Review: The Americans, “Echo”

(Note: my podcast about tonight’s final with Mo Ryan can be found here.)

Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” didn’t come out until 1989, the last year in the decade depicted in FX’s “The Americans.” But as the show’s second stellar season drew to a close, you could see all the major players reaching out and trying to touch faith. But all of those attempts fell crushingly short, as whatever source of strength that governed their actions throughout the season either proved inadequate or proved non-existent. False idolatry need not occur in the realm of pure religion, after all. It can happen when it comes to patriotism, love, or the sense that any one person is in full control of his/her destiny.

It’s fitting that the final episode was called “Echo,” not just because of its relation to the stealth technology that has served as the MacGuffin for the final half of this season. It’s also fitting because various people sent out sonar pings throughout the past half-dozen episode, and either heard nothing return from the abyss or heard a reply they did not expect. It’s easy to dismiss someone like Martha as hopelessly naïve, but that dismisses the fact that incredibly lonely people will do incredibly silly things when viewed from a cold, distant perspective. But no one in the cold war depicted on “The Americans” have that distance, focusing on unlikely scenarios that give them hope until the final moment in which life forbids them the luxury of ignorance.

0.jpgMartha’s case might seem the most extreme, but you could make a case that Stan Beeman has been even more embedded in La La Land since “falling in love” with Nina. I put the above in quotes not because I doubt the veracity of his feelings for her, but that he put them in the context of the comic books that he read as a child that stoked his interest in the FBI in the first place. Martha and Stan place enormous faith in what are essentially strangers to live them from the doldrums of their everyday lives.

While Martha has to come home to an empty apartment, Stan’s occupied household has almost been a worse place to inhabit. The dissolution of the marriage between Stan and Sandra has been remarkable for its passive, almost inevitable nature: I can barely remember a fight between them that featured either raising their voices. Eventually, silence replaced any dialogue at all, with each successive day making it harder to start any conversation at all. Stan held onto Nina during this period, more as a signifier that he could still feel anything at all rather than a second chance at anything like “love.” There’s no room in his brain for such an emotion, since it’s clear his subconscious is too filled with half-realizations of Martha’s treason. (It certainly seemed like he was watching her casually steal files, no?)

If this season was all about the Americans and Russians running counterintelligence on each other, it was also about “The Americans” running counterintelligence on its audience. Rather than being about Philip and Elizabeth, it was really about Paige and how her interest in being part of something greater made her the perfect candidate for the Motherland’s goal to place the children of embedded spies into high levels of government. The triple murder than opened the season wasn’t meant as a “whodunit” so much as a “whowillalwaysdoit,” which is to say that this season wasn’t about arriving at a critical point in the cold war so much as moving to the next phase. Philip and Elizabeth couldn’t see Jared’s guilt because they couldn’t see their own antiquated nature: ARPANET, not unlike the massive computer on this season’s “Mad Men,” signals the sea change already underway. The KGB has more use for someone like Henry, already versed in videogames-as-normality, than his analog parents. Philip and Elizabeth have a place in this battle, but its in the position of facilitator rather than instigator.

It’s a brilliant stroke to take one of the season’s more on-the-face curious storylines–Paige’s sudden interest in religion–and make that the crucial psychological turn around which the entire season sudden bends. Philip and Elizabeth despised Paige’s fascination with the church, but even they recognize by season’s end that worshipping God, the American flag, or Mother Russia is another side of the same coin.

What makes Claudia’s reveal about what’s been going on all season so perfect is how it shifts the show’s paradigm while not having to fundamentally alter anything we know about the characters. It’s the best kind of plot twist, one that puts familiar people in unfamiliar situations to see how they will react. Just as it’s easy to imagine a season three in which Beeman and Oleg Igorevich Burov face off in new and now personal ways, it’s easy to see how the idea of Paige-as-asset will once again stoke pre-existing tensions between Philip and Elizabeth. After all, while those two were more united this season than last, it’s not as if schisms haven’t emerged throughout the season. It’s not just Elizabeth asking Philip to roleplay as Clark. It’s about the central tension embedded in the first episode of the series, in which Philip dances to Juice Newton while shopping in a department store. His purchase this season of a sports car demonstrates not just how much he likes aspects of America, but how easily he sees that life as wholly belonging to his children.

But the season-long attempt to ensure Paige and Henry don’t end up like Jared’s sister is back asswards from the start, as Jared’s fervent passion for The Cause and/or Kate (the latter of which no doubt les to the first) was something they couldn’t comprehend. What’s amazing is how the parents both react. “The Americans” has used shot after shot this season of the two having dialogue with each other without saying a thing, the wordless interactions cut with a series of close-ups shifting back and forth between them. Before the final dinner of the season, you can see the two actually arguing in those shots, with Philip slowly realizing that what seems like a tragedy to him appears as an opportunity for Elizabeth. That sets up a third season in which the battle over proper parenting technique ties into the cold war as a whole: At what point do these cycles get perpetuated, and at what point do they stop?

Now, we know historically when this all stops, more or less. But by focusing on passion rather than politics, “The Americans” makes its micro look at this macro world feel fresh, relevant, and compelling. It spent a season showing us how fervently Paige through herself into religion to establish just how easily she might throw herself into being a KGB agent. After all, passion might be an exhaustible resource, but organizations like the FBI and KBG know there are plenty of people looking for even a flicker of passion in their lives. Passion connect individuals to others but also the world as a whole, becoming an intoxicating element that clouds vision even as it seems to hone purpose. Philip and Elizabeth may not always be passionate towards each other, but they are passionate about their children.

And when those passions conflicts….God help everyone.