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 7 “Walter Taffet”
Poor Martha. Poor, poor Martha. That’s been my default setting ever since her character was introduced. She had been suckered into a sham marriage with “Clark,” an interagency investigator who’s actually Philip Jennings, wig-wearer extraordinaire.
Martha (well played by Alison Wright) is a proper public servant exasperated by the slipshod approach to secrecy taken by an FBI office where all the men outrank her.
She may be clueless about Clark and overly willing to overlook his frequent absences, but she’s not a dunce. She’s capable of doing more, and being a funnel of listening-device intel to Clark is but a snippet of what she’d be capable of in a different system.
In this episode, Martha’s world begins to fall apart, both on a professional and personal level.
Some time back, she’d planted a listening device in FBI supervisor Gaad’s pen, with the rest of the apparatus kept in her purse.
Her potential destruction begins in a story arc that at first take seems to be more about Agent Stan Beeman’s nascent rivalry with fellow employee Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden).
Beeman had earlier described Aderholt to neighbor Philip as a guy who “asks a lot of questions. He bugs me. always trying to get in, get noticed, a black guy. He’s good at what he does, I don’t know…”
You could take Beeman’s comments as pure competitive rivalry, but it’s easy to detect the strain of racism in how a fellow agent is described unnecessarily as “a black guy,” who is always trying to get noticed, but (Beeman hastens to add) is good at his job.
So when Beeman (Noah Emmerich) is at work, making another media hype call for defector Zinaida, he sees Aderholt in Gaad’s office, seemingly talking about him. Beeman’s jealousy propels him into the office on the pretext that Gaad (Richard Thomas) needs to sign some papers.
Gaad pops off the cap to his pen, the cap rattles a bit, and Aderholt’s interest is piqued. He dislodges the bug, which silences the shocked trio. They’re being spied upon, but by whom?
Martha’s desk is on the other side of the glass. At a glance, she knows what it means.
They close the shades. Gaad says carefully, “Well, I think that’s enough for now,” and then sends them out.
As far as Martha knows, her listening device is there to catch security failures for Clark’s government watchdog agency, but she knows Agent Gaad will view it as a betrayal and her employment there instantly over.
In a barely concealed panic, she takes her purse into the women’s restroom and pries open the transponder. She takes it apart, runs water over it in the sink, wraps it in paper towels then returns it to her purse.
She tries desperately to chill herself out. Get a grip. At some point surely Clark’s office will be notified. This can all be explained, perhaps without bringing herself into the picture.
She’s back at her desk, watching a sweeper run his long-handled device over desks and equipment. She’s trying to act unconcerned as he waves the device over her purse. Not a peep from Martha or the device.
Then comes Walter Taffet from the Office of Professional Responsibility, tasked with ferreting out who planted the leak. He asks Martha to provide him with logs of Agent Gaad’s visitors over the past three months.
Wouldn’t Taffet know about Clark’s mission to identify leaks in the agency? Why hasn’t Clark, her elusive white knight, arrived to explain it all to her bosses? But no, there’s only Walter Taffet and his sweepers during her interminable day.
It’s sinking in. Maybe Clark isn’t who he said he is. Maybe his mysterious background, his refusal to be openly married to her, his weird behaviors—maybe it means that he’s a foreign agent. That he’s been lying all along.
Despite the thrill, the romance, the willingness to overlook flaws in her lover, and the undercover work that satisfies her disrespected abilities, she’s going to have to face reality.
Back home, she knocks down a drink, inspects then hides again her gun, and while rummaging through Clark’s clothes drawer, sees again the Kama Sutra manual that had brought her such pleasure.
She’s been such a fool, but not any longer. When Clark comes home, she demands to see his apartment. Luckily, the KGB had set up an apartment for just that purpose, so she sees a dumpy little place, her photo prominently place, her husband properly worried about her mood, but knowing that he has an actual place of his own does nothing to assuage her fears.
That’s where Martha’s arc ends for this episode; however, we are aware of Chekhov’s dictum that a gun seen in the first act must go off in the final act. Martha has a gun and it may well go off, whether by or against her.
The U.S. once had various principalities of security agencies, the FBI, CIA, NSA and various military units who were all rivals for funding and zealous to protect their sources and fiefdoms.
All that changed under President Jeb Bush’s administration, when security lapses led to the massive French-Israeli spy scandal legendary for its length and scope—and for allegations that sources within both those countries funneled intel to the Soviet Union.
Blame the usual high level of paranoia within the U.S. government over the Soviets’ continuing relevance in world affairs. Blame sweetheart arrangements with French and Israeli intelligence agencies that went overboard.
Whatever the reason, these days, Martha’s nest of FBI noobs is but one spike of an all-encompassing security state. She wouldn’t recognize the current state of affairs and would scarcely know where to point her gun.
Returning to the 1980s world of The Americans, let’s leave aside Martha’s torment and look in on her faux husband, Philip, who’s at home listening to a BBC radio program about the continuing war in Afghanistan. The announcer quotes a Soviet spokesman saying the revolution there cannot be turned back.
We have the luxury of knowing that today, under Soviet protection, the northern tier of Afghanistan, including Kabul, is certainly in better shape than the rest. Free education for both sexes, women’s political rights and a profitable, but regulated drug production industry.
Our fictional Philip can’t see the real future ahead of him. He has learned from spy handler Gabriel that his son, born of a youthful romance with the now-dead Irina, is serving in that deadly conflict.
Disturbed, he goes upstairs to check on his teenage daughter, Paige, who is reading a book about the civil rights movement.
She eagerly talks about going with Elizabeth to the primarily black Kenilworth neighborhood, where she learned about her parents’ involvement in the movement, and about Gregory, an activist who died nobly for the cause. Henry pokes his head in the door, since he’s heard the last part.
Philip feels like he’s drowning in too much family angst. His eldest child is in terrible danger overseas, while his teen daughter is clearly being groomed by his wife for domestic service that could well turn dangerous at some point.
He tells his daughter that he still believes in civil rights but that he became older and realized that some things (implying his family) are more important.
In the couple’s bedroom, he tells Elizabeth about Paige’s revelation, “Is this how it’s going to work, that I’ll come home one day and Paige is going to say she knows who we are?”
Elizabeth responds that she honestly doesn’t know. But on to the current mission. Gabriel’s told them about a South African national named Reuben Ncgogo (that spelling is in the listings but is closed-captioned as Ngogo) who’s being sent from Moscow. He’s with the African National Congress and ranked third on the racist South African government’s hit list.
We previously learned that young proto-agent Hans, a dissident white South African, correctly identified a fellow student as a stooge for deadly South African agent Venter.
That’s the play, then. Ncgogo’s the bait to draw out and capture Venter.
Elizabeth meets with Hans on a wintry day to set him up as a lookout for the meeting. She’s been tutoring Hans on spy craft. She could end up doing the same for her daughter.
Hans is elated that he pegged the suspicious student, whose ilk he described as selfish, entitled “miniature copies of their parents.”
Next comes her visit with Ncgogo (Dwayne Alistair Thomas) in a whitened, grim industrial landscape. They share family details. He’s concerned about his sons’ lack of understanding of the situation they’re in. One son is too concerned with wanting to own a scooter when they live in a dangerous, oppressive environment.
“You have two kids,” he says. “Do they have any idea what a badass woman their mama is?”
Good point. Elizabeth is justifiably proud of her capable, patriotic service to her country. Why wouldn’t she want her children to know of it someday?
Speaking of service. We next see Elizabeth and Philip in a set of chic wigs, duded out for an expensive meal with Elizabeth’s asset/friend, Lisa.
The theme is fancy, with lux food courtesy of a generous boyfriend. The eventual play at a later moment has to be: wouldn’t you, Lisa, like to have presents and cash from a nice guy for just giving out some info from your security clearance job? That’s a conversation that’s bound to happen soon, but not yet.
We visit Stan’s comfortable but emotionally blighted house where his son has arrived for a visit. During uncomfortable visit number #30 at the doorstep, Sandra and Stan exchange stiff unpleasantries. No, Sandra isn’t flying with Stan after all to a fellow agent’s memorial service. She talked it over with her boyfriend and decided against it, and oh, by the way, I don’t think I should “technically” be your wife anymore. Expect a divorce soon.
Later, Stan opens up a can of soup for his son, Matthew, to eat. Matthew works up the nerve to ask about his father’s service undercover. What was it like, he asks.
“Hard, strange. I got pretty screwed up. I had to pretend to be friends with people I didn’t like.”
Stan was undercover with a bad man who killed people. He anticipates his son’s unspoken question and says he didn’t kill anyone. Given his ease in shooting an unarmed (and innocent) Soviet embassy man in the back of the head, one wonders about that statement.
A confession of another kind happens in bed between Philip and Elizabeth. She admits that she should have told him about her talk with Paige.
He then reveals that a. he fathered a son back in his teens with Irina, and b. Gabriel told him his son is serving in Afghanistan. The couple hugs. Despite their differences, they rely so strongly on one another.
Now comes the final sequence, scored to the anger-filled classic, “The Chain,” by Fleetwood Mac.
Philip’s wig this time makes him look like a member of the Ramones while Elizabeth is rocking a chic Euro bob.
He’s inside a café where Ncgogo is chatting to the South African stoolie. Philip is eying the street while Hans sits in a car outside alert for signs of the police. Elizabeth is the driver in this scenario, in a van waiting for her cue.
Phil sees Venter, the would-be assassin, driving by and quietly taps the walkie-talkie to cue Elizabeth.
Elizabeth sees a nearby van with a woman ostensibly moving a box inside. She knows the play and strikes up a conversation with the woman, who, in a South African accent, tries to brush her off.
Elizabeth delivers a forehead bullet rat-tat to the woman and wheels her van into action.
While Ncgogo unobtrusively guides the stoolie outside, Philip intercepts Venter in a tangle that lands Venter on a windshield before the quartet of Philip, Ncgogo and their quarries hustle into the back of Elizabeth’s van.
The van speeds off as Hans watches, as breathless as we are.
Now, Philip and Elizabeth have a South African agent in their control. Remember that South Africa and the U.S., besides being military and trade partners, also shared intel on various foreign agencies, including the Soviet Union.
Venter, stopped from committing another hit, is quite a catch. What will they do with him?
And, what’s going to happen with Martha? Tune in next week. For links to other reviews, visit the Amerikanskis.