Sex, Lies, and Frank Langella: The Americans Is Back
The packed third-season premiere threw viewers (and Paige) in at the deep end.
Every week for the third season of FX's spy thriller The Americans, David Sims, Christopher Orr, and Olga Khazan will discuss the intrigue and domestic tiffs playing out behind closed doors in the Jennings household.
Sims: As season three of The Americans opens, a creeping rot seems to be finally setting it at the heart of the Soviet Union. Its conflict with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan is becoming an unwinnable quagmire, partially thanks to the covert intervention of the CIA, and at the end of the episode, leader Leonid Brezhnev dies of a heart attack after 18 years in power. "Est Men" retains the domestic dramas and spy thriller antics we know and love from this show, but its characters increasingly have an eye on the legacy they'll leave behind.
It's fitting, considering that the biggest cliffhanger last season was the future of Philip and Elizabeth's daughter Paige, who'd begun scratching at the edges of their fake lives, prompting the question of whether they should reveal their identities as sleeper agents to her. The KGB wants to begin preparing her for service, given her status as a US-born citizen, but Philip ruled it out of the question. The question persists, quietly, in the season three premiere, with the most intriguing moment coming in flashback as Elizabeth remembers tossing her daughter into a pool to teach her how to swim. A little medieval, to be sure, but likely effective—Elizabeth has always been the harder-edged, more ideologically pure of the pair, but she's not heartless.
Still, when she and Philip meet with an old mentor (played by Frank Langella), Elizabeth reports her daughter's left-wing activism as an encouraging sign that she would take the news that her parents are Soviet sleeper agents in her stride. It's a bit of a stretch—I don't know that a churchgoing 14-year-old who believes in nuclear disarmament would naturally be a big fan of the Soviet Union—but Elizabeth is recognizing an anti-authority streak that she thinks she can mold, although she assures Philip she's just telling the KGB what they want to hear.
Is she? Elizabeth is devastated by the news that her own mother, who she can only hear via tape recording, is dying; the distance between them is enforced by Elizabeth's choice of career. Perhaps she's seeking to address that with Paige, first by attending church with her, and then by inducting her into her world. Philip has a more pragmatic view of their legacy: a few more years, and Paige will be an adult free to do whatever she wants without being tarred by any association with Soviet spies.
Philip may be right to think on the future, given the CIA's efforts to turn the Soviet-Afghan war into a new Vietnam—there may not be a KGB to worry about in the future, so why induct Paige at such a sensitive age? But that's where it seems our spy intrigue will focus this season—on the CIA's collaboration with the ISI of Pakistan to counter Soviet war efforts. There's so much else going on this week that I didn't touch on, including the Nina storyline being conducted off-screen—is there too much, or has the show hit the ground running in its first week back?
Orr: Maybe both, David? I didn’t re-watch past episodes in preparation for tonight’s premiere, but it left me wishing I had. There were, as you note, almost too many storylines to keep track of: Elizabeth’s effort to penetrate the CIA Afghan group directly; Philip’s attempt to get at it through the ISI using Annelise; the unfolding question of whether or not they should bring Paige into the family business; Stan’s trying out EST in an effort to win Sandra back; the future of Nina Sergeevna (if she has one); Elizabeth’s training of a new recruit; the CIA’s potential defector from the Soviets’ “U.S.-Canada Institute”... That opening flashback in which Elizabeth pushes Paige into the pool almost seems like an inside joke by show creator Joe Weisberg: He’s about to throw us into the deep end as well.
A couple of minor gripes before I get into what I liked about the episode. The show’s usually pretty good about not making Philip and Elizabeth into Bondian superspies, but I thought having her beat up two armed and alert FBI agents came pretty close to the line—the stunt with the motorcycle in particular. And isn’t Agent Gaad a bit senior for this kind of street duty? It felt like an awkward setup for the de rigeur office ribbing about his having been beaten up by a girl.
It also seemed a bit odd that Philip broke character so thoroughly in the hotel scene at the end, calling out to Annelise by name three times. (What would he have done if she’d been alive?)
But these are quibbles—and quibbles connected to two of the most intense sequences in the premiere. The strangulation of Annelise was a particular shocker. What a perverse irony that by being a terrible spy she seems to have won for Philip more than she ever could have through genuine competence: a top ISI agent who's about to be very much in his debt.
I love the casting of Frank Langella as Elizabeth and Philip’s new/old handler, Gabriel. What a magnificent voice. I feel as though Langella’s never gotten quite the widespread recognition he deserves, perhaps because he’s devoted more of his energies to the stage than the screen. But we’re talking about a man who over his career has played such iconic figures as Richard Nixon, Dracula, Zorro, Sherlock Holmes, Clare Quilty, (real newsman) William S. Paley, and (fake newsman) Perry White. Those of my generation can even recall—as much as we try not to—his Skeletor in 1987’s Masters of the Universe. Marvel Studios, take note: There’s got to be a Big Bad role for Langella somewhere in your unfolding multiverse. But until then, he’s a tremendously welcome addition to The Americans.
As someone who lives in DC and who was 15 years old in 1982, I particularly enjoy the local and period Easter eggs that Weisberg sprinkles throughout the series. Tonight’s episode contained nice nods to Dupont Circle, “The Jeffersons,” and an old Hershey’s kiss commercial featuring George Costanza. (Yes, I know that’s not his real name. But, fair or not, calling him “Jason Alexander” seems to diminish him somehow.) You could see the pleasure that the episode’s director, Daniel Sackheim, took in fetishizing that payphone in the pub, blissfully unaware of its impending extinction. But the best period gag was easily the Frusen Glädjé ice cream that Elizabeth presents to Gabriel, announcing “It’s Swedish!” For those who weren't eating dairy treats circa 1982, Frusen Glädjé was an entirely American company that tried to capitalize on the popularity of Häagen-Dazs by adopting a similarly Scandinavian name. (The big difference is that it was terrible ice cream, slick and sticky.) Häagen-Dazs actually sued Frusen Glädjé but lost on “unclean hands” grounds—that is, given that Häagen-Dazs was itself an American company with no genuine connection to Scandinavia, it couldn’t complain when someone else copied its shtick. (Sorry: tangent.)
At the more serious end of the historical spectrum, the footage of a Soviet soldier being executed by the Mujahideen (“They use these videos to recruit in Saudi Arabia”) felt all too sickeningly timely and familiar. So, too, the complicated security relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan. Assuming you’re right, David, and Afghanistan policy plays a central role in this season, it will be interesting to see how far Weisberg pushes the parallels.
There was plenty more to like in the episode as well: the easy camaraderie between Oleg and Arkady; the look of sincere concern on Philip’s face when he sees that Elizabeth’s been hurt; the profound awfulness of the EST group leader (did he remind anyone else of Frank T.J. Mackey?) and the way Weisberg seems to be setting him up to be a thematic twin of Pastor Tim; the cruel pairing of the scene of “Clark” and Martha kama sutra-ing the night away while Stan furtively hits a porn shop alone. (Also, what are we to make of the scene with Stan helping Martha with her marksmanship? Please tell me this isn't going to turn into another illicit romance. Stan is so much better when he’s celibate—and capable—than when when he’s mooning over someone.)
Finally, did it strike anyone else as odd that there was no mention of last season’s final twist, in which it was revealed that the other pair of married-couple Illegals were killed not by the Americans but by their own son, recently recruited to espionage? Given that it looks like the question of whether or not to recruit Paige will be central to the season, this seems like a data point that would be at the front of Elizabeth and Philip’s minds.
In any case, the episode left us with plenty to ponder. Hopefully, having been thrown into the deep end tonight, we’ll be swimming comfortably by next week.
What did you think, Olga? What have we overlooked in this jam-packed premiere?
Khazan: Even as someone who stares at Twitter all day, that was a lot of information to soak up in an hour. That's partly what makes the show so addictive, though.
Where to start? I, too, was a big fan of the Gabriel meeting. (True to their covers, they played Scrabble, not chess.) I found it a little odd, though, that Gabriel made that joke about Elizabeth being a "good American wife" and doing the dishes, in part because no one on the show ever comments outright on the bizarreness of their situation. (I think this tendency might be why, Chris, no one has mentioned Emmett and Leanne yet—the couple don’t seem to be all about the meta-cognition.) We’ve gone two seasons without so much as a "Oh, honey, you remind me so much of Stalin," and suddenly the most senior operative drops the euphemisms and admits that they're all pretending. It was a welcome touch of humor, though, which can be a little sparse in the Jennings household.
The D.C.-isms are delightful, for sure. It's funny, when I went to Russia last year I had to go pick up my visa in a rinky-dink travel agency in Dupont Circle. HMM! Hmm.
The tape recording of Elizabeth's mom was so heartbreaking. It made me wonder how much they actually do get to communicate with their relatives back home. Can't there be more tapes like this passed back and forth more regularly? Too much of a risk? What about letters? Secret codes? They've really mastered the wigs; surely they could figure something out.
Speaking of which, I completely agree about the super-spying, Chris. One of the things I wrote down during Elizabeth's fight scene was, "Who is this good at their job 100 percent the time?" You'd have to be one jacked lady to incapacitate two burly FBI agents. And it's a little entertaining that no matter how hard Elizabeth's face gets slammed into metal objects, the resulting wounds are never something a little Maybelline can't handle.
I'm anxious for them to dig further to the Oleg-Nina storyline. I wonder why it is that, firstly, the reason Arkady gives for punishing Nina is that she neglected to fill out some paperwork about two of her meetings with Stan, and secondly, Oleg's father won't help him get this sorted out, when the USSR basically ran on connections.
I echo the New York Times's Sarah Miller's hopes that Nina's exfiltration means the show may add the Soviet Union as a setting. If only so we can learn more about the Jennings' motivations for sticking with the KGB—even as it threatens to swallow up their children. And so we can see the righteous New-Wave-era Soviet fashions, which, if my family photos are any indication, were a sight to behold.
Obviously, the Paige drama will be fascinating to watch. I can't help but see parallels between Paige's recent conversion, Stan's newfound (if feigned) interest in EST, and Elizabeth's ongoing devotion to the cause. We all need something to believe in. For her kids, will Elizabeth try to make that "something" be the Dictatorship of the Proletariat? At this point, would she be doing it for her kids and country, or because she's gone too far to change her mind?
And does Philip even want to be a KGB agent anymore? Remember, he brought up the idea of defecting in one of the very first episodes; I wonder if the mission to turn Paige into a spy kid will put him over the edge. Plus, he seems to genuinely enjoy his cover life of being a good-natured American dad who eats brownies and drinks beer with his buddies. Though I guess you get fewer disguises and mistresses that way.
If the rest of the episodes are similarly brimming with plot, I'm sure we'll find out soon enough. Do vstrechi.