A review of tonight's “The Americans” coming up just as soon as I ask what you think of stonewash jeans…
“Not everything is worth the risk, Philip.” -Gabriel
The dirty little secret of TV production is how unglamorous most of it is. The default mode is “hurry up and wait,” scenes have to be filmed over and over again from multiple angles, and with the actors incorporating different pieces of direction, until even the most interesting scene feels flat and tedious within about 20 minutes. I visit sets on occasion in order to do interviews, and there's value in talking to actors and other people when they're in the midst of their work, but you almost never get to feel the magic when you watch this stuff being filmed.
But I sure as hell felt it while I watched Keri Russell(*), Matthew Rhys and director Tommy Schlamme film the tooth extraction scene from “Open House.”
(*) I interviewed Russell immediately after that scene was shot. We talked about the scene itself and about her general feelings about Elizabeth's arc this season. It's a good conversation, and may provide you with a new life motto.
That scene was all anyone was talking about that day on the set. Noah Emmerich cringed at the very thought of it, and Rhys said that the cast and crew had spent the last several days watching YouTube videos of people (usually lacking proper dental coverage) removing their own teeth. There wasn't a larger-than-normal crowd gathered to watch the filming of it (everybody has their own job to do, especially on a day where they were filming pieces of four different episodes), but there was more electricity running through those who were watching.
Even 30 feet away from the laundry room set, viewing the scene on small monitors, it was clear that something special was happening, and impressive to see Russell summon up the same look of grim determination again and again and again. Schlamme tried several takes where the spouses said a few words to each other – Philip, for instance, admitting that he didn't get the whole tooth out on his first attempt – but the final version shows that he and everyone else in production recognized that no dialogue was needed, since the pained eyes of Russell and Rhys were telling us everything we needed. In terms of the physical ordeal Elizabeth goes through, and what the scene actually showed, this was less graphic than the disposal of Annelise's body last week, but the intensity of those two performances made it in some ways even more difficult to get through – and I had already watched the actors do take after take of the thing on a soundstage in Brooklyn.
Afterwards, Russell said, “Tommy told us that this is our sex scene for this episode,” and that just about sums it up. This is a physical ordeal for her, but there's also an intimacy between them that wasn't there when the series started, and that elevated a bit of uncomfortable physical business into something far more emotional.
It helps that the extraction scene comes after an emotional ordeal for both spouses, after Elizabeth barely escapes a combined FBI/CIA tail on her car. We're still very early in the season, and she's almost gotten caught twice already, which makes their position feel even more precarious than it was a season ago, when she was walking wounded and he was killing innocent bystanders left and right. That sequence is marvelously edited, and the utter randomness of it – that Elizabeth could be the one to be caught simply because she was driving the car at that moment – only contributes to the tension. It's unclear what would happen to Philip in this situation – Would he simply wait for the KGB switchboard operator to let him know that Elizabeth was caught, and then go on the run? Try to take the kids with him? Simply warn Henry and Paige about what's coming and then wait for arrest himself? – but their life, however false it is on some levels, would be over the moment the CIA caught up to Elizabeth, and the relief they feel when she gets home and they hug is palpable.
That they've been in so much danger this season also underscores Philip's concern about Paige. This spy game is only getting harder for them, and they've spent their whole lives training for it. Paige in theory wouldn't be asked to do what they do, but she also hasn't grown up being indoctrinated into the mission and all that comes with it.
When Philip comes home to wait for word of Elizabeth's escape or capture, Paige tells him, “I really wish you guys would stop worrying about me.” Little does she know just how many things he now has to worry about with her, and just how much pressure he's under from his wife, his handler, and his true nation, to put her in a very worrisome position indeed.
Terrific episode. On the set, Schlamme noted that this is the only show he directs anymore where he's not also a full-time producer. Clearly, he's having fun working with these people and this world, and he gets dynamite results from both each time he comes back.
Some other thoughts:
* For everyone who's been demanding the show provide equal time to Henry in its study of the Jennings kids, was discovering that he keeps a bikini photo of Sandra Beeman in his room for teenage boy purposes what you had in mind?
* New FBI guy Aderholt makes his present felt, part 1: As the new agent in the unit, he's in position to ask about Stan's famous undercover assignment with the white supremacists, the first time the show's dealt with it in a while. And Aderholt's questions in turn prompt Stan to wonder if perhaps their shiny new defector is telling them what they want to hear, in much the same way he used to with the Aryans. Hmm…
* New FBI guy Aderholt makes his present felt, part 2: He hits on Martha, not realizing she's secretly married to a counter-intelligence agent who's secretly a KGB deep cover operative, and Martha, as a secretly married woman, politely rebuffs his advances. Meanwhile, back at her apartment, she gives Clark a very convincing sales pitch about the idea of taking in a foster child, but we know it won't go anywhere. Since I haven't said it in a while… poor Martha.
* Also getting shot down: Elizabeth's young asset Hans. As Elizabeth herself acknowledges to Philip, seducing men is a part of her job description, but it's interesting to see that she's been involved in it much less of late, whereas it's no big deal when Philip has to sleep with Martha or Annelise (RIP). I wonder if she'll have a heart-to-heart about it with father figure Gabriel at some point.
* Yes, kids, in the early '80s, many TV stations still didn't program 24-7, which meant that if you stayed up late enough, you'd get to see a channel sign off for the broadcast day.
* The show continues to treat Brezhnev's death as a detail too far removed to affect anything the local KGB agents are dealing with, except on a superficial level, like the Rezidentura getting a new painting of Andropov to replace the of Brezhnev. Of much greater import is Arkady putting himself on the line for Oleg – whom he once viewed as a dilettante and then a threat – in supporting his desire to stay in America even as Oleg's influential father wants him transferred back to Moscow.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com