By Carole Avalon of PoliThink
Imagine an alternate reality in which FX’s hit drama “The Americans” is being reviewed in a modern world where the Berlin Wall came down but the Soviet Union has survived to the present time.
Join us, comrades and retro ’80s fans for a weekly review as we follow the exploits of undercover agents Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings.
Season 3 / Episode 8: “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?”
This episode largely concerns the secrets and concerns that women so often carry, some of them to the grave.
Betty (Lois Smith) started her evening at work thinking that being alone in the dark somehow made her feel closer to her late husband. It’s bookkeeping, yes, but the task she performs at the business her husband started is one that offers a comforting sameness.
For Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), who balances the roles of mother, wife, travel agent and spy, she’s especially missing being a daughter. Her mother back home in Russia is dying, but Elizabeth can’t go see her—not if she expects to ever return to her American family.
It’s an excruciating dilemma, one that she can’t share with her own daughter, Paige. Maybe that’s part of why she accepts the Centre’s push for Paige’s enlistment in the spy game. She wants Paige to feel proud of her, and to share in a mutual goal that benefits the homeland and eventually all people.
But at the moment, Elizabeth’s in an office, in the middle of the night, with elderly Betty, knowing that it won’t end well for Betty—but the younger woman can at least make the situation somewhat more palatable.
Which leads us to another woman—Martha (Alison Smith). We can drop the “poor” from Martha’s standard description, as she is becoming a willing co-conspirator in a clearly foreign spy operation. Clark/Philip’s near-admission that he’s KGB has landed a ton of bricks in her life—yet she’s not crushed.
Which is more than one can say about the FBI’s office’s mail robot. Martha tells her husband about what her boss, Agent-in-Charge Gaad, did to the secrets-carrying proto-Rumba.
Gaad is frustrated over how that damned bugged pen has cratered his office’s reputation, and by extension, himself. As spies investigate their fellow spies, Gaad is at the epicenter, knowing that at this point he’s the most alluring fall guy.
Mail robot, which wanders its designated route without notice or blame, gets NFL-kicker treatment by Gaad, which causes it to need repair and temporary replacement.
Over linguini with clams, Martha tells Clark/Philip (Matthew Rhys) of the day’s excitement. A. He’s surprised yet grateful for Martha’s continued loyalty, and b. no, not poor little mail robot! Okay, maybe not b. He reports this development to his handler, Gabriel, who then relays the spy team’s next mission—they need to bug mail robot, which is something that will require Martha to resupply tapes for the robot. It’s risky, yet Martha has already proved her mettle.
Gabriel thinks Martha is up to the task of maintaining the mission at FBI offices, which leads to Philip and Elizabeth’s nighttime excursion to the basement of the business that’s currently repairing mail robot.
Philip goes to work planting the bug, which is a complicated, time-consuming splicing of wires and devices, while Elizabeth goes upstairs to investigate a suspicious noise.
The source of the sound is Betty. The naming is a misstep for the show’s writer—the women share the same first name—and the brushstrokes offered of her life offer too many telling points to ponder for Elizabeth. Even so, actor Lois Smith keeps her character from sliding into a warped after-school TV show lesson.
From the moment Elizabeth shares her real name, we know for certain what was already a given: Betty isn’t going to survive the night. Elizabeth didn’t go upstairs wearing a disguise, after all. Whoever she met was going to die.
She didn’t expect an elderly, unsour woman who reminisces about her late husband, Gil, who served as a G.I. Gil didn’t want to talk about his harrowing military service during World War II. What did Elizabeth’s father do, she asks. Father worked as a coal miner, while mother worked equally hard—eventually Elizabeth admits that she is a Russian.
At that moment, Betty knows she won’t survive the night. Elizabeth, for her part, takes no pleasure, professional or otherwise, in what has to be done, but she can make it as painless as possible. She pours out Betty’s heart pills and so the woman begins swallowing them, gradually becoming groggy as the overdose takes effect.
Elizabeth cries as she and Philip wrap up the job downstairs. She’s had to kill a woman in order to keep their spy operation afloat. At the moment, she probably wishes she could deliver a few kicks at mail robot herself.
Elsewhere, two other women, one seen, one unseen, are at the center of two agents’ growing conspiracy.
KGB agent Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin) and FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) each are in love with double agent Nina, who’s currently stuck in a Moscow prison, as far as they’re aware. We know that Nina has worked her way out of that prison and into a job at a research facility where, if she manages to get into the head of a reluctant researcher, she might reduce her sentence and walk free.
Oleg and Beeman don’t know this, however, so they’re exploring alternate means of springing Nina from prison. One time-honored method is an exchange of prisoners, so Beeman, who’s already suspicious of Soviet defector Zinaida, is working with Oleg on finding out whether Zinaida is a fake.
Oleg, who is stationed at the Rezidentura (in the Soviet embassy), hasn’t found proof that Zinaida’s a double agent, but like Beeman he’s emotionally invested in outing the woman since as far as he knows Nina’s not coming back to D.C. except as one-half of a prisoner exchange.
Oleg and Beeman are having something of a secret bromance these days. Not exactly hearts and flowers, however. Despite their mutual prickliness, they are willing to skate further into the gray. No matter their quasi-good intentions, Oleg is willing to destroy an ongoing KGB operation while Beeman is cooperating with a Soviet agent without his agency’s knowledge.
They up their game considerably with a set-up at the hotel room where Zinaida is staying. While Stan waits outside for room service, Zinaida is accosted by a mustache-wearing Oleg, who tells her that she must renounce her defection before American cameras or face dire consequences.
Zinaida isn’t the least bit scared, when by all rights she should be. She’s not supposed to be some hardened spy, according to the line she’s spun to this point. She’s a candy bar and BLT sandwich-loving defector who strangely doesn’t seem the least bit rattled by shadowy Oleg.
When Stan, on cue, barges in on the pair, he receives a perhaps too well landed blow on the head from a fleeing Oleg. Oleg apologizes later for the hit, but they’re all the more convinced that Zinaida isn’t for real. It can’t end well, can it? Yet in the twisty world of The Americans, who knows what’s ahead for this bromance and for the pair of women entwined in their story.
Beeman, however, has attracted unwanted attention from Aderholt and Gaad, who find his Oleg-caused injury just another example of Beeman being something of a klutz and really in the context of the show, Aderholt, who discovered the bugged pen, has been a more effective agent.
That’s one reason why Aderholt and Gaad exchange a few words and a meaningful look. Maybe Beeman’s connected to the bugged pen.
Beeman dug the hole for himself through his illegal “romance” with Nina and the hole is getting deeper all the time, no matter how many Soviets he kills or hopes to capture.
Speaking of murder, young Hans, the South African agent, has been sent to the curb by Elizabeth because he may have been seen by Todd, the would-be bomber that Elizabeth somewhat inexplicably let go free the previous episode.
Hans isn’t ready to quit. One night, he shoots Todd in the face (a gruesome hit to the right eye) but the wound doesn’t finish the job and when Hans’ gun fails to deliver the next shot, he’s forced to choke Todd to death.
When Elizabeth hears of this, she essentially welcomes Hans back into the fold. So, was the push-out a gambit? If so, a risky one, since despite Elizabeth’s careful training of him, Hans could have been caught during the murder. At any rate, he’s back in.
The younger members of the Jennings family make a brief appearance. They’re home alone with their favorite obsessions: Paige with bible study, and Henry with what looks like one of those old Radio Shack handheld electronic games. To each his or her own.
We finish the show with a game of another kind: Philip and Gabriel with their customary duel over Scrabble.
“Geode” from Philip, countered by Gabriel’s “amatory.” Gabriel goes on a minor tour through word origins, ending with the observation that love and marriage are in some ways antithetical.
Philip says, “When I first saw Elizabeth, it felt like—”
“A bolt of lightning,” Gabriel supplies helpfully, ever the wordsmith. He goes on to say that Elizabeth rejected the first officer-husband supplied by their trainers. “In her own way, she chose you,” Gabriel says.
“It never felt like that, to me,” Philip says.
Gabriel tries to expand on his theme, but Philip cuts him off. “The problem is you, and this talk because you think you can wrap me around your finger. I trusted you, and now my job is to look out for my family because no one else will.”
But who all is in Philip’s family now? He didn’t kill Martha, despite being revealed as a spy (although the country hasn’t yet been specified). Their interactions in the episode were matter-of-fact and yet imbued with trust.
As partners in love and war, Philip and Elizabeth remain strong in most of their roles save for that as parents. In this episode, he laid down the hardest line yet about the use of his daughter in spycraft without explicitly saying no.
Women in this show are targets, agents, pawns and assets. They rarely serve as just eye candy. They have agency, in actual fact for Elizabeth.
Betty talked to Elizabeth about the evil of what she was about to do. As Americans, we may reel at Elizabeth’s subsequent killing of Betty, however justified it may be in Elizabeth’s mind for the sake of her country.
How often do we consider the evils done in our name? The countless innocent lives lost in other countries because our government deemed it necessary. Collateral losses, such as those from drones used in our drug interdictions and airstrikes conducted to support our client states against freedom fighters and supposed terrorists.
It goes well beyond official government actions, for American corporations routinely violate freedoms overseas that we support at home. As the surveillance state deepens at home—because our government fears not only Soviet spies but also domestic activists—even as our freedoms erode, we too are confronted with the face of evil.
The episode’s title is a takeoff from Philip K. Dick’s classic novel, which was the basis for the film, Bladerunner. The novel had much to say about about what it means to be human and the need for empathy. Despite Elizabeth’s feelings for Betty, she still killed the elderly woman.
Unlike Betty, we have the opportunity to fight the evils that face us. Unlike Elizabeth, we can choose a less violent path.
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