This post discusses the second season of FX’s “The Americans” in detail.
The Washington Free Beacon’s Sonny Bunch has called “The Americans” the most reactionary show on television (and he means that as a good thing), but while the show may acknowledge some conservative arguments about the Cold War, I do not think it is that easy to define, or even that those arguments are really the show’s point. Instead, “The Americans” is an argument about how deep the clash between these two superpowers has reached into the lives of the people on the front lines of the battle, and how intimate life is ungovernable by ideology.
These ideas are at the core of the superb second season finale of the show, which aired last night. “The Americans” tends to favor realism over the flashier directing that has come to be in vogue on some prestige series. But more than any other show presently airing on television, it manages to express its themes in a strikingly clear way in every story it is handling in a given episode. In “Echo,” “The Americans” allows itself the pleasure of showing off, a little bit.
The routine beats are there, too, of course. While waiting for Fred to complete his mission, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) share forbidden stories of their childhoods in the Soviet Union, anecdotes that serve as grim reminders of the failed promise of a socialist paradise. In disguise as Clark, Philip continues his slow filleting of Martha’s (Alison Wright) heart by reaffirming for her that he can never have children, one gesture of many this year that seems designed to persuade her to end this facade on her own. And Andrew Larrick (Lee Tergesen), when he confronts the couple, tells them bitterly that “I didn’t start it. You forced me to do all of these things. Then, when it’s finally over, you take the last thing that I give you and use it to kill my brothers.”
But there are two clear major plot lines that “Echo” spends most of its time on. In the first, Stan (Noah Emmerich) decides that he cannot save Nina (Annet Mahendru, hopefully not gone from the show for good), knowing that she will be sent back to the Soviet Union, tried and probably executed. All season, the show has shot Nina’s Rezidentura lover Oleg (Costa Ronin) with portraits of Lenin in the background of their conversations, and that motif occurs again in a beautifully filmed, but wordless, sequence.
That same portrait of Lenin is framed in the door as Nina prepares, showing great dignity as Oleg averts his eyes from her. This time, it’s Nina framed facing the same direction as Lenin, this image of the ideals of the Soviet Union acting as a terrible echo of the reality in front of him. When Oleg rises for a last glimpse of Nina, she pauses, this time in front of a poster of Lenin, with the man looking in the opposite direction that Nina is headed. We see Oleg framed against the picture of Lenin, both men facing in the same direction, before Oleg turns away.
All season, Oleg has been portrayed as a very particular sort of hard man, someone whose connections and skills in service of the Soviet Union meant that he could afford a certain laxness, a fondness for bad American hockey and great American pop and soul music. But this is the fall of his belief in the system in a single sequence, the parallels between Oleg and Lenin dissected by the camera. It is Nina who shares Lenin’s journey home now, but to a very different result.
The other significant storyline in the episode is all words.
The foreshadowing is meticulous. Paige (Holly Taylor) tells her parents after the protest that she has been drawn to Christianity because of its connection to larger goals. “It’s not just about Jesus and the Bible, it’s what He represents,” she tries to explain. “He was willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. And that inspires me.” Elizabeth tells Philip “I wish I could tell her about the real heroes,” a hope she will come to bitterly regret. On their impromptu flight from Larrick, Paige tells her brother Henry (Keidrich Sellati): “I’m done. I”m counting the days until I can get out of this lunatic asylum, go to college, be with normal people.”
All their wishes will come true in the most terrible fashion.
Part of the jaunt out of town is so Elizabeth can check back in with Jared (Owen Campbell) and make sure her friends’ son is safe and being prepared for his new life. As part of that preparation, she sheds her disguise. “This is what I really look like,” Elizabeth tells him. But when Larrick grabs them both, and Jared is shot trying to defend the couple, he shows them his real face, too, and it is awful to look upon.
In a genuinely shocking but beautifully constructed twist, it turns out that Kate (Wrenn Schmidt) was recruiting Jared into the illegals program, over the wishes of his parents, and in part by seducing the teenager. Jared, blood blooming from his mouth, madness in his eyes, confesses to Elizabeth and Philip that he killed his family so that he could keep working with Kate.
“That day in the hotel. He threw me up against the wall. He said he’d never let it happen. He was screaming like a crazy person. He didn’t think I knew where his gun was. My mother, she tried, she tried to grab me,” Jared tells Philip and Elizabeth, convinced that he is impressing them. It is a terrifying bit of acting from Campbell, transforming his performance from the rest of the season in a stroke.
When Philip wants to know why he killed his sister, Jared tries to convince all three of them that it was worth it. “She was hysterical, and she would have gone straight to the police. She didn’t deserve, she didn’t deserve that … I had to. I had to protect my cover. What we do, it’s for something greater than ourselves. Kate always, Kate always, Kate always said, it’s the work, the cause. That’s what matters.” It is a nightmarish statement on what Philip and Elizabeth do after a season in which both are experiencing increasing doubts about their work.
By the end of this season of “The Americans,” Stan, born an American citizen and employed by the federal government, has thoroughly destroyed his family by neglecting his wife and son. His other option for a private life, the fantasy of running away with Nina Sergeevna, would have been impossible even if Arkady had not sprung his trap on the couple — Stan never had any intention of leaving Washington for good. In the finale, he is left with nothing but his relationship to the state to be true to, and nothing but his identity as a loyal FBI agent to comfort him.
By terrible parallel, Elizabeth and Philip, the hard-core Communists, are left desperately trying to assert ownership over their daughter, after Claudia (Margo Martindale) tells them that Paige is meant to become the next effort to build a second-generation illegal agent. “Paige is your daughter, but she’s not just yours. She belongs to the cause, and to the world. We all do. You haven’t forgotten that, have you?” Claudia reminds the couple, showing them the steel that she sheathed so often this season out of fear. Even Elizabeth, the most committed ideologue in the couple, had gotten used to the idea that she owned this part of her life.
Last season, Philip and Elizabeth triumphed over the circumstances that brought them together, doing the very difficult work of becoming a real couple after decades of being encouraged to tell each other lies. Then, the threat to their newly repaired marriage was Paige’s curiosity: The first season of “The Americans” ended with a shot of her looking through the family’s laundry room in search of clues.
This year, Paige’s curiosity has been banked, or at least diverted to her newfound religious faith. But a schism has opened up between her parents again, after a season in which they sometimes seemed blissfully united. Though Claudia’s threat terrifies them, Elizabeth sees something in it.
“She does need something. She’s looking for something in her life. What if — what if this is it?” Elizabeth asks, seizing on Claudia’s idea that “for the right child, [the illegals program] could give their life a meaning and a purpose that they could never get in this country.” Philip is appalled. “How can you even?” he demands. “We swore. We swore we would never. It would destroy her.” “To be like us?” Elizabeth wants to know. Her question lingers over the dinner the family sits down to, and over the next season of “The Americans.”