Previously, on the Walking Dead…
Well, no, obviously, this is The Americans (Season Six, Episode 2), but by the time the hour was over, I couldn’t help but feel that I was watching a lot of dead men and women walking.
We’re just two episodes in, and the showrunners are clearly putting an emphasis on the thematic unity of each hour of The Americans’ last season. In “Tchaikovsky,” every marriage/adult relationship is on the verge of ending, and nearly every platonic encounter between two adults is fraught with either danger or emotional drama.
First the hockey player/KGB courier is in the doghouse with his wife, and FBI Agent Stan Beeman is called in to play marriage counselor (because that’s so clearly in his wheelhouse). Then Philip discovers that one of his most loyal clients has been cheating on him with another travel agency, only to be advised by his subordinate and even his son (hey, it’s Henry! On the phone!) that he only has himself to blame. Then, in perhaps one of the weirdest scenes to be featured in the Americans, w e follow the Soviet courier into the men’s room, where he enter a stall, pulls down his pants, and hold up a bag so that a man in the adjoining stall can somehow see everything using a retrofuturistic gadget that looks like a cross between a slide projector and a vacuum cleaner. All while the courier slumps back on the toilet seat, with an expression that would look more appropriate either on someone who just shot heroin, or who is on the receiving end of the sort of illicit men’s room act that gets congressmen arrested. At least someone is making a connection.
Oh, and speaking of retrofuturistic gadgets: Mail Robot is back after an extended absence (rehab?), gliding past Stan in the background. This may be the last time we ever see him, and I kind of wish Claudia’s recording of Tchaikovsky’s “None But the Lonely Hearts” were accompanying him as he goes on his final spin.
But enough mourning the automata of the Cold War. Let’s talk about the kids, because, as Elizabeth’s conversation with her handler Claudia reminds us, they are our future. Elizabeth’s mentorship of Paige seems to be going off the rails. Paige initiates that awkward conversation about sex that every parent dreads: “Mom, when a spy loves the Motherland very, very much, does she every do the nasty with her targets?” Elizabeth’s response is, unsurprisingly, to lie. But then she has to admit that, occasionally, things get complicated.
This is one of the many time bombs waiting to go off this season. Because Elizabeth’s real dirty secret in this regard is not having sex with targets, but marrying and having sex with Philip on the orders of her handlers. True, their fake marriage becomes a real one (and now, perhaps, some variety of fake again), but the reality is much worse than facing the Freudian taboo of your parents’ sexual desire. Some day, Paige is going to learn that the only reason she exists is to shore up her parents’ cover story.
Meanwhile, death is in the air. Erica, the woman Elizabeth is taking care of while wearing one of her biggest wigs ever, is getting ever sicker, and ever more obnoxious. The parallels between her and Elizabeth were established from the very beginning (Elizabeth asleep while Erica is awake in bed, drawing Elizabeth; Erica asleep while Elizabeth is awake). Now the dying woman forces Elizabeth to draw, despite Elizabeth’s professions the she has no talent. They seem to be merging a bit, and when Elizabeth offers to help Erica’s husband put her out of her misery, the story once again seems to be more about Elizabeth than Erica. Of course Elizabeth can help Erica’s husband kill her properly—it’s what she does best. But Elizabeth’s entire story arc this season develops under the threat that she may have to use her poison-filled locket to commit suicide.
Thus the show is telling us the story of the walking dead: Elizabeth seems to be approaching her expiration date, Ronald Regan may be going senile (I know, I was as shocked as you are), Erica has a terminal disease, and Henry tells his father that Philip sounds as if he’s about to jump out a window.
All of this culminates in Elizabeth’s struggle with the General she’s blackmailing to get a “lithium-based radiation sensor.” The mention of radiation should remind us of the huge Cold War event that somehow has yet to referenced on The Americans: Chernobyl, even though, in series’ time, it would have just happened the previous year. Chernobyl turned countless people into the (future) walking eead, living under a death sentence that no one could actually see.
When the General pulls a gun on Elizabeth, she suddenly invokes, of all things, motherhood. “I have two children!” she shouts, and even though it is true, it feels like a lie. In fact, she is using it as a distraction, and starts wrestling with the general for the gun. The general shoots himself, splattering blood and brains all over Elizabeth.
This is the point when the episode’s focus becomes clear, because Paige arrives on the scene. She was part of Elizabeth’s mission, making this episode officially the worst “Take Your Daughter To Work Day” ever. Paige is horrified as her mother, face covered in blood and brains, shouts at her to leave.
Poor Paige. She runs away from zombie Mom when she probably should have put a spike through her head. It’s only a matter of time before she gets bitten.