Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Americans: “A Little Night Music”

Image for article titled The Americans: “A Little Night Music”

Genevieve: Of all of Elizabeth and Philip's many super-spy abilities—hand-to-hand combat, code-breaking, wiring up electronic doohickies, wig-wearing—their preternatural acting skills have always seemed the least plausible. All of those other skills are the sorts of things that were conceivably learned during their Academy training, which I'm guessing didn't leave a whole lot of time for the sort of intense study of Method acting both of them seem to have nonetheless acquired. But both Elizabeth and Philip not only juggle multiple personalities across their many missions, not to mention their primary identities as the Jennings family, they also adopt new ones with the ease of slipping on a fake goatee or facial scar, these personas seemingly springing, fully formed, from their heads at will with nary a hiccup or moment of calibration. Now, part of that can just be chalked up to deception, a skill as integral to spywork as skulking behind newspapers; but there's something distinctly writerly about Philip and Elizabeth's ability to just drop into a new situation as whatever new character that particular situation warrants, no questions asked.

But as we see with Elizabeth's short-haired military-and-classical-music-enthusiast character this week, that may not always be the case. There's something very familiar about the story Elizabeth tells Navy recruit Brad Mullen—whom she's using to try to get to Andrew Laric, the primary suspect in the murders of Emmet and Leanne—about how she was attacked by Laric. The logistics of this manufactured attack pretty clearly mirror Elizabeth's actual rape at the hands of Timoshev back during her training, which we saw in the series pilot. At that moment, it's easy to see the memory flashing behind Elizabeth's eyes, her painful past informing this character she's using to get what she wants in the moment. Her pain is a part of her skill set. It's part of what makes her dangerous, but it's also part of what makes her vulnerable, as we see in the cliffhanger conclusion of "A Little Night Music."

In another mirror of the pilot, Elizabeth and Philip are charged with picking up a KGB asset and throwing him in their trunk—this time it's Anton Baklanov, a defector from the Soviet Union whose research is key to helping the U.S. develop stealth technology—when things go topsy-turvy. A couple of shadowy figures attack them, and while Philip takes the female down efficiently, Elizabeth goes berserker on the guy in a manner that definitely lends credence to the claim made by Claudia (more on her in a moment) that she's diving back into the thick of things too soon. Elizabeth's dedicated head-bashing alarms Philip and provides the distraction needed for the female attacker to drive off with their car, presumably with Anton still in the trunk. Given that the Jennings appear to still be driving the same gold-colored Oldsmobile that raised suspicion in Stan in the first episode, this could be very bad indeed for them. Bet Elizabeth wishes she hadn't waived off Philip's suggestion about getting a new car.

That new-car discussion, which is abruptly truncated by the sudden re-appearance of Claudia (I swear, we'll get to her in a minute), sets up a bit of a theme for this episode, which tangles with the clash between Soviet and American values more directly than we've seen from this show since the pilot. It starts out with Baklanov, speaking at a synagogue about finding justice, dignity, and baseball in the U.S., his wholehearted embrace of his new country placing him directly in the KGB's (and specifically Oleg's) sights. There's Oleg, using his family connections to go above Arkady's head to get the clearance to see Baklanov's—and Nina's—files, a move Arkady pointedly tells him is very "Western." There's Philip and Henry's desire for a new car, stemming from Stan's "gold mine" of a plumber friend, who's apparently been patronizing the travel agency on the regular. And, of course, there's Paige, taking a big ol' huff of the Opiate Of The Masses thanks to her new friend Kelly, who brings Paige to a church youth-group gathering, prompting a straight-up freak-out from Elizabeth about how she and Philip are "failing to help them stand up to the distractions" of American society.

That last one in particular ties back to what we were talking about last week, about the likelihood of Directorate S' offspring understanding, much less forgiving, their parents' actions. I suspect that's playing a big part in Elizabeth's panic here, which is stoked by the reappearance of Claudia. Todd, how did you react to Claudia suddenly materializing in the Jennings' backseat, brimming over with apparent concern for both Emmet and Leanne and the Jennings? Even though she's willing to follow Claudia's lead on Brad Mullen, for lack of anything better, Elizabeth obviously doesn't trust Claudia's motives. Do you?

Todd: I want to believe Claudia has the best interests of Philip and Elizabeth at heart, that she’s as broken up about Emmett and Leanne’s killing as Philip and Elizabeth are. And in my heart of hearts, I think that’s probably the case. I can’t imagine this show taking Margo Martindale’s character and turning her into the outright villain. She’s the one person who does what needs to be done, the “grown-up” who makes sure all the loose ends are tied up, and I think the show needs that kind of authority figure hanging around somewhere in its cosmology.


And yet from the second Claudia showed up on the scene, Genevieve, I was thinking about what you talked about in your opening paragraphs: She was playing a part, trying to throw Philip and Elizabeth by the appearance of grief, if not the actual animal. The Claudia we see here is so different from the one we see in season one, right down to a softer voice and gentler cadence of speaking. The Occam’s razor answer here is that she just really was that rattled by what happened to two of the people working under her, but that doesn’t satisfy as much as I’d like it to. Claudia, on some level, must have known this was a possibility—even if it was as much of a blindside for her as it was for Philip and Elizabeth—and the thought of her being this thrown feels a little like I, as a viewer, am being played as thoroughly as Philip and Elizabeth might be. My best guess is that Claudia is still on Philip and Elizabeth’s side; my biggest fear is that she’s setting them up for greater tragedy to follow.

Here’s another thing that hadn’t occurred to me but had occurred to my wife: How much of Elizabeth’s refusal to sleep with Brad is about playing him, and how much of it is about her recommitment to Philip? You mentioned yourself, Genevieve, that both Philip and Elizabeth are able to turn their pain into performance, funneling little bits of their real selves into the characters they play. You talk about it in terms of one of the biggest things you have to buy for the show to make sense (though I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a class or two in acting back at the Academy), but I’m thinking of it more in terms of role-play therapy. By playing these parts, Philip and Elizabeth are able to funnel things about their own lives into the open, where they can be kicked and punched and dealt with in the realm of the physical. It’s a system that works for them—and for the show, which, in the grand tradition of TV shows since time began, prefers to make the emotional physical.


But what my wife is thinking is that Elizabeth, in what’s essentially a fully committed marriage for the first time in her life, is blanching a bit more at the sexual stuff. Granted, she uses that to her advantage perfectly when it comes time to twist Brad into a place where he’ll get her the information she needs. But at least some of her hesitation with Brad has to be real, doesn’t it? I’ll admit I don’t think this is as fully the case as my wife does, but I think it’s interesting to contemplate. To some degree, the whole show is about us wondering how much the “real” version of any of these people informs the people they “play” when they’re out in the field. Elizabeth is just executing a plan when she seduces Brad, then stops just short of consummating that relationship. But it also has to be informed by the new role she’s playing within her marriage and personal life.

That idea of role-playing comes up again in the stories of two men who are cheating on their wives. Stan, for his part, finally tells Philip about the affair. (Elizabeth wonders how Philip got him to open up about that. Philip says they’re friends, to her mild confusion.) And though he lies about why he can’t be with the woman he’s cheating on Sandy with—she’s married, he offers up—everything he says to Philip gets as close as he ever has to articulating how deeply in over his head he is with Nina. He’s head over heels with a woman he can’t possibly have a future with—at least from his perspective—and he’s so far gone that he doesn’t realize how thoroughly he’s being played. Meanwhile, Sandy is at home, talking about how she’s trying to attract love from the universe or something, and Stan is too far gone to understand that, too.


And then there’s Anton, a man who paints a picture of strength in standing up to the Soviet Union on behalf of the Refuseniks, who talks about how much he loves the country that gave him his wife and son, then immediately cheats on the former. The show isn’t trying to hold him out as a hypocrite or anything—far from it. Instead, I think, it’s continuing to talk about all of the ways we keep ourselves fragmented, so that certain people see certain sides of us, and it can be that much harder to grasp the central self. So much of this show concerns itself with those multiple faces we present to the world, but also with how when the United States and USSR were posturing endlessly at the height of the Cold War, the people fighting for those individual sides were presenting their own postures. The Americans comes under fire from some for not doing “enough” with its Cold War setting, whatever that means, but I think that’s completely beside the point. The series, like so many other great spy stories, is about how when you get down to the bottom of everything, all promises—of fidelity, of loyalty, of steadfastness—are ultimately lies.

But what did you think of this week’s twin cliffhangers—with Martha turning in that application, dammit, and the assailants racing off with Anton in the trunk?


Genevieve: I've already touched on the potentially disastrous consequences of Philip and Elizabeth's car showing up on the feds' radar again, but beyond that, the identity of those two assailants, and their relationship to Anton, is the bigger, redder question mark on this situation. Anton seemed like an easy enough grab—a civilian, off his guard, on a quiet street—but the fact that he seems to warrant protection from professionals, combined with Oleg's insistence that the KGB should "repatriotize" him, suggests that his value to the two sides of this war probably extends beyond the theoretical. Or those two people may not have been there for Anton at all—remember, Philip and Elizabeth are supposedly being targeted by a shadowy figure themselves. I've given up trying to predict these things.

As for Martha, while I'm glad she's living up to my prediction that she may not be so acquiescing to Philip now that she has the marriage certificate she was after, I fear it may be her undoing. It's not clear if the application she was filling out was for the position at the Equal Employment Opportunity Office or someplace else, but regardless, having "Clark's" name on an official government document could prove problematic, for Philip and her. To underline her unwitting but very real participation in Philip's crimes, she spends much of her time onscreen this episode fiddling with her recording device, an object that embodies everything she's done for this quickly disintegrating relationship. Martha mentioned wanting to get a gun following the hotel-room murders—a gun many of you predicted will eventually get turned on Philip—but that recorder, which looks very gun-like in those shots, may end up being her most dangerous weapon.


Genevieve’s grade: B+
Todd’s grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • Great moments in acting: The expression Philip and Elizabeth share over the top of the head of their praying daughter during that family meal is completely hilarious. [TV]
  • Great moments in parenting: Philip's solution to Paige praying at dinner is to eat later tomorrow so that she'll be hungrier. [GK]
  • It looks like Agent Gaad is getting demoted because of the Bruce kerfuffle. I’ll admit I’m not entirely sure what to make of this, but maybe it will make more sense in the weeks to come. [TV]
  • Worth mentioning: The fight choreography in that final sequence is pretty terrific. [TV]
  • Also funny: Philip picking a fight with Martha, just because he needs to get out of that apartment. She’s been washing her hair in the sink again, and that is just unacceptable. [TV]
  • Also also funny: The way Martha yells "cuddly and warm" at Clark when he's trying to escape their "lazy morning." [GK]
  • Philip's listening to country music as he writes a coded message. I love the commitment to this  particular character quirk. [GK]