currier, whose previous collaborations with Winter and Scorsese on Boardwalk Empire and The Wolf of Wall Street were all killer, no filler.
There was one grand and glorious exception, and it had nothing to do with Jagger swagger. Rather, it was the result of an unlikely alliance between demoted A&R doofus Clark Morelle (Jack Quaid) and his mail-room buddy Jorge (Christian Navarro). When the latter takes Clark to an underground dance club, they enter in slow motion to the ecstatic sounds of the 1972 proto-disco song “Wild Safari” by Barrabás. The killer clothes, the fabulous dancing, the beatific smiles on the faces of beautiful people, the irresistible rhythm, the rapturous “WHOA-OH-OH” of the chorus, the sense that an entire world of incredible music has existed right under his nose — you can feel it all hit Clark right in the serotonin receptors, and damn if it doesn’t hit you, too. Perhaps my favorite two minutes of TV this year, this sequence demonstrates the life-affirming power and pleasure of music.
I wrote about major musical moments in The Americans, Atlanta, Better Call Saul, Game of Thrones, Halt and Catch Fire, Horace and Pete, Luke Cage, Mr. Robot, The People v. O.J. Simpson, and (yes) Vinyl in my list of 2016′s 10 Best Musical TV Moments for Vulture.
Maeve’s walk through the Westworld theme park’s behind-the-scenes house of horrors is the moment we’ve all been waiting for. It’s the instant in which one of Westworld’s unfortunate, unwitting robots receives undeniable, unforgettable confirmation that their life is a lie. It’s a crushing concept all on its own, and the guided-tour-of-hell structure of the scene adds to the pathos. By rights it should stand alone as one of the series’ most powerful moments.
And yet, Westworld’s treatment of it falls flat. Like park technicians fiddling with a host’s intelligence or empathy on their control panels, the show’s filmmakers artificially increase the sequence’s tear-jerking levels by soundtracking it with a chamber-music version of the closing track on one of the most acclaimed albums of all time: “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” the achingly sad conclusion of Radiohead’s electronic-music breakthrough Kid A. It’s not the first time the hyperactively overscored series has relied on the band, having previously gone to the Radiohead well with their suburban-ennui anthem “No Surprises.” Hell, it’s not the first time it did so in this episode, which opens with a similarly heavy-handed accompaniment by a player-piano version of the band’s ode to falseness, “Fake Plastic Trees.” But it is the show’s most egregious example yet of using a song with preexisting cultural clout to do its emotional work — a syndrome we’re seeing, or hearing, with increasing frequency as Peak TV prestige dramas attempt to cut through the clutter and grab viewers, or listeners, by the heartstrings.
Rather than let the power of the scene emerge on its own, Westworld leans on a preexisting work of art to doing the heavy lifting for it. It’s a cheat, a shortcut to resonance. That particular work of art has far more cultural purchase, impact, and history than a first-season TV show. Even if you don’t rate Radiohead, substitute the gut-wrenching classic-album closer of your choice — “Purple Rain” or “Little Earthquakes” or, to cite an artist Westworld’s already employed to dubious effect in that over-the-top orgy scene last week, “Hurt”— and you’ll get the point.
Over at Vulture, I went long on how shows like Westworld, Stranger Things, and even The Americans have used preexisting pop music as a cheat code to score emotional points they haven’t earned. I also talked about shows that have done pop music cues right, from The Sopranos and The Wire to Lost to Halt and Catch Fire and The People v. O.J. Simpson. It’s basically a prose version of what Chris Ott and I talked about on his Shallow Rewards podcast a few weeks ago. I quite liked writing this piece and I hope you enjoy it.
There’s a hole in the Jennings home. Literally: a big black circular void right up near the roof, presumably a window into their unlighted attic. You can see it plain as day in the center of the final shot of The Americans’ extraordinary fourth season, as Philip leads his recalcitrant daughter Paige back into their house’s cloying confines after catching her immediately post-makeout with the son of his FBI-agent neighbor Stan Beeman. “Don’t do this, Paige,” he barks at her of the potential teenage tryst. “You have no idea. No idea.” Meanwhile the black hole in the house looms like a gigantic zero, or an entry wound — an absence of visual information, in a show structured around the deliberate obfuscation of information, around hiding, lying, covering up, and ultimately killing to keep the truth from exposure. As season finales go, “Persona Non Grata” was not of the explosive variety, and nor was its Season Three predecessor; The Americans is not, or is no longer, that kind of show. Rather, it’s a story about the holes in things, including stories themselves. You never know what might leak out, or fall in.
I reviewed the season finale of The Americans for the New York Observer. An absolute marvel of restraint. While I’m skeptical of the notion that the New Golden Age of TV Drama is over — there’s still a shitload of great TV out there — I do view The Americans as part of a quartet of shows, along with The Affair, The Leftovers, and Halt and Catch Fire, that have a quieter, more intimate tone. If you like one, I see little reason you won’t like the others.
Paige Jennings may be broken, but she doesn’t break. After watching her mother Elizabeth stab an assailant to death and leave him for dead in a parking lot on last week’s episode of The Americans, the girl says she feels sick, but she doesn’t get sick. She asks her mother if she had to kill the man, and accepts that her answer is yes. Even when Elizabeth admits that she’s killed more people than she can remember — in self-defense, of course — her pacifist daughter simply asks if she was scared, not “how could you do that” or “how do you live with yourself.” Her primary concern appears to be that the dangerous nature of her parents’ work was kept from her, not that it’s dangerous, primarily to others, in the first place. The day after witnessing her first kill, she has her first kiss, barely breaking stride from the normal course of adolescent life; she keeps this a secret from her parents, but duly reports the latest batch of information gleaned from her new beau Matthew Beeman about the goings-on at the office of his FBI agent father Stan, and is taken aback when her folks discourage her from further fact-finding despite having pushed her in that direction with Pastor Tim and Alice. A lifetime of being lied to, and a year of being made complicit in the lie, has prepped Paige to contextualize her mother’s murder of a man not as a catastrophic breach of safety and morality, but a rung on a ladder leading her closer to the secret truth.
Professional wrestling jargon is a gift to the thinking student of politics and pop culture. How could I understand Kanye West’s post-808s and Heartbreak career without the concept of the heel turn? How to comprehend the mutually beneficial feud between Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Republican news network anchor Megyn Kelly withoutkayfabe? And how to get a handle on “Dinner for Seven,” the antepenultimate episode of The Americans’ fourth season, without attempting to answer the question: In the aftermath of her betrayal of Don and Young-Hee, is Elizabeth’s warming-up to Pastor Tim a work or a shoot?
I reviewed last night’s episode of The Americans for the New York Observer. I’m unsure about the ending, but there was much else to recommend it.
Every week, The Americans plunges its cold hands into my chest and squeezes my lungs a little tighter. For such a quiet show, the tension each new episode generates is simply remarkable; the tone, rhythm, and volume level may be totally different, but the series’ suspense is currently on par with the likes of Breaking Bad Season Four, and it’s closing in on the equally self-assured menace of late-season Sopranos to boot. All this from asking the same simple questions over and over, with absolute unblinking clarity: How long can Philip and Elizabeth Jennings get away with doing this, and how many people will they do it to along the way?
The centerpiece of the episode, the sequence that gives it its title (the second in a row to be named after a television special), is a group viewing of the real-world dramatization of nuclear war called The Day After. The Jennings and Beemans watch it together as families and neighbors. Oleg and Tatyana watch it together as lovers. Young-Hee and Don watch it as spouses. William and Arkady from the Rezidentura each watches it alone. Russians, Americans, Koreans, officers, agents, double agents, civilians, a teenage girl balancing driving lessons with being forced to spy on her pastor and his pregnant wife for her parents—all of them sit riveted as frightened men trigger the end of the world, as terrified people scream and run and fall and die during it, as two old people clutch each other in the rubble afterwards. They’re as moved as you or I are, as shaken, as convinced that this is a horror that must be avoided at all costs. And despite the misgivings the movie gives them, they change nothing. Philip and Elizabeth talk about their doubts regarding the virus, regarding Young-Hee’s husband, and then dutifully ignore them.
I cried during this sequence. The antiwar message of the film the characters watched, the sense of colossal, avoidable loss and waste and tragedy, covered my brain like ashes. The power of art to communicate the awful truth was palpable. But art can only influence, not dictate, human behavior. It reflects that behavior like sunlight off clouds and has no more control over how that reflection is interpreted than do the clouds themselves.
I reviewed last night’s episode of The Americans for the New York Observer. This show is on a very special run.
“The Americans” thoughts, Season Four, Episode Eight: “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears”May 9, 2016
Yet Elizabeth saves her most baleful visage for her daughter. Discovering that Paige has blown off Bible study with Pastor Tim and Alice because, given the stress of their shared secret, it’s hard to “get in the mood” to be open and honest, her mother orders her to get in the mood. “We’ve been trying to be nice to you,” she barks, “trying to forgive you for what you’ve done” — as if Paige committed the real crime, not the parents who spent a lifetime deceiving her. “I can’t control how I feel,” Paige responds, exasperated to have to explain a plain truth. “You can control what you do,” Elizabeth says, with the clipped cadence of a military officer, “and from now on you are going to.” With mounting fury, she issues instructions to an increasingly cowed and cowering Paige — that she must see Tim and Alice every day, that she must go to all their activities, that she must come up with whole new activities to go to, that she must issue full reports to her parents on everything they say and do every single time. “Thanks to what you did” — and by now she’s shouting, her face a fiery red, veins bulging, eyes wild — “that is all that stands between us and this family being destroyed!” A look in the mirror might lead her to the conclusion that it’s too late.
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.