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The Americans builds and builds and builds that tension

(Source: www.vox.com)

Every week, some of Vox’s writers gather to discuss the latest episode of FX’s spy drama The Americans. This week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff, news editor Libby Nelson, and culture writer Caroline Framke offer their takes on “Harvest,” the seventh episode of the final season. Needless to say, spoilers follow!

Todd VanDerWerff: It’s a beautifully, brilliantly tense moment: Stan Beeman, dots connecting in his head, infiltrates the Jennings household, while Philip and Elizabeth are away “working on a travel agency emergency.” He skulks around, poking in corners and pulling at threads that we know would have once led to something but don’t right now. And he finds nothing. He goes back home, comes into work the next day, and pulls up another lead.

Bear in mind that this is with a little over three episodes left in the entire series. At this point, you either admire The Americans’ commitment to being itself or you wonder if it’s squandering its opportunity for a big, flashy finish, like we might have seen on Breaking Bad or The Shield.

Now, it will come as no surprise that I’m in the first camp. If The Americans had suddenly turned into a pulp extravaganza, it would have felt cheap. But bringing Stan into the Jenningses’ inner sanctum and having him come up empty-handed is, like, next-level commitment to the show’s mission statement. I loved how frustrated I was by it.

But thinking back on it an hour or so later, having had time to stew over it, I’ve realized that what sets The Americans apart is its commitment to telling stories about relationships. Whether we’re watching Stan and Henry, or Stan and Philip, or Elizabeth and Erica the artist, we’re seeing stories about people who enter into relationships for transactional reasons — Henry wants a surrogate dad (even if he’d never say so), Philip needs to keep tabs on the FBI, Elizabeth needs intelligence — and find themselves with a “real” relationship anyway. Every relationship is a fake one, and every relationship is a real one. It’s just a matter of how you choose to look at it.

Does Stan back off because he doesn’t find any evidence? Or does he back off because, on some level, he doesn’t want to lose his friend? Or do the two feed into each other somehow? We’re close enough to the end — and Stan is close enough to finding out Philip and Elizabeth’s secret — that I feel fairly confident he will, eventually. But the show is making a larger point here about what makes our interpersonal dealings tick. It’s easy to remember the happy times when things are going well, but it will be just as easy for Stan to say, “I always suspected!” when he finds out his best friend was playing him all these years.

The truth is always in the middle. The end of a bad marriage doesn’t mean both halves of that couple weren’t happy at the wedding, just as a happy wedding doesn’t guarantee a bright future. We are always writing our own stories, and giving others the pen that they might write themselves in, and hoping they don’t abuse that privilege. Everybody on this show has abused that privilege, over and over again. But that doesn’t mean the happier moments aren’t real.

Enough of that, though. Let’s talk about cutting bodies apart with an ax!!!!

CUTTING BODIES APART WITH AN AX! (Also, more praise for Stan.)

The Americans

Caroline Framke: With all due respect to poor Marilyn, I’m gonna pass. We can’t insert emojis into this recap, and the only reaction I can possibly conjure up to that is a frozen grimace.

Instead, I’m going to loop back to talk about Stan, who has finally listened to my pleas to get interesting already and inched so close to the truth that it’s a wonder Philip didn’t feel a draft on the back of his neck from Stan breathing down it.

After years of shrugging off his travel agent neighbors coming home at 4 in the morning — which, c’mon Stan, you knew that and are only suspicious now? — he finally takes the time to consider that he’s spent years of his life getting conned. Even if he came up short, Stan’s now realizing that he may know nothing at all. That, more than anything, makes it feel like he might truly be on his way to knowing everything.

That sequence of Stan tiptoeing through the Jennings house was both completely frustrating and beautifully done. Noah Emmerich plays it perfectly, letting Stan’s wary eye pass over everything from the smiling photographs to Paige’s discarded cross necklace with admirable restraint, his suspicion teetering right on the edge of full-on alarm.

That he never finds anything almost doesn’t matter. The most significant part of this entire scene is the moment when Stan takes a breath and quietly breaks into the house. In an episode that includes a couple of uncharacteristic flashbacks — to William talking about an “all-American” spy couple on his deathbed, and Philip and Elizabeth renewing their vows in secret — this scene directly recalls Stan rifling through his neighbors’ garage in the pilot. He also found nothing then, but that was before he let the Jennings family become an extension of his own. Him questioning their motives and breaking into a home he’s come to know, and even cherish in times of crisis, means so much more now than it did then.

Stan’s tour of the house coming up empty paired with the disastrous Chicago mission also makes me appreciate just how good The Americans is at the art of the close call. No show is as devoted to delayed gratification as this one, nor does quite as masterful a job of finding drama in every dead end. Everyone is on the brink of discovery at all times, but the teases never feel cheap when they’re this meticulously plotted.

But I’ll admit it: For as tense as this episode was, I fully laughed out loud when I realized that the possible trigger for Philip and Elizabeth’s downfall could be poor Henry venting about how his parents probably love their travel agency more than him. Paige has had a hell of a season — culminating in this episode with her insisting to Elizabeth that this life is exactly what she wants — but here comes Henry Jennings, ready to fuck shit up!

Is it bizarre for you to see where each Jennings kid is at this point, Libby? Or does this feel about right?

Libby Nelson: They say there’s no zeal like a convert’s zeal, and Paige has now been a convert twice. But “Harvest” made it easy to see the line connecting her two lives. Paige wants to feel that she’s making a difference, but beyond that, she also wants to feel better than other people, privy to secret knowledge they don’t understand. She might have swapped out the Bible for Karl Marx, but she’s still able to feel like she’s been chosen to understand what’s really happening.

Elizabeth gives Paige the bare facts about the Chicago mission, but, as always, it’s an eerily sanitized version, as is her warning about the reality of life in the KGB. It almost seems as if she’s trying to goad Paige into committing, into proving that she’s more like her steadfast mother than she is her wishy-washy father. I didn’t know it was possible to make a sentence like “It’s time for you to apply for an internship at the State Department” sound menacing, but here we are.

But what parent could really want this life for their child? How can Elizabeth see what’s happened to Philip and want Paige to go down the same path? Which brings me to the qualm I have with this otherwise stellar season so far: In a show that’s studiously avoided having us root for (or against!) any of its major protagonists, and that has simultaneously skirted the biggest clichés of the antihero genre, Elizabeth is starting to seem … well, like a villain.

There is seemingly no line Elizabeth won’t cross, no number of people she isn’t willing to kill, no collateral damage too large, if the mission is at stake. (Meanwhile, Philip has some understandable qualms about hacking up a dead co-worker with an ax.) When Stan told Philip he was his best friend, I wondered, if push came to shove, if one could really kill the other, or destroy his family. Elizabeth, for me, sparks no such doubt; she’d do it without a second thought.

Elizabeth’s devotion to her cause is so total that it appears to have stolen some of her character’s complexity. Her evolving relationship with Erica is, I think, meant to provide a counterweight, but Elizabeth’s portrayal is starting to seem a bit like the airplane window she drew: all black and white with few shades of gray.

Or maybe I’m just being hopelessly bourgeois. What do you think, Todd?

Has Elizabeth passed the point of no return? And what questions won’t be resolved before the show’s end?

The Americans

Todd: Wow, Libby, if there’s one thing you should have learned from The Americans, it’s to let go of your bourgeois attitudes and embrace the glorious spartan rigor of the Soviet lifestyle.

I think it’s interesting you say this, though, because I had the “Is Elizabeth becoming too much of a villain?” thought back around episode four, and then when she didn’t kill the child in episode five — and even seemed a little upset about leaving the kid to find his parents’ corpses — I felt as if the show were slowly starting to thaw her, to pull her back from the pure villain place she had been in toward some sort of antiheroic center.

For better or worse, Philip and Elizabeth are always better as spies, as parents, and as travel agents when they’re in it together, and the first half of season six seemed dedicated to showing just how much better by keeping them apart. Philip might have been having a grand time, but there was an emptiness to it that slowly came to the fore, while Elizabeth might have been an automaton.

That, I think, is why the Erica plot line has been so important to the season (and it’s genuinely one of my favorite things about a terrific season). When she tells Elizabeth that she has to bring all of herself to a drawing, to tap into something beyond herself to get at something primal and wild that exists almost outside of her, it feels like the show itself suggesting how easy it is to lose yourself in any role — mother or wife or spy or travel agent — to the exclusion of all the others. The art is a tether, keeping Elizabeth from completely shrinking into herself.

But so is Philip, and so are Paige and Henry. Say what you will about that incredibly awkward phone conversation with Henry in last week’s episode, but it was an attempt by a very lonely woman who thought she was about to die to reach out to one of the things that still reminded her of herself. And the slow, agonizing death of the Chicago illegal in this episode seemed another stark nod toward the stakes of this situation, designed to shake her out of her complacency.

I’ve always seen the cyanide capsule as an almost moral test Elizabeth will ultimately be given. Does she avoid arrest and capture because of her love for her work, or does she live because of her love for her spouse and children? Season six is asking us just how unshakable the bond between these people truly is. If Stan offers Philip a deal to attain citizenship and keep Paige and Henry none the wiser, so long as Philip turns on Elizabeth, does Philip take it? Just what is a marriage anyway, especially one built on coincidence and convenience? And what’s a family, for that matter?

It’s clear, by now, that the show isn’t going to have the rip-snorting climax a lot of people have expected, but let me ask you: Which loose ends do you hope it can tie up in the three hours remaining? And which do you think it has no chance of resolving satisfactorily? (For me, the answer to the latter question is the true identity and motives of Renee, though I would laugh if the answer was, “Oh, she’s just Stan’s wife.”)

Caroline: In order of urgency: Is Oleg going to make it back to the Soviet Union in one piece? Will Paige make it through even if her parents don’t? Will Henry become a semiprofessional tanner? Who’s gonna fire Mail Robot when the technological revolution comes?!

Honestly, when I sat down to think about this, there just weren’t many pressing things that haven’t been addressed already that came to mind — with one glaring exception.

The biggest question looming over this entire series has been whether Stan will discover the truth. As much as I would love that to finally happen, I think it either won’t happen or only once it’s too late. Like you said, Todd, it’s not in The Americans’ nature to provide satisfying answers to its biggest questions. If this slow, excruciating cat-and-mouse game ends with a conclusive bang, I think I might be more disappointed than not.

The Americans

Libby: Okay, here’s my confession: I am secretly a little terrified that three weeks from now we’ll be sitting here saying, Wait, that’s it?

The Americans has built up tension exquisitely throughout its run, but it rarely releases it in the way you’d expect. The show rarely has a shocking twist, and yet it’s rarely predictable. I never would have guessed that Martha would survive, that Philip’s son would be turned back without ever meeting him, that Stan would still — three episodes from the end! — be in the dark.

There are too many loose ends to choose from. I suspect we won’t see any of Philip and Elizabeth’s marks from missions past again, even though I think about Martha and Young Hee often. (But who knows — Kimmy came back.) Nor do I think we’ll get another appearance from Philip’s son. From here on out, I’m assuming, it’s just our main protagonists.

I’m relatively confident in a satisfying end to Oleg’s story (which could be anything from a death at Elizabeth’s hands to a ministerial position in Gorbachev’s government, who knows). Paige has, I hope, so much future ahead of her that it’s unlikely to get any really conclusive ending. (Unless she dies. Which I’m not ruling out because I’m not ruling anything out.)

I have no idea whether Philip and Elizabeth will end the series together or not, on the same page or not, both still alive or not, but I’m certain that unfinished business will be concluded. Still, I’m confident we’ll get some kind of resolution there. As for Stan — well, while I hope you’re wrong, Caroline, given all the buildup we’ve seemingly had to this moment, it would be very Americans for Stan to never really find out the truth. And while my knee-jerk reaction right now is that such an ending would be very disappointing, it would be very Americans for that conclusion to feel satisfying regardless.

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