The camera is getting sneakier on The Americans
We've seen too much
I think I've started every recap of The Americans's fifth season with a nod to the brilliance with which this show's cinematography reflects its conceptual content. I can't help it. Rarely has a show more artfully married its camera quirks to an episode's themes, and as those themes change, so do the ways the camera echoes them.
Tuesday night's episode, "Crossbreed," is thankfully no different.
It's no coincidence, for example, that Philip and Elizabeth are almost never in the same focal plane in the episode: Whether they're talking in the car or at the travel agency, the depth of field of that chosen aperture is so narrow, so selective, that the focal plane has to shift forward or backward to focus either on Elizabeth or on Philip. Never both. At a moment when they're badly out of phase with each other and wishing they weren't, the camera shows what the script can't. While one face emotes with painful clarity, the other fades to an indistinct smudge.
Then there's the way so many characters are framed in corners or through hallways or from above, as if they were being watched from another room. In an episode that literally shows us a spy photographing a subject as she walks along the street, we're treated to that same treatment of our main characters. The camera spies on Henry and Stan Beeman from the kitchen as they talk in the dining room. We spot Claudia and Gabriel in the lower right hand of the frame — seen through branches, as if we were watching them from a tree. Elizabeth and Gabriel are glimpsed from a room or two over, framed by doors and counters. And when Oleg retrieves his telltale tape, our view of him is obstructed, as if we were hiding behind his bookshelf and his childhood globe. This fits the show's mounting paranoia: Philip keeps asking Gabriel and Elizabeth whether they know something they're not telling him, but it feels like the camera itself has started hiding.
All that said, the most affecting scenes are those of Russian men gazing at monuments while contemplating their own complex acts of treachery. The sharp outline of Gabriel's silhouette against the Lincoln memorial is oddly moving. So is the way Gabriel turns, almost experimentally, as if to see what Lincoln sees. The camera suddenly lines up with his and Lincoln's sightline, seeking something too: perspective? An answer? I don't know. But Gabriel's guilt at having lied to Philip about Mischa is manifesting in fascinating ways; that he has never lied to them came as a revelation to me — I'd wondered — and I'm as devastated as the Jenningses by the news that he's leaving.
The visual counterpoint to Gabriel's mute communion with Lincoln is Oleg's silent visit to Patriach's Pond to meet a CIA agent who, for a second time, fails to show. Instead of Lincoln, Oleg gazes at a statue of Ivan Krylov. There's something wonderful about this footage of Russia's most famous satirical fabulist staring amiably down at Oleg as he waits, in the cold and the dark, to betray his country to an enemy that stands him up. (Elizabeth is having regrets too. As mordantly funny as it is for a Mary Kay rep to function as a kind of Ghost of Christmas Past, it's pretty gutting when Elizabeth visits the scene of her own, most egregious betrayal — Young-Hee's house — and sees that the destruction of the family that once thrived there is complete.)
At its root, this episode, built around peeking camera angles, heralds the end of denial. "Trauma? I don't know," Elizabeth says at the therapist's office, but his remark works as an epitaph for the Jenningses' ability to repress and compartmentalize: "A lot of people think when something bad happens, the best thing is to keep going, keep it to yourself. That doesn't work so well," the therapist says. He's right: Philip's memories have been gaining in specificity and potency. This time, he remembers his father bringing home a pair of boots that his mother somberly scrubs. The stuff that washes off into the bucket is red.
Gabriel has come to be father and therapist to them both. "There is nothing wrong with you," he says to Elizabeth. "Ever." But his talk with Philip is worth dwelling on a little; his ethical qualms are less easily soothed. Philip's vulnerability when he asks whether he was selected because his father was a guard reflects a fear that he was what Paige is: a cog in a hereditary factory of bureaucratic enforcers of state violence. That Gabriel can assure him that he wasn't — that he had merits of his own — is as bizarrely reassuring to Philip as the revelation that his father was a guard is horrifying. That is not a frame that's easily legible to American audiences; it's an amazing bit of writing and acting.
On the other hand, it's noteworthy that Gabriel doesn't try to minimize the connection between the penal camps and the Centre. Philip's father worked "for us," he says — a phrase that can mean a few different things. It includes Gabriel; in that sense, it's an admission of paternal culpability. But whether that "us" still includes Philip is an open question, one both Gabriel and Philip are contemplating, each in their own way.
There is, of course, a cinematic counterpart to that father-son scene negotiating what "us" means, and it happens in Paige's room. Philip's talk with Gabriel dramatizes how badly Philip (like Paige) hungers for parents who aren't ethically compromised. It's heartbreaking that Gabriel comes so very close to offering just that — a kind of moral salve for the kinds of work he does and his father did — at the very moment that he's agonizing over betraying Philip and perpetuating the cycle of fatherless boys. The poignancy of the Jenningses introducing Paige to Gabriel at this juncture in their shared history can't be overstated; it's sweet and horrifying.
Gabriel's extraordinary economy with words is one of his greatest strengths, and it's worth noting, perhaps, that Gabriel has done for the Jennings what the camera has done for us in this episode. His speech does exactly what that camera does: It frames things just so. A version of the truth is old, and if some objects are obstructing your view a little, or if your perspective seems to be coming from a suspicious place, you're given license not to notice. "Who knows what your father did?" Gabriel says to Philip. "He had his job. A lot of things happened. You think it was his fault? He was nobody. We were all nobodies. But it's been over for a long time." It's as careful a description of past and present as Gabriel is capable of giving. If Philip's tormented face seems to acquire additional shadows and crags as Gabriel offers that brutal and obfuscatory appraisal, so does Oleg's as he walks down the halls of the prison to gaze down at the man from whom he's extracting a list of names.
I don't know what Oleg burning those records of his past achieves, but it echoes this beautiful line of Gabriel's, which is beautiful because of all its jumps and omissions: "to be honest, I'm worried. You've seen too much. You've done too much. I'll miss you terribly."
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