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 4 “Dimebag”
“Dimebag” isn’t a guns blasting kind of episode, yet characters are gutted by the emotional impact of the choices they make.
Take Philip (Matthew Rhys), for instance. Somebody, please. With all his agonized moralizing over his daughter’s impeding introduction to their family’s Soviet origins, he’s faced with the task of cozying up to a teenaged girl who’s a possible asset.
We met Kimmy last week briefly. She’s the babysitter who came on to a man who’s a CIA operative. That man’s boss, Breland, is the head of a CIA operation to funnel aid to Afghan warlords and religionists trying to overthrow their government.
The Soviets desperately need intel about that operation. Kimmy, it turns out, is Breland’s daughter. The show has set up the parallel for us, perhaps too neatly. How far will Philip go, in his guise as a shaggy-haired lobbyist weed smoker, to use Kimmy, when the girl’s but a little older than his own daughter?
At home, he’s talking to Elizabeth (Keri Russell). “We’ve never used someone this young before,” he says. Elizabeth seems sympathetic, but points out that the CIA is a hard target.
Elizabeth has her own mission to deal with this week, as the show returns to another asset, Lisa, who works at Northrop, where the US-supported arms maker is at work on the Stealth bomber. It doesn’t appear that Elizabeth, in her role as fellow AA member Michelle, has worked Lisa to the point of gathering secrets at her worksite, but Lisa is dealing with a hardcase of a husband whose drinking and implied abuse has driven Lisa to sending her kids to a relative’s home.
Elizabeth/Michelle’s feigned relapse has gained her entry to Lisa’s home so that she can build on their connection. Elizabeth’s playing a role yet she is giving Lisa emotional support during a difficult time. We know that she’ll be using that connection at some point to ferret out military secrets but at the moment Elizabeth is on solid ground.
Not so our second male lead in the series, FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), who thus far this season has been a bag of sad, sad water reciting lines. He’s roped his neighbor, Philip, into attending an EST session headed by a douchebag who’s all about opening up your feelings, man.
Beeman’s murdered an innocent Soviet underling, coldly treated his estranged ex-wife as an obstacle, and manipulated Soviet embassy worker Nina into doing his bidding before letting her be shipped backed to Russia. Opening up that past history sounds more like the recipe for suicide-by-cop than a hug fest.
His idea of dealing with emotions is to go to his estranged wife’s house and confess to the affair she’s already suspected. She may have moved on, but the revelation still hits her hard.
At work, Beeman remains suspicious of Soviet defector Zinaida, perhaps compensating for his morally compromised actions with Nina. Could Milky Way bar-loving Zinaida be a double-agent?
Trying to find evidence in a diner bathroom she used, he strikes out but not before trashing the place. But, what’s that above the ceiling tile he momentarily lifted before crashing to the ground?
It could have been a radio device, but obscured in shadows, maybe just some pipes. Zinaida could be nothing more than a US government asset at this point, but at least she’s an adult, however deluded.
Speaking of the lovely, morose Nina, who’s still in a Moscow prison. Turns out that her Belgian cellmate, Evi, was placed with her for a reason (ed. note: thought it looked suspicious). A KGB minder tells her that Evi was caught at a CIA dead drop, leaving secrets for her boyfriend, who’s on the lam.
Quid pro quo, comes the offer for Nina. If she can get the spy to talk about what happened, reveal some secrets, then Nina will receive a more lenient sentence. Nina’s on board with that, but it means that she has to go from frosty to friendly with Evi. Not an easy transition to make, but she’d do anything by this point to earn her get out of jail card.
Back in the cell, Nina works her con carefully. She apologizes for not talking. She pretends that she has a husband who’s refusing to see her, which makes her more sympathetic to Evi, who was abandoned by her spy boyfriend.
I want to tell Nina. Cheer up. It does get better. The Soviet Union you’re living in is going to endure some hard times, but in the ’90s there’ll be tons of oil revenues to lift people’s living standards. Unlike American oil millionaires who shape politics to their liking and to the average citizen’s detriment, Soviets have seen real improvements to their lives from petro-wealth.
The modern-day Soviet Union isn’t the paradise of a Texas oligarch/oil monarch, but, there, an average worker has much fairer odds of improving her situation than, say, the maid of that millionaire.
However, we’re currently in the 1980s world of Nina, stuck in a Moscow prison due to her own screw-ups. Options are rather limited.
Meanwhile, Philip, despite his reservations, has worked diligently to establish a connection to underaged Kimmy. He’s listening in on her and her friends’ hopeless try to use fake IDs to enter a concert. In a mod scraggly wig, he claims he can get them a better ID and leaves a card. He doesn’t linger or ooze that creepy older man vibe, but we feel that has to be the next step.
At home with the Jennings, we’re treated to an awkward birthday dinner for Paige (Holly Taylor). She’s invited pastor Tim and his wife. Tim doesn’t come off as arrogant as the EST seminar wannabe life-changer, but he’s still there on a mission: to support Paige when she comes out with her wish to get baptized.
Oh, Philip, your study of American culture is still a bit deficient. “I didn’t know that was something your church did.” It’s a Christian church. Practically all of them have some kind of baptismal ceremony. Kind of the point, really.
No matter how nice Pastor Tim comes off, with all due sincerity he’s going after Paige as a useful asset to his church. To his credit, however, there’s been no hint of sexual sleaziness about him. Paige is enthusiastic. She’s going to wash away her old self and make herself clean for Christ.
Her parents are understandably upset, although they do a good job of hiding it in front of their guests. Later, alone, they spar over Paige. They’re both troubled by the prospect of Paige becoming further alienated from them by conversion to a religion they both oppose.
The dispute takes a turn into the real topic: Paige’s true identity as the daughter of Russian spies, and someone their bosses need to join the family business.
“At least she’ll know who she really is,” Elizabeth had said earlier, but now she reveals that she’s on board with the plan. “It’s happening,” Elizabeth finally admits. “With or without you, it’s happening.”
It’s happening, too, for Nina in prison. She reveals to her prison cellmate that she betrayed her country. She admits that she was KGB. Her first posting. She was sending money home to her family. She admits she did stupid things. She betrayed her boss, this nice old man. She says she confessed, they gave her another chance but she ruined that, too.
Later, Nina’s pretending to have a bad dream, and crying out in Russian. Cellmate Evi wakes up. Nina murmurs that she should have stayed home, married, and had children. Evi consoles her with a hug.
Nina’s face, seen in close-up, isn’t doing the stereotypical smirk of “I put one over on you.” It’s more like she’s getting the job done, and the emotions she’s feigning on the surface seem at their heart to be quite real.
We end with Philip, who meets up with Kimmy in his usual cool-hair disguise. He hands over the believable fake ID and smokes a joint with the girl. Kimmy is being flirtatious; Philip less so. He droops an arm over her shoulders but is reluctant to take it further.
His face is much like Nina’s. Getting the job done. But something tells me he might end up checking out of the sleaze hotel on this case. The camera lingers on his face. His daughter is going to find out about the family business with all the drama that implies. He can’t protect her in the way he thought he could. In the meantime, here’s this teenaged girl, scarcely older than Paige, who is someone’s daughter.
He’s hollowed out, repulsed, and we wonder what he’ll do next.
Throughout the episode, we’re treated to snippets of songs by new wave duo Yaz, comprised of Vince Clarke, who had been with Depeche Mode, and the great, soulful Alison Moyet. It’s a prime pairing of music with theme. Alienation, choices made yet wished unmade, love and desire thwarted. Music for grownups, yet listened to in this show by teens who are trying to make their own decisions.
The grownups around them are faced with troubling choices of their own. No shoot outs needed for this episode, because all around the main characters the damage is piling up.
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