Review by Carole Avalon of PoliThink
Imagine an alternate reality in which FX’s hit drama “The Americans” is being reviewed by a Soviet admirer in a modern world where the Berlin Wall came down but the Soviet Union has survived to the present time.
Join us, comrades, fellow travelers, enemy agents and retro ’80s fans for a weekly review of this capitalistic media portrayal of patriotic undercover agents Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings.
Will they achieve their vital missions, have sex with interesting people and try on new wigs?
As if there was any doubt.
Season 3 / Episode 6 “Born Again”
God splashes into the storyline of “Born Again” in a big way, dragging along several major characters in His wake. Even Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) finds salvation through prayer, although not in the way your average Christian envisions it.
His daughter, Paige, is into Jesus big time. We sympathize with her desire to find a deeper purpose to her life and since Pastor Tim is a socially conscious leader, Paige (Holly Taylor) has taken part in protests against South Africa’s vicious apartheid regime.
Now comes her baptism which begins with a guitar-led version of “Shall We Gather at the River”. This isn’t a Jerry Falwell mega-church ode to capitalism. Pastor Tim espouses a faith in which his flock works for the betterment of the living and the uplifting of those oppressed. You wouldn’t find these people at anti-abortion protests—not in the early ‘80s, at any rate. They’re protesting Reagan’s bomb-first mentality and his warm embrace of South Africa.
But now, politics aside. Paige is dressed in white and ready for her total immersion in purifying waters. Down and up she goes, drenched in what she believes are cleansing waters.
Her parents, Philip and Elizabeth, smile grimly in the congregation. This is hard for them. Their upbringing and gut instincts argue against religion in general and God in particular. It’s a myth to them, and since the church they’re familiar with—Russian Orthodox—stayed hand in glove with the Czars and cared nothing for ordinary people, our super spies have reason to be suspicious of Paige’s new-found faith.
Still, they’re there for Paige, even if their clapping is somewhat forced.
Youth continues to be a subject for the show, as we see Paige in the throes of Christianity and now we visit with collegiate spy Hans, who’s still being shown the ropes by Elizabeth. He thinks he’s found a turncoat in a student anti-apartheid group. Elizabeth advises caution.
Philip, for his part, is trying to find a way to tell Paige to be strong, stand up for herself and always be true to her beliefs, but since he can’t specify exactly why—beware of Mom wanting to turn you into a spy!—Paige thinks he’s talking about church in a negative way. Philip finishes lamely, “I just want you to be happy, that’s all.” As father-daughter talks go, pretty much a bust.
The episode continues with the subject of faith in the next scene when FBI agent and neighbor Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) brings his fellow est-participant, Tori, to the Jennings home for a meal. Est was a trendy spill-your-guts, spend your bucks in public quasi-spiritual practice that, as Tori explained to young Henry, isn’t a religion. No, it’s about personal and emotional growth. “It’s about taking what you get and being cool about it.”
Henry over-asks and Tori over-shares, leading Paige to defend her church’s way of helping people, which is far more engaged with people’s real lives than with merely the territory between their ears.
Henry digests what Tori says and renders a diagnosis: “That’s weird.” Thanks for your single scene, Henry. Try not to grow another six inches before we see you again.
Later, Beeman and Tori are at home trying to get their groove on but Beeman’s distracted by photos of his ex-wife. Except that, he explains to Tori, Sandra is still his one and only, which seems rather stalkerish. Tori reacts with a version of the est gospel of “feel it, don’t push away your emotions, just go with it,” and soon, as Stephen Stills sang, if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.
While Beeman has moved on for the moment, his ex-lover, the beautifully glum Nina (Annet Mahendru), is still in a Moscow prison. If she wants to shorten her sentence, she’ll have to weasel information out of fellow cellmate Evi, a Belgian who was left in the lurch by an enemy spy.
Time to play the woe-is-me card. Evi tries to console a woeful Nina by saying, “So you made a mistake. You have to be strong.” Nina’s not having it. She left her husband who in turn has abandoned her. “How can you love someone who leaves you?”
The seed-planting works as Evi eventually tells Nina critical details of how she helped her lover in the spy game. Nina’s taken off for a delicious meal-with a bottle of red wine—but soon after she returns, Evi is dragged away by guards. She immediately realizes that Nina has betrayed her. Nina says nothing but her slumped posture speaks volumes. She did what she had to do; she hates it. No amount of vino is going to make her think better of herself.
The same could be said for Philip, except that the substance in this case is primo Afghani weed. He’s at the perpetually unchaperoned Kimmy’s house about to carry out a bugging operation premised on the idea that the girl will be baked, mind blown, eyes closed and headphones on to the strains of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.”
Philip is playing a stoner lobbyist named Jim, who’s into Kimmy but hasn’t yet taken her to bed. He’s running out of reasons not to—he can’t tell the girl that she reminds him uncomfortably of his own teenage daughter—but thankfully she decides to take a solitary bath, which kicks off an up-tempo dose of spy theater.
A female operative races through the back door and works on installing the bugs needed to monitor Kimmy’s father, who’s running a CIA-Afghani ring. The stakes are high, and so is Philip, which may be why when Kimmy comes out of the shower wearing nothing but a towel, he’s having to improvise, do a little verbal soft shoe to cover while the female operative is finishing up and slipping out the back door.
Although Philip manages to squirm out of the situation, he soon learns from his handler, Gabriel (Frank Langella), that the Centre expects him to visit the Breland house not monthly but on a weekly basis. Slow seduction not in the cards.
Kimmy is notably less enthusiastic during his next visit. If he doesn’t up the emotional involvement, she’s going to slip away and there goes the vital bug placement. Gabriel’s words to him are still ringing in his ears. Soldiers are dying in Afghanistan. Philip’s work could save lives.
What to do, what to do, he wonders. It comes to him. All those church services finally pay off. Earlier in the episode, the Jennings’ handler, Gabriel (Frank Langella) had told Philip that his one-time lover, Irina, has been captured in Brazil. Irina was a rogue Soviet spy who told Philip that she’d given birth to his son. Gabriel is unable to confirm Irina’s story but does describe the young man, who is now twenty and a loyal Soviet paratrooper.
Now, stuck in a compromising moment, Philip/Jim finds his inspiration. He builds on his earlier lie about going to church by saying the reason for it was deeply personal.
“When I was seventeen, I got a girl pregnant,” he tells Kimmy. He hasn’t been a part of his son’s life, and now he wants to be a better man. Kimmy hugs him. The moment could go either way if he’s not careful.
“I’m so messed up,” he says. “Kimmy, would you pray with me right now?” On bended knees next to her bed, that’s exactly what they do. He thanks God for bringing Kimmy into his life. Kimmy is inspired by his act and jumps right in by asking God to watch over his son and says that he’ll be an amazing father.
Fake prayer, but real emotions. Philip has once again completed his mission without seducing Kimmy. How long he’ll be able to walk this tightrope is unknown.
At home, Elizabeth can’t lose herself in a book. She’s thinking about Philip’s mission and Paige’s future, and knows there’s only one thing that will help—not Nina’s wine, not Philip’s joint, but a stick of nicotine dynamite.
Paige, who catches her in the garage, says casually that she and Henry already know that Elizabeth is a secret smoker, and that she’s not going to give her mother a lecture on the dangers of tobacco.
Elizabeth admits that she’s so impressed by how her daughter has “grown up all of a sudden.” Paige half-jokingly politicks for an extended curfew. Elizabeth tells her daughter that she will always support her but the spiritual life isn’t really her thing.
Paige tries to explain the spiritual presence she feels when she’s praying, an effort that goes all for naught, for while Elizabeth may have an encouraging smile on her face, she’s not buying it.
Finally, with Paige safely to bed, Philip comes home to learn that young Hans, the spy-in-training, actually was on to something about that possible agent at the college students’ anti-apartheid meeting. Not just possible—a probable spy, and working for the South Africans in tandem with the Reagan Administration to undermine the battle against that uber-segregationist white regime.
Only a few years later, South Africa finally lost the public support of the United States, while the Soviet Union, by showing how to peacefully handle profound changes in Germany, made it impossible for the minority white government to continue on with its torture and detention regime.
Nelson Mandela, an unrepentant socialist, finally seized his moment on the world stage. But in the early ’80s, that wasn’t such an obvious outcome. Back then, the stakes seemed deadly and intractable. War, revolution, chaos, with some of the fighters operating in quiet Washington streets.
As for Philip and Elizabeth, the low-intensity battle they have fought with each other over Paige has reached a cease-fire zone. Philip has brought home a joint. They open a window and lean out, comfortable in each other’s presence as they share hits. Elizabeth tells him that Paige wants her to start praying.
“She’s living in a fantasy world,” she says, but Philip gets a laugh out of her when he reveals that he told Kimmy he couldn’t sleep with her “because I have to serve Jesus instead.”
He’s off the hook for now, but if the operation drags on and she grows older, then maybe he’ll have to sleep with the girl. Their weed-induced giggles subside. Damn reality.
Elizabeth has had her own sobering moment earlier with Gabriel. She needs to get a move on with recruiting Paige, or else, it is implied, the Centre will do it for her.
It’s an overcast day in a run-down majority-ethnic neighborhood. Elizabeth has taken her daughter for a ride. She’s about to have the most honest conversation she’s ever had with her daughter, and yet it still eludes the heart of the matter—that she and Philip are spies.
Elizabeth leads with her heart, talking to Paige about Gregory, a man very important to her who helped her understand things she’d only read about in books. She can’t tell her daughter that Gregory was a brilliant, thoughtful person who died in a hail of bullets to protect Elizabeth, who was his sometime lover.
Some details you just don’t share with your kids. But the emotion, the sincere desire to change an unjust society? That’s the part ringing true for Elizabeth. She can sell it to her daughter because she still believes that her work can make a difference in people’s lives both in the US and in her homeland.
“We didn’t only sing songs and march. We fought in other ways,” Elizabeth says.
“You were never arrested,” Paige guesses.
“Never caught.” Elizabeth admits. “It wasn’t always legal but it was right; it was for the greater good.”
She then folds Philip into the narrative, saying that they continue to care about just causes, and that their lives aren’t only focused on the travel agency.
“I love what you’re doing with the church, but doing good is a lot harder than going to rallies and signing petitions…I think there’s something special about you.”
“You’re saying I can accomplish more,” Paige says. “That’s why we’re here.”
Elizabeth delivers what she hopes is the clincher. “I brought you here so you’ll know I’m a lot more like you than you think.”
Thanks to his daughter’s immersion in the church, Philip has found his come-to-Jesus moment, one that’ll keep Kimmy clothed and the Breland’s buggable house at his disposal.
Elizabeth must accustom Paige to their way of life by using the language Paige has already learned from her church about resistance to racism and other forms of man-made evil.
Elizabeth killed a man in the last episode because she needed her asset in place at a plant assembling Stealth bomber parts. The greater good for her is assuring her country’s safety against a powerful enemy. She has to be hard, she has to be strong, even ruthless, but she remembers those days with Gregory when her mission and her heart were on the same page. When she was young and in love.
At some point must come another conversation with Paige, one that Elizabeth surely dreads. It is one thing to be an American dissenting from her government’s policies, quite another to be a Russian citizen living undercover in the only land her daughter has ever known.
Elizabeth’s faith long ago found a resting place in the tenets of Soviet-style socialism. To reach her daughter’s heart, she must speak a new language, one that blends her world view with the Jesus-speak her daughter understands.
She knows that Paige is ready, even if Philip doesn’t believe it yet. If they don’t make their pitch now, Paige is effectively lost to them as a permanent convert to the American church of Jesus-infused capitalism.
Yet Elizabeth’s face is hardly that of a Soviet warrior as the episode ends. She’s a mother worried about her daughter and trying to do the right thing.
A tale of two parents and two daughters, one of whom belongs to another family. Will Kimmy finally trip Philip/Jim into bed, prayers be damned, and will Paige become Elizabeth’s newest pupil in the spy trade?
Tune in next week to see what happens. To post comments, please visit the Facebooks Amerikanskis page.