The Americans has spent years whispering. Now it's starting to shout. That's a good thing.
One of the quietest shows on television is really starting to make noise
The Americans has historically been a fantastically quiet show (murders notwithstanding). Like Stan Beeman, the FBI agent living across the street, Soviet spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are unassuming and unobtrusive people; Frank Langella's Gabriel, their soft-spoken handler, is a great preparer of tea. The same is true of the people they cultivate: Allison Wright played Philip's "wife" Martha with wonderfully subdued agon. Even the show's bombshells are quiet: A teenage girl picks up a phone to talk to a pastor. A man tells a woman he's going home. Even William's arrest and self-poisoning last season was — for a chase scene — oddly unspectacular: Turning yourself into a biological weapon is a silent affair, and so is the morbid follow-up. One of the show's most interesting choices was showing how gently the FBI agents kept William company as he died of lassa fever — even, absurdly, offering him a Coke. That gentle non-interrogation pays off. Emotional management is a crucial part of everyone's work.
But things are getting louder (and hungrier) this season. There are too many adolescents involved to keep things muted, and at least two are involved in the Jennings' effort to track Alexei Morozov, a Russian dissident and agricultural expert who appears to be helping the Americans develop pests capable of decimating the Russian wheat crop. We were introduced to this mission last week in yet another silent suburb. The Jennings have set up a second identity as the Eckerts, a pilot and stewardess whose "adopted son" Tuan — a Vietnamese operative and ally — has usefully befriended Alexei's son Pasha.
Last week, the soundtrack did much of its conceptual work through music. The focus then was food: Devo and "America the Beautiful" played over footage of the amber waves of grain that, in 1984, make America what it is and Russia what it isn't. The second episode of the fifth season develops that theme through the use of diegetic sound: Now, the focus is rot. The sound editing for Elizabeth's tour of the warehouses containing the wheat-killing pests is high art — from the subdued, almost pastoral sound of the crickets and frogs outside to the deafening hum of insects when she breaks in, culminating in the horrifying whizzing as a cloud of bugs rises up to swarm everything, including her face and eerily open eyes.
But for all her determination to see the pests for which this episode is named, Elizabeth seems singularly uninterested in Alexei's account of the hardships of life in modern Russia. Her perspective is in some ways as selective as the camera's — which keeps getting distracted by food on its way to showing us characters. When the "Eckerts" meet the Morozovs in a restaurant, for example, the camera — which last week introduced us to Tuan and Pasha by filming them from behind shelves of cafeteria food — only finds our protagonists after dwelling on the buffet. It's not a very appetizing view, somehow, and it took me a second viewing to figure out why: Accompanying footage of that peculiarly American culinary format is the sound of the crowd around it — specifically, people sneezing and coughing. Sure, there's a sneezeguard, but the sound editing makes the whole thing seem kind of gross. It turns us subtly against Alexei, who can't stop talking about the miracle of so much food and reveling in his American freedom to insult Russia. When his son Pasha objects, the Morozovs argue (in Russian). "We understand," Elizabeth says, a chillingly reassuring smile on her face.
As for the quietness that has characterized our cast (and made them effective), Tuan (Ivan Mok), the Jennings' new Vietnamese ally playing their adoptive son, does not fit that profile. He's a teenager, and no amount of discipline can quite overcome the explosive character of adolescence. Tuan feels things too intensely: Alexei Morozov is "a real piece of shit" for insulting his homeland, he said last week, wondering aloud how the Soviets resisted putting a bullet in his brain. He talks with too much feeling about how little both Russian and American children understand: He's experienced real losses, the likes of which they'll never know. Elizabeth and Philip are suspiciously unresponsive to these rants.
It's a truism by now to say that The Americans tracks people's vulnerabilities — the way even a spy's real needs intersect with her ability to manipulate the needs of others. Last season did this brilliantly with Elizabeth's feigned friendship with Young Hee (Ruthie Ann Miles), which began to fulfill a craving for companionship she's long denied. The season before did something similar with Philip's relationship with Martha.
The point is simple: Cravings (of whatever kind) are powerful, and for all that Tuan pretends he's absorbing American life and watching American TV for the sake of the mission, his hunger is real. He wants the leftovers from the buffet restaurant. His face lights up when he gets them. And his and Philip's imitation of a father and son staring at a bird's nest has real-life echoes: Tuan does genuinely want Philip's approval.
The parallels between Tuan and Paige are obvious, and become even more explicit when Elizabeth — having watched the former's operational proficiency as a fake American teenager despite the intensity of his feelings — tells Philip she's tired of treating Paige "like a goddamn kid." It's time for Paige to learn to repress.
That brings us to the Jennings recipe for silence. The scene in which Elizabeth and Philip offer to teach Paige their "technique" for emotional management is The Americans at its most brilliantly small. The secret is prefaced by so much solemnity; I was vibrating with anxiety on Paige's behalf as they offered to share it with her. Sex secrets? A drug? That the answer ends up being such a small thing in practice — a gesture, really — somehow only augments its effectiveness. That's the great Soviet secret? That's how you retain your connection to the homeland over decades? But it works! It must, given the Jennings' astonishing success. (I'm tempted to rewatch earlier seasons to see if we can spot Elizabeth or Philip rubbing their thumbs and forefingers together at difficult moments).
What this episode sets up is the contest brewing between quiet work — the Jennings' careful cultivation of Morozov, Stan Beeman's gentle cultivation of Oleg and relationships with the KGB — vs. the CIA's sledgehammer approach to Burov and the deafening hum of the destructive insects. And a corresponding war between the diseases caused by American abundance and the corruption caused by Russian scarcity.