Friday, February 28, 2014

"The Americans" - "Comrades"

Spoilers for the premiere of The Americans after the jump:

The couple Stan Beeman and the rest of Gaad's FBI team have been chasing is gone: one dead, one spirited out of the country. Or so his source inside the KGB would have him believe. But it's a lie, of course. Which makes it, what, roughly the six hundredth that has been told over the course of just fourteen episodes? With each passing installment, The Americans is adding more and more layers to a house of cards that's been just immaculately built up to this point: or more accurately, several interconnected ones. This virtuosic job of narrative architecture is maybe the main reason the series has been my most anticipated show of 2014 ever since the credits rolled on the season one finale. It seems, like Breaking Bad before it, to come with certain inevitable quality to it: at some point, the web of lies has to trip somebody up. And when it does, that's when things get interesting, and/or potentially fall off the rails. Which is for my money the most exciting form of television there is: particularly when, as in the case of both of these shows, it's surrounded by plenty of psychological and thematic weight. Otherwise it's just a taut thriller, which can still be fun, but isn't likely to be a show anyone would mistake for the best drama on television right now.

The Americans is a series that can make as strong claim as any show currently on the air to that title, and it starts its second season in fantastic form (not that it's ever really ever dipped in quality at any point thus far) by zeroing in on one of the biggest, most foundational lies of the series. That would be the facade of domesticity put up by Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings. It's no accident that "Comrades" features a series of aerial shots early on in which the pair make their way home. The landscapes are idyllic, and the manicured greenery gorgeous to behold. Then there's the house, that model suburban house, which will by the end of the episode—due to the murder of a fellow pair of undercover agents and their teenage daughter (the son is almost certainly spared only because he happened to be out of the room)—be turned from a scene of domestic bliss into a decidedly unpeaceful environment. Suddenly everything and everyone is in danger, including potentially their children.

It's not like this is an idea that completely comes out of nowhere. In season one's "Trust Me", we saw an example of the danger our central couple's occupation can bring their children. But "Comrades" puts this concern at the forefront of its narrative in a way it really hasn't ever been before. Take Paige's suspicions, which began in last year's finale "The Colonel" and continue in this episode. They guide her once again towards the laundry room, where she finds nothing of note in her mother's suitcase and is startled by her brother. Still sensing something is amiss, she lies (claiming to be doing their mom's laundry for her) when he asks what she's doing, so as to conceal her own covert investigations. The deceptions of their parents' careers are beginning to creep into the lives of Paige and Henry, even as they remain surrounded by the trappings of a seemingly ideal childhood. They are inadvertently teaching their daughter how to spy. And later, concern and curiosity lead her to walk in during the midst of a sexual encounter between her parents. It's played for uncomfortable laughs the next day over yet another tidy household scene at the breakfast table, but Elizabeth and Phillip can only smile at the situation briefly before he brings up the question of whether this is the first time she's gone into their bedroom to check on them (perhaps when they were out on a mission). What would merely be an awkward parenting dilemma on a family sitcom (back when I used to watch Modern Family, I remember them doing an episode about this exact issue) can also be potentially hazardous situation on The Americans. Such are the perils of life when your happy home doubles as a front for espionage activities.

But it's another seemingly innocuous locale—an amusement park—that forms the basis for perhaps the episode's most tense comment on the impact of our central couple's double lives. Phillip is suddenly required (at the behest of one of the soon to be murdered fellow undercovers) to make a brush pass with someone who's being tailed, and to accomplish it he needs to take his son with him. The result is a suspense setpiece as well-constructed as any The Americans has ever done: more so, perhaps, due to the fact that there's a truly innocent person (a child, no less) involved in them. The occasional cuts back towards Elizabeth's face here—unsure of what's going on, but clearly conscious of the danger for both her husband and son—fiercely heighten the already strong sense of terror.

And from the looks of it, there's going to be plenty more terror in her and Phillip's future, as this bit of well crafted nerve-jangling is but the first of three successive scenes whose impact—both individual and cumulative—left me reeling. Mere seconds after the brush pass has succeeded (no transitions, just a straight cut to a new location), we're watching the two of them walk in on three dead bodies: one of them a child. Within seconds of that horrible sight, Elizabeth is off to gather the kids, while Phillip rapidly gathers some intelligence from a suitcase and has to resist stopping to warn their comrades' son as he's leaving. The boy's screams upon entering the hotel to find his parents and sister chillingly connect back to the noise at the park, where a frantically roving camera captures Elizabeth's frightened search for Paige with superb subjective detail. She does. And reunited, the family walks out amidst a crowd of happy people. The lie is maintained, but it's hanging by a thread in more ways than one.

This is a fairly light opener for the non-Jennings characters (we'll get to them in the other thoughts, don't worry), but it's Phillip's fake marriage to Martha that provides the final thematic capstone on this opening hour of parental deception. He speaks about having a bad day (not telling her why, of course), while she comforts him by telling him that he's "home". The emotional consequences of a life defined by deception are laid bare here; Phillip cannot be at the home where he wishes to be. But even if he was, so what? He'd just be sitting beside Elizabeth, or maybe double-checking the locks on the windows. Everything that these two people have built hasn't collapsed yet, but it's definitely on the brink of tumbling down. As I said above, that's the kind of television situation that's absolutely thrilling. But The Americans isn't content to merely thrill you. How many lies can this house of cards support? That's one question. But here's another, equally interesting one: what will be the psychological and emotional cost of those lies, whether they are or aren't discovered? I don't know if the former will be addressed this year, but if "Comrades" is any indication of the season to follow, we'll be finding out plenty of answers to the latter.

Other Thoughts

- Welcome to season two of The Americans. I probably will not be writing about it every week (though we'll see), but I hope to at the very least show up a few more times over the course of the season. As I said above, this might be my favorite show on television right now, and it usually provides a lot to write about as well. (But, you know . . . college.)

- I'm not entirely sure what to make of many of the Stan scenes here. It's hard to get a read on the guy right now. Is he considering ending the affair with Nina while sitting in that movie theater next to Sandra? Or is he simply thinking about her while watching the same film? I'm leaning towards the latter, but I'm really not sure of exactly what's going on in his head at the moment.

- Other than that, not too much going on with the FBI characters this week. But Sanford Prince's death may open up a new avenue for them. Or perhaps just for Stan, investigating on his own. (Though it seems weird to me for anyone in the KGB or The Colonel to want to kill him, given that his credibility was already pretty much in shambles. Doesn't killing him just potentially attract unwanted attention?)

- The hat had to be a Justified reference, right? I'm going to say yes. (Astonishing opening scene, by the way. The violence there—particularly the death of an innocent man in the kitchen—really set the tone for an episode in which multiple other innocent people were either killed or put in harm's way.)

- Nina and Arkady debating whether or not she should tell Stan she loves him is basically The Americans in a nutshell. Deception is so casual. No one thinks twice about it, until it comes crashing down on them (as it is for Elizabeth and Phillip right now).

- I think I'm done using grades for my reviews here. But this would obviously be an A. (As will most episodes this season, if it's anything like the last. Because good grief, this show.)

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