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 1 “EST Men”
The United States and Soviet Union are no longer overt enemies. Since President Bush II signed the Istanbul Accord with Premier Tereshkova back in 2003, we’ve been on civil enough terms that even the current quagmire in Pakistan’s breakaway province Baluchistan hasn’t strained so much as a tendon in our mutual desire to avoid re-escalating the arms race.
That doesn’t meant the two world powers aren’t still deeply at odds with one another on many issues, having once come nearly to blows over Iraq’s attempted annexation of Kuwait—which the Soviets squashed by threatening to withdraw its support—and other more recent arguments over trade and technology.
On the other hand, travel between the two countries is easier than ever, and the Internet has been a conduit for greater understanding between our nations.
But, friends? Not quite. Which is where a show like FX’s hit drama, The Americans, does us all a service. Remember the Cold War? I don’t, obviously, being from a generation that hasn’t had to worry about nuclear Armageddon.
Once upon a time, however, the Reagan administration made it sound as though a first strike on Moscow would happen if the US thought it necessary, that American scientists were on the verge of developing a miraculous shield against Russian counter-attacks, and that the US would emerge ruthlessly triumphant.
Against this backdrop, two Russians living undercover in the US as illegals are faced with imposing odds. How can they keep tabs on US intelligence without being found out?
Spying, like marriage, compels a constant weighing of truth versus disclosure. When to peel the layer back, when to leave the onion alone.
You sense that struggle in the marriage of Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings as the third season opens up in the forest color-spectrum of early 1980s Washington, D.C.
Last season saw the botched recruitment of a fellow spy couple’s homicidal son, after which the Jennings learned that their daughter, Paige, is the next logical target for conversion.
The parents’ reaction is predictably mixed.
Paige (Holly Taylor) is fourteen, which explains much of Phillip’s parental wiring. Paige is virginally pure in thought, faith and liberalism. He wants to protect her from experiencing the moral compromises of adulthood.
For Elizabeth (Keri Russell), the issue pivots on whether Paige can truly be safe when at any moment her parents’ identities might be revealed. Paige may become a Christian lamb led to the slaughter. Paige needs survival skills that her superspy parents are well equipped to provide.
When it comes to their life’s work, Elizabeth has the harder tasks this week, from surviving a violent encounter with two FBI agents (one of them being FBI supervisor Frank Gaad, who definitely will remember Elizabeth’s fist if not her face) to standing next to Paige in a pew singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
Despite bruises from the former, it might have been equally as tough for her to deal with the latter. Elizabeth is an atheist from a country that suffered for centuries under a wealthy and corrupt state religion. Paige’s pastor espouses an easy-going brand of Christianity not in tune with today’s social conservatism.
It doesn’t matter how many choruses of “Kumbaya” she hears, Elizabeth isn’t about to convert.
She’s aching from the street rumble with the FBI agents, stung by the loss of a slip of paper that bore important intel, and, during an otherwise warm evening with their former-now-current handler, Gabriel, played by the masterful Frank Langella, she receives a tape that when played later reveals her mother’s serious illness.
Tears when they come, and they must come, are especially affecting. This is a woman who learned early to keep up her guard. Now that she’s learned how to be vulnerable with her husband, she finds herself at odds with him over how to raise their daughter.
Is she playing her husband, making him think that she’s more on the fence than she really is? Russell hasn’t been highly touted for her acting in a show more acclaimed for its writing and ensemble effort, but that is an oversight given her mastery of steely nuance.
Philip (Matthew Rhys) avoids bruises this episode, although his clueless faux-wife, Martha, definitely gives him a workout, Kama Sutra style.
Martha’s cool with the toupee, though, and the show gives us a scene mid-episode with FBI agent Stan Beeman at a gun range. Turns out that with a little tutoring, Martha’s a sharp shooter.
Martha may be gunning (pun alert) for a promotion at some point, since she’s practicing plugging holes in paper targets. Her husband, Clark/Philip, is hardly more than a cardboard cutout himself but she doesn’t seem as dissatisfied as last season.
Philip attends an est (Erhard Seminars Training) session with Beeman, where the presenter trots out a line of bull that might have sounded fresh back then. Sex and almost getting killed are examples of being really alive. “You assholes know nothing”, he says to a group of people paying a large amount of money for the privilege of being insulted.
For this episode, at least, Philip avoids almost getting killed, unlike Elizabeth, but he does have sex in multiple sessions. Never, though, as himself so how alive can he feel according to such a narrow definition.
Philip is back to his Swedish spy persona with Annelise, an erratic contact who’s giving blow jobs to Pseudo Swede when she’s not banging Yousaf, a Pakistani spy introduced last season.
The Pakistanis are aiding the CIA in training, arming and funding the Mujahaddin, who are destabilizing Afghanistan’s elected government. With Soviet help, the Afghani government is educating children—including girls—and elevating the role of women from near-slaves to co-equals.
Faced with repeated terrorist attacks, the Soviets need all the intel they can get about the Mujahaddin, whose idea of sending a message is video-taping their murders of unarmed Soviet prisoners.
While Philip listens with audio equipment in the next room, Annelise can’t help but reveal her feelings for Yousaf and outs herself as having an important mission.
Panicked, Yousaf chokes Annelise into lifelessness before Philip can attempt a rescue. Philip manages to calm Yousaf down—it’s important to try and channel him into a useful asset—but now they’re faced with a dead body. In a motel room. What to do next?
Presumably we find out in Episode 2.
Meanwhile back at the Soviet Embassy, station chief Arkady is drinking vodka with Oleg, our favorite tech-loving Soviet intelligence agent, who’s missing Nina something fierce.
Nina’s been convicted of treason back home in Russia, which is understandable. One doesn’t trade caviar for stereos, screw an FBI agent—even one as hangdog as Beeman—and look that brilliantly sensual without facing some kind of consequence.
She had better make a return visit to the show soon, even if only in a trudging through the tundra vignette.
Arkady and Oleg, along with the rest of the world, are about to learn of the death of Brezhnev.
The Cold War is turning incendiary. Tune in next time.
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