Saturday, April 12, 2014

"The Americans" - Soul of a Spy

Some mid-season thoughts (spoilers, of course) on The Americans after the jump:

"I'm just saying... our jobs are all about deception. And maybe it's not so hard to deceive with the eyes, the smile, the things we say. But the body -- those parts of the body that can love... they want to tell the truth. When we train them to lie... that's hard on the soul."

Oleg is a perceptive man. He's never met Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings (his words here are directed towards Nina), but this small speech in "A Little Night Music"—the fourth episode of what has thus far been just a tremendous second season of The Americans—captures the essence of the psychological wear and tear that the life of a spy has taken on them. Week after week this season, we've seen characters' souls absorb more and more damage: not just Phillip's and Elizabeth's, but also Nina's, Stan's, Claudia's... pretty much the souls of everyone involved in the business of collecting intelligence, honestly. Will we get an episode devoted to exploring Arkady's psyche? Probably not. But one can dream, as it seems to be a universal truth that this life takes a tremendous toll on anyone involved in it. Surely the head of the Rezidentura is not immune from that. What inner torment lies beneath Arkady's seemingly unflappable exterior? A question to be answered in due course, perhaps?

I'm mostly joking. I don't expect The Americans to do an Arkady-centered episode any time soon, as great a character as he is. (Though given the way they've shifted the spotlight from episode to episode this year, who knows?) But in a more serious sense... why not? Identity—exterior versus interior, and the ways in which they bleed into each other—has also been a major point of emphasis this year, and is intrinsically linked to this idea of psychological weight. If we were not privy to the moments in between the missions—moments like Phillip's conversation with Charles this week—we might very well see these people as he does: efficient, skilled operatives who do a lot of badass spy stuff. Oleg and Arkady are really the only people who seem to be completely put-together on an emotional level, but that's almost certainly because we simply haven't really seen much of them outside the context of their work. They must feel the strain too. Maybe not to the same degree, as they're not constantly playing other roles to the same degree as Elizabeth, Phillip, and Nina. But it has to be there, doesn't it?

In any case, over the past few weeks, the show has really emphasized just how close its undercover characters are to falling apart due to that strain, even as they try to maintain an exterior illusion of calmness. The three episode stretch from "A Little Night Music" to "Behind the Red Door" (three of the best episodes to date in the show's brief history) sees Phillip reflected in various surfaces: mirrors, especially. This series of recurring images is perhaps a bit of a cliché—mirrors equaling inner turmoil is a visual metaphor that's been done to death—but when it's accompanied by Matthew Rhys struggling to hide his sympathy for the plight of Anton Baklanov sitting there in the backseat (or ripping off his wig after going too far in an ill-advised role-playing attempt with Elizabeth), it feels fresh, alive, and devastatingly raw. In this week's episode he had to kill a second innocent bystander, and you can see it wearing on him in that aforementioned scene with Charles. "You're a monster", Baklanov tells him before getting shipped back to Russia. And so he is, particularly if you're that poor guy in "ARPANET" who came back to get his wallet, only to be surprised (and killed, as that masterful cut to Phillip pushing a trashcan makes clear with chilling efficiency) by a menacing figure that appears out of nowhere from behind a door, as if from a horror movie. It's far more than just lies that are impacting these souls. Their jobs' requirement that they ignore any pangs of conscience while on a mission is proving equally damaging.

Elizabeth's soul is just as wounded, for many the same reasons (though hers run even deeper). It's fascinating to consider the ways in which conscience and morality have subtly made their way to the foreground of The Americans' narrative this year, with the murder of those three people (one a child) in "Comrades" being the catalyst for much of it. Take a seemingly straightforward scene of Elizabeth threatening a factory worker in "The Walk In". Rather than killing him, she threatens his family: an act that's the smartest strategic play, but one that is also done out of a strange sense of mercy and empathy. She understands his fear and love for his family, and sympathizes with it. But that doesn't stop her from using it. Nor does she hesitate to draw on memories of her rape in crafting a convincing narrative for Brad Mullen. Like everyone else, she does her job. But having to threaten people, murder people, relive memories she's tried to put behind her . . . all of it leaves its mark. (The generational parallels last week were just astonishingly rich in this regard: Claudia, Elizabeth, and Lucia, each with different amounts of experience as to the toll this life takes.)

If the past few episodes have mostly been about Phillip and Elizabeth really feeling what they're doing, this week's episode took Nina in a fascinatingly different direction. For me, the end of last year's "The Oath"—Nina's reclamation of control over her life via turning triple agent—was one of the most thrilling moments of season one, and I got that same feeling watching her pass the polygraph. It really provides a fascinating counterpoint to the Jennings, in that Nina seems to be increasingly able to compartmentalize and conceal her feelings (from both other people and herself), which is something they're really struggling with right now. And she's started to enjoy this newfound confidence in her abilities, whereas Phillip's feelings toward his work are nothing but disgust at the moment. She's not quite on her way to becoming what he and Elizabeth once were—I don't think she's nearly as vehemently committed to the cause, for one thing—but she is on her way towards burying parts of herself in the effort to become a better spy, just as they have for so many years.

Structuring this season as a series of meditations on the psychological and spiritual components of the spy life has been a masterstroke thus far, and it's something I hope The Americans continues to do going forward. No other series on TV right now—save for maybe Mad Men when it's on its A game—is working on as many thematic levels as this one. This approach carries concerns, however: chief among them how long this slow accumulation of mental and emotional strain can continue to build before something has to give. The show can't possibly hope to get multiple seasons out of its two lead characters' reawakened senses of empathy and ambivalence, or Nina's embracing of her dangerous life. Can it? I'm reminded of season two of Sons of Anarchy, which brought various tensions to a boil, only to back away from them at the last minute and attempt to sustain the story through other (increasingly ludicrous and convoluted) means. It took me a couple more years to fully realize it, but in retrospect the season two finale was when the show lost its chance to be one of the greats. If The Americans wishes to avoid that fate, all this psychological development has to lead somewhere. It can't sit on the back burner for years, playing out against a backdrop of constantly rotating antagonists. We've seen Elizabeth and Phillip's ambivalence develop, Nina's confidence grow, the kids starting to get influenced by their parents' deception, and so much more. It's been freaking spectacular. I'm just hoping that season two's rich examination of the souls of spies leads to newer and even greater depths down the road, rather than leaving the series stuck in a holding pattern in season three and beyond.

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