Todd: Well. That was a hell of a premiere, no?
“Comrades” centers on two different sequences that are rather over-obvious in their connection to each other but no less devastating for it. In the first, Elizabeth leaves the cabin where she’s been recuperating from the gunshot wound she sustained in the first-season finale. She drives away on an early, misty morning, then slams on the brakes on the driveway from the cabin. She’s nearly hit a mother deer accompanied by two fawns. The implication here is obvious: Elizabeth’s career is a constant threat to her children, who could be taken away from her (or worse) were she ever exposed. But the scene also establishes the stakes for what’s to come nicely, introducing a sense of unease that underlies everything else that happens in the episode. There’s always that deer, in the early morning gloom and the glow of Elizabeth’s headlights, looking back at her as if to tell her that there’s no way she can slam on the brakes every time.
The second is where the bottom falls out. Elizabeth and Philip have planned a family outing that just so happens to coincide with one of their spy missions. They go to what appears to be a slowly fading amusement park, where they look across the way at their fellow spies’ children and the other spies look at theirs. All is well. All is unusually idyllic for this show, just a few stolen moments together as a family, moments that will seem all the more ominous for what comes later. What Philip and Elizabeth can’t know is that someone is apparently stalking their comrades, and that someone brutally murders them at their hotel, though their son isn’t present and has to have the memory of walking into the room to see his parents’ and sister’s body for the rest of his life. Here’s the car that intentionally didn’t slam on the brakes. Here’s what Philip and Elizabeth have to watch out for, out of the corner of their eye, until they die.
In its first season, The Americans was a spy series that was also, at its heart, really about a marriage in the process of discovering just how strong it was. To repeat all of that would become quickly irritating. Philip and Elizabeth are just fine. They’re in love. Their union is strong, strong enough that their daughter walks in on them 69ing each other, no less. Thus, the series is shifting, ever so slightly but still recognizably, to being a story about parenthood, a story about what it means to try to protect your children from a world you know can never be held entirely at bay. This is a potentially dangerous card to play, since so many shows like this have foundered on the shores of telling stories about their children characters. But because family is so important to the center of The Americans, it feels like an inevitability to turn more of the story over to the connection Philip and Elizabeth have with their children.
It’s also inevitable because we know that Paige, like all good teenage girls in dark drama series, has begun suspecting that everything her parents tell her is a lie. When she gets any chance she can in this episode, she’s digging through their shit, using the excuse of just doing her mom’s laundry or worrying that her parents aren’t home. Yet there’s another underlying thought here: Paige really did miss her mother when she was gone, but she’s having trouble admitting that because, well, she’s a teenage girl who barely wants to admit that to herself. After the year she’s just had, though, with plenty of insecurity that her parents would even be together at the end of it, I can’t really blame her, though. Even when we’re teenagers, there’s a certain comfort to the idea that when we go home, someone will be there waiting for us and things will remain relatively stable and boring. Knowing what’s waiting when we come home is one of the reasons we’re able to experiment and wander far afield in those years, and Paige is coming out of a long time when what might be behind the front door of her home was unpredictable.
Of course, there’s plenty of room for just about everybody else in this episode as well, but I’ve talked long enough. Genevieve, I’ll toss this to you. What did you think of the adventures of Stan Beeman? And, also, I forgot to talk about how that teaser doesn’t end with Elizabeth nearly hitting the deer. It ends with Philip shooting the innocent restaurant worker in the head because he saw too much. That, surely, must be foreshadowing for what’s coming as well. What do you say?
Genevieve: I say that not only is Philip shooting that innocent bystander in the head a foreshadowing of what's to come this season, it's a foreshadowing of what comes later in this very episode. For what is that innocent teenage girl in the hotel room but an innocent bystander? Philip does to that busboy exactly what these unseen spies did to the teenage daughter of their comrades, Emmet and Leah: addressed the collateral damage, efficiently and apparently with not much remorse. (We do get a glimpse of the emotional toll it takes on Philip when he tells Elizabeth how the Afghani operation "went bad," with a slight grimace.) For me, it was the most shocking moment in a premiere full of them, one that elicited an actual gasp. It can be easy to forget, given how likable they can be and how great they look in their wigs, that we aren't exactly supposed to be rooting for Philip and Elizabeth—any more than we're supposed to be rooting for Stan and Agent Gaad and the FBI, or for the Rezidentura and Arkady.
From its very first episode—hell, from its basic plot synopsis—The Americans has always traded on moral ambiguity, the idea that rightness and wrongness is simply a matter of where you happen to be standing at the time. That idea is somewhat compromised by the historical aspect of this show, where Philip and Elizabeth are on the side of the bad guys, at least in the eyes of U.S. history; but from a purely storytelling perspective, they're Our Men, the perspective through which we process most of what's right and wrong in this particular television world. Until the story shifts to Stan and the FBI, and the perspective changes. Or to the Rezidentura and Nina, and it changes again. In a TV landscape overrun with sympathetic antiheroes, it's bracing to see a show playing with the audience's sympathies so blatantly and effectively. It's also a little exhausting, having no real moral compass to align ourselves with, which is why I think most of us—though I know there are some commenters who disagree—default to processing Philip and Elizabeth as "the good guys," despite all evidence to the contrary. And then Philip shoots the busboy and things go topsy-turvy once more.
All of this is by way of saying I like your observation that season two of The Americans is shifting to being a show about parenthood, because I think that complicates and enriches this ambiguity even further. Because what's more absolute than parents’ dedication to their children? Can it be trumped by dedication to country and cause? In this case it is—Philip endangers Henry by using him as a prop in the handoff, despite he and Elizabeth swearing never to do so—but I get the feeling that won't be the case in the future. We don't know at this point who killed Emmet and Leah, and neither do Philip and Elizabeth—when Elizabeth asks "Who would do this?" all Philip can offer is "You want the list?"—but the fact that whoever did it is apparently unencumbered by a distaste for killing innocent children makes them a considerable foe. (Wild speculation time: Leah and Emmet send the Jennings Claudia's regards, which is a loaded communication considering Elizabeth's last interaction with Claudia. We know Margo Martindale is returning to the show this season; it would certainly be interesting if she were somehow behind this.)
Stan Beeman, on the other hand, is looking less like a considerable foe these days. Not only has the trail on Directorate S gone cold, but his last remaining link to real information on Elizabeth and Philip, Sanford Prince, has been reduced to "the creepy guy from the Pentagon" in the eyes of the FBI after none of his tips panned out. This earns Sanford a couple of bullets through the head courtesy of the Colonel, after Sanford shows up at his house threatening him—though, as Stan notes, "You'd think one in the head would have been enough." If Stan is implying what I think he's implying about the Colonel, things could get a lot rougher for ol' Agent Beeman than they already are, should he act on those suspicions.
And then there's Nina, who's starting to show the strain of her triple-cross arrangement with the Rezidentura. She seems increasingly restless in her arrangement with Stan, whose taste in bootleg VHS tapes prompts some loaded conversation about being someone's "woman"; that, combined with her response to Arkady's suggestion that she tell Stan she loves him—"Did your wife tell you she loved you first?"—suggests her emotional connection to Stan is not entirely gone, just more complicated than ever, especially now that he's living apart from Sandra… though even that gets complicated toward the end of the episode, courtesy of Leo "Dr. Love" Buscaglia.
Further complicating Nina's position is newcomer Oleg, a young KGB go-getter and blossoming Rod Stewart fan who's in charge of the KGB's science-and-technology-focused Line X. Nina seems unimpressed with Oleg at this point—"He's a bad mattress…. too soft"—but the nature of his introduction, and his specialty, suggest he has a larger part to play this season. Todd, were you also struck by this new addition to the Rezidentura hierarchy? And given the strong musical elements in the first season's premiere and finale, were you a little disappointed that "Comrades" didn't have musical montage in the vein of "Tusk" or "Games Without Frontiers"?
Todd: Certainly I wish we had gotten a musical montage to match those moments, but I almost felt as if the episode was all the better for not having one. This is an episode about the Jenningses getting back to what’s normal, easing back into the routine, and to have a few aspects of the show absent makes for a more haunting premiere that better echoes the characters’ states of mind.
That said, we get something that works almost as well: “Clark” talking to Martha about how much his job seems to be eating him alive. It’s the more flowery version of that pained grimace Philip shares with Elizabeth earlier in the episode, and it’s a reminder that where Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage has been going on long enough to work in a kind of emotional shorthand, Clark and Martha’s is new enough that they’re still feeling out the emotional boundaries of each other. And because he’s putting on a performance when he’s Clark, Philip has to push even further than he might otherwise. (Really, this episode is filled with people putting on performances and commenting on the performances others are giving, as when Nina cuts down Meryl Streep.) Everybody on this show is managing each other’s emotions—notice how Nina doesn’t want to tell Stan “I love you” first, to better keep him on the hook—but that doesn’t make those emotions any less real. We in the audience may know that Martha is a dupe, but she doesn’t, not yet, at least, and that makes whatever’s going to happen to her, or Nina, or Sandy, or any of these characters, all the more heart-wrenching to contemplate.
Yet there’s one relationship where the two participants are more or less honest with each other, and it’s at the center of the show. Yet where we observed last season, Genevieve, that many episodes of the series ended with Philip and Elizabeth talking over something in their home, this episode ends with Elizabeth, sitting alone on her bed, her husband off doing vital business by keeping up the pretense of a marriage with his other wife (who, in many respects, is actually his legal wife). The travails the marriage went through in season one may be over, but the damaging lies continue. They’re just not lies Philip and Elizabeth are telling each other any more. Not as if that matters.
Todd’s grade: A
Genevieve’s grade: A
- Welcome back to our reviews of The Americans, which will continue to feature Genevieve and I trading notes back and forth on what we thought of the episodes, just as we did last year. We’re happy to have you back and happy to have the show back! [TV]
- The worst part of the episode, that long “Elizabeth travels home” montage at the top of the first act, nevertheless gave the episode even more of an ‘80s feel. I’ve been watching a lot of the first season of L.A. Law lately, and so many episodes contain these long-ass montages of establishing footage just like that, seemingly to pad out the running time. [TV]
- Hey, Philip finally has an excuse to wear those cowboy boots he was eying in the pilot! So that meeting with the Taliban wasn't all bad. [GK]
- Nina is not impressed with the work of Meryl Streep. Stan is not impressed with Nina's Anna Karenina references. [GK]
- My favorite thing about that scene is when Stan seems flabbergasted that Nina isn’t buying the performance. “That’s Meryl Streep!” he says, slightly crestfallen. That said, was anybody that tuned in to Streep at that point in her career? This was pre-Sophie’s Choice, remember, and while she was an acclaimed actress, I don’t know if she’d reached legendary status just yet (though she had an Oscar for Kramer Vs. Kramer, so maybe?). Also: Stan thinks about showing Nina Mad Max before the guy who runs the FBI’s pirated videotape store warns him away from it. I kind of want to see that episode now. [TV]
- Henry gets a telescope for his birthday, furthering the Jennings' trend of pushing their son into hobbies that have a fraught history of Russian-U.S. relations. (First hockey, now space.) [GK]
- The scene where Philip and Elizabeth talk with Paige about respecting their privacy is as squirm-inducing as anything I’ve seen in a cringe comedy in recent years. The Americans doesn’t have as immediate a sense of humor as some of the other dramas in its weight class, but it has a very dry, slightly embarrassed one, one that’s stereotypically Russian in its affect. Here’s a great example of it. [TV]