Thursday, March 9, 2017

"The Americans" - "Amber Waves" Review

A review (with spoilers, of course) of The Americans' season five premiere after the jump:

The Americans' first bravura scene this year involves a few people digging a hole.

Sure, there's also the matter of what happens after said hole is dug. (R.I.P. Hans, the latest casualty of yet another rather bloodthirsty premiere. Annalise, Emmett, Leanne, Amelia, Timoshev, the bully Philip killed in the flashback last season . . . quite a body count these season openers are racking up at this point, isn't it?) But let's return for a second to the actual act of digging the hole, because it's among the most perfect encapsulations of one of the things that makes The Americans the best show on TV by a mile—its depiction of its characters' labor as damn difficult. 

This idea was certainly less present in the show's first season, which probably contains more adrenaline-fueled action sequences than the following three combined. While that season is one of the great drama debuts in recent memory, it's also arguably a slightly lesser version of what The Americans would become just one year later. Somewhere early in that stellar second season—around the time of "A Little Night Music" and "The Deal"—the show began to start diving into both the physicality and the psychology of its characters' double lives in considerably more painstaking fashion than before. "The Deal," you may recall, charted Philip's long night guarding a Mossad agent, and while it is of course tense as hell, it also has an eye for the exhausting, sometimes just-plain-unpleasant minutiae of the task at hand. It's an especially long episode (one of the longest in The Americans' history), and while the time does fly by, it also ensures you feel somewhat wrung-out when all is said and done.

The final scene of "Amber Waves" operates according to that same principle. It's almost a miniature version of (cue obligatory film snob reference here) Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman in its intent, if not its visual aesthetics. The characters walk to the spot where they need to dig. They start digging. Once in a while they take a moment to catch their breaths. They stay hydrated. Mostly, they just keep digging. It goes on for a while and becomes just a tad numbing by the end, though it's livened up stylistically—in a way that Jeanne Dielman deliberately is not—by moments like that gorgeous, tensely askew low-angle shot of a person climbing up a grassy incline to serve as a lookout. Finally the hole is dug, but the methodical nature of the work still does not cease, as the late William's sealed biohazard tomb is carefully broken open and a patch of his flesh is carved away with precision. All of this makes it doubly shocking, of course, when such a laborious process is suddenly interrupted by Hans tumbling into the pit. 

This has been a significant part of The Americans' identity from season two onward—backbreaking (or soul-destroying) labor in service of a cause, coupled with the constant threat that something could go fatally wrong. And while the rest of "Amber Waves" is far less dramatic about these two aspects, it's suffused with both of them. It's a premiere that, prior to this stunning ending, is largely filled with excellent table-setting scenes involving various characters taking on new tasks. Oleg, now back in Russia following the events of last season, is assigned to help root out corruption in the country's agriculture department, while Philip, Elizabeth, and a new, younger agent (posing as their adopted teenage son) start to get close to a Russian defector and his family. Neither of these tasks are very arduous in comparison to what transpires later, but here the show is once again concerned with the small details that need to be dealt with in these situations. For instance, lights need to be turned off at appropriate times so that the Jennings' latest cover identity is not questioned.

In short, it's an especially busy start to the season, touching base with almost every remaining character (the whereabouts of Arkady remain a mystery for now) and resetting things for some of them just a bit. Everyone's getting back to work. The ever-tightening net, which last season pushed Gabriel to declare a temporary moratorium on new missions for his exhausted operatives, seems to have been loosened just a bit, to the point where they're now pursuing this new lead. There remains plenty of potential dread percolating in the background, what with storylines like Philip's son continuing his journey to America and the man who's following Oleg on his way to eat dinner with his family. But much of the tension is currently at a low simmer; Mikhail is still all the way across the ocean, and Oleg seems out of any pressing danger for the moment.

Those moments can change in an instant, though, as the unfortunate Hans discovers. Which finally brings me to my favorite The Americans character and her struggles with nightmares this week. Paige's storyline is a fairly small one compared to some of these others, but it still offers some fascinating insight into her process of coping with the sense of danger she correctly perceives, which is threatening to tear her apart at the seams. (And why wouldn't it?) Elizabeth's idea of fighting lessons in response to this strikes me as a genuinely good one, yet it's also not adequate in and of itself as a means of protecting Paige from everything happening around her. Tellingly, she puts off the issue of the potential relationship with Matthew—and the thornier emotional questions it would raise—for another day, perhaps because she and Philip have proven themselves often ill-equipped to deal with these exact questions in their own lives. They have no real answers to give her. Their work has prepared them (for better or for worse) to be able to put a bullet in the head of an ally with zero hesitation whatsoever, but not so much for this.

So as Paige seems set to receive an initial crash course in some of the most basic tools of her parents' trade, the final scene of "Amber Waves"—in its focus both on the physically taxing process of the digging and its sudden, violent end—offers an extraordinarily eloquent look at where that journey could eventually lead her. Some may complain about the length of the scene, but for me it's entirely in keeping with The Americans' ongoing cognizance of the time and sheer effort it takes to do everything these characters do. And that awareness has paid off for the show time and time again, giving even the scenes focusing on more humdrum tasks a sense of weight to them—something it seems intent on carrying forward into its sure-to-be joyful and not-at-all-foreboding endgame. To which I say: Hell yes to all of it.


- Hi, folks! I'm back, after taking last year off completely from writing about The Americans. I probably won't be able to write about it every week this year, but I plan on at the very least dropping in a few times, if only to do my part to counter the lazy pieces that try to relate this show (mostly in ways that don't make any sense to those who understand even a modicum of history) to Donald Trump.

- The other currently missing character is Martha. I didn't mention her above, mainly because I wanted to say a bit more about her here. My working theory is that Martha's story is done. Alison Wright's work last season was of course legendary, but I'm just not sure where else they can take her storyline now. (Then again, you could have said the same with Nina post-season two. I trust these showrunners unequivocally. But I still say 70 percent odds we never see her again.)

- Philip ribbing Stan about his new gym crush was delightful.

- OK, time for one minor criticism: I don't particularly like the little mini-montage of the grain fields that opens the episode, both because I find its apparent thematic point highly simplistic (depicting America as a place of abundance overlooks the fact that so many still go hungry here) and because it's showy in a way that represents a jarring break with the show's usual style.


  1. Wow. Thanks! I still have no idea why they killed him though and who was the dead person and why were they cutting on the body? But I truly agree w your perspective and FELT the weary grusome feelings of the digging.

    1. I can help clear that up!

      The dead person was William, who infected himself with Lassa fever (a terrible disease) at the end of last season. They were cutting into him to take a sample of the pathogen, since it appears he's still infectious. (When Hans cut his hand, he was almost certainly infected himself. Hence why they killed him. Also probably saved him from suffering a terrible death from the disease.)