Friday, May 23, 2014

"The Americans" - "Echo"

Some thoughts on the season two finale of The Americans after the jump:

Oh, well played, The Americans. Well played.

One of the issues posed at the start of extraordinary second season was the intersection between Elizabeth and Phillip's national and familial loyalties, and what happens when their work bleeds into their kids' lives and safety. In the beginning, there was tangible danger: the brush pass involving Henry, Paige's various suspicions, and of course the murder of their fellow Directorate S agents and their daughter. And while that threat has certainly lingered over the remainder of the season, the material involving Paige in recent weeks has tended towards emphasizing the ideological differences —and similarities—between her and her parents. At the same time, it's delved deeply into both the reasons for ("New Car") and costs of ("Martial Eagle", "Yousaf") the Jennings' loyalty to their country and cause. "Echo" opens with yet another example of those costs: the loss of Fred, shot and killed as he gathers the paint samples requested by his handlers. This scene is crosscut with a scene of Paige at a protest: parents and child both fighting for their visions of a better world. Her desire to make a difference is something her parents don't want to crush, but they also don't want to see her molded by forces they're appalled by (among them religion).

All of the themes and arcs weaved by season two basically come home to roost in this finale: Phillip's near-constant state of being on the verge of a breakdown, family vs. country, ideological divides between both nations and generations . . . it all masterfully ties into "Echo's" final few revelations, which in turn connect (in a way that completely blindsided me) to the initial sense of danger in those first few episodes. The first is that Jared is the one who killed his parents. This idea has been in the back of my mind ever since last week's episode, but I didn't give it serious consideration due to the way he reacted upon seeing them in the hotel room. He seemed so genuinely shocked that it didn't seem possible. And to be honest, I'm still not sure I entirely buy that a teenager still in the process of being trained as a spy would be able to fake that moment so convincingly. But Owen Campbell sells the heck out of Jared's dying confession, giving us a glimpse into how devoted he is to his fixed-upon cause, which in turn allows his earlier actions to (at the very least) fall within the realm of possibility.

But even had that not been the case, I'm willing to overlook this quibble because of another, even more powerful aspect of this scene: the idea that Jared seems more committed to the idea of action than to any specific communist ideals. He is, after all, just a kid, and Kate—on the Centre's orders—was clearly using any number of methods to manipulate him. The parallels to Paige are terrifyingly clear, which makes the bombshell Claudia (always good to see Margo Martindale again) drops all the more disturbing: the Centre wants Paige to become a spy. The value of such an agent would be immeasurable; she could get through background checks, join the CIA, or do any number of things that even Elizabeth and Phillip cannot. It's a win-win for the KGB. But it wouldn't be for Paige, just as it hasn't been for her parents. I've seen some discussion this season (perhaps bolstered by Oliver North's writing credit on an episode earlier this season) of exactly where The Americans' political sympathies lie, but this storyline right here is why I think those types of arguments are entirely beside the point. This isn't a show about who's right or wrong: as I've mentioned before, it strikes me as mostly about the price paid by those on both sides of this conflict. It doesn't matter who you are, or what motives you may have. This life takes its toll. And now it's threatening to take its toll on Paige, one way or another (just not in a way I think anyone expected when she made that trip to Aunt Helen's). Talk about bringing the season full-circle.

"Echo" does this in so many other moments as well. Take what happens after the Claudia scene. Initially Elizabeth and Phillip are united, but we've seen in recent weeks how badly Elizabeth wants to connect with her daughter. And while both have been visibly shaken by things they've had to do this year, Phillip is the one who seems more aware of just how many scars await Paige if she were to go down this road (assuming she doesn't just turn them in, of course). This is another conflict I did not see coming at all, yet it feels perfectly in keeping with the season that preceded it. And it makes for a note-perfect final few visuals to end the season on: one party in the foreground, one in the background, before the division must be put aside for the time being as they join their children around the dinner table. But it will no doubt be back. And I can't wait; even as I'm flat-out terrified for Paige, I'm also thrilled about the dramatic possibilities for next year. A while back I questioned how The Americans would be able to continue this masterful psychological slow-burn in future years. I now have my answer: by adding both a new complication to the Jennings' increasingly unstable work-life balance and a potential new direction for this already fascinating parent/child dynamic to go. I mean, who the heck even knows how Paige would react, once the initial shock wore off? The show probably still won't play that card for a while (if ever), but I've always thought Paige or Henry finding out is one of a handful of likely endgames for it. Now, though? They could go in any number of different, equally promising directions.

The conclusion to Stan and Nina's story also ties in with the finale's larger concerns beautifully. His decision here mirrors the dilemma the Jennings are faced with in regards to Paige: personal feelings vs. duty to one's country. It's not quite the same scenario; Paige is an innocent, while Nina isn't. But that's what it boils down to for all concerned this week. And when it comes down to it, Stan chooses country. Beyond loyalty and duty, another of his motivations emerges in that brief conversation with Gaad, in which he mentions the end of his marriage of two decades doesn't want to throw away the one thing keeping him fully anchored, even for someone he cares about. Which makes him basically the opposite of Philip, who's beginning to find more and more stability in his role as a suburban travel agent and parent, even as the spy life keeps getting in the way. I think Elizabeth would also pick her family over her country if she had to, but she seems intent on not having to choose, even if that means upending her daughter's world completely. Again, so much interesting, potentially volatile stuff to explore next year. (Here's hoping Nina's seemingly dire fate isn't what it looks like, though. She chose loyalty but believed Stan would choose her, and it appears to have cost her dearly.)

Beyond everything else it has to offer, "Echo" is also the latest reminder that The Americans also excels purely on the level of a thriller. Larrick has been a dangerous foe since day one, and here the typically tense filmmaking shows him to be just as terrifying in outdoor spaces as he was when tracking down and killing Kate a few episodes ago. His face quietly appearing behind Phillip in a car window reflection is as startling a moment as this show has ever delivered, and his terse orders given at gunpoint towards Elizabeth and Jared seem especially menacing in the still, isolated environment of the woods. That early scene with Fred is no less taut: Russell's and Rhys's faces registering every detail they pick up from the radio, police vehicles flying past them, and finally the aforementioned effect of the crosscutting between them and Paige (not to mention yet another pitch-perfect song choice to accompany the action). This is crisp, gloriously constructed, suspenseful television: well worth watching even if it wasn't operating at such a ridiculously high level in every other aspect. But it is. After a season this good, this consistent, and this packed with theme, character, and emotion, I don't think it's an overstatement to say The Americans has already reached heights that rival that of any show the medium has ever produced. Here's the really thrilling thing, though: it doesn't feel like it's even close to done yet.

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