Photo: Courtesy of FX.
Watching this week’s episode of The Americans, I couldn’t help but think back on the first one: That first getaway sequence as fine-tuned as an Olympic gymnastics routine, the lashing side glances, the twisty reveals, and oh my god, those early sex scenes. It’s not that the show has waned in quality. If anything, each layer added in the last three years has created an unmatched degree of depth and complexity. But you can’t do that without sacrificing some of the fun. This is no longer a high-shine, sexy spy thriller — at least not all the time. This season, seems bent on highlighting both the cause and consequences of all this espionage. And this episode, in particular, scrapes away any eroticism on the surface, revealing all the tangled roots beneath: The families, the orphans, the killers and the cops — all are casualties of this Cold War. Suddenly, everyone seems to be realizing that no one is going to win.
Here’s where we find them this week:
The opening scene finds us in a bowling alley, where the Morozovs and “the Eckerts” are having another outing with their kids. While Tuan and Pasha bond over gutter balls, Alexei takes the opportunity to bitch about the Soviet Union for the billionth time: “Russia can’t keep something simple, like a bowling alley.” His wife, Evgenia pipes up, saying, “Again, with this?” and then I chime in, “Girl, seriously,” because it really is a bit much at this point. The two of them have a brief spat in Russian, revealing the fact that Alexei essentially forced his family to defect when he linked up with the CIA to work on this wheat-killing plot. Just to make sure we get the message, Evgenia says, “You’re the one who destroys.” So, yeah, we get it: Alexei’s collaborating with the Americans to create a famine in his homeland.
After the subtitled spat, Evgenia storms off, leaving Alexei to apologize and explain to the Jennings why he has such different feelings about the USSR than she does. They nod blankly as he tells a brutal story about his father’s arrest and eventual death in a prison camp. “It was horrible, just horrible. Prisoners outside, everybody diseased with lice, starving to death. Not human...that is the Soviet Union I know.”
It’s a not-so-subtle clue, a stage whisper to the audience, reminding us again that there are bad guys and bad guys. And this is how they are made. Don’t know whose side you’re on? Mission: accomplished.
Tuan definitely knows whose side he’s on, though it now seems his devotion is more extreme and more complicated than the Jennings’. It makes sense, for, as we learn, “Back home I ate garbage off the street most days. Other days I never ate at all.” Philip concedes — as they sip sodas — that he himself had it bad, but “not as bad as you.” With Tuan, the show seems to be tip-toeing (veeeeery carefully) toward the idea of radicalism. A young person from a war-ravaged nation with numerous reasons to hate the US, recruited by an organization bent on taking them down? Yeah, sounds familiar and makes me nervous (you win, writers!). Even to those as committed as the Jennings’ he’s a bit of an unknown. “One day, the US will destroy the USSR — just like they did to Vietnam,” he seethes. “Well,” Elizabeth says, blinking, “hopefully, we’ll prevent that from happening.” Tuan is a smart and powerful asset, but his justifiable hatred may be so great and so blinding that it ultimately becomes his downfall.
Poor Paige. Like Tuan, she never had a real shot at a normal life. Her folks love her now, but she was born to simply be a prop in their mission. This week, that news seems to have sunk in deep, and it’s devastating to watch. “Are you okay?” Matthew asks her over pizza. She looks at him like someone who is nowhere near okay. Elizabeth and Philip, attempting to ease her in, have told her about the US’ plot to starve the Soviet people, and now she’s saddled with the knowledge of just how not okay everything is. What’s the point of eating pizza when everything is so unbelievably not-okay?
“The world just seems so messy right now. It's hard to figure out what to do about it.” Again, sounds familiar. And heartbreaking.
Oh, right, Mischa! Mischa is somewhere in Yugoslavia, and I really want to care about him because he seems like a sweet kid. But thus far, the show has given me no reason to, so I kind of want him to just go home. Yes, his journey toward America paints a grim and informative picture of Eastern Europe at this time, but his scenes feel like those of a different show. It’s like they said, “Hey, we’ve got all this snow and we did pay the kid, so…” But if they don’t figure out what to do with him soon, I’m going to lose patience with him wasting screen time because…
...MARTHA! MARTHA IS BACK!
Youguysyouguysyouguys! Martha is BACK. And by that, I mean, she is back in the USSR. In the grocery store to be precise. Toward the end of a scene with Oleg (he investigates the store-owner — whatever, who cares?) she appears in a barren supermarket aisle, holding a can of some food item and looking lost. I certainly hope this isn’t just some carefully crafted cameo to remind us that she too is a tragic casualty. I certainly hope they wouldn’t just dangle Martha in front of us without bringing her back for reals. They wouldn’t do that, RIGHT?
Okay fine, Oleg. Fulfilling his job at the OBKhss (I looked it up: it was the Department Against Misappropriation of Socialist Property), Oleg half-assedly interrogates the market manager about how she has just so much food on her shelves, and such good quality. This line comes in stark contrast to the opening shot of the store, which appears not full but nearly empty of food. The shelves have one or two items apiece. I imagine most US viewers had the same thought: It looks like one of our grocery stores, right before a hurricane or a blizzard — but so much worse. And, of course, this is not a temporary state. If this is what bounty looks like in this country, what will a famine bring?
Stan and his partner, Dennis, are up to something and it’s not 100% clear what it is yet (what else is new?). In one scene they sidle up to a suited man in a diner saying, “We know you work with TASS.” (TASS = the primary agency responsible for disseminating information both within the Soviet Union and sharing news about the country abroad). The man just gets up and leaves, and they just shrug like, oh well! Later they creep up on another guy in a bathroom, asking him if they can discuss his work with Amgtorg (a corporation which handled trade between the US and Soviet Union, and was possibly involved in spy activities). Again, the guy just leaves. I have no idea where this is going, but I’m quite sure that after all this Googling on covert Russian organizations and agricultural terrorism, the FBI will eventually come knocking on my own door. Good to know I can just walk out and they won’t chase me or anything.
Elizabeth & Philip
By now it’s clear that the US is planning to ship wheat contaminated with those creepy flies (midges, rather) to the Soviet Union. But they still don’t know what the insects do. So, it’s off to Oklahoma, in wigs and cowboy get-ups, to track down the scientists breeding them.
This last sequence features the first pseudo-love scene of the season. Up until this point, the seasons has refrained from titillation of any kind — both violent and sexual. And this scene is not really an exception. It begins with Philip wondering aloud, “Why can’t we grow our own grain? Some of the things Alexei says, I…” He has his own doubts about the country he’s given his life to, but won’t go so far as to say so, out loud. Anyway, Elizabeth won’t let him. Instead, she puts on her cowgirl hat and starts flirting. Is this desire? Or is she doing the job we’ve seen her do so many times: Wielding sex to keep this man within her control? We’ll never know with her. We know it, and so does Philip, and in this moment, it seems, he doesn’t care. He just steps into her arms, and slowly, they pretend to dance.
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Photo: Courtesy of FX.