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 2 “Baggage”
Welcome back to the early 1980s spy wars between the United States and the Soviet Union, where the fracture point is located in Afghanistan.
From our oh so enlightened modern perch, we know that tensions have certainly eased between the two superpowers since the defacto splitting of Afghanistan during the 1990s into three spheres which are controlled by a. warlords (US clients), b. the northern tier and Kabul (the elected government), and the eastern borderlands (a different set of warlords along with Pakistan).
For those of you wondering about the current status of the disgraced Nina Kirilova (Annet Mahendru), she is marking time in a Soviet prison.
The bucket toilet and rough food are meant to tell us that she’s in harsh surroundings, but it doesn’t seem that bad compared to modern American prisons, where ill-trained guards, terrible conditions and physical danger are constant concerns for prisoners.
Nevertheless, there’s the lovely Nina in a drab ‘80s track suit, far away from her glamor days of being a double-agent in Washington DC, when she was juggling an American pretend lover—FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich)—with an apparently genuine one, Oleg (Costa Ronin), a young and passionate Soviet diplomat.
While Nina marks time, Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) is continuing to calm down Pakistani diplomat/spy Yousaf (Rahul Kanna), who has just panic-murdered Annelise.
Annelise, who thought her contact, Philip was a Swedish spy, made the mistake of implying, during the throes of passion, that she was also in the game.
That didn’t work out well. Thoroughly throttled, the naked pawn is about to be undergo some major anatomical changes. Let’s just say that when an NFL player’s arm moves in an unnatural angle from a hard hit, it’s roughly the same as what Annelise goes through, times five, except that usually the NFL player survives the joint maneuver.
Need to transport a body? Philip calls his wife.
The Jennings’ daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), still unrecruited, is bright and savvy enough to wonder aloud about why her father spends so many evenings away from home. Is he having an affair?
Elizabeth (Keri Russell) tells her daughter she “just knows” that Philip is faithful.
Paige says with an air of calm acceptance, “You guys look out for each other, more than us.”
Uncomfortable, Elizabeth tries to soften the edges of that statement but Paige says she’s glad that her parents are so strongly in each other’s corner.
From home to work Elizabeth goes, carrying with her a capacious suitcase. Annelise becomes a human pretzel. Yousaf, the cause of all this fuss, is photographed by Elizabeth helping out with the reshaping of Annaleise. Snap: blackmail.
Philip had been monitoring Yousaf in an effort to find out information about the CIA’s role in destabilizing the legitimate government in Afghanistan.
What with training mercenaries, providing weaponry out the ears, bribery of tribal warlords, and facilitating the shipment of Afghani opium into the hands of drug syndicates—the CIA has had its hands full.
Yousaf, who’d been working with the Afghan so-called resistance at the behest of Pakistani and CIA agents, repays Philip by telling him about an upcoming meet-up with his CIA buddies at a local bar.
The scene changes to a bleak warehouse where FBI agents are on hand to witness the cracking open of a large wooden box. On hand are the ever-mopey Beeman and his supervisor, Frank Gaad (Richard Thomas), who is still sporting a broken nose from his encounter with the disguised Elizabeth.
Inside the giant box is Zidania, a female Soviet defector, who’s thrilled to be in the FBI’s hands.
Soon, she is moaning ecstatically over American candy bars and before press cameras she recites FBI-concocted lines about how her conscience is suffering over the innocence of the Afghani people. She seems naïve or disingenuous, particularly because she expresses no concern over Soviet and Afghani soldiers dying to support the legitimate government.
Later, she’s all about wanting to see American monuments, but no, Agent Beeman tells her, it’s not safe yet. Safe for the FBI or for Zidania?
Back in the Moscow prison, Nina is joined by a female Belgian prisoner, who hits upon English as their mutual language. The Belgian, who blabbers about needing to contact her embassy, tries to draw out Nina, but no go. My guess is that the Belgian is a plant to see if Nina will revert to her soft American pattern of seeking out sponsors and ways out of her predicament.
If so, it doesn’t work. Nina buries herself under the covers.
Elizabeth and Philip are having a similarly restless night back home, trying to sleep despite the unsettling events at the hotel. We experience a flashback with Elizabeth. She’s a teenager who’s returned from the war memorial ceremony and wondering about her father’s role in World War II. Turns out daddy was a deserter. The scene intends to present us a motivation beyond patriotism for Elizabeth’s dedication to the cause.
Children are inevitably disappointed by some aspect of their parents. We’re meant to see her practical streak and pure dedication as the outflow of a young girl’s desire to expunge the cowardly record of her father.
Yet we know that soldiers, whether above- or under- cover, find ample motivation for their heroic actions in the simple love and desire to protect their country. It’s helpful to glimpse Elizabeth’s pre-American life, but I wouldn’t hang her motivations solely on the actions of her father.
Beeman, away from minding his candy-besotted defector, ends up in a dark alley with Oleg, who quite accurately points out that Stan butchered the innocent Vlad (a young Soviet diplomat hardly more than an intern) and what’s more, had Nina sent to a labor camp.
Enraged, Oleg raises his gun against Beeman and tells him to get on his knees. Beeman unsteadily declines and walks away. Unlike Beeman, Oleg isn’t a natural born killer, so the agent isn’t plugged with a righteous bullet.
From Beeman’s shadows to the brightly lit bathroom of the Jennings parents. Philip and Elizabeth swap their thoughts on the ongoing Yousaf-hearts-CIA operation as well as the continuing question of What To Do About Paige. Their higher-ups want Paige brought into the program, but Philip is still resisting. As they talk, we see that Elizabeth’s jaw (and aching tooth) are still suffering from her rough encounter with Agent Gaad.
Elizabeth thinks Paige would grow up and land a cushy, low-body-count CIA job, but Philip thinks their daughter’s mission could change at any time to something more hazardous.
While Paige’s life plans dangle in the air, Beeman is trying to sort through the wreckage of his shattered personal life and dealing with his near-death escape. He tries to call his estranged wife, Sandra (Susan Misner) and later drops in for an awkward meeting.
Sandra, faced with her sobbing ex, tries to be sympathetic but then Beeman ruins it with an attempted lean-in. Goodbye, Stan.
Philip and Elizabeth are by comparison a much healthier couple, but there’s still some spikiness between them. Phil comes across his wife listening to a recording of her mother speaking. As she puts it away, Philip says that their government could probably figure out a way to sneak Elizabeth across the border for a visit.
Elizabeth knows such a high-risk maneuver could very well leave her exposed to American intelligence agents in the process, thus severing her from her children. “We can’t go back,” she says, upset.
Elizabeth goes to see their handler, the soulful Gabriel (Frank Langella) who has been to see her mother. Gabriel compliments her mother’s beauty. Elizabeth recalls her mother as being very serious.
“We all were serious, for we had lost so much in the war, had sacrificed so much,” he says.
As they talk, we see Elizabeth inching closer still to the idea of outing their mission to Paige.
That evening, the elder Jennings are in full disguise from different watching posts at a Washington motel where Yousaf is staying. He’s expecting a visit from his CIA contact, so the spies’ cameras are ready to start clicking. A middle-aged white man shows up at Yousaf’s door and the pair leave together.
With her characteristic decisiveness, Elizabeth informs Philip that she’s off to follow them. In separate cars, they pursue the targets to a bar called Cooper’s. While there, they secretly shoot pictures of Yousaf and his CIA pack, along with shots of the license plates outside.
A productive meet-up, but back home Elizabeth is still suffering from the fractured tooth. She points out to her husband that she can’t risk going to a dentist since the feds will still be on the lookout for a woman matching her general description and dental complaint.
Back to Moscow we go, where Nina is taken from her cell to meet with Igor, Oleg’s father.
“I can see why Oleg fell for you,” he says, adding that Oleg is taking the situation hard particularly because his father isn’t (yet) pulling strings to help Nina.
Encouraged by Igor’s compassion, Nina asks him to tell Oleg “I wasn’t pretending with him.” Given the relative warmth and understanding between the two, perhaps Nina won’t be stuck in prison for too much longer.
We end with Elizabeth and Philip in their travel office. So they do go into work sometimes.
“This stuff with Paige, it’s not going to just go away,” Elizabeth tells her husband. She recalls informing her mother about the offer she was given at age sixteen to train as a spy.
“My mother didn’t blink. She told me to go and serve my country. When I was called, my mother didn’t hesitate.”
Phil takes this in. He’s beginning to waver. Paige’s immersion in her parents’ true calling may be coming soon.
Overall, a strong episode. The Reagan era was marked by heightened aggression, an elevation of stakes where soldiers died needlessly on the rocky hills of Afghanistan. We’re lucky as a nation to have left behind the war-by-proxy stage, at least in that part of the world. Chess pieces are moved elsewhere.
Still and all, it’s sobering to think of how a wrong move back then could have upset the entire board. We live in a hyper-paranoid country threaded with surveillance which, however automated, is directed at us, who are supposedly innocent until proven guilty. Still, it could have ended up much worse had history taken a different direction.
The stakes these days don’t look like a choice between life and death, as they did for the superpowers, or as personal as they did for Philip and Elizabeth.
We look across international borders at a smaller Soviet Union, but one still operating as a counter-balance to the United States’ global ambitions. President Hillary and Premier Irina, two tough women, have a vested interest in keeping our countries from each other’s throats.
That’s the signal virtue of The Americans. It reminds us of just how dangerous a lack of communication can be, between countries and within families.
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