The profound despair of The Americans
This is not a happy show
When Henry adorably extolled the virtues of the FBI in Tuesday night's episode of The Americans — hailing its "hallowed halls" where "agents struggle to keep our country safe from enemies both foreign and domestic" — what really came through is how much the show has hollowed out whatever Hollywood glamor had accrued to FBI agents and spies alike.
It isn't just that everyone on The Americans looks haggard and drawn (though they do), or that they endure life rather than live it. It's that the people targeted by Stan and the FBI, and by Russian spies Elizabeth and Philip, have become distressingly ordinary. Instead of deciphering codes or stealing viruses or missile plans, our exhausted snoops patiently gather and report on minutia like what Sofia's coworker said and how Pasha is doing at school. "They like each other," Philip observes as they watch their latest target walking with her husband along a city street. "Good for them," Elizabeth sourly observes.
Over in Russia, Oleg's missions are no less banal. Fomina — a woman so fearsome Dmitri preferred to sit in a cell rather than name her — has been found. She likes Yugoslavian vermouth and was spotted buying sausages. Their confrontation is stunningly anticlimactic. You found my ledger, she says. So what?
After a slow season dedicated to stalking a sad Russian family while half-heartedly cultivating Deirdre and Benjamin, Elizabeth and Philip were ripe for a great big villain. "Dyatkovo" finally gives us one: a collaborator in a Nazi execution squad! It doesn't get more uncomplicatedly evil than that. "She personally shot hundreds of our boys. Prisoners," Claudia says. They were lined up and shot into a pit. After months of ambiguity, our spies have something to do and (better yet) something to feel good about doing.
How brilliant, then, that the candidate the Centre has identified as the traitor (based on the dubious evidence of her height and history of venereal disease) turns out to be a grandmother with a kind face. She loves her husband and attends drawing classes. Natalia Granholm is a loving wife, mother, and grandmother who volunteers — who has, as Claudia bitterly notes, made quite a nice life for herself.
The possibility that this could be the villain Claudia describes seems so remote that we're strongly urged to side with Philip, who remains skeptical, even after they get the go-ahead. Philip reminds Elizabeth that he's done executing people based on incomplete information. She promises him that they'll make sure.
They do, and the interrogation scene is agonizing. Natalia (née Anna) — plays her confusion to the hilt, insisting that she is not who they say she is right up until her husband arrives. Only then does she confess. But the layers through which we learn the truth are psychologically annihilating. Her first faux-confession horrifies for its apparent nobility — she doesn't remember how she killed the soldiers, she tells them, tears streaming, agreeing that she deserves to die. It was a long time ago.
She will remember, in excruciating detail, but the dramatic payoff of these successive half-revelations is huge precisely because the catharsis of confession never comes. The scene revolves around three questions: 1) Is Natalia in fact guilty? 2) Can Philip and Elizabeth agree that she is? 3) Can we?
We eventually learn the answer to 1: She is at least technically guilty. At first, it seems like Philip is convinced by Natalia's protestations — he seems to believe her even though Elizabeth doesn't. It's a major crisis, then, when Elizabeth confronts him and it emerges that Philip, far from being taken in, has perceived Natalia's guilt but fails to equate her with the monster she's supposed to be. His questions are much bigger than Elizabeth suspected: He's not just doubting the Centre's conclusions, he's doubting its verdict. It's kind of a dizzying epistemological moment (especially since at this point I, at least, still believed in Natalia's innocence.) For Philip, the question isn't simply whether Anna was a Nazi collaborator but whether she still is one. As someone hoping to start a second life, he believes in reinvention, in the idea that people are separable from their past selves. Maybe she was a Nazi collaborator. Maybe it doesn't matter anymore.
Though Irina Dubova certainly convinced me of her character Anna's innocence, the show takes no particular pleasure in deceiving us. Instead, it validates Philip's verdict. The truth Elizabeth and Philip manage to extract — that Anna's mother was shot while she held her hand, that she was arbitrarily spared and forced to dig, that they got her drunk and made her shoot — feels undeniably true. It also dissipates any hope of vindication or justice or revenge. It's horrible in all the ways that war is horrible, and Natalia's execution is one of the worst things the show has done — up there with Elizabeth forcing Betty to overdose in "Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?"
(Comparing "Dyatkovo" to that episodes illustrates one other thing: how much less careful Elizabeth and Philip have gotten. The point of the pills was to make it seem like Betty died of an overdose; it's hard to understand why Elizabeth and Philip were so cavalier about leaving a crime scene here.)
So much for a return to the glory days of spydom. Even the fun gadgetry here, like Elizabeth's camera-purse and the new and improved Mail Robot, can't conceal the profound despair that attends the Jenningses' every mission. There are hard limits to how far life will let you run from your own past, and Philip and Elizabeth are in the unhappy position of executing sentences that might eventually apply to them. "You think Paige wanted us to see those photos?" Philip asks Elizabeth. "I don't know," she says, and — ever the pragmatist — "she already told us." "But maybe she wanted to see us read them right in front of her," says Philip, gently suggesting that the point is not the information but the hauntingly personal impulse behind it.
The original thrill of The Americans was how it made purely domestic matters seem sneaky and exceptional. The Jenningses look like an ordinary American family but they're actually spies!!! This season has dragged and lingered on the extent to which spying (which we like to think of as the thrilling work of seeing that which no one can see) as life-sapping drudgery: whether it's listening to countless hours of tape or digging for hours in the middle of the night or, most crucially, observing the ordinary movements of ordinary people. And trying, with diminishing returns, to paint people trying to eat or survive as traitors, as the thrillingly cathartic targets we need them to be. If the point was initially to make the domestic clever camouflage for exciting secret work, the terms of the premise have been inverted: Now the spies are just reporting on the domestic doings of ordinary families. It's awful, and Elizabeth's "let's go home" is a stunning acknowledgment of that. It'll be interesting to see what "home" will mean for the Jenningses once they're out of the game, and whether it can last.
- Ep. 5.10: The Americans forever hold their peace
- Ep. 5.9: The ghosts that haunt The Americans
- Ep. 5.8: Claudia's plot on The Americans: A theory
- Ep. 5.7: The Americans' dilemma: Spy or die
- Ep. 5.6: The camera is getting sneakier on The Americans
- Ep. 5.5: The Americans is failing its sons
- Ep. 5.4: Regarding Henry and The Americans' other lost threads
- Ep. 5.3: Can The Americans tie up its loose ends?
- Ep. 5.2: The Americans has spent years whispering. Now it's starting to shout. That's a good thing.
- Ep. 5.1: The Americans recap: You are what you eat