A review of tonight’s The Americans coming up just as soon as I go skinny-dipping in the quarry from Breaking Away…
“It adds up.” -Gabriel
“The Committee On Human Rights” is an alternately frustrating and fascinating episode of The Americans, though many of the frustrating parts feel intentional.
We open, for instance, with Gabriel’s long-awaited first conversation with Paige, but we only get a brief snippet of it, and there’s no suggestion afterwards that things went any deeper or into more detail than that. This seemed a wasted opportunity for both Paige to get more concrete answers about who and what her parents used to be, and for The Americans to show her dealing with this information. Instead, it’s all fairly cursory stuff, and Philip and Elizabeth are in the room the whole time, making it more difficult for Paige or Gabriel to be more candid even if they wanted to be. The build-up last week suggested something much more intense than what we got, but I can’t entirely blame Paige for not knowing the right questions to ask this total stranger who behaves like her long-lost grandfather, nor Gabriel for not wanting to make his charges’ jobs more difficult by telling Paige anything that might make her think less, or even differently, of her parents. All involved are in impossible situations, just trying to make the best of things.
And the polite blandness of Gabriel and Paige’s conversation serves as an effective contrast to the blunt awkwardness of his farewell chat with Philip, where the question about Renee makes Gabriel lose all remaining patience with his fraying, paranoid agent. Without that query, would Gabriel have told him the cold, hard truth about Paige? (“You were right about Paige. She should be kept out of all of this.”) Maybe, or maybe getting to meet her in person — and seeing how much this is all weighing on her — would have made Gabriel admit the truth no matter what. But in this particular, exasperated context, as the very last thing he will ever get to say to Philip, it’s almost cruel: What exactly can Philip do about it now, especially since Gabriel’s replacement (whether Claudia or a new handler) will surely be less sympathetic to the Jennings’ needs than he was?
We, of course, don’t need to hear Gabriel’s warning, because we can see for ourselves how awful this continues to be for Paige, who here breaks up with Matthew Beeman because she can’t handle constantly lying to him. It’s among the ugliest scenes the show has done that doesn’t involve someone being killed and/or folded into a suitcase, because Matthew is understandably baffled and hurt about why Paige is doing this, and Paige hates herself the entire time, and things get briefly physical. But the worst part of it, in a way, comes later when we see Paige come home to an empty house while her parents are off being spies in Memphis. The Centre wants Philip and Elizabeth to treat her like an adult who’s ready for all this lying and moral ambiguity, but she’s still a 16-year-old girl who just broke up with her first boyfriend — for lousy reasons that are entirely not her fault — and she could really use a mom or dad to lean on just then, and she’s got… nothing. When they return later in the episode, each tries to offer a sympathetic ear, but the damage has been done; if anything, Philip’s cliched speech about how Paige must feel different from anyone else makes things worse, because as Paige points out, she (like any normal teenage girl) felt that way long before she found out that her parents were Russian spies.
Throughout the episode, we see both her parents and Pastor Tim trying to convince Paige about the importance of sacrificing her own personal desires to a higher cause, with Philip and Elizabeth going so far as to let her keep thinking that America is plotting to destroy the Soviet wheat crop, because it’s easier to get her on Team USSR that way. But Gabriel’s farewell talk with Philip — another story from the bad old days — points out the danger of giving too much credit to a cause. As Gabriel puts it, “I believed I was acting in the service of a higher purpose, but I was just scared.”
Paige is rightly scared at the moment, and Philip seems to be after Gabriel’s final warning. But there doesn’t seem to be much either can do about things at the moment.
Some other thoughts:
* Comedy on The Americans tends to exist either on the margins (Mail Robot) or in such small and dry quantities that the performers have to be really on their game to sell the tiny pinprick of light amidst all the darkness. Case in point: the brief look of utter dismay on Elizabeth’s face as she catches Ben in Memphis making time with another woman. She’s not having a real relationship with him, and thus shouldn’t be hurt at all the way an actual girlfriend would be, but some of her barriers are clearly coming down with this guy. It’s to Philip’s credit that he’s not threatened by this — after all, he cared pretty deeply for Poor Martha by the end — but it also speaks to the higher standard Elizabeth holds herself to compared to what she expects from her husband that she replies that it isn’t okay for her to care.
* The Paige/Soviet parallels this week go beyond her and Gabriel, as we see Oleg also belatedly trying to learn about his parents, by looking up his mother’s prison camp file.
* The show gets to have its cake and eat it too with Gabriel’s response to Philip’s question about Renee, since he claims to have no knowledge of her being a spy, but also admits that the Centre just might not tell him. Certainly, the scene where she gets him to talk about work plays like a trained spy fishing for whatever her FBI agent target can tell her, but it could just as easily be read as a concerned and intuitive girlfriend trying to get to the bottom of what’s ailing her boyfriend.
* Interesting to see Stan — who knows from Nina how badly things can end for Soviets who provide intel to the FBI — being so candid with Sofia from TASS (the Soviet state news agency) about the risks of cooperation. He may have to get more ruthless, though, since his position in Counter-Espionage now depends on getting this operation going, thanks to some fast talking from Agent Wolfe, who perhaps agreed with Stan’s attitude about Oleg, even if he didn’t want to say as much and put himself in a jam along with him.
* It occurs to me that with Gabriel going back home and Mischa already back there, there are not only a lot of major characters in Moscow, but enough to populate a plausible spinoff. If nothing else, I want Martha and Mischa to somehow find each other and make each other’s lives a bit less lonely. Technically, she’s his stepmom, right?
* Totally ’80s: Oleg wishes he could talk to his brother about the play of Vladislav Tretiak, the legendary Soviet goalie who had just won his third and final Olympic gold medal in Sarajevo; Pastor Tim needs Paige to babysit so he can take Alice to see Terms of Endearment, which would go on to win five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, in April of 1984; and Stan and Renee talk about work while they’re trying to watch the classic coming-of-age movie Breaking Away, which technically was released in 1979 but was a TV staple throughout the ’80s (including my home, where we must have watched it so often, I can recite most of the dialogue — even the parts in Italian — by heart).
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org