I solicited a lot of feedback about The Americans this week because I was confused about how I could still be left so cold by a show that seems so beloved and full of things I should like (spies! Russians! Keri Russell‘s hair!). It seemed I wasn’t really alone though, and there were plenty of people who felt like I did, that while the show was objectively good, it lacked a spark. However, last week’s episode, “Gregory,” went a long way in repairing my feelings about the show, which is tough and can be difficult to follow. It’s not a casual experience, but a deeply involved one that asks us to be completely engaged in it, with a fair amount of background knowledge. It’s a show that, I know, will grow richer with repeated viewings. Finally though, this week, I saw the light. “In Control” was a very solidly entertaining hour of TV. Hit the jump for more on why “one mistake is all it takes.”
I continue to find Philip and Elizabeth’s relationship the best part of the The Americans, because though we’re coming in late to their marriage, we’re also arriving at just the moment when they have started to really be a couple instead of business partners. It’s not an easy thing to understand, but I think the show has done pretty well, particularly in “Gregory,” at explaining why they (especially Elizabeth) feel like they do about one another. It’s also an interesting commentary on arranged marriages. For Philip and Elizabeth, familiarity has bred, well, familiarity, and not contempt. And finally, it seems, it’s building love. It’s a very unique love story, and one of the strongest statements the series makes.
Still, The Americans has always had cool spy sequences, it’s just some of the stuff in between that was a drag. “In Control” did the best job yet of explaining things to us — who is involved, what are the stakes, what are the consequences of Elizabeth’s way of doing things versus Philip’s. When it comes to working on behalf of Mother Russia, we’ve always seen Elizabeth take the lead because it is assumed (and suggested) that her commitment is stronger, that she hasn’t been as weakened by her time in America as Philip. But for the first time, we also see how Philip’s assimilation has worked for the greater good.
I was glad Philip specifically called out the cultural differences that made the assassination attempt such a fragile one in global politics. In places that are not America, a leader being brought down might well mean something larger is at play. The interpretation that General Haig was angling for a coup because he said, “I am in control now” (because then-VP George Bush was on a plane) and discussing the nuclear arsenal is something unfathomable to most Americans. The Constitution is designed — as we all learned in grade school — with checks and balances that prevent any one person or branch of government from gaining too much power and control. Militaries don’t take over the government here, and there isn’t one leader who holds so much power that he or she truly acts alone. It’s an important distinction that Philip notes and that, apparently, saves us all from World War III.
There are a few interesting things in this. One, on a very micro level, it shows an important dynamic shift in Philip and Elizabeth’s relationship. But in the macro world of the show, it also gave us some fun stuff to work with within the confines of history. We know that President Reagan was shot by a lunatic who thought he was going to impress Jodi Foster, but the idea that there could have been a nuclear crisis because of it, and that our protagonists (or whatever they are, main characters) on the show essentially stopped it is satisfying. It for once created a real sense of the feelings at the time — the suspicion, the paranoia, and the potential for there to be another Archduke Ferdinand situation to kick off a global battle.
“In Control” even gave us a moment when Stan nearly became A Real Boy, and not just a mannequin. We discover that his family isn’t happy, and that his relationship with his wife parallels that of the Jennings’, insofar as feeling distant from one another. But their trajectories are moving in opposite ways, and poor Stan looks doomed to marital struggles for the foreseeable future. Then again, the man did spend a lot of time with Ozark kooks who he was supposed to assimilate with without being brainwashed by them, which is sure to have an effect. Sound familiar?
The setup with Nina was mostly pretty generic, but I did like that Stan, who is being painted as a very competent (if boring) figure, spotted the car tailing her and walked on. Since we’ve seen Nina a little more now and know her fate could be death or Siberian prison (a.k.a. death) and the show has not hesitated to kill people off (sorry, neighborhood security guard!), there was an “Oh no!” moment when Vasili wanted her to be tailed and we knew she was on her way to a meet. It was the first time The Americans really made me feel concerned for one of the characters. I worried for Nina, and was happy to see her come out of things okay.
Overall, for me, “In Control” was the best hour of the show yet, both because of what it showed relationship-wise as well as its explanations and activities that revolved around the post-assassination attempt frenzy. Alright, Americans. I’m in.
Musings and Miscellanea:
- I really liked Paige’s commentary about the news coverage being “ghoulish.” My dear you have no idea what is to come …
- This was the first time I got to see the title sequence on my screener, and I have to say, it’s pretty awesome. Was that Marx’s head on Santa?
- I figured Elizabeth had to neutralize the security guard, but I didn’t expect it to go that far that fast for some reason. Damn.
- The kid who plays Stan’s son Matthew looks a lot like Michael Cera.
- Stan saying “I am the one who follows!” reminded me of Walter White’s “I am the one who knocks!”
- I don’t usually condone this but I kinda want Nina and Stan to have an affair. I sensed chemistry, I swear.
- So “Granny” is Claudia. Need more of her, please.
- Operation Christopher was pretty damn terrifying. If something was going to take place to take out the government, that would seem to be the way. Yikes.
- Philip giving the nurse that pin from the Vice-President’s office was a nice touch.