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 5 “Salang Pass”
One of my readers wonders how our present-day Soviet Union would have changed if certain events had played out differently. What if Lenin died in the 1930s rather than 1924, for instance. How would that have affected history?
It’s hard to tell when looking that far back, but we have an event a little closer to our time, that of the 1987 destruction of the Wall that separated the two Germanies.
When Germans rallied to bring down the Wall that separated their two countries, who could have predicted that Premier Tereshkova would play such a major role in this pivotal event. She ordered Russian bombers at the ready to support East German tanks and troops, then out came the bulldozers—headed from the East side of the wall.
This bold move transformed the debate. In a matter of days, the entire Berlin Wall had come down, efficiently dismantled by East Germans.
East Germany’s recently installed head of state Manfred Gerlach then declared full rights of passage for all East German citizens into the West.
The US claimed that Tereshkova had orchestrated the protests as well as the Wall’s demolition in order to send thousands of KGB and Stasi agents unhindered into Europe, but regardless of the games played, it led to a new phase in history.
The year 1987 could have played out much differently, if not for the plane crash two years earlier that killed twenty members of the ruling Soviet politburo. Tereshkova emerged as the new premier, aided by the brilliant Samarin.
One of her first acts was to drastically scale down Soviet military involvement in Afghanistan, and with the aid of newly installed Kabul leader Abdul Fattah, they created a defacto partition of the country that has endured to this day.
It does make one wonder, given the name of The Americans’ current episode, “Salang Pass”, if maybe its creators are thinking about how our timeline has played out. Salang Pass was where thousands of Soviet and Afghani soldiers died a fiery death, trapped by an apparent bomb planted by the mujaheddin. Because of Premier Tereshkova’s decision to wind down the war, the need for CIA-Afghani intel diminished.
But all that’s ahead of us in the early ’80s world of The Americans. The episode opens at a foster care facility with nary an Afghani warlord or CIA agent in sight.
Instead, we’re treated to a rare scene involving Martha, an FBI secretary in a secret marriage to Clark aka Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys).
She’s jonesing for a child. Clark/Philip, who’s pretending to be in internal affairs, is very much on the fence about adding a child to an untenable situation. He’s reluctant to completely slam the door shut on Martha’s dream, given that she’s still innocently funneling information to him.
Call it asset maintenance. Agents do a lot of that, in hopes that their patient work will result in intelligence coups for the home office.
Elizabeth (Keri Russell), who’s playing an AA member named Michelle, has been helping one of her assets, Lisa, out of a terrible home environment.
Because women’s shelters were still a relative novelty in the ‘80s, Lisa feels stuck, no matter what she does. Elizabeth/Michelle is like a fairy god-sister, because she offers Lisa the use of her “mother’s” old house fifty miles away as a place to stay, reconnect with her children and be away from her awful husband. It also happens to be only fifteen miles from another Northrop facility.
Lisa has a security clearance. Lisa could get transferred to Northrop, once a spot opens up. Elizabeth knows all this, and thus she’s that much closer to moving her asset to where potential intel can be had about the Stealth bomber, which represents a major threat to the Soviet Union.
Later, we see Elizabeth walking a dog in neighborhood where a man is working underneath a car that bears a Northrop parking sticker. Something tells me that the home mechanic is in for serious trouble.
The show hasn’t forgotten about Pakistani spy Yusaf, whom Elizabeth and Philip helped out of a murderous jam a couple of episodes ago.
Philip meets with Yusaf in an empty warehouse where he tells Yusaf to make peace with a particular group of CIA-funded Afghani mujaheddin. Yusaf says it isn’t that easy. He reminds Philip that “ten of your soldiers were flayed alive.”
And besides, fundamentalists are growing in strength in Pakistan. Yusaf, who isn’t religious, barely passed a holier-than-thou exam. Philip advises him to pass the test next time. Yusaf is a valuable asset but one who could either pay off big or have to be erased.
As for another potential asset, Philip is continuing to build his friendship with FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) by attending those silly est sessions (self-esteem babble, and high-priced ridicule by the leader.)
Beeman has joined the Jennings clan for dinner, during which Henry, out of the blue, (but really because of his crush) asks about Mrs. Beeman, the estranged wife. Beeman parries that well, but now Paige sees a way to bring up a potentially uncomfortable topic with the unwitting Beeman being the ballast that keeps the conversation light and in Paige’s favor. Clever girl. She needs a baptismal dress. Philip and Elizabeth shoot “I hate this” eyes at each other, but Philip volunteers to drive her to the store.
He ends up buying an expensive dress for Paige, which is part of his trying to build a stronger bond separate from Elizabeth, who’d just as soon groom Paige for spy duty.
But now comes Philip’s moral quagmire, which he’s entering reluctantly. It’s a straight-forward problem: the Soviets desperately need intel about the CIA’s involvement with the murderous mujaheddin. The head of the CIA group, Breland, has a teenage daughter named Kimberly.
One short step to the object: seduce the teen, gain access to Breland’s home in order to dig around.
During what looks to be an outdoor kegger, Kimberly is doing her damndest to play the coquette with Philip, who’s playing Jim, a lobbyist and pot enthusiast. Desperate to get somewhere with the diffident Philip/Jim, she holds out the ultimate carrot: a parent-free night at the Breland house.
But first, Philip needs to visit his KGB handler, the urbane Gabriel (Frank Langella), who has the potent Afghani buds Philip needs for his cover story.
Gabriel expresses concern over all the pressures on Philip: the faux marriage with Martha, the quite real family he has (including possible future spy Paige), and now underage Kimberly, whom Philip is reluctant to seduce.
Gabriel is sympathetic, but says, “It’s the operation that’s crucial. You have a conscience. There’s nothing wrong with that. But a conscience can be dangerous.”
Next we have a nice relaxing jog with handsome Soviet embassy man Oleg who encounters Beeman. On the plus side, it’s daylight and neither of them are pointing weapons. On the negative side, they are hurling unspoken accusations as to who loves the now-imprisoned Nina more.
Beeman has a spring in his step these days because he’s decided that apparent Soviet defector Zinaida is actually a spy. He proposes that Oleg get the goods on Zinaida, so that Beeman can arrest Zinaida for a trading of prisoners—Zinaida for Nina.
Oleg, wary of entrapment, does try to indirectly wheedle information from a fellow officer, but it’s all for naught. When he meets Beeman again, the two have it out and basically they agree it’s halfsies on the love-for-Nina competition. No gunplay, however, so perhaps this relationship has a chance?
Back at the Jennings house, Philip is talking to Elizabeth, who’s industriously cleaning a bathtub in pure babushka mode. Philip and Elizabeth spar a bit over the dress and how Philip looks to be bribing his daughter.
Elizabeth takes the spat too far when she says, “Your girl Kimberly doesn’t know her father’s in the CIA and look how she wound up.” Elizabeth means that Kimberly is lost and easy prey to men like, for instance, the louche that Philip is playing. Paige needs the grounding and sense of purpose a life in spying for her country would give her.
“Don’t call her my girl,” Philip says and leaves in a huff. It was a low blow, after all. She knows that Philip hates the mission with Kimberly.
As for Elizabeth, we see the payoff of her earlier recon of the Northrop home car mechanic. One evening, she calmly walks over and topples the jack holding up the car. The result? One less employee at Northrop and a new opening for her asset, Lisa. It’s a brutal move, when she could have waited for an opening to arise for Lisa.
Yet Elizabeth sees the news and gets the straight line from Gabriel: Russian soldiers and their Afghani allies are getting flayed alive, burned in a tunnel, and executed in front of mujaheddin video cameras.
From Elizabeth’s viewpoint, if she can save a Soviet life by taking an American one, she’ll accept the deadly math.
Now, in her guise as Michelle, she sits with Lisa in the nice house she’s graciously loaned to a woman who’s in her dream job at Northop working on fuselage assembly.
Time to celebrate with canapés. My, what a nice Coach purse you have, exclaims Lisa. Michelle admits that she’s been seeing a man who’s very easy on the eye and works as some kind of consultant. She just tells him some stuff about her work at General Dynamics, and the money rolls in.
“Be careful,” Lisa says, but she’s clearly intrigued by the vaguely described sugar daddy. It’s asset maintenance by Elizabeth, but in the meantime, Lisa’s in a better place and happy, to boot.
Now we come to Philip’s not so excellent adventure with adolescent Kimberly. The parents are out, so lobbyist Jim is there to play. She immediately takes him upstairs to her room, during which he’s scoping out the place.
They get high, they make popcorn and eat ice cream, and along the way they talk. Kimberly thinks her father works in the Agriculture Department. She barely sees him. “If he had another family, I’d think, that explains it.”
Thoroughly smoked out, Kimberly falls asleep on the sofa. Philip sneaks upstairs to take photos of Breland’s jacket and the inside/outside of his briefcase. Obviously, a switcheroo will eventually be planned to plant bugs.
Done with the spying part of the evening, he carries Kimberly up to her room and lays her on the bed. She awakes enough to lay a kiss on him. He’s still not fully reciprocating. Noise outside alerts Kimberly that her parents are home, so Philip escapes through the back door. A close escape but he’s accomplished his mission.
Back home in the parental bedroom, a still buzzed Philip gets ready for bed with Elizabeth.
They talk about the sexual intimacies they had to learn in spy school.
“Must be different for a man,” Elizabeth says, inaccurately.
“I don’t know,” Philip says.
He flashes back to the various strangers he had sex with during his training. A thirtyish woman, an elderly woman, and a middle-aged man.
Philip says pensively, “You have to find it in your mind somehow. They kept telling us to make it real for ourselves.”
“Is that what you do with Martha?” Elizabeth asks. “I guess,” he responds.
He says he feels badly for Kimberly and admits that he hasn’t slept with her yet. He asks his wife’s opinion about what he’s supposed to do with the girl.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” she says, with the words repeated back to her.
“Do you have to [pretend to] make it real with me?” Elizabeth asks.
“Sometimes,” he says, “but not now.”
They kiss in a embrace that’s more of a mutual needful collapse into one another rather than a shallow romp.
This was a quiet episode in which we learn about the deadly craft of spying as it plays out in these damaged souls’ lives. Targets, assets, friends, lovers, and rivals.
Those roles are becoming more entangled for the characters. The stakes, to judge from the previews for next week, are about to ramp up exponentially.
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