Friday, January 30, 2015

"The Americans" - "EST Men"

Spoilers for the premiere of The Americans after the jump:

It is the ongoing genius of The Americans that it can feature a concluding scene (in the very first episode of its season premiere, no less) as rich in symbolic meaning as it is viscerally horrifying. R.I.P. Annelise: the latest of an increasingly long list of supporting characters the show has managed to flesh out remarkably well over the course of just a few appearances before killing off. Of that list, she's probably not the most compelling: that honor still goes to Gregory back in season one. But her strangulation at the hands of Yousaf nonetheless hits hard. Compared to most of the characters on either side of this conflict, she's an innocent: guilty only of the foolishness of blindly trusting her handler "Scott", and believing she was doing good by getting close to the man who ends up murdering her. And then she started to get too close. She started to believe in the fiction Philip had her act out.

Earlier in the episode, Philip and Stan attend an EST workshop, mainly because Stan is hoping to try to find a way to reconnect with his wife. We only see a brief glimpse of the session, but as usual with The Americans that glimpse speaks volumes, with it focusing primarily on the idea of trying to live a more authentic existence. Both characters quickly shrug the whole thing off as stupid (an opinion I'm personally inclined to agree with), but this search for authenticity reverberates throughout the remainder of "EST Men". And why shouldn't it? While I have doubts about the efficacy of these types of self-actualization systems, most of us on some level want to be our most fully-realized and truthful self. What's more, we want to believe that the other people in our lives want that too.

Of course, in reality who we are largely determined by how we present ourselves: a fact that, as a spy show, The Americans is able to foreground especially well. Much like Annelise, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings have acted out fiction after fiction: donning the roles of husband, lover, friend, or whatever else the situation may call for. Most importantly, however, they have taken on the roles of parents, something that at the end of last season became a major source of conflict between the pair. One of the most brilliant things "EST Men" does is to shade in that conflict a bit more thoroughly, linking it to this search for authentic experience. And as the conflict gets shaded in, it becomes pretty clear that both are believing in a vision of their lives that may not even exist.

That's particularly obvious in the case of Philip, who continues to think he can separate his role as a father from his role as a spy: giving his kids a life as Americans even as he simultaneously works to destabilize the country from the inside. His desire to protect Paige is understandable, but it's also seemingly as unrealistic as Annelise's belief that she and Yousaf are meant to be. This American family routine is, after all, a fiction that he and Elizabeth have concocted in order to maintain their cover  Even as former handler Gabriel (Frank Langella, fitting in every bit as well on this show as I expected him to when his casting was announced) returns and aims to soothe his concerns, he's subtly but firmly reiterating the message that the Centre's orders haven't changed.

Elizabeth is still okay with this, even going so far as to get closer to Paige in the weeks since "Echo" by attending a number of church events with her. This stems from a real desire to build an authentic relationship between mother and daughter, but she explains the situation to Gabriel as though it were merely the careful development of a new asset (which of course it in many ways is). This conversation is among the most striking scenes in the episode: the dialogue revealing a great deal about Elizabeth's current mindset while the visuals reaffirm the severity of the difference of opinion between her and Phillip. Note the way Phillip is positioned directly between the other two characters—The Americans continues to have one of the best eyes for blocking and shot composition of any series I can recall—with a silent expression, taking it all in and repressing his own emotions until he and Elizabeth are alone in the car later.

What's fantastic about this whole scenario is that despite their different views on the subject, both characters are struggling to find a way to maintain the family unit they've worked so hard to build. And they both come across as hopelessly naive: Philip for believing he can maintain the separation they've built between work and home, and Elizabeth for her belief that this is the way to help Paige discover her true self. Because truth doesn't really enter into the equation: not when you're considering revealing your secret identity to someone with the ability to turn you in to your friend from the FBI if things go wrong. And you can hear the gears turning in Elizabeth's brain any time she talks to or about Paige. She's thinking ten moves ahead, the way she would with any other asset. Yet there's also nothing cold-blooded about it; when she listens to the tape from her dying mother, it's a heartbreaking reminder of why she's so drawn to this idea (and so concerned that it go absolutely right).

Of course, things don't always go right when you're dealing with human beings with complex psyches. Elizabeth is nearly caught—in a terrific slow burn of a chase that suddenly turns into a brutal physical altercation, culminating in a vicious concluding punch to the face of Gaad—because the woman she'd been working for information changed her mind and called the FBI. Try as you might to control all the variables, the reality of a given situation tends to be a force unto itself. And for the characters of The Americans, believing in something inconsistent with that reality is often a road that leads to doom. Poor Annelise discovered that this week. I could of course be wrong, but in their divergent attempts to maintain control over both major aspects of their lives, the two halves of the Jennings marriage seem to be on an eventual collision course with an equally dire fate: either for themselves or their daughter. Or both.

Other Thoughts

- Hello, and welcome to another season of television's best current drama. As usual, I don't know how often I'm going to be able to write about the show, but I hope to be able to check in on it at least a couple of times.

- Nina does not appear in the premiere, but the news that she has been convicted of treason haunts several characters throughout the episode, and seems as though it's about to cause some sort of a confrontation between Oleg and Stan. The Jennings family conflict may dominate "EST Men" (and justifiably so), but the episode still finds room to touch on a few of its other existing threads.

- It also introduces some new characters: including Tatiana (a new member of the Rezidentura) and a new agent that Elizabeth is training. None of them make as immediate an impression as Lucia, Oleg, or Larrick did last year. But it's early, and this episode is very busy. I'm sure they'll get there.

- I really hope they do end up trying to turn Paige, as I remain beyond fascinated by how she'd respond to this. Mainly because I couldn't even begin to guess.

- Am I the only one who's always weirded out the first few times a title sequence gets lengthened due to new actors being upgraded to starring status? Good to see Lev Gorn and Richard Thomas (along with Costa Ronin as Oleg) added, though. They've been an essential part of the show for a long time.


  1. Well done. And: "Am I the only one who's always weirded out the first few times a title sequence gets lengthened due to new actors being upgraded to starring status?" No.

  2. Tho, clearly, you're monstrous for wanting to see them trying to turn Paige. Ahem.

    1. Ha ha, that does sound kind of awful, doesn't it? What can I say? If the cost of great storytelling is that an innocent character gets put in both spiritual and physical jeopardy, then that's just a sacrifice that has to be made. :)