Today we start a new feature on All the Russias. Since this is the last season of The Americans, a show that many of our readers watch for all the obvious reasons, I will be reviewing each of the ten episodes. Obviously, there will be spoilers, and spoiler warnings.
When The Americans began in 2013, it was a response to the 2010 Anna Chapman/Illegals spy scandal that failed to shock the nation. The news that Russia had populated suburban New Jersey with agents whose most likely shot at producing valuable information was a well-crafted Google search was more the stuff of comedy than drama. The whole affair got its first television deal before The Americans ever aired, when Chapman was given a regular program on Russia’s REN TV devoted to conspiracy theories.
Now, of course, The Americans feels a bit different. Our country is in the grips of a new spy mania, but one that focuses on trolls and bots rather than clever people with a vast array of hideous wigs in their analog arsenal. The Trump/Russia affair (or, as Trump himself so eloquently described it, “This Russia thing with Trump and Russia”), could make us wistful about the days when spies actually had to leave the house to do their dirty work. I like to imagine Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) today as a grumpy old woman in St. Petersburg’s Internet Research Agency, telling a young Russian social media shitposter, “When I was your age, we had to fly hundreds of miles and cut someone’s throat to undermine the American political system,” before muttering under her breath about millennials.
I have written about The Americans for this blog before (here), and even dared offer the show runners a piece of advice: jump forward in time so we can watch Elizabeth and Phillip (Matthew Rhys) deal with the upheaval of Perestroika and the Soviet collapse. Clearly, they were listening, as today’s episode starts in 1987, on the eve of the Gorbachev/Reagan summit in Washington (where the two leaders would sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The Jennings marriage in 1987 seems as fragile as the Soviet Union will be in 1990; at the end of the last season, the couple agreed that Philip would take a break from spying, leaving the heavy lifting to the much more ideologically committed Elizabeth.
So now Elizabeth and Phillip are leading parallel lives that barely intersect. It was already ironic that two sleeper agents from a country that restricted its citizens’ movements had their own travel agency (as a cover for their espionage). Now, even though Philip has greatly expanded the business, each of them is unknowingly toiling away at a lost cause. After all, by 1987, travel agencies had a life expectancy that was only about a decade longer than that of the Soviet Union. This also means that each of them are engaged in professions that are soon to be outmoded: travel agents lose their jobs to the Internet, while old school spies are partially eclipsed by social media trolls. Even if our heroes survive the season, their future looks bleak.
That survival is increasing in doubt. This episode plays extensively with the metaphor implicit in the Jennings’ status: when we first see Elizabeth, who has a job caring for the ailing wife of her latest target, she is literally a sleeper agent: eyes closed, dozing while her charge scotches her portrait. Everything about Elizabeth conveys exhaustion, culminating in her refusal to listen to Philip and her demand to be allowed to sleep.
That sleep could well be the Big Sleep. Elizabeth meets a top Soviet spy in Mexico, in a scene where Keri Russell is forced to speak more Russian in one scene than she did in all five previous seasons. She does a good job of it (her lines are short), but otherwise we just watch her listening to a long, Russian-language monologue. It’s not Russell’s finest moment, since all she can do is stare at this man as if he were a CGI monster and she were acting against a green screen. The gist, however, is that her new assignment is so top-secret (she’ll be working for the anti-Gorbachev faction to undermine the Summit) that she cannot let herself be taken alive. Her contact gives her a suicide pill in a locket to be worn around her neck. Elizabeth fondles and stares at this locket so many times during the episode that we can reasonably expect it to be used—this is, essentially, Act One of this season’s drama, and Elizabeth is wearing Chekhov’s suicide pill.
The pill’s deployment will probably have something to do with the marital/ideological conflict this episode establishes. While Elizabeth is desperate for sleep, Philip has been enjoying a years-long nap break from spying, only to be awakened by a surprise contact from former Rezidentura agent Oleg Burov, who wants Philip to stop Elizabeth from scuttling Perestroika and disarmament. This is a far cry from Philip’s current leisure activities, which in this episode include country dancing in front of a huge American flag in a honky tonk bar.
All is not entirely bleak for the Jennings family, however. Henry gets his 30 seconds of screen time at his boarding school hockey game; given how peripheral he is to the plot, he is the most likely Jennings to get to lead a normal life (which is why watching him is so boring). And Paige gets a lovely moment when three generations of Russian/American women (Paige, Elizabeth, and Esteemed Character Actress Margo Martindale) watch the 1980 Soviet classic Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears. Elizabeth gets wistful, Paige admires the movie’s heroine while expressing dissatisfaction that the movie ends with a man putting her in her place, and their handler Claudia (Martindale) casually admits that things are “more traditional over there.”
Paige’s decision to join the family business (and no, not as a travel agent) is one of the show’s better, but most puzzling plots. The show runners have never managed to convince me that Paige should identify so strongly with the Soviet Union—or are they really suggesting that volunteering in a progressive church is the first step on the path to communism? The scene also left me wondering if Paige might be studying Russian: they’re watching the movies with subtitles, but Paige laughs at an untranslatable joke (when a character shows she is a bit of a hick by using the wrong preposition before the word “concert”). I would have expected Elizabeth and Claudia to be more cautious than that, if not paranoid: why would they let the word “Russian” anywhere near their second-generation illegal agent?
I’m not optimistic about Paige’s prospects, but I’m intrigued to see what happens to her. Which is probably a good place for a key character to be.
All in all, this was an impressive start for the series ending. See you all next week.