The Americans – “Persona Non Grata” – Season 4, Ep. 13 (FX) SPOILERS
History must exist, at least on some level, if only to lay bare the shocking inadequacies of textbooks. As a child of the 1980s, when it was still theoretically swirling around me, my conception of the so-called Cold War between global superpowers the United States and the Soviet Union was nevertheless a severely limited one, as a sort of unbearably tense extended cease fire that had drawn on more or less since the end of World War II. The combatants were surely enemies to the core – with fingers on the nuclear trigger and alternately heroic and dictatorial intentions, depending on whose books you were reading – but, aside from high profile incidents like the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, they were each too wary of the other’s power and resolve to risk provoking any escalation of hostilities. At eight years old, James Bond taught me that the British had effectively cornered the market on spies anyway, and the only ones I had cause to read about were in the pages of Mad Magazine. Whether or not those writers and educators were purposely making overly complex world events obscure or just trying hard not to scare us, they should have shown more faith in their readership, even if those were only kids. FX’s The Americans, a whip-smart, gut level, defiantly adult show that does not share that problem in the least, makes plain the furious effort that both sides put into winning the Cold War, and ponders the stakes and even longer-term implications for victor and also-ran alike.
When we first met Philip and Elizabeth Jennings four seasons ago, they were, despite sharing a pair of teenage children and fifteen years of cohabitation sanctioned by not one but two governments, as much strangers to one another as they were to the viewer. Soviet spies – resourceful, well-trained, cruelly professional – embedded in the D.C. suburbs under the brilliant cover of married travel agents, Philip and Elizabeth had never bothered to fall in love, seeing it as, at best, an unnecessary complication to their professional partnership, and, at worst, as an emotional IED with the potential to compromise and undo all their stateside work. Though that first season of The Americans is objectively the show’s worst – which is kind of like labeling XL the most underwhelming of Pittsburgh’s six Super Bowl victories – the job it does with table setting and immersing the audience in an unfamiliar, practically alien, world – not just, in early ‘80s Washington, a highly-specific place and time, but also a prevailing working mindset of non-stop, high pressure paranoia – is crucial to the triumphs that would follow, not least because, in legitimizing the feelings the Jennings have for each other, it also establishes their children and family unit – ironically, just the sort of “nuclear family” President Reagan would so romanticize – as much more than an airtight cover story. By the end of Season Two, the Soviet Directorate S program – the nebulous “Center” from which all of their missions originated – began making clear its designs on indoctrinating the Jennings’ elder child, the smart, sensitive Paige, into the family business. Philip and Elizabeth were not consulted.
Becoming more than just a pretend relationship, or a pretend family, altered the adult Jennings in ways they were patently unprepared for. For Elizabeth, the often ruthless true believer, it allowed doubt to creep into her thought processes for perhaps the first time ever. They’ve taken increasing root since. For the comparatively nuanced Philip, who always went about his distasteful work dutifully despite the part of him that dared to imagine the American dream filtering down to his kids, it widened an already-present channel of existential angst – no killer on television is colder in the moment, or more tormented in its aftermath – to the point that, four seasons in, it is now a raging torrent threatening to subsume him. For my money, watching the underlying friction – even given a unified Jennings front – between Philip and Elizabeth, their various contacts, pawns, and intermediaries, and handler Gabriel, is the most reliably challenging riffing and plotting on television, and that completely leaves aside the FBI and Soviet contingents that also bounce off of and affect them in myriad ways. Season Four brought The Americans to new dramatic heights that, arguably, only it is built to achieve. The central performances by Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, and Frank Langella are all Emmy-worthy, though the show has been paid criminal short shrift historically. To that trio, one may safely soon add Holly Taylor as Paige, who, despite any number of potential stewards assuming temporary control of the ship, has always been the show’s overarching moral compass. If it was an especially thudding blow then to hear her confess her parental misgivings to her trusted pastor at the climax of Season Three, it was just as jarring, and, in some ways, even more unsettling, to see her actively struggle between doing what’s right and acting in the interest of keeping her family safe.
Just like that, one more barrier separating Paige from her parents is torn down, and even the Jennings don’t quite know how to feel about the conflicting directions in which their daughter is growing. With not just their child but two high profile civilians – a minister and his wife – now among the tiny circle who know their true identities, if not all the gory details, the Jennings are forced to stage-manage Paige, often against her will, toward a closer relationship with the church in an attempt to keep their tenuous cover intact. The way that Paige, against her better judgment, has started getting incrementally sucked into the orbit of her parents’ lives rings true. The only thing more intriguing than seeing the conscientious objector questioning and struggling to understand (without quite undermining) her family has been to see her finally grounded by a sense of loyalty. The rush and romance of spycraft have begun to subtly, subconsciously seduce her, so that now, even with the best intentions, she, in a way, straddles two worlds, maintaining an uneasy alliance with Pastor Tim even as she has begun instinctively parsing the actions and intentions of others for double meaning around her parents. Nor is this tricky balancing act the only thing on the spies’ docket, not by a long shot. It’s telling and more than a little astonishing that Season Four sees the Jennings experience the closest thing they’ll probably ever come to a government-sanctioned vacation. Sure, the respite only amounts to a temporary cessation of “new missions”, and comes at a moment when the harried marrieds can’t take on a single extra thing, but beggars can’t be choosers.
After two consecutive season finales trained directly toward the jugular, “Persona Non Grata” is a comparatively reserved affair. It’s a shame that we are so programmed nowadays to crave trending “WTF” moments as the predominant byproduct of our serialized dramas.* The Americans is without modern peer in the business of crafting suspense, and understands intrinsically the painful potency of dread. We know the bomb is always ticking. More than in any prior season, Season Four spreads the human toll around, with the unceremonious fate of doomed double agent Nina, the heartbreaking dissolution of FBI mole Martha’s “marriage” to one of Philip’s many be-wigged aliases, the heartless, audacious sting operation run on the husband of Elizabeth’s friend Yung Hee, and the pitiful demise, both professional and otherwise, of former FBI Director Frank Gaad. There is the pervasive feeling that matters on the ground are steadily growing beyond the control of either the FBI or Directorate S, which is most crystallized in the Soviets’ dogged and ill-advised infatuation with a deadly biological weapons agent that almost inadvertently robs the series of its titular spies in episode 404. I went into the finale’s early-going, in which Soviet inside man William is apprehended by the FBI before he can hand off an especially nasty vial of proto-plague to Philip, expecting another of the show’s famous cat and mouse games, though this time it was the mice who were away. While Philip hears helicopters in the distance and, his rendezvous missed, warily moves to safety, a cornered William injects himself with the deadly pathogen, affording irascible guest star Dylan Baker his likely Emmy submission, a deathbed soliloquy on the potent allure of foreign service, including a little of both what initially motivated and eventually isolated him.
*Season Six of HBO’s “Game of Thrones”, finally freed from the tethers of George R.R. Martin’s patient, meticulously detailed source novels, right now resembles nothing so much as a runaway train of dramatic reveals, resurrections, and bloody remonstrations. Yes, even more than usual. Thrilling as it’s often been, I can’t help wondering how much worthwhile material inevitably got lost in translation in the show’s heady rush to conclusion after conclusion.
**As with the superlative “Mad Men”, “The Americans”, as a period drama, is able to seamlessly fold historical events into its narrative as a way of deepening and illuminating its characters. A prime example comes in episode 409, which contains an extended sequence of the Jennings, Beemans, and others huddled around their family televisions anxiously watching the landmark nuclear holocaust drama “The Day After” (and nervously watching each other watch). I was too young to see “The Day After” when it aired, thankfully, lest I risk having all those textbooks’ carefully-calibrated propaganda scared right the hell out of me, but I vividly remember episode-closing mega-event Super Bowl XVIII, in which the then-Los Angeles Raiders taught me that, despite all the prayer and applied positivity in the world, sometimes the bad guys win. I was nine years old.
Later, at death’s door, while recalling Directorate S’ long-ago desire to marry him off, William, in his delirium, lets slip a potentially devastating clue in FBI agent Stan Beeman’s presence:
“I wish I’d been able to be with her all those years…like them.
She’s pretty; he’s lucky.”
It’s a pointed comment for the audience at home, and I admit I gasped, though it’s difficult to gauge what Stan is able to put together in such a fraught moment, watching William cough and wheeze from behind the microphone and double-paned glass of an observer’s perch. I’ll just say that quizzical, evergreen look of “Beeman-face” must be a great help to him in poker games.
It’s a measure of how confident The Americans is within its own skin by now, and at how skilled executive producers Joel Fields and Joseph Weisberg are at incrementally tightening the emotional screws on both their principals and their audience, that “Persona Non Grata” can essentially coast on the season’s accumulated goodwill without having to provide its own independent fireworks. That thunder we hear off in the distance isn’t the sound of surveillance helicopters for once but of other shoes dropping – multiple tours of duty at the Soviet Rezidentura reaching their end; Paige’s first kiss; Philip’s traitorous son leaving the U.S.S.R. in search of his father – far too many for me to properly recount. Directorate S becomes convinced that the FBI has acquired and is now grilling the notoriously reticent William, never considering that he might take such drastic measures to avoid betraying them, and that the Jennings’ house of cards is in danger of imminent collapse. Alfred Hitchcock always insisted on the benefits of an audience knowing more than its protagonists, and, in this case, as Gabriel soberly advises a dumbstruck Philip and Elizabeth to collect their children and to “go home”, the payoff isn’t so much in suspense as it is in shared empathy. Henry and Paige are all-American kids, after all, one blissfully ignorant and the other coming into her uncertain own. That was always the point, and an indispensable element of their cover. Despite their by now well-established loyalties, neither Jennings can conceive of forcing those kids to live in the shadow of Red Square. Even Elizabeth’s essential patriotism, long the show’s constant, is suddenly prone to isolated moments of weakened reappraisal. On a show that has never trafficked in easy or appealing escape routes, there increasingly seem to be no moves left whatsoever. The only certainty on The Americans – the best drama on television, now three years running – is a counterintuitive but thrilling one: that, for the Jennings, staying the course will result in both surprises and consequences. The prospects for Season Five are wide open, and endless.
Previously on DAE-TV:
DVR Hindsight #11 (4/23/15): The Americans – Season Three finale
DVR Hindsight #6 (5/22/14): The Americans – Season Two, and finale