[This is a review of The Americans season 2, episode 13. There will be SPOILERS.]
In season 2, The Americans maintained the show’s conceit, keeping the narrative closely focused on the fundamentals of deep-cover Soviet operatives living in the United States.
But, as it did throughout season 1, when the narrative revealed itself to also be a potent domestic drama (in some cases far more potent than the elements involving spycraft), season 2 went deeper into Philip and Elizabeth’s domesticity and the way it starkly contrasts their true selves and high-risk exploits by exploring the complexities of raising children who are entering young adulthood – especially when that child was conceived under the pretense of adding credibility to a false identity.
More than just look at the conflagration of sworn duty to the Motherland and paternal instinct, however, season 2 also altered the dynamic in dramatic fashion by anchoring a portion of the overall narrative on the murder of fellow Directorate S operatives Emmett and Leanne Connors.
Not only did that event place young Jared Connors on the Jennings’ radar, it also introduced them to a stable of suspects including John Carroll Lynch’s devoted but emotionally distant asset Fred, and the far more likely suspect of Captain Larrick, who not only had the skills to murder two highly-trained operatives, but he also had the motive.
Interestingly enough, Emmett and Leanne’s murder worked as a sort of slight-of-hand trick, distracting the characters from what the Center was really doing. And that was furthering the commodification of their assets in the field, as well as the Rezidentura, by appointing them value based not on their inherent worth as human beings, but on what they could deliver – both in terms of the espionage required to win the Cold War and, as ‘Echo’ chillingly reveals in its closing moments, in terms of becoming small factories, literally producing the American-born operatives of the future.
The idea that either side of the Cold War would take such a dehumanizing stance when it comes to the way those actually engaged in such an abstract conflict are perceived is not much of a surprise. The way in which Joseph Weisberg and Joel Fields wring such complex and compelling emotions out of those interactions and realizations, however, is nothing short of revelatory.
While the entire season-long narrative was diligently chipping away at the murder that served as the story’s catalyst, The Americans was demonstrating the many ways in which the participants of the Cold War were little more than commodities to be traded, bought, or sold (or sold-out) by the unseen powers that be.
The repatriated scientist Anton Baklanov was ostensibly the first hint of where the season was eventually going to end up – at least on an emotional level. His declaration that Philip was little more than a monster strengthened the emotional difficulties that defined Philip’s arc throughout the season (and afforded Matthew Rhys to turn in the kind of performance that may well be the best television will see all year), but it also hinted at the magnitude of the ideological schism between Elizabeth and her husband.
After it’s revealed that the Center planned (and almost certainly still plans) to turn Paige into the next generation Directorate S operative, Elizabeth’s refusal is based on the idea of someone taking her daughter away from her, not necessarily on the idea of Paige being told the truth about her parents and their dedication to the Cause. Adding to the dense emotional complexity, Elizabeth almost incredulously asks Philip in the closing moments of the episode if Paige being like them is such a bad thing.
The implications of that statement are myriad, to say the least, as it not only reinforces what ‘Echo’ was demonstrating through yet another phenomenal music cue with the incredibly pointed use of Golden Earring’s ‘Twilight Zone.’ The track not only illustrates Paige’s awkward transformation into an emotionally-driven young adult, but it also works in terms of what might be the false consciousness of Philip and Elizabeth, as far as their view of themselves and of one another is concerned.
And in that sense, ‘Echo’ skillfully ties the reveal that Jared was responsible for the murder of his parents into Elizabeth’s growing concern of Paige’s indoctrination by Pastor Tim and the church. Keri Russell balances Elizabeth’s role as deep-cover spy with being a mother in superb fashion, calculating the risk of pulling back the curtain on her and Philip’s true selves against the possibility of someone turning their daughter against them, the way Kate inadvertently turned Jared against Emmett and Leanne.
There are varying levels of coercion and consent being investigated throughout ‘Echo,’ which, after Jared’s admission of guilt is revealed and Larrick is dealt with, forces a reevaluation of the events of the entire season. That does more than simply prompt a richly deserved re-watch; it demonstrates how intricately the season managed to weave its multiple plot threads and character-defining moments in such a way they became magnified through the narrative’s powerful denouements.
That, of course, is not merely in reference to the Center’s plans for Paige, but also the potentially grim fate of Nina, after Stan is unable to go through with handing Arkady a copy of the Echo stealth program in exchange for the supposed freedom of his lover.
This could be the last time Annet Mahendru is seen on The Americans (though the appearance of Vasili Nikolaevich throughout the season could suggest otherwise), and if so, her dignified walk through the Rezidentura, all the way to the lingering shot of Nina looking back at Stan as she is transported to an uncertain future, may well be one of the most haunting moments of a series that has been filled with them.
Stan’s move, and the question of Philip and Elizabeth’s next move – possibly in opposition to one another, ideologically – brings The Americans back once more to the idea that these characters are products of a war being fought by representatives of two powerful groups embroiled in an abstraction. They are pawns in a game that are sometimes forced to regard others as they themselves have been regarded: articles of trade, or worse, mere interchangeable cogs in an enormous, dehumanizing machine.
The Americans will return for season 3 in 2015 on FX.
Photos: Patrick Harbron/FX