Crossing the Stream: Part 19 - "The Americans" Sn 1, Eps 12-13

First off, all apologies for anyone breathlessly waiting for my concluding thoughts on Season 1 of "The Americans," we had a family hospital weekend, and somehow that's not a great venue for a scatterbrained take on five-year-old television episodes.

I went into the weekend certain that the worst thing to happen to this diet and exercise program I have going here is a birthday. The birthday gave me an excuse for wild indulgence and sloth, and I took them where I could get them. But the much worse thing that happened was my mother in law being admitted to the hospital. She's home now and making a good recovery, but this put my wife Rosely in the hospital for a good chunk of the weekend, which led to me and the kids diving headlong into that sloth and indulgence all over again. Well, mostly the indulgence part. I stayed active throughout the weekend, with a spring cleaning project on my apartment's balcony testing my back and arms and a lot of stroller walks with the kids to both the mall and the park. But I made up for it, all right. Pizza, beer, tacos, sugary coffees, beef jerky, bowls of sugary cereal in whole milk...forgive me, reader, for I have sinned.

So the new bizarre development is that beer tastes incredibly sweet to me. That makes sense, since so many of the beers here in the Portland area are of a serious hops-and-citrus motif. But I certainly found it harder to throw back pints of the stuff. Instead I nursed them slowly over a few hours. I swear that sugar is far more addictive for me than alcohol, which is why I'm willing to break my own rules for a beer after a long, sweaty day of hauling garbage off my balcony, but I still refuse to break down and buy a soda pop. The soda is the devil.

It was a slight relief to head back into the gym and do just as well as I did last week. The backsliding on the diet hasn't locked me to the couch yet, at least. I just hope I can see the number on the scale drop a little quicker. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to the weather change. Maybe if I can find some outdoor activity that strikes my fancy, I'll keep from spending the whole summer sweating on the couch. Sometimes sitting just feels like smoking to me. An easily avoidable vice that has some strong addictive pull. But it'll be easier to go do things in nature this year, since all that money saved from not eating my entertainment has opened a doorway to a possible purchase of a little camper trailer. Imagine, no television for me out by a creek somewhere where I have to trade this computer screen for a pen and paper.

Oh, this might be a huge mistake. Um...I'll get back to you on that.

"The Americans" Season 1, Episodes 12-13


"The Oath"

Of all the recurring themes that "The Americans" likes to explore, loyalty seems to be the one trotted out the most in order to explore something far more abstract or loaded, such as marriage or patriotism. Here in this episode, loyalty is again the window into the psyches of the characters, and now all of the trickier subjects are coming home to roost alongside all of the embedded sources cultivated by Directorate S over the course of the season. As a penultimate episode, this is textbook staging ground for a confrontation yet to come, but it's also a turning point for the characters who have stayed on the sidelines and stealthily grown in importance to the plot.

First, we have Martha. Unbeknownst to her, she has been the greatest triumph of Team Jennings and their scraping of information inside the US government. Now, she has reached a point with "Clark," the seemingly meek and tender G-man, where she is willing to plant a bug in Agent Gaad's office for the man she only gets to love for a few hours a week. While the episode culminates in her taking a very real oath of marriage to a very fictitious person, she's taken a much larger oath by committing treason for him. It's sad that Martha is being duped so thoroughly by Philip and the KGB, but it might be even more sad that she's planting that bug merely as part of a shadow game to assure Philip and Elizabeth that the American colonel with secrets for sale is not the blatant trap that it appears to be. I have to question the logic here. Would Martha being caught planting a bug in FBI headquarters be worth it, considering Team Jennings is being ordered to meet with the colonel either way?

Claudia seems pretty unconcerned about the possibility that the colonel's info is a trap, and due to the lack of trust between her and Team Jennings, that looks suspicious. Previously, she's been willing to throw Elizabeth and Philip directly into peril's embrace either trusting that they would come out clean or not caring much if they didn't. Now, I suppose that attitude has has extended to Martha as well. The poor woman is just not cut out for skulking around the office looking over her shoulder. I will say the unbridled goofiness of Claudia and Elizabeth appearing at the sham wedding as Clark's mother and sister is the kind of thing only this show can get away with without sliding into parody. It helps that the punchline of it is undercut by the longing between Philip and Elizabeth while he takes his oath to another woman. She later asks if their marriage was any more real than this one, and it's strange that the answer remains nebulous. Sure, it was. They didn't know about each other prior to 1963 or so, but they have an unshakable trust, even when one tattles on the other, or sleeps with an ex. The job. The job is real, it's as real a marriage as either of them really need.

The amount of ruckus kicked up over the colonel, and how much of a trap it smells like, is also undercut by a parallel situation, with the FBI setting up a primo information honeypot once Viola, the Defense Secretary's loyal maid, succumbs to her Christian morality and confesses that she planted a bug in the mantelpiece clock all the way back in the second episode. Though she's breaking her own oath of secrecy that Philip menaced out of her, she's staying true to her loyalty to the Secretary and to her God by telling Stan and Gaad all about it, and they are like children on Christmas morning. They are also zeroing in on the "couple" that keeps cropping up to menace maids and CIA directors in the DC area.

The other side of the coin in "The Oath" concerns Nina, who takes a literal oath of loyalty out loud to Arkady Ivanovich before becoming a bona fide player in Directorate S. I've been bloviating in these reviews for over a week at how Nina would become a crucial key to either Stan's investigation or the salvation of Team Jennings, and the writers have put her career on fast-forward to oblige that notion. They also found fit to expand on poor Vlad, who evidently had a crush on Nina and only took the US posting to appease his father. Nina seems to finger Beeman as Vlad's executioner off pure intuition alone, which puts her in a better head space than Martha at least. This all is...certainly a way to push Nina back into loyalty for the Soviet Union, if not the most elegant way. She doesn't disappoint my anticipation, and handily turns her complicated power dynamic with Beeman into the ideal Counter-Intelligence operation for the KGB, after giving Arkady the option of sending her home for execution or using her as a powerful chess piece. This last bit, the option Arkady has, might very well be the smartest move anyone on "The Americans" has ever crafted. Nina understands just how thirsty (as the kids say) these spy networks are for any tactic, and giving Arkady the option to use her also provides two different resolutions for her once her time playing both sides comes to a conclusion. Nina's exfiltration by the FBI is, per Agent Gaad, essentially a fantasy. It's good to know she has a killer fallback plan that dovetails with her sudden rise to prominence in the Rezidentura.

What is more important in this world of espionage? The oath taken, or the oath broken? Nina surely has no idea, but she's covered either way. Martha is so excited to take the oath of marriage to a fictitious person that she forgets her oaths to the FBI and the consequences of breaking them. And Elizabeth and Philip, in their state of suspended animation before the noose tightens, are wondering if their unspoken oath to each other outweighs their oaths to the USSR, even if it was originally based on a sham marriage.

Random Notes:

-It would figure that Sanford Prince, the hopeless gambler Elizabeth shoved permanently into her pocket, would try charging a finder's fee for the information he's feeding to the KGB.

-Philip is settling in to being single dad. An apartment. Cheeseball games of catch-the-grapes with Paige. Cooking.

-Speaking of Paige, she becomes the number-one fan of Matthew Beeman's authentically lackadaisical garage band, who play "Mississippi Queen" for her. This concludes the subplot about Paige and Matthew Beeman.

Rating: A-

"The Colonel"

"Future is bright, don't you think?" The code phrase dictated by the titular military man is a cynical, empty chortle at the technological marvels being snooped upon by all the various players in "The Americans," but it also serves as a self-conscious prompt from the writers of the show. Something like, "Hey, did we do good?"

For the most part, the writers do good. While I'm a big fan of the ironic reversal at play--the KGB agents are certain the Colonel is a trap, and he isn't, but they remain nonplussed about the taped conversation from Defense Secretary Weinberger's library, the real trap--it wouldn't work nearly as well if there weren't some solid character dilemmas that hang in the balance. Claudia's C-plot alone balances out one final battle of wills with Elizabeth, frustration at the indifferent orders coming out of Moscow that might kill her operatives, and a swift passionate strike at Robinson the CIA officer, who had Zhukov murdered. Oh, what an exquisitely tense sequence that was! I can't stress enough that the dangling thread of "Grannie" being reassigned had better be put on the back burner so I can enjoy Margot Martindale for hours to come.

There's a certain amount of inveitablity swirling around Elizabeth and Philip, as they prepare alternatively to go to either their certain doom, or to Ottowa with the children in the event the other spouse is captured or killed. Naturally, both want to be the one to meet the Colonel, though Elizabeth is assigned the task. It's the final form        of the endless refrain: Elizabeth follows orders, Philip won't if he feels he knows better. Only now, thanks to that reversal, this time he is putting Elizabeth in the path of the FBI Counter-Intelligence team, and putting himself in the path of the most significant piece of missile system intel of the season: nothing.

The Colonel's bombshell moment sinks underneath the weight of Elizabeth's imminent peril, but it might be the most scathing commentary of Cold War politics the show has ever pulled off. Scientists, FBI agents, innocents...essentially everyone who has died this season has done so because of a Spy versus Spy caper surrounding a missile defense system that doesn't even exist. Think of the resources at play, the inhumanity being implemented. What a microcosm of the entire era.

But in terms of the Jennings marriage, which I still maintain is the crux of the show, the end result is exactly what has been paced out beforehand: Elizabeth and Philip are faithful operatives, they do their jobs admirably, but when tested their ultimate priority is each other. And the distance they kept each other at from square one has closed to its minimum. The reconciliation might be disappointing to anyone who was excited by the prospect of a show that portrays divorce as a vortex of lies and manipulation on par with espionage, but I for one am relieved that Team Jennings was able to hold on to the unifying power of spy partnership. Ultimately, in Coen Brothers parlance, when our antiheroes go back over the tape of the op and ask "What did we learn from this?" the answer can be that their relationship cannot remain planted in place, at least to the extent that neither wants to imagine raising their children without the other.

I'd say "The Colonel" is a solid Season 1 finale chiefly because it resolves the immediate conflicts that have formed the backbone of the show to this point, but it also leaves so much materiel hanging in the aftermath of the crazed firefight outside Weinberger's home. Certainly Arkady's inspired idea to paint an abort signal on the side of a car and speed it through the meeting area played a major part in the escape, but Nina's last-second intel secures her place as a valuable asset for the KGB. I feel Nina has become the Peggy Olson of this show, whose arc rivals that of the captivating lead personalities. I have no doubt that should she make all the right moves, she'll be managing her own network of agents before the Berlin Wall comes down.

Random Notes:

-Leave it to Sanford Prince to get arrested for failure to pay child support. What a pathetic dingus.

-If Elizabeth should not come back from the meeting, Philip is absconding with the kids to Canada. The cover story for that? "We need little spontaneity in our lives." Meanwhile, Stan is using a similar trip with his wife Sandra as a way to apologize and make up for lost time via a little sun and a little less worrying. Everyone has a vague stink of desire to flee.

-Nina's exfiltration is again teased, but never materializes. And I have serious doubts how real it is, even as Stan gets himself excited at the idea.

-Elizabeth's pivotal words to Philip, "Come home," might be the first time she speaks their native Russian to him in the series, possibly in their fifteen years together. It's a potent reminder of how little they have shared outside their business relationship and the rules that came with it.

Rating: A

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