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This post will be full of spoilers up to and including the most recent episode of FX’s excellent Cold War spy thriller / family drama / wig-extravaganza, The Americans. Click at your own peril, Comrade.
On The Americans, we’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Spycraft and three-way honeypots. Casual murder by dropped car, and Mail Robot abuse. Ad-hoc amateur dentistry, and some serious skills in tightly packing a suitcase.
But we’ve maybe never seen anything as shocking as what (poor, poor) FBI secretary Martha sees, at the end of the penultimate episode of the show’s stellar third season, as her “husband” methodically and deliberately removes the elaborate hairpin system holding his wig in place. At moments like this, the subtle and sure-footed direction of The Americans plays something like horror.
Martha already knew “Clark” wore a wig; she assumed he was balding and vain. But as the carefully-constructed edifice of KGB lies that snared her has catastrophically come apart, and the FBI sniffs ever-closer to her in the search to find out who bugged their offices, Martha is finding it harder and harder to remain willfully blind, and to trust the man she loves.
Matthew Rhys is a good-looking guy; but as he stood there, locking eyes with her (and is he removing that wig in a last-ditch effort to regain her trust; or to do her the courtesy of showing her his true face just once before the end? So that at least, for all the other indignities she is slowly coming to recognize, she won’t have been murdered by her “husband”?) he looked hard and ugly, like the truth.
Which is what this excellent show – which has been all about lies upon lies and playing the longest of long games – has excelled at this season.
In addition to Martha’s (and kudos to the actress, for her slow-motion breakdown all season – as well as the direction of her heartbreaking phone call to her parents – inquiring about their real anniversary – that has our POV sinking, sinking down to the level of the bed and below – suggesting the death of the marriage, and possibly her death as well) dawning realization as to exactly how deep she is in, Jennings daughter Paige finally knows the truth about why her parents are gone all the time; and is reacting like any teen would, upon finding out that their suspicion that everything around them is a lie is actually, in her case, 100% true: she’s coming apart at the seams.
And her parents’ insistence that their family – despite all the lies – is very real, is immediately undercut by her mother’s initial assertion that Elizabeth cannot return to Russia to see her dying mother one last time – if the job and the cover are more important to Paige’s parents than Elizabeth’s dying mother, why should Paige believe that she and her neglected brother Henry (mostly alone, with his SNL and his handheld football games and his weird friendship with neighbor and FBI agent Stan Beeman, and obsession with the former Mrs. Beeman) are anything more than props; just more camouflage for their parents’ elaborate disguise?
Philip tries to assuage her fears with family photos of an old camping trip; Paige mentions that on that trip, Henry feared being eaten by a bear (SYMBOLISM!); when Philip replies that he never knew that, Paige pointedly says that Henry made her promise to never tell – simultaneously demonstrating her ability to long keep a secret, and also to show her parents that she will tell, if she wants to; she won’t be cowed.
Philip’s silence in response, speaks volumes.
Elizabeth now appears to be planning a trip to see her mother, and has invited Paige to come – perhaps somehow by using Paige’s church’s Kenya missionary trip as cover? It will be interesting to see if this concession to family changes Paige’s view of her parents; it will also be interesting to see, if the meeting takes place in the Soviet Union, whether a firsthand view of 1983 USSR may shake Elizabeth’s faith in her cause. Things have probably changed since she left there, and not necessarily for the better.
So much else to talk about – FBI agents Aderholt and Beeman’s loaded hallway conversation in which Aderholt lets on that he knows about Beeman and Nina, and Beeman lets loose that their office has been infiltrated, and even starts to connect the dots to the murder of his partner – immediately after their conversation, we hear the beeping of the (bugged) Mail Robot, and immediately after THAT, we cut to the Rezidentura offices that are transcribing intelligence from Mail Robot.
Does Arkady really start to shut down Operation Zephyr because he sees it as a failure?
Or, did he get the Aderholt/Beeman conversation, and is trying to shut the operation down (or at least, reduce its players) before his superiors – who nearly shut down Directorate-S in the wake of the Jared debacle last season (and I know that Jared was a divisive reveal, but I appreciate that it continues to pay dividends, especially if it means we get an occasional smidge of Margo Martindale, as current-Jennings-KGB-handler Gabriel’s old confidante and possible lover) – get wind of the fact that this operation may be going down in flames also?
Is Arkady trying to protect Oleg, or Nina, or himself? Is he somehow trying to draw out the new KGB woman in the Rezidentura, who seems to have an agenda? Arkady has always been shown to be canny, and weirdly ethical, so I have trouble believing his attempted premature termination of the program was due to the simple belief it was worthless.
I haven’t even gotten to the Mujaheddin, who was written with a nice blend of “understandably-pissed patriot” and “psychotic religious fanatic”, or Philip’s supremely skeevy will-they-won’t-they with a CIA officer’s underage daughter, or Hans the South African Carrying A Completely-Understandable Torch For Elizabeth, or Nina and the repatriated Jewish Soviet nuclear scientist, or several other story threads – some feel this show is too overstuffed, but I think that a spy show SHOULD have byzantine plotting and dozens of characters – the audience should have as much trouble keeping all the players and their stories straight, as spies must do.
I also haven’t gotten to the amazing acting from everyone, not just from the justly-lauded Rhys and Russell, who continue to wring oceans of meaning out of the slightest facial expressions and their every sexual encounter, both between them, and with their targets. Normally-stoic Elizabeth breaks down alone in her darkened garage, after what appeared to be a rare theoretically-mutually-enjoyable-for-her honeypotting; then attempts to assuage her guilt (not only over what she’s “done” to both her real husband and to a honeypot victim who’s seemingly just a nice guy who happens to be a way to get to someone else; but over what she’s doing, to allow Paige to follow in those footsteps) with her stone-faced husband, whose mind is occupied elsewhere – maybe because he knows where Elizabeth’s been and why she is doing what she is doing now, or because he’s worried about Paige, or Kimmie, or Martha…
And is Philip trying to save Martha because she is a valuable asset who might arouse more suspicion gone, or because he cares about her (remember, in our flashback to KGB sex training, that Philip has to be able to “make it real”), or because despite all the lies upon lies upon lies (and somewhat like a “real” affair), his second, child-free marriage and life with Martha is arguably “simpler” than his real one?
Even a one-shot guest actor, an older lady doing late-night books, whom Elizabeth forces to commit suicide simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, knocks it out of the park with a monologue that cuts Elizabeth to the quick (“You think doing this to me will make the world a better place?! That’s what evil people tell themselves, when they do evil things.”)
How about the production itself, from the un-showy cinematography and direction that unerringly establishes time and mood like no other, down to the sound work (see: the suitcase scene, the dentist scene, “Clark”‘s hairpins dropping like gunshots); the soundtrack (Yaz! Ultravox! TUSK!), and the fight scenes, which almost always look less “flashy and cool” than “desperate and brutal and real”.
If this isn’t the best thing on TV, it’s in the running.
God, I love this show.
What did I miss? What do you guys want to talk about?