The Americans: “New Car”
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The Americans: “New Car”

All of this could be yours if the price is right

Genevieve: That’s a commercial for the Camero Z28 from 1982, which means that that is the jingle and the imagery that’s likely going through Philip and Henry’s minds in tonight’s episode, as they look at their prize at the Chevy dealership: Sexy ladies! Rock ‘n’ roll! Chasing shadows! (I have no idea if this actual ad campaign was on the writers’ minds when they wrote this, but “chasing shadows” is a pretty brilliant reference for a show about spies.) Sure, it looks hopelessly cheesy today, but by 1982 standards, it didn’t get much cooler… definitely more aspirational than sword-fighting with icicles. Then to, ahem, drive the point home, Philip and Henry pull the thing up to the Jennings home blasting “Rock This Town,” as perfect an anthem for American frivolity as you could ask for. Elizabeth is aghast, not because Philip made such an extravagant purchase without asking her (though that does seem a bit odd), but because of what that car, and Henry and Philip’s enthusiasm for it, represents. It’s the new, sexy, fun piece of all-American technology, assembled smack-dab in the middle of the heartland (Norwood, Ohio). Pretty far removed from a hastily assembled Soviet submarine based on stolen plans that turn out to be fake, resulting in the deaths of 160 soldiers.

This juxtaposition is not lost on Philip, who looks at his new toy a lot differently after hearing the news from Kate about the catastrophic fallout of his and Elizabeth’s mission to steal those propellor plans. Before, he’s swayed by the intoxicating allure of “all that speed and power and freedom,” totally internalizing the car dealer’s spiel about how buying a car is about “how it makes you feel.” That car makes Philip feel damn good, as evidenced by the affectionate little look and tap he gives the car as he gets out of it to meet Kate. Then afterward, completely shaken by the news of the sinking, he looks at it like it’s poison. And at that moment, it is: It’s the object that’s poisoned him against his homeland, against his cause, made him ask Elizabeth, “Don’t you ever enjoy any of this?” It’s the same Philip we saw admiring those cowboy boots at the American shopping mall in the series premiere, the one who deep down wishes his cover story was his real story. And those two stories come crashing into each other in “New Car.”

In the end, the car is little more than a car, but it is emblematic of the divide between Soviet and U.S. innovation and defense technology, which much of this episode’s plot turns on. (A much smaller symbol of same: When Stan meets Oleg at a bowling alley, he finds him standing in front of a bank of machines playing pinball, which Oleg notes people used to wait in line for hours to play one game of back home.) The Americans has thus far avoided tipping its hand too much about its ideology—and for good reason, as the show works best in the grey area it usually occupies—but “New Car” goes all-in with that footage of Ronald Reagan, and Elizabeth’s reaction to it. Reagan has gradually become more of a looming specter in this season of The Americans, and it’s hard not to sympathize with Elizabeth as she listens to him talk about the country’s huge spending on Soviet defense (at the expense of balancing the budget, which is mighty cringe-inducing from the vantage point of 2014). Especially when a portion of that spending was devoted to planting phony propeller plans, plans that she and Philip risked their lives to get, and that resulted in the death of 160 of their comrades. There’s something infuriating about the casual bravado that such a plan requires, a certain dick-swinging, “neener-neener” mentality that’s required to even think up that sort of sneak attack, much less implement it. It’s a very American mentality, truth be told—the utmost confidence in our own power and others’ envy of it. At the moment of that speech, Reagan might as well have been speeding off in a brand-new Chevy Camero, giving Elizabeth the finger in his rearview.

Then again, the Soviets did steal those plans, and, if Oleg is to be believed, made errors of their own in rushing them through production and testing. There are no innocents here, but there are plenty of victims, and no one source for blame. That’s the sort of moral quagmire that makes me love The Americans, and makes episode like “New Car” so rewarding on subsequent viewings. (I watched this one three times, and I’m still not sure I caught everything.) Relationships and loyalties on this show fracture and morph and fold in on themselves to such an extent that it’s impossible to maintain a rooting interest. We can only stare, semi-horrified, and wonder what comes next—and how things could possibly get worse.

Even characters who previously seemed unimpeachable, like poor Stan (uh-oh, Stan has officially entered “poor Martha” territory), are being forced to compromise values that previously seemed impenetrable. Stan’s loyalty to Nina—itself a betrayal of his marriage to Sandra—has put him in a position he never thought he’d be in, providing FBI intelligence reports to the KGB. And the bureaucracy of his own government, specifically the DOD and DOJ gatekeepers denying him codeword clearance to look into Oleg, is forcing him to consider extreme measures, which he tentatively floats by a horrified Gaad. (“Is that a joke?” “Depends on your sense of humor, sir.”) Stan’s a victim of his own making, but also of circumstances beyond his power. During their pinball meeting, Oleg tells Stan “We’ve fallen into something together,” a statement Stan resists because it implies he’s not in control—again, a very American mentality—even though he’s lost control in pretty much every aspect of his life. (As hilariously, brutally illustrated in that sequence of him trying to get out of his car in that cramped garage.) I can’t see a way this ends well for Stan; ironically, Nina, whose doom we’ve been predicting for about a season now, has managed to strengthen her position considerably, at Stan’s expense.

But the most heartbreaking test of loyalty this episode belongs to poor Elizabeth. Todd, what did you think of Lucia’s sorta-blaze-of-glory? And now that Larrick’s on a plane to Nicaragua, have we seen the last of him?

Todd: “New Car” is full of so many great scenes that it becomes tempting to just made an endless laundry list of them, and even though you’ve touched on so many of them already (up to and including Stan’s moment in his garage), you’ve still left me with that incredibly horrifying and tense scene in Larrick’s kitchen. Lucia’s been marked for death for a while now—she reminds me of season one’s Gregory in that regard—but the way that she dies, by putting herself ahead of the cause, is what makes the sequence so gut-wrenching. I talked last week about how Nina’s lie detector test gained so much from the way the camera focused on her eyes, and director John Dahl follows a similar approach here, as we watch Lucia’s eyes come to the slow realization that Elizabeth won’t be saving her, then finally lose all signs of life. It’s absolutely brutal, but it’s also key to much of what this episode and season are about—the things you’re willing to lose your life for and the things you’re willing to kill for.

That becomes even more brutally apparent in the scene where Philip and Elizabeth drag the driver who’s going to get them onto the base out into the woods to interrogate him about how he gets on the base and whether anyone will know his replacement should he fail to show up for work. We know these two and what they do well enough by now that we know they’re going to kill him, and when Elizabeth reaches for her gun at the scene’s end, it seems a sad inevitability. One of the things that’s really impressive about this season is the way that all of the victims go from just being people in the wrong place at the wrong time to people we genuinely don’t want to lose their lives at the hands of our protagonists. And yet leaving this man alive exposes too much—not just the potential that he might identify Philip and Elizabeth but that he might let the authorities get some idea of what the KGB is after and allow U.S. counterintelligence efforts to place even more damaging intel that might result in more Russian sailors sinking to their deaths.

Yet the driver’s life is spared. Maybe that’s weakness on the part of Philip and Elizabeth. Maybe it’s that they figure after a few days in the cold woods, he’ll be less likely to talk (or even remember what they looked like if he gets sufficiently hypothermic). Or maybe it’s that the toll of all of those bodies is starting to add up in the wake of the deaths of Emmett, Leanne, and their daughter Amelia. The murders in the season premiere seem so long ago now, but this season has been great at having those moments hang over everything that’s happened since, having them color every interaction Philip and Elizabeth have with each other or with unsuspecting civilians or their own children. The Americans is obliquely about a clash of civilizations—about that moment when Philip asks Elizabeth if she kind of likes this a little bit and she points out all of the people suffering horribly just a few miles away—but it’s also about how powerless ideology can be in the face of our own desire to protect ourselves or those we love. Hell, even Lucia is breaking into Larrick’s house less because of any cause and more to avenge her family. You can pledge yourself to a belief or a flag or an idea, but that’s no match for your biological hard-wiring, your need to preserve yourself—and those you care about—at all costs.

Though I very much enjoyed the way that last season depicted marriage as a kind of endless struggle between two equally matched partners whose relationship waxed and waned with any given week (a… Cold War, if you will, as just about every critic writing about the show suggested), I’ve liked even more season two’s examination of marriage less as a battle than as a never-ending conversation that sometimes gets in the way of other things. I mentioned back in “Behind The Red Door” that falling in love is one of the worst things that could have happened to Philip and Elizabeth, and we get more senses of that here. Ideology is choked out, until you belatedly remember that’s why you’re fighting in the first place. Everything becomes softer, fuzzier, and the job gets harder to do. Do the Philip and Elizabeth of season one let that driver live? I don’t know, but I’d wager there would be more discussion about that point. This season using the development of stealth technology as one of its central plot points is brilliant for one simple reason: The show has become all about people who are trying to move through their lives undetected but keep getting called out by the fact that such a thing is impossible.

That’s why I like Larrick so much as a character. For one thing, he’s played by Lee Tergesen, who’s a perfect fit for this show. But for another thing, he’s a true wild card, not bound to anyone in the show’s universe in any way other than as a threat to their safety. He’s ruthless but also pragmatic, and every scene that features him immediately becomes more interesting just because he’s around. For that reason, I do hope that he’s not going to be leaving the season for good with his exit here. (I suspect not as well. You don’t just hire Tergesen and have him pop up a handful of times.) Characters without connections are more dangerous in the world of The Americans, which may be why so much of what Philip and Elizabeth do is driven by tugging on the strings of people with connections and why Oleg is so confident in his ability to turn Stan against his own country. Espionage is so often about exploiting connections, because humans are social animals, and we’re all going to have them. Put that shoe on the other foot: If Stan somehow finds out the truth about Philip and Elizabeth and threatens to kill Paige or Henry if they don’t turn against their country, do we really think either—even Elizabeth—wouldn’t immediately do what he asked?

This is perhaps why the element of the episode that Peter Ackerman’s script leaves floating the longest is the family across the street catching Henry in the act of breaking into their house to play video games. Philip and Elizabeth are forced to deal with so much other stuff that they don’t get around to punishing their son immediately, leaving it until the episode’s end. And when they do, Henry has already punished himself enough by fretting and stewing over what might happen to him, what his parents might do when they come in to talk to him. (We’ve all been there, Henry.) Truth be told, I don’t know if this scene is quite to the level it needs to be to tie the episode up in a neat little bow like it clearly wants to, but Henry’s repeated entreaties of “I’m a good person!” are one of those emotional dam breaks that this show does so well. All it really needs to do to work is to give Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys something to play off of, and it does. “I’m a good person,” he says over and over again, and Dahl cuts to Elizabeth and Philip and then away again. We all want to believe we’re good people, deserving of nice things and human connection; deep down, we all know we’re not.

Genevieve’s grade: A
Todd’s grade: A

Stray observations:

  • Check out my friend Alyssa Rosenberg’s interview with Joe Weisberg about the presence of the immortal “Nobody bothers me” commercial in this episode, then go watch it on YouTube for yourself! [TV]
  • Stan asks Philip if he had to sell one of his kids to afford the Camaro, and I really wanted Philip to reply, “Well, we haven’t seen Paige for a few episodes, have we?” [TV]
  • Last week I noted that Henry taking the apple out of the neighbors’ fridge was piss-poor spywork, but falling asleep in front of the TV… come on, Henry. [GK]
  • Another example of Philip caving in the face of doing something cruel: He carefully doctors a tape that will let Martha know what her bosses “really” think of her, then opts against playing it for her when he realizes that he’s going to be dealing with her as a real human being (and someone who believes she’s his wife). [TV]
  • I hope Larrick’s departure doesn’t mean the end of Elizabeth’s FBI-lady wig. It really is her best wig. [GK]
  • So, are they just leaving that septic-tank driver tied up in the woods for… days? That was oddly unresolved. [GK]
  • God, Genevieve, he has a blanket. It’s not like he’s going to be completely alone. [TV]
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