The Americans S2E1: Comrades

kyra: Buckeye, I can’t tell you how excited I am to have a real show to talk about again. Sure True Detective has kept us up late on Sunday nights, but it just hasn’t sucked me all in. The Americans, on the other hand, had just as good a debut season as pretty much anything I’ve ever seen, coming in at #3 on my Best Of 2013. That being said, Homeland also had a great Season 1 only to drive straight into a tirefire when they ran out of story. And on that positive note, let’s talk about Comrades.

I must admit, I don’t think the ‘last season on The Americans‘ did a good enough job refreshing me on everything that went on. I supplemented it with the Wikipedia entry on the last episode, but even then I still don’t remember all the details with the Colonel and what not. There’s the guy with gambling debts, then there was a scientist they had turned–are those different people? I guess what I’m saying is they could’ve done a better job reminding me of what went down at the end of the Season 1. Aside from this complaint though, I thought Comrades did an excellent job diving back into the world, setting up some long-term plots, and hitting the ground running with a violent bang.

Until now, we may as well have believed that Philip and Elizabeth were the top 2, and only 2, field agents of Directorate S on the ground in DC. However, in Comrades we are introduced to another family just like theirs: Emmet and Leah. They talk like old friends, filling each other in on what their kids are up to, yada yada yada. And they talk like Americans. They want to raise their kids like they’re Americans. Don’t play too many video games because your brain will rot! You almost forget that they are cold-blooded killers determined to destroy the American way of life. It is one of the strange, palpable themes of the show–Elizabeth, and especially Philip, appear to truly enjoy their lives in America. Their children are growing up American and will likely go to colleges just like Emmet and Leah’s oldest son. And yet, even after being so assimilated, they still respond to every mission Mother Russia asks of them. Case and point: we aren’t introduced to Emmet and Leah as a separate couple, but rather some dude is having the fucking time of his life with Leah and Elizabeth when officers Philip and Emmet bust in, setting up what could be a valuable source of information throughout this season (side note: how horrible was this guy’s night? He went from best day of his life to worst in a brutal 5 minutes). Only after the mission is completed do we see it’s another couple just like our “protagonists,” and it’s another reminder of the sacrifices they as “married couples” must make to fulfill their duties. I can only imagine how Leah and Emmet’s murder will affect the tone of this season, with them continuing to question why they still risk their lives (and apparently their children’s lives) fighting for their country when life really isn’t so bad. Buckeye, I know I just tried to fit a lot into this intro. What are your thoughts on this episode and expectations going forward?

Buckeye: It definitely has been a long hiatus, kyra, because I struggled to jog my memory of the same plot line. Hopefully the lack of information supplied by the “Previously on…” montage means I won’t have to rack my brain (or browse Wikipedia more than I just did) to recall in fine detail the history of degenerate gambler Sanford and The Colonel—though color me (and Stan) suspicious as to the Colonel’s self-defense account of the shooting. It’s a story that might have legs, but I think we’re on solid ground if we just consider that Sanford had some dirt on the Colonel and Elizabeth, that no one believed him, and that the Colonel may have been covering his tracks.

What I am more interested in discussing is the episode’s—and in many ways the series’—focus on the collateral damage Phil and Elizabeth cause. The pair they most directly put in harms way, of course, are their two kids. For that reason, it was particularly galling of Phil to so quickly dispatch with the normal “No Kids” rule for their operations simply because Emmet told him. (Though I did like the touch of buddy-cop relationship the Jennings shared with Emmet and Leah.) In fairness to Elizabeth, she countenanced quite a bit of motherly concern when she realized that Phil used Henry as bait, but the scene is still a reminder for us of where the Jennings’ loyalties lie, and that they often invert their priorities from what we, as Americans (see what I did there?), would consider normal. Their first instinct isn’t to protect their kids, but to protect their cover, and because their job demands that they put themselves in harm’s way, their allegiance to whatever they think their cause is pulls their children along with them, however unknowingly. Russell and Rhys wore their OH SHIT faces convincingly well as their eyes panned over the carnage wrought on their comrades and especially their comrades’ daughter, but it was only then that Phil’s paternal instinct kicked in.

The show hadn’t really exposed the job first, kids second value system in a situation where Paige or Henry are in imminent danger before, so I’m guessing that scene was a harbinger of things to come. As the season progresses and the kids get older and wiser to what their parents are up to—Paige’s glimpse of her parents doing the deed definitely scarred her but won’t deter her from snooping around the basement—the Phil and Elizabeth are going to have a much harder time keeping track of them. Previously, they’d been able to act the part of dutiful parents, as they can’t avoid completely a sense of obligation and worry, and limited the collateral damage visited on Paige and Henry to some time away from home—a “date night” on Henry’s birthday, for example. I’m prepared that the Jennings won’t be able to supply their children with hot dogs and birthday parties much longer. What the couple should hope is that their kids don’t become witnesses to something more sinister, and suffer the fate of that Afghan cook who saw Phil without a wig.

kyra, do you have any thoughts on the state of the Jennings’ marriage and family life at the beginning of Season 2?

kyra: Let’s not forget that “doing the deed” was SIXTY-NINING, a shockingly progressive act from Russians in the 1980’s! We see this loving display, and also the full on make-out in front of the kids, and we know that Philip and Elizabeth are feeling closer to each other than they’ve ever felt before. This picks up on Elizabeth saying faintly to Philip at the end of last season, in Russian, that he should come home (remember they were living separately for much of the season). If their loves continues to grow, and the family ties grow stronger now that they’ve seen a Jennings family stand-in brutally massacred, one expects their allegiance to Russia to suffer. Their assignments from Russia after all put their kids in harms way. That’s not cool.

As you said, Paige is getting older and more suspicious. Philip even wonders aloud whether or not it’s the first time she has snooped on them like that. In all seriousness though, Paige walking in on them in this fashion is probably an ideal scenario, as they get to lecture her on privacy while not having to explain away any strange connection to the KGB. Hopefully this will keep her off their backs for a while, but she’s an inquisitive teenager so I doubt it. Her mother also spent multiple months visiting a sick Aunt they’ve never met and couldn’t even visit once? That seems pretty suspect to me. What I do hope is that this show continues to use the children, albeit in a limited fashion, in an effective way. Children are so often used horribly on dramas that focus on adults (see: HomelandThe Good WifeThe Sopranos, etc.), but as we see here there is a part for them to play.

I think this initial episode rightly devoted much of the screen time to the Jennings family at the expense of other relationships, but let’s talk about them for a minute:

“Clark” unloads all his stresses onto Martha. He talks about how tough his day was, and while he can’t use specifics, everything he says to her is true. “This job, this life, it gets you to you in ways you never thought it could.” It never seemed last season like he was that into her, but I wonder if using her as his therapist will make him grow fond of her. If he continues to discuss his actual feelings with Martha we may develop an actual love triangle. On her end, she’s so pathetically infatuated with him it’s sad. Where does she think he is all the nights he doesn’t come home!?

Then there’s Stan, who’s dealing with two angry lovers in the premier. He breaks the rules a little bit in getting a bootleg VHS (so old!), which the guy informs him will get brownie points with the wife. However, it’s not the wife who gets the goods, but Nina, the triple agent temptress. Nina accuses him of manipulating her emotions, and Stan is a bad enough liar that he can’t cover it up. Stan’s wife, meanwhile, is still trying her hardest to mend their broken marriage. Stan gives in and accompanies her to (of course) the same movie he had watched bootleg earlier, except this time he appears very affected. Buckeye, as a movie aficionado, do you have any insight into this Meryl Streep classic, or anything else about the other relationships of The Americans?

Buckeye: Unfortunately, you have just hit on a cultural blind spot for me, kyra. I have not seen The French Lieutenant’s Woman, though my understanding is that it depicts parallel love stories (one set in Victorian England, another in present day, present day being 1980) featuring the same characters. Perhaps those of you who’ve seen the film can let us know if the stories largely track Stan’s relationships with both Nina and his wife. I was a bit distracted because Meryl Streep’s histrionic-laden scene that Nina watched seemed to be hitting me over the head with the realization that I was supposed to think of Nina the way a person who saw The French Lieutenant’s Woman would think of Streep’s character. (As a side note on Nina, and we remarked on this during last season’s run, she’s running a pretty tight rope here. I’m still kinda surprised she survived Season 1, but she’s smarter than she looks, as is The Americans, generally. Keep reading.)

I don’t think The Americans is a subtle show in this regard. For God’s sake, all you have to do is look at the title, and that’s before losing count of all the American cultural artifacts it checks off weekly. A shot of Old Glory conspicuously in the background? Yup! Hey Henry, want some HOT DOGS? The Jennings basically force their kids to watch baseball and eat apple pie in every episode. But I do go along with its lack of subtlety because (1) aside from the overt symbolism, I think the show’s and the Jennings’ central predicament elicits some nuanced commentary on marriage, family, and citizenship, and (2) because the show counterbalances its attention-grabbing with some sly humor. Think of those ugly wigs and clothes—the people behind the camera recognize that, and it’s sort of an inside joke that Phil’s wig came off in the restaurant. The snazzy technological advancement heralded by the VHS tape, as kyra mentioned above, can be another example. And so if the scene from this week between Stan and Nina felt forcedly obvious, the show’s been much deeper than its surface would lead you to believe, and it’s well within its makers’ wheelhouse to know when to step back and laugh a little. To be honest, the scene they chose of Streep’s wailing, was ridiculous enough for the overacting on display. It’s one thing you can’t accuse The Americans cast for doing.

kyra: I might push back slightly on the American subtlety. After all, weren’t we more rah rah American in this time during the Cold War? I don’t find it to be so in-your-face in the first place, but surely we look back now and think there was more a sense of pride than there is today.

Random Observations:

kyra: Can we have a trauma-off? Who do you think saw crazier shit: Stan Beeman going undercover with the KKK for a few years, or Rust Cohle’s deep undercover in narco. I think the smart money is on Cohle obviously, but I think Stan’s seen some shit.

Buckeye: I bet there’s a ton of crossover between the types ol’ Rust Cohle palled around with and Stan’s KKK buddies. Who knows how often Stan had to shoot up?? But the experience seems to have made Rust Cohle legitimately crazy so I think he wins the trauma off.

My random observation about to get all Room 237 on you: did anyone notice how the overhead shots of Phil and Elizabeth’s car driving back home seemed to resemble the opening credits to The Shining? Let’s hope that portends Phil attacks Elizabeth with a hatchet. But if Paige was gonna walk in on them slurping up the goods the people behind The Americans at least could’ve had the sense to include a man in a bear suit joining in on the fun!


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