The Americans: “Gregory”
B+

The Americans: “Gregory”

B+

The Americans

“Gregory”

Season 1, Episode 3

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Todd: After this strong episode, I want to praise two behind-the-scenes folks who made “Gregory” what it was. The first is Thomas Schlamme. One of the first TV directors that I ever noted as having a distinct visual style, Schlamme was the master of the walk-and-talk on Aaron Sorkin’s shows, offering ample opportunities for viewers to watch smart people offer exposition while strolling down hallways of power, the Steadicam gliding along just in front of them to capture every moment of it. Schlamme’s been branching out and doing some of his own things in recent years, rather than get too attached to the Sorkin brand, and though I suspect he’s just a hired gun for this series, I hope the show keeps him around or hires him as a regular director in a theoretical second season (which I continue to hope will happen; those ratings have to stabilize, right?).

Look at the way he films the sequence where Gregory sets up the meet with Joyce, the wife of poor, dead Robert (the spy killed back in the opening moments of the pilot). He uses lots of long, geography-establishing shots that link together all of the players in the scene, from Gregory and his team to the FBI folks running surveillance on Joyce to Joyce herself, sitting on a bus bench and looking more and more freaked out by what’s happening. Schlamme uses even more of these smooth camera movements when we’re with the FBI agents, particularly in their office or when Stan is on the case, and they denote a kind of quiet, calm confidence. These guys are sharks, and they’re going to get their man, if they have to work forever to do so. The scenes among the Soviets are choppier, indicating just how much they’re having to play catch-up and keep-away. They’re falling behind, and even if they don’t know it, the camera does.

The other behind-the-scenes name I wanted to talk about is Graham Yost. Now, he’s not as involved in this show as he is in Justified—or so it would seem, at least—but I’m sensing a kinship between that show and this one in the fact that all of the people on this show are intelligent, and they’re very good at acting in their own best interests. Gregory’s team, the Soviets, and the FBI all have different agendas that only occasionally dovetail, but when the FBI gets on the trail of either of the others, everybody makes the smart moves. TV is so full of people doing dumb things for sake of plot convenience that it’s always nice to see a character like Stan, who becomes an even more effective antagonist because he notices things and draws connections between them, or even Gregory’s random crew member, who makes the quick decision to duck into an apartment building. It’s his turf, sure, but he’s also got good instincts. Writing smart characters can be more difficult for writers, but I’m glad The Americans has carried that tradition over from Yost’s other series.

“Gregory” was a little slower moving and less viscerally exciting than the first two episodes, but I really liked it all the same. This show is going to live and die based on how much it makes us care about both the espionage and the marriage plots, and while giving Elizabeth a lover could have felt sudden, “Gregory” really worked because it followed through both on the fallout from that revelation and Elizabeth’s retroactive attempts to explain why she behaved the way she did. The center of this show is all about how you can never really know anyone, and it’s nice to see that that still applies to the marriage half of the show as well. Now I just wonder what secrets Phillip might be hiding. (The show has been awfully interested in suggesting Elizabeth’s the more troubled one in this relationship; that hardly seems fair.)

“Gregory” also offers a nicely hard-nosed spy plot that goes exactly where you expect it to—Joyce has to die—but in a manner that introduces several new spy characters for Elizabeth and Phillip to work with, including Gregory and “Granny” (played by the great Margo Martindale, another Justified connection). Gregory’s an American Communist who’s been recruited by Elizabeth; “Granny” is the replacement for “Gabriel,” and she’s here on U.S. soil to make sure Moscow’s directives are carried out. I almost wished the episode had ended on that shot of the baby, which conveyed (along with the way “Granny” slammed that car door shut) Joyce’s fate in a way that had a little more respect for the audience putting pieces together, but at the same time, ambiguity can occasionally become maddening on a show like this, where nothing is as it seems.

What did you think, Genevieve? I’ve barely touched on several of the plottier aspects of the episode, like the reveal of what Robert’s deal was for. How are you liking the show’s serialization? And when are we getting together for a little racquetball? (Warning: I never lose.)

Genevieve: Challenge accepted, Todd, but be warned: Like Phillip, I win any way I can, up to and including a racquetball line-driven into the small of your back.

The racquetball sequence that opens “Gregory” is a slightly obvious but nonetheless effective—and era-appropriate—expression of the relationship between Phillip and Stan, one of simmering aggression (on at least one, and maybe both sides) disguised as friendly competition. The Americans continues to milk a lot of tension from the ambiguity of what Stan does or doesn’t know, and from Phillip’s discomfort and frustration at that ambiguity, which manifests itself in a wayward volley into Stan’s spine. (As someone who has actually played a good bit of racquetball, I can tell you, that does not tickle. Also, they should really be wearing goggles.) It’s a neat way to set up an episode that has their two factions, the KGB and FBI, more directly in competition than they’ve been so far in this series.

Regarding your question about serialization, Todd, “Gregory” feels like the episode where The Americans kicks into gear, narrative-wise, tying together two of the preceding episodes’ loose ends: the death of Robert and the information gleaned from that bugged clock. Well, they weren’t loose ends, exactly, but they were different strands of a story that is starting to intertwine and grow more taut. At this show’s outset, I mused that it might handle its serialization in a more compartmentalized manner, with each episode being defined by an isolated, stand-alone mission (which the first two episodes bore out), but with “Gregory” it looks like The Americans is taking the long view. And that’s okay, because as high stakes go, stolen missile-defense-system plans are definitely up there. Plus, it offers yet another chance for Phillip to go badass on those dudes who wouldn’t get out of his blind spot.

That said, I’m starting to wish Elizabeth had more to do in terms of actual spy work. In the pilot she was very much in the thick of things, but these last two episodes she’s mostly stood off to the side looking concerned and well-coiffed (that hair!) while Phillip, and now Gregory, mix it up on the espionage front. She’s certainly still an integral part of this mission, bringing Gregory and his crew in to sniff out and snatch Joyce from under the FBI’s noses; but Phillip is the man of action, decoding secret messages, heading into dangerous meetings, and picking up Granny’s tail. Even Elizabeth’s disguises are significantly lower-impact; slightly redder, slightly shorter hair isn’t gonna fool anyone. I don’t think this imbalance has yet reached the point where it’s a significant problem—and really, given the time period and the cultural background these characters come from, it’s probably more realistic than her being a power player—but we’ve seen Elizabeth is capable of more than batting her eyelashes, and I’m waiting to see her break some balls in addition to breaking hearts.

Because I agree with you, Todd, that it seems a little unfair the way Elizabeth is being portrayed as a bit of a black widow. The revelation of Phillip’s association with Annelise last episode helped assuage that, but this week he’s back to playing wounded puppy dog at the revelation of her and Gregory’s relationship. Which, fine, this is a unique marital situation full of complex emotional hurdles, but I, for one, completely buy Elizabeth’s justification for the affair, as well as the genuineness of her desire to end it and make things work with Phillip. Even though they’ve been married for years, Elizabeth and Phillip are sort of starting over in their relationship, and we’re watching them figure out how to trust each other, which isn’t easy to do with someone with whom you’ve been constructing a complex lie for two decades. The events of the pilot established a new stage in their relationship, as they’re starting to entertain the idea that there could be a real emotional foundation under the façade they’ve created. (Despite his demeanor, I think this is a fairly new idea to Phillip as well as Elizabeth; you don’t spend years openly pining for someone without them noticing.)

But as interesting as it is to see them navigate this new terrain, I’m a little bummed that we presumably won’t be seeing much more of Gregory, a character I really like but I can’t imagine the show having much continued use for. (Then again, surveillance teams are always needed in the spy game, so he could conceivably show up as an occasionally recurring character.) But his introduction was overshadowed by that of Granny. I couldn’t agree with you more, Todd, about wishing this episode hadn’t spelled out Joyce’s eventual fate for us; it was so much more powerful watching Martindale play concerned mother figure to the doomed Joyce, knowing she was shepherding the woman to her death. It’s still effective enough after seeing the end result, I suppose, but I think there was more juice to be squeezed from the disconnect between Granny’s demeanor and what she’s capable of doing (or, perhaps more accurately, having done).

We’ve spent most of our time talking about Phillip and Elizabeth’s side of the story in “Gregory,” but this episode also has some interesting things going on over on the FBI side, particularly the way the Bureau is utilizing its expanded power under Reagan, and the tension between Agents Beeman and Amador and their supervisor played by Richard Thomas. Is this something you want to see more of, Todd? Frankly, at this point I vastly prefer seeing Beeman and Amador out pounding the pavement to seeing them sitting in meetings, but I could see The Americans going someplace interesting with the workplace aspect of the FBI down the road.

Todd: I’m actually quite enjoying the FBI aspect of the show. I can’t say I like it as much as the weekly spy plots, or that I would watch a show just about that, but I like it as a necessary place to cut away to. It reminds me of when The Sopranos spent a whole episode watching the titular family through the eyes of the FBI surveillance team following it around. Now, granted, that relationship was a bit different. The agents on The Sopranos knew Tony was a mobster; they just hadn’t figured out how to bring him down yet. But I most like the FBI here because it allows us to realize that Phillip and Elizabeth aren’t operating in a vacuum. The hardest thing for any TV show to do is suggest a rich, living world from episode one; that The Americans has been able to do that makes me think we’re in very capable hands. (I also like the way the FBI provides an ironic flip on the series’ title.)

While I’m obviously with you, Genevieve, on thinking the show needs to stop making Elizabeth seem vaguely antagonistic and/or give her some more interesting spy things to do very soon, I wasn’t as troubled by it, I think. (In general, I think I liked this episode a touch more than you. You said you were in the B/B+ range, and I was thinking another A-, though I ultimately decided a B+ is probably more accurate.) One of the most astute things I’ve ever read about marriage came in the middle of Mary Doria Russell’s sci-fi novel The Sparrow. In it, one half of a long-married couple pontificates about what it takes to keep a marriage going, and she suggests that it’s all just dumb luck. The person that you fall in love with in your 20s isn’t going to be the same person in their 30s, and you’ll be drastically different, too. To have a marriage last is to find someone who will evolve with you in a compatible way, but you can’t know what that would look like, because you can never know what the future holds.

What The Americans is getting at is that sometimes people evolve toward each other, rather than further away from each other. And that’s true of any marriage you can think of. There are spots where a couple is more in love, just as there are spots where both halves want to kill each other. It’s just a matter of making sure there’s enough residual goodwill from the former to get through the latter—or a matter of understanding that it’s all an evolution anyway. To me, Elizabeth’s explanation of why she fell for Gregory is the series’ best scene yet, a quiet, controlled monologue from Russell about how hard it can be to have your whole life set out ahead of you in your 20s. That it closes on the nicely ambiguous note of her putting her hand over his makes it all the better.

I talked about The Sopranos above, and one of the things that excites me about this show is that it strikes me as a show that’s trying to live up to that earlier series’ example. Yes, it’s more serialized than Tony’s adventures, but each episode is also a distinct story of its own, with a beginning, middle, and end. And one of the reasons I was so disappointed by the actual final shot was because that shot of the baby being placed on a kitchen table in Russia, following after the shot of Phillip and Elizabeth’s hands barely touching across their kitchen table in America, well, that was such a perfect little endcap that it made me think of how great David Chase was ending an episode on a singular image or moment, a talent that I don’t think anyone had quite lived up to in the wake of Chase’s show’s success. I understand the plot need to show us Joyce’s body; I just hope the show gains a little more confidence in our ability to handle some ambiguity going forward, in both its spy plots and its marriage stories.

Stray observations

  • Hey, it’s 1981 alert: The FBI head suggests Joyce was able to disappear so thoroughly because she’s “Doug Henning.” [TV]
  • Having Gregory be black is interesting on a few levels—see Todd’s Stray Observation about race last week—but it also negates any suspicion that Paige and Henry aren’t actually Phillip’s kids. Which is good. [GK]
  • Speaking of Paige: Her only scene in this episode, as she flips through a teen magazine at a diner with her dad, is soundtracked by “Young Americans” playing over the speakers. On-the-nose as hell, but cute. [GK]
  • I know we were all freaked out by the ratings falling about 40 percent from the première, but the show had room to fall (since its initial numbers were so great), and it made up a lot of that decline in DVR numbers. FX would probably prefer live viewers, but like a lot of cable networks, it seems more excited about using DVR numbers than its broadcast companions. If the numbers hold roughly around week two, it’s a shoo-in for another season. Hell, it could probably still decline a bit and be so. [TV]
  • I’m far from an ‘80s music expert. Anybody know the song that closed out the episode? [TV]

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