The Americans recap: You are what you eat
The season five premiere of the FX series isn't about obligations, self-fulfillment, or even lies. It's about hunger.
The fifth season of FX's The Americans — a show that has never been quite as eerily relevant as it is this season — opens by making the contrasts between Russia and America explicit.
Joe Weisberg's show about Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, KGB sleeper agents who embedded in America and started a typical American family, has always investigated the overlap between the personal and the political, and the ways the story you keep telling about yourself starts to become a second truth. In past seasons, Philip struggled with America's temptations in ways that Elizabeth never did. He longs to give their children something like a normal life and has taken to attending meetings at EST, where he talks unhappily about obligations and self-fulfillment.
But this season is different. This season is about hunger.
The premiere begins by panning over shelves of food in an American high-school cafeteria. Devo's "That's Good" (the music video of which features a French fry repeatedly penetrating a doughnut and breaking off) plays over footage of jello and puddings and cakes and the occasional apple. Those shelves of decadent American food almost completely block our view of the characters on the other side. When the camera finally gets out from behind those stacks of American abundance, it turns out these aren't characters we recognize: A Vietnamese boy named Tuan and a boy from the Soviet Union named Pasha are bonding over their status as newcomers. The camera follows them home, and we might be so focused on the beautiful American house Pasha and Tuan are approaching that we fail to notice either the brown sedan in the foreground or the fact that it's partially blocking our view. Tuan offers Pasha a banana, we go into the kitchen, and there — in all her domestic glory — is Elizabeth Jennings, in one of her terrible wigs, drying some cups while Phillip reads the paper. We are introduced to the Eckerts, Tuan's Typical American Parents.
There they are, then, all the American signifiers of abundance and conspicuous consumption that block one's view and keep one from seeing clearly. There's the American house, the American car, the American high school cafeteria, and the heaps of American food. That we cut from this sham version of American excess to "America the Beautiful" being sung in Russian over footage of broken down machinery, withering crops, women performing back-breaking labor, and bread lines is one of this series' most mordant jokes.
The episode, fittingly titled "Amber Waves," spends its first half visiting so many domestic spaces — so many kitchens in so many houses — it turns into a kind of anthropology of what "home" means, and how food fits in. When Oleg Burov, now back in Russia, tours his parents' elegant home, we see his mother in the kitchen preparing a plate of cookies. We see Elizabeth in the kitchen with Pasha's Russian mother, heaping other plates with desserts and sweets. Gabriel retrieves the plans for Area B from a shelf in his cheerful yellow-wallpapered kitchen, and we even see Stan Beeman consulting a recipe book in his kitchen as he prepares an alfredo sauce for Paige, Matthew, and Henry.
There are eerie simulacra here: Elizabeth impersonates a garrulous American stewardess to fool a fellow Russian woman struggling to find her place. Tuan, a young Vietnamese spy living alone, does his best to singlehandedly mimic the rhythms of a typical American home as they appear to the outside world: There is a grandfather clock, a vase, floral curtains. He carefully stage-manages the house's lights, turning them on and off to reflect the life there isn't within. "I do the living room and kitchen an hour before I go to bed, then your bedroom lights after that," he says.
As for Pasha, the unhappy son of the Jennings' latest target, he seems like a foil for Mischa, Philip's son, who we see nervously trying to make his way to America, and for Oleg, the Russian son who sacrificed to return home. This show has said a great deal about American families, but The Americans is starting to develop a narrative for Russian families this season too: their dynamics, their loyalties, their breaking points.
In Russia, those questions necessarily revolve around food. Oleg's less-than-exciting new career will involve investigating the illegal circulation of food — and the bribery and corruption behind it, which is so extensive the authorities credit it with causing Russia's food shortages. "We should be able to feed our own people a hundred times over," says Oleg's new boss, warning him that the guilty parties will likely include family friends: "Some of them, no doubt, have been to your home. Eaten at your table," he says, asking whether Oleg can be a KGB officer first. Oleg nods.
The question this season is: What loyalty is owed to whom? Which tables matter? The agricultural consultant the Jennings are targeting has them over for dinner, but he can't stop talking about the Soviet Union's food shortage, even as they're breaking bread. "You want food, you stand in line. Do you see any lines for food here? No, you go to the store. They have so much of everything, it's a beautiful sight. You choose," he says.
If it's a truism that hardship affects people differently, The Americans complicates that by showing the range of responses people who've gone hungry have to those who criticize the homeland. Tuan seems bitter about his past, but he judges those who complain even more. As for the Jennings, Elizabeth can't believe the agricultural consultant complains of having to wait in lines to eat. "He's old enough to remember having nothing to wait in line for," she says to Philip.
"My mother used to make a soup from a few onions, nothing else. It was really just hot water," says Philip.
"After the war my mother always said she wasn't hungry," Elizabeth replies. "I knew, but I ate everything. She was so thin."
It's psychologically right that these reminiscences make them nostalgic instead of happy to be in America, the land of endless food where people choose not to eat vegetables.
"We'll get another chance to go home," Philip says. "Wasn't the right time."
The agricultural consultant also complains that in Russia, he had to share an apartment with two or three other families. In another wonderful and typically Americans juxtaposition, Stan Beeman jokes, in the next scene, that the Beemans and the Jenningses should live together. "Your parents should move in," he says. "We could be one big happy family." "Maybe they can move in and I can move out," she replies. But it's only half a joke: The fact is, the only time we see Henry, the Jennings' forgotten son, is in Stan's house.
If the Jennings have become Russian nesting dolls of hypothetical American families, at least as interesting is how these seasoned spies choose occupations that seem to accidentally reflect their homesickness: In one life, the couple pretend they're travel agents. In another, they're a pilot and a flight attendant — i.e., the ones doing the traveling. In both cases, the Freudian subtext is travel, the impulse to escape. To return to a version of the Russian dream. "I saw him back home, married, with some little kids running in circles all around him. I really wanted to get him that," Gabriel says of William.
It's remarkable just how badly the Centre failed to deliver on that front. That the first episode of this season — which threads so many different complicated kinds of domesticity and betrayal into its first two-thirds, so much philosophizing about hunger and food and longing and want — ends with an extended 12-minute sequence that consists mostly of digging might be its greatest joke. This is a parody of agricultural labor. This might be the hardest work we've ever seen Philip and Elizabeth do, and it reduces all of them. It makes an ugly joke of William's final contribution to his homeland. It culminates in a horrifying loyalty test. It forces the Jennings to betray Hans, the South African ally Elizabeth has spent years training. This doesn't bode well for Tuan — their latest recruit, who unhappily watches TV as he mimics life by turning the lights on and off in a giant suburban home.
"Everybody just like you it's true," Devo sings in that opening number, "everybody wants a good thing, too." But the things people want turn out to be radically different, and if this season sketches out the differences between the Russian and American dreams, mixing them just might turn you into a biological weapon trapped in the enemy's box.