The Americans: “Behind The Red Door”
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The Americans: “Behind The Red Door”

Bad ideas dancing around in there

Genevieve: Have you ever had anything you would die for? That’s the question Sandinista agent Lucia asks Congressional aide Carl as the poison she’s just snuck into his drugs works its way through his veins, but it’s echoed in every conversation between her and Elizabeth in “Behind The Red Door.” Lucia is a younger, more naïve version of Elizabeth, one enamored enough of her cause, and green enough in her training, to greet Elizabeth with a raised fist of solidarity—to which Elizabeth responds “Don’t do that.” Because it’s a foolish thing to do in public, yes, but also perhaps because it’s painful for Elizabeth to see such naked romanticism in the face of circumstances that seem designed to erode idealism and punish dreamers… something Elizabeth has learned, and is continuing to learn, the hard way. (Remember our friend Gregory? He was an idealist. Emphasis on the was.)

Lucia also functions as a sort of counterpoint to Nina, who’s never been motivated by idealism so much as self-protection. I have a hard time imagining Nina willingly dying for anything—for Stan, for Arkady, even for the family back home in Russia whom she’s placed in danger. Hell, she won’t even take a polygraph to prove to Stan that he can believe her. A few weeks ago, after “The Walk In,” I mentioned that Nina, more than perhaps anyone on this show, is untethered to a grounding, guiding force. She doesn’t have anything she’d die for—remember, she got herself into this mess by trying to make a little cash on the side, not out of any sort of ideological belief or mission—and she’s realizing that leaves her with nothing. She can’t trust anyone, and no one can trust her, which leaves her… nowhere. She tells Stan she’s done, that she wants out, but that’s an empty request, and she knows it. Even if she could say, “I’m out,” where would she go? What would she do? If there’s nothing you’d die for, then what do you live for?

Elizabeth and Claudia, as they so often do, helpfully illustrate this theme, and Nina’s plight, in their conversation that concludes “Behind The Red Door,” with Claudia saying she doesn’t care if people are motivated by idealism or money. “Blackmail, however,” she says, “seldom leads to a happy conclusion.” But then she drops a bomb, and confirms something we’ve been thinking for a while, but not necessarily the way we thought: She got romantically involved with someone, and it may have inadvertently resulted in Emmet and Leah’s death. This explains her guilty demeanor since her reappearance, but also perhaps her softened attitude toward Elizabeth, whom she tells, “I was wrong about Philip. You’re lucky to have him.” Sometimes having someone to live for is just as important as having something to live for.

But this is all thematic underpinning of an episode that drops a lot of historical significance on us, and seems to confirm that The Americans is pointing its narrative engine this season toward Nicaragua and the seeds of the Iran-Contra affair. At this point, we’re in March of 1982 (right after the death of John Belushi, who’s eulogized via Animal House quotes by the one and only, long-lost Matthew Beeman), a little less than a year before the Boland Amendment cut off U.S. funding for the Contra rebel groups seeking to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. It’s the early, idealistic days of the Reagan administration—a president who can “handle” the Soviets and their allies, according to Captain Larrick—and operation Martial Eagle is apparently in full swing, training Contra operatives in secret camps on U.S. soil. Best I can tell, “Martial Eagle” is an invented operation, and my knowledge of Cold War history is rudimentary enough that I’m uncertain how much of it is based in reality and how much is writerly invention, but regardless, it’s an intriguing new avenue for The Americans to explore. Ideologies and loyalties are shifting every which way in season two, and the introduction of the Contra War serves to muddy the boundaries even further. The Center is asking Philip and Elizabeth to put their lives on the line, assassinate the Contra field commanders who are training in the U.S., and expose the camps, because “The American people deserve to know what the government is doing behind their backs.” But is that something Elizabeth and Philip are willing to die for?

Unlike last week, Elizabeth and Philip spend most of this episode together, working toward the same goals, and because of that, I found “Behind The Red Door” to be an improvement on last week’s already stellar episode. It also has a heavy focus on the series’ female characters, which I always appreciate; perhaps not surprisingly, women are responsible for the episode’s direction (series first-timer Charlotte Sieling) and writing (Melissa James Gibson, who wrote or co-wrote some of last season’s best episodes). Season two has increasingly been about Philip and Elizabeth figuring out how they work together as an actual couple in addition to as a team of spies, and pushing them toward a reality in which they really are all the other one has—what each of them will live and die for. It’s not an immediate shift, and it’s not always pretty, but they’re getting there (perhaps not coincidentally, just as all of Stan’s relationships—with Nina, Sandra, even Gaad—are falling apart).

But first: Some ill-advised role-play! While I’m glad to see there was a reason behind Elizabeth/Jennifer’s horribly awkward questioning of Martha last week, the result was somehow even more horrifying than the setup. Todd, what do you think could possibly have been going through Elizabeth’s mind as she needled Philip about Clark the “wild animal”?

Todd: Because, in the words of the eternal playground taunt, she loooooooooooves him.

Apologies. That is a far too disturbing way to talk about what’s one of the most brutal and effective scenes the show has ever done, but it’s true! Falling in love may turn out to be the worst possible thing that ever could have happened to Philip and Elizabeth. Intellectually, Elizabeth knows that Philip has to do his job, and to do that, he has to be Clark for Martha and become someone for this other woman that he isn’t with her. But emotions are rarely ruled by the intellect, and in the back of her head is a jealousy that she can’t quite pin down or make go away. She’s increasingly unable to simply shut down that part of herself and not let the effects of the job linger. When she tells Lucia, in so many words, that she can’t afford to get too attached to her Congressional aide lover, she’s almost admonishing the person she was a year ago, who didn’t have many of these concerns. But what happens between Lucia and Carl is what happens to all couples who get too invested in emotional ties and forget about (or aren’t aware of) the brutal realities of the game they’re playing. Carl dies, Lucia telling him to think of what he’s willing to die for. It’s where these stories always end.

All of which leads us to that amazing scene in the hotel room (I think?) where Philip and Elizabeth retire for something that’s a little like role-play and a little like infidelity. Even before “Clark” is exactly as rough with Elizabeth as he apparently would be with Martha, the scene is dredging up some terrific subtext, playing off all of the ways that these two people’s lives intersect both with each other and with Martha, the felt but unseen presence in the room (and the episode). And then when things go bad, it’s horrifying—not just because of what happens but also because of Elizabeth’s own history of sexual assault.

There are going to be plenty of people who read this scene as a rape, and while I disagree, I can easily see where they’re coming from. In that moment, Elizabeth thinks she wants what she imagines Clark giving Martha (and what we see is very different from the things we’ve seen the few times we’ve dropped in on Martha and Clark having sex), but in the instant when Philip actually goes ahead and does what she wants, it becomes a bad idea. What’s fascinating to me here is how both of them are actually at fault—Elizabeth for pushing Philip to cross this line, and Philip for actually crossing it. I’ve never liked the way the show shunted a rape into Elizabeth’s back-story in the pilot, but I’ve loved the way this season has engaged and wrapped that story into the one it’s currently telling. Elizabeth uses that story as a kind of performance aid when trying to convince Brad to get Larrick’s records for her, and now, this whole scene ends up being informed by that moment. It’s scary and dark, and it’s heartbreaking when the emotional climax comes later, while the two wash dishes, and Elizabeth asks Philip if he’s mad at her. Does your consent matter when you abruptly realize somewhere in the middle that what you thought you wanted no longer is? And what about when it’s over as quickly as it’s begun?

The Americans, fittingly, is a show obsessed with intimacy. I’m frequently stunned by the way the show portrays something as simple as Philip helping his wife remove her boot, a kind of tenderness and love in his touch that matters far more than anything he could possibly say would. There’s a beauty in that, but there’s also a terror, because anything that starts out so gentle and so controlled can very easily head in another direction. “Behind The Red Door” does some wonderful things with the moment when all of that tenderness turns to something worse, and that makes it as good as it is. I think Philip and Elizabeth are strong enough to overcome this particular moment; I’m not sure they’re strong enough to overcome falling in love, which is the most messed up thing this show could possibly do.

Meanwhile, across the street, we have the scene that gives the episode its title, as Sandy has replaced the Beeman door with a new red one. We’ll deal with that more in Stray Observations, but I think it’s interesting that the episode is titled after that door (among other things), that it focuses on the seemingly normal life that goes on in the Beeman home, where Stan shows up for a family dinner looking like he’s wandered in out of some other life entirely. The way that Sieling frames him so that our eye is always drawn to him in long shots only emphasizes the way that he feels incredibly wrong seated at this table, somehow, in that rumpled suit, having to listen to his wife and kid talk about stuff he couldn’t care less about because a Soviet agent is trying to recruit him, and he’s seriously thinking about trying to turn it to his advantage in a way that could prove incredibly dangerous to him (if not eventually just turn into actual spying on his own country). Sieling’s choice to make Stan feel out of place in every scene he appears in in this episode enhances just how much what’s on his mind is something that nobody else can know. Even when he tries to get Gaad on board, things go terribly.

But this episode is filled with people stuck in places they can’t find their way out of, to the degree that even the ceiling fan seems to be oppressing Elizabeth when Sieling shoots her from above, its blades wiping across the screen but refusing to remove the image of her weeping (like we’d expect a traditional wipe to do). Physical and emotional brutality are part and parcel of this world, and that only results in the characters becoming ever more isolated and ever more trapped in that isolation. I knew the good times between Philip and Elizabeth could never last; I didn’t possibly imagine that they would end because being too good made them dangerous.

What an episode! What did you think of some of the episode’s other Philip and Elizabeth scenes, Genevieve? I didn’t even touch on the earlier, more flirtatious one when she’s trying to draw him out about Clark, which I found another standout.

Genevieve: The scene you’re referring to, the one in the kitchen, is delightful for all its awkwardness, and tremendously acted, particularly by Keri Russell. You can see Elizabeth working out how exactly to play this situation, bouncing from approach to approach: passive-aggression toward Martha, flirtation, taunting, and finally something approaching honesty. It’s not totally unlike how she would approach a target as a spy, but this time, the target knows her and her tricks—subterfuge can only get her so far here.

But I was struck more by an even earlier scene, where Philip and Elizabeth lie in their bed at home talking after having sex. Not only is this when Elizabeth brings up the Martha thing for the first time, with forced offhandedness—“Isn’t that funny?”—but it’s shot from an angle very similar to that one you mentioned with the ceiling fan, looking down from above at Elizabeth lying in bed. Only in this scene, she’s totally naked and at ease, lying stretched out and face-down next to a fully clothed Philip. (Contrast that with the later shot, where she’s curled in a ball sobbing, and Philip is gone.) The Americans gets more than its share of gratuitous and not-so-gratuitous nudity into most episodes, but this falls squarely in the latter camp for me, mainly because it reflects that intimacy you’re talking about, Todd. Elizabeth is exposing herself to Philip here in so many ways, not even thinking about how she could get hurt by doing so, because she knows he wouldn’t hurt her—which makes the fact that he ultimately does, with her encouragement, all the more devastating.

Genevieve’s grade: A
Todd’s grade: A

Stray observations:

  • Lee Tergesen—of Oz and Weird Science fame—makes for a marvelously unstable presence as Laric, and when Philip goes to the gay club to reveal the truth about himself (which Laric greets with mild amusement), it suggests he’s going to become a much bigger part of the season. That’s good. Tergesen is a fun presence on a show like this, where everybody can be awfully muted. [TV]
  • Kate’s insistence on ordering a vodka straight-up in the middle of the afternoon because “it’s a bar” makes her at least 50 percent more interesting. Which still isn’t very interesting, but hey, we’re headed in the right direction! [GK]
  • Speaking of that, ’80s-gay-club-attending Philip is the best Philip disguise yet. That mustache is the best. [TV]
  • Oleg takes a moment from poking around in everyone’s business to pose majestically in front of Aleksandr Gerasimov’s Lenin On The Tribune, because that’s the kind of guy he is. [GK]
  • Paige invites Philip and Elizabeth to come to the church and check it out, and this is all I want to happen now. [TV]
  • Some interesting playing around with the color red in this episode. While that color has obvious links to Soviet imagery, its symbolism in Asian traditions is evoked a couple of times here (and in the episode title): In the new red door Sandra has gotten for the Beeman home, which Matthew notes the Chinese consider good luck, and in the red walls of the Gaad residence, which also includes a Buddhist shrine that appears to belong to Gaad’s wife. (I’m uncertain of her exact ethnicity, but given Gaad’s service in Vietnam, I have a guess.) [GK]
  • Okay, it’s still just unconfirmed gossip at this point, and has no bearing on the show, of course, but I can’t deny I’m a little giddy at the idea that Russell and Rhys are a real-life couple now. [GK]

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