In Praise of Love: FX’s THE AMERICANS
March 16, 2014 § 1 Comment
Fans of The Americans mostly still remember being hooked on the show from the opening chase scene set to Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk”, a pounding, drum-driven pop number that set off a series uncommonly attuned to the virtues of quality music placement. Many shows have boasted great music selection, but perhaps the best single series soundtrack belongs to Gossip Girl. The Americans kicked off with a demonstration of quality over quantity, and followed through. But, thinking back on that scene now – the way the song’s spliced and extrapolated into a far longer piece that breaks down and builds up the drumbeat several times to fit the length of the sequence – I’m less impressed by the triumph of music curation and editing it represents than the choice of the band itself. “Tusk” strikes at issues of trust and miscommunication in relationships, in a fierce and instantly iconic single for an incestuous band that built love games into the bones of their best songs.
The reversals and surprises of romance are central to the rather ludicrous premise of The Americans. Dramatically, the hook is obvious and credible: creator Joe Weisberg worked from his actual CIA experience to write the story of two KGB operatives posing as a suburban American couple with two children in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. What seems less likely than this fact of the Cold War is that the agents posing as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings would only start to really see each other after almost two decades of marriage and professional partnership, let alone raising two children. But the series is less a presentation of a credible marriage than it is a dramatic inquiry into how love works, filtered through the narrative structure of a suspense thriller. With some killer tunes.
Keri Russell, the show’s most ingenious casting coup, is best remembered for her role on the grounded J.J. Abrams college drama Felicity and a wry comedic turn in the film Waitress. Here, she proves capable of projecting a characteristic warmth filtered through terrible, calculating intelligence just as a young Vivien Leigh did, particularly in her spy romance Dark Journey opposite Conrad Veidt. The pilot puts her Elizabeth Jennings through a ringer of audience identification and sympathies, casting her first as a blonde-wigged seductress before revealing her brutal efficiency in action, then peeling back the layers of her intricately intertwined personal, professional and sexual history climaxing in a sex scene (set to one of television’s most immediately iconic pop songs) that reveals almost nothing about her and Philip.
Eliding the cathartic drum fill of “In the Air Tonight” dulls the moment, keeping the music relegated to the low end as the couple’s eyes search each other in the backseat of a car. After decades of living with a job reliant on the exploitation of love, and in the aftermath of a tense plot resting on vengeance for a sex crime, the marital act has little sanctity left for them. That they partake anyway gives the scene its sad, lasting mystery.
Noah Emmerich’s character, Stan Beeman, was introduced in the pilot as a show-driving hook – the CIA agent next door! After a full season of backyard cookout chats and racquetball games with Philip, Stan now looks like less of a device for generating suspense than he does a mirror for the Jennings’ evolving understanding of their own relationships. On The Americans, the two sides of the Cold War are constantly echoing the opposition and staging themselves, unconsciously, in contrast to each others’ specific actions. Lines often recur from scene to scene as Philip and Elizabeth discuss the same events as Stan and his compatriots. Two scenes in season one’s “Covert War” see higher-ups in the CIA and KGB affirming that even conflicts like the Cold War must have boundaries – and arriving at different conclusions.
The exploration of the Jenningses’ marriage and professional lives follows a similar framework, using the Beemans as a separate test case for dramatic inquiries into how the marital partnership survives. “Covert War” also features an early series of scenes depicting Elizabeth and Sandra Beeman going clubbing. Ostensibly, since we begin the scene from the Jennings POV, the sequence initially depicts a simple process of information-gathering. Subtly, the playing field is leveled not by Elizabeth getting drunk, but by Sandra’s intoxicated line of questioning – “Have you ever dated someone from another country?” “Ever thought about cheating?” – that unbalances Elizabeth, then separated from Philip, while guiding us further into Sandra’s headspace then we’ve previously been allowed. Eventually, in a series of shots on the dancefloor, the camera leaves Elizabeth behind altogether and follows Sandra to a nervous call home and later a kitchen confrontation with Stan, back from his latest tryst with Soviet embassy mole Nadya.
Mixed with all this action, frantic by the standards of Philip and Elizabeth’s often icy standoffs, the Jennings kids Paige and Henry hang out with Philip at his hotel room, watching nature documentaries and eating junk food from the vending machine. The Jennings parents are missing any obvious dramatic thrust here, with the uneventful moments of Elizabeth dancing on her own and Philip shielding his kids from a public urinator in the parking lot. Even in their isolation, though, the Jennings remain composed and purposeful. The Beemans – Stan blithely condescending, Sandra furious and despairing – are depicted as frustrated, directionless individuals.
In the most recent and third episode of the second season, “The Walk-In”, Stan returns home after a night-long stakeout leaves him tired and disinterested in his work. The tracking shot that follows him into the kitchen puts the scene, and his home life, in deep focus. Wide-angled shots giving both he and his wife plenty of distance from each other in the frame complement the preceding breakfast scene at the Jennings’, in which both parents interact with their children in tight two-shots that give their interactions an underlying closeness even as fear and suspicion continue to seep into everyday life.
Consistent as the show is – the showrunners have yet to produce a weak episode, while only a few striking scenes of suspense stand out and seem designed to do so – its finest hour seems to me “Gregory”, the first season’s third episode. It introduces the eponymous spy, an African-American with Communist sympathies who shares a long romantic history with Elizabeth. Their first scene together reveals almost casually that she has shared the truth of her mission and her marriage with Gregory, immediately drawing us into his story. Played by Derek Luke with a rare kind of masculine confidence and vulnerability – he lapses into self-pity as Elizabeth expresses doubts about their affair, and gets stoned on his couch at their next meeting while never losing his conviction that they belong together, or forgetting his position of value to her – Gregory seems from his first minute onscreen to be the smartest guy we’ve met in this world.
The episode’s defining scene comes soon after the central mission gets underway, as Gregory shuts himself in the kitchen of a safe house with Philip to needle him about his marriage. Their dialogue – largely a monologue interrupted by one curt line from Philip – underlines just why viewers are so keyed-in to Gregory’s situation and aligned with his character in a short period of time while also undercutting his talk of romance with our knowledge of prior action. Perhaps the oddest thing about Gregory’s monologue – a story about a despairing, pregnant Elizabeth baring her fears to him shortly before the birth of her first child, unbeknownst to Philip – is that Philip’s wounded silence also leaves out any details about the two men’s own history. It’s been established that they worked together in the past, but whether Philip knew of the affair and how much he knew of its intimacy are unknown quantities.
The impressive achievement of The Americans is that it doesn’t so much use its antagonized cast of characters to ask “Who’s the real bad guy here?” as take a particular line of political interrogation to its central relationships, i.e. “What did he/she know, and when did they know it?” It doesn’t just dress up tired conflicts with dialogue like “You can’t be married and not have secrets,” it uses those lines in a dramatic context that explores how much love relies on trust and intelligence. How well do you need to know your husband, your mistress, your mother, your father, your neighbor, your partner, to love them? And once you’ve figured out those standards, what’s the love you’re sharing worth?
I admired the show’s first season for its commitment to quality execution of some rather hackneyed TV tropes – the separation of Elizabeth and Philip went on for too long, with eye-rolling failures of communication, but was so elegantly buttoned in the final minutes of the finale that the whole affair seemed worthwhile in hindsight. Better still is the way the second season’s premiere shows Elizabeth and Philip, now in it for the long haul, realizing that their priorities have shifted once more as their children seem to be truly in danger of suffering for their parents’ secret lives. The episode underlines this point in a harrowing suspense sequence that lacks the backbeat of a good pop song, but does point out why the trappings of a paranoid thriller fit this serialized study of love so well. Priorities and values are constantly in flux because the people involved in each relationship – particularly Paige and Henry, getting older and closer to the truth – are not static. They are changing and growing all the time, and what more appropriate stakes for spies who name their cause the Motherland? – Brendan