Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Americans: The Spies Next Door

The Beautiful Keri Russell, matriarchal killer KGB Agent & Humble Housewife

. The Jennings live next door to the Beemans. The Jennings are KGB. The Beemans are FBI. I’m talking about a show called “The Americans.”

Old fans of the show will know what happened in the past as Russian spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings settle into a tidy suburban neighborhood where their next-door neighbor and FBI agent San Beeman lives. The Jennings have two children, Paige and Henry.

Paige is the oldest, smart enough to figure out that some things about her parents are downright unsettling. Paige has seen her parents disappear too many times into the night not to be suspicious. She pressures her mother to eventually tell her the truth. When she finally learns the truth, Paige finds it too burdensome and shares the shocking news with her pastor.

The irony of it all is that, in the Jennings search for identity authenticity, in their complete success at blending in, their daughter Paige has become religious. How this fits into the communist atheist ideology creates an unbearable tension. Meanwhile, younger brother Henry is still clueless about his parents’ espionage. Season four begins with the suggestion that the Jennings’ secret lives may be unraveling.

One of the things that continues to amaze me about “The Americans,”, was that I am still fooled by the disguises Elizabeth and Philip Jennings use while they’re on their midnight forays. Having missed the first two seasons, I began watching last year. I know that disguises are a regular part of each episode. So why am I so continuously fooled during those first few seconds of a scene where Philip or Elizabeth are out and about doing dead drops or meeting with contacts for such nefarious assignments as obtaining samples of a deadly Department of Defense bio-weapon from a traitor scientist?

Maybe it’s the routine and understated way Elizabeth and Philip go about their business in general that disarms and beguiles me. The same two parents gaily sitting with their kids at a picnic table in a public park are the same two parents carrying a naked male body from the bedroom where they’ve killed him in the interest of world peace. Elizabeth has the nude male by the ankles and Philip has the shoulders as another man watches the ‘cleanup’ casually and with his arms crossed. It’s like – “Hi there, Elizabeth, let’s put the lamp over here on the nightstand and would you please help me remove this body and send him down the laundry chute?”

This first episode of the season reminds us of who Philip is and how’s he’s become what he’s become. Philip is having trouble dealing with his role in life as a Russian spy sent to blend into the American landscape. While the whole purpose is to project an image of family life and marital bliss, it’s a dirty, ugly business that he’s in. Dedicated as he is to the Soviet ideology, he’s bothered by a lot of what he has to do. How did he become so hardened, so cruel, so methodical in his murderous ways?

In the flashback of his dreams, you see that he grew up with nothing, that as a young boy he was deprived, had to filch for his existence, was beaten and bullied by other kids competing for dominance in a harsh world. Fed up with being tormented, he rises up in anger, beating another kid to death with a rock, blood splattering all over his face.

He does what he has to do, that’s the message, but it doesn’t make for quiet peaceful sleep. Philip is deeply troubled, often unable to reconcile his troubles with the fantasy role he’s expected to play as a spy. This brings him to an EST meeting. Young audiences may not know what those things are but can imagine a group of unlimited size where people are encouraged to unburden themselves of their deepest inner truths. This is supposed to bring sighs of relief. While the hundreds of people gathered to witness this testimonial exhibition of innermost thoughts applaud Philip for his minor epiphanies, he just can’t cough up those early childhood murders. The old KGB, and even the current FSB, would find such notions frivolous, foolish, another sign of the decadence of the West.

The EST meeting did produce one interesting result. The wife of FBI Agent Stan Beeman also attends the EST meeting and the two neighbors meet for a drink later. One of the unusual juxtapositions of the show is that the Beeman family lives next door. Stan has become increasingly suspicious of his seemingly quiet and harmless next-door neighbors and his wife has been seen cozying up to neighbor Philip in the bar. He confronts Philip who has just returned from a meeting with the traitorous scientist – the one that provided the sample vial of the latest bio-warfare germ – and slams him against the wall.

“Are you screwing my wife?” he bellows.

Philip wasn’t of course, though it’s pretty clear he’d sleep with anyone if directed to do so by his handler, Gabriel. In this episode Philip appears with two wives, not an uncommon thing for KGB operatives in search of sensitive espionage material. Philip has his KGB wife Elizabeth and also poses as ‘Clark” Hanson, the FBI agent husband of Martha Hanson who spies for him in the FBI headquarters to which Stan Beeman is assigned.

Gabriel is intent upon getting the secreted lab sample of the deadly bio-germ created by Department of Defense scientists at Fort Dietrich. When Stan Beeman slams Philip up against the wall, there is considerable pucker factor as the body slam is hard enough to break the vial and unleash the deadly microbes on Washington.

How deadly is it? As the traitor scientist who delivers the vial describes it: “This (substance) is to meningitis what Bubonic Plague is to the common cold.” The reference stems from Elizabeth and Philip’s inoculation with meningitis vaccine as a preventative – a useless one at that.
Among the pitfalls of living in a free country is that your daughter might become religious. That’s already happened to the Jennings’ daughter Paige, who last season found out about her parent’s strange nighttime occupations. Now she’s intensely curious and in a morning breakfast scene asks her mother why her father left their house at 3 in the a.m. Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings manages to be both maternal and reassuring as she reveals her hard ideological beliefs.

“He’s meeting a source,” says Elizabeth.
“Is it dangerous?”
“No, it’s more about getting people to trust you, to help them understand that you want the same thing that they want, to make the world safe for everyone.”

Paige finds her parent’s occupation a tremendous burden to bear and confesses it to her friend and counselor Pastor Tim. The Jennings have already stressed that they would both go to prison if Paige tells someone else and Paige is panicked at the thought. Pastor Tim presses her to find out more of what her parents’ actually do and “then we’ll decide what to do from there.”

Also caught up in the web of lies and counter-lies is Nina Krilovna, released from prison and working with Russian-Jewish scientist Anton Baklanov. As part of her penance for past anti-Soviet sins, she’s supposed to keep an eye on the regretful Baklanov who’s working in a Russian laboratory. They’re both trapped between their personal feelings and the required obeisance to the insufferable state.
The operatives are working on the blunt edge of politics in their different political systems. Behind the friendly smiles, and the agreeable appearances is the knife edge of competing ideologies.

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