A review of tonight’s The Americans coming up just as soon as they make me queen of the rodeo…
“Being in a relationship is complicated. You don’t share everything. You hold back what you need to. Everybody does.” –Elizabeth
And now, a passage from my notes from around halfway through “The Midges,” right after Oleg leaves the supermarket manager’s office:
MARTHA MARTHA MARTHA MARTHA MARTHA MARTHA MARTHA MARTHA MARTHA MARTHA MARTHA MARTHA MARTHA MARTHA
MARTHA MARTHA MARTHA MARTHA MARTHA MARTHA MARTHA
Followed by “IS THAT ALL WE WILL EVER SEE OF POOR MARTHA?”
There are, I suppose, two ways to look on Alison Wright’s surprise return as Philip’s other wife:
1) We see Martha staring at the barren grocery shelves, and in the same store that Oleg is visiting, because her story will be continuing now that another major character is in Moscow, and perhaps she’ll tie into Oleg’s investigation; or
2) This is a sad little epilogue to Martha’s story: a way to confirm that the Centre was true to their word about providing a place for her back home, rather than eliminating her as an inconvenience, as well as a telling glimpse of how sad and lonely this new life is for her.
I’m inclined to think it’s some version of the former, if only because Fields and Weisberg are pretty economical and straightforward storytellers — more Vince Gilligan than David Chase — and bringing poor Martha back on stage to literally cross paths with Oleg smacks of Chekhov’s Gun (Chekhov’s Martha? Martha’s Gun?). At the same time, we’re close enough to the end, and there’s so much else going on, that having Martha intersect the Oleg story may have been the simplest way to both bring her story to a close and put a human face on the food shortage that Oleg is dealing with in Moscow while Philip and Elizabeth are trying to combat in the States.
All we know for the moment is that she’s there, and alive, and as sad and Poor Martha as ever, and for the moment she not only helps to embody the food crisis, but the larger matter of what happens to people in whom Philip or Elizabeth take an interest. Martha’s outcome is, sadly, about the best that one of these people can hope for: She’s alive, and has relative freedom so long as she’s content to stay within the USSR’s borders. Certainly, she’s better off than the many people Philip and Elizabeth have killed, including Randy Chilton, the deputy director of the project developing the midges to attack the Soviet wheat crops, who gets his spine snapped when he has the bad timing to walk in on the Jenningses as they are breaking into the lab. Elizabeth’s line about how Randy should have asked what the project was for suggests this is a death they will feel less angst about than some others, but it’s still another murder Philip has on his conscience, and another part of their lives they’ll have to keep from Paige, even as they’re trying to be more open in general.
This wheat story is a surprising turn of events for the series. Until now, we’ve been watching, and sympathizing with, characters who are on the wrong side of history, obliviously defending the interests of a government that lies to and subjugates its people. And the show works because Philip and Elizabeth are so well portrayed by the writers and actors that we can feel bad about their personal struggles even as we’re watching them do horrible things in support of the Kremlin. They are true believers, Elizabeth especially, and they also haven’t been home since the ’60s, and don’t appreciate how bad things have gotten. When Alexei vents to them about the state of things back home, he (mostly) comes across to them as a whiner, but we know that he’s a lot more right about the state of affairs than they are.
In the past, we’ve see Philip and Elizabeth embark on prolonged missions to steal American weapons technology, like SDI or Stealth or the Lassa virus. Here, though, it appears that the Americans are more directly attacking the Soviet civilian population by trying to deprive them of food. We know from the Oleg plot that the shortage has many fathers, including local corruption, but from our limited POV so far, this is the first time where our protagonists have been going after a program where our side seems like the bad guys. It’s an interesting choice at a moment where Philip and Elizabeth’s new openness with Paige has them (Philip especially) questioning their motivations and career choice more than they ever have in the past. It leads to that great, squirmy scene in the Oklahoma hotel room where Philip — who earlier in the episode recalls his own impoverished Soviet childhood — wonders why the USSR, with an even greater landmass than America, hasn’t been able to grow crops in abundance like they’re seeing outside their window, and Elizabeth pulls him off the edge by seducing him with the cowboy hat. Whenever his faith breaks, she’s always been able to use sex to bring him back into the fold.
Elizabeth gets him back on mission, and they get a step closer to uncovering all the details of the midge plot, even as they have to drop another body to do it. Maybe this eventually leads back to Oleg and Martha, or maybe things move in another direction. But life tends not to get better for anyone involved in this story. Oleg’s under pressure from the CIA as punishment for doing a good deed for the enemy, Stan’s screwed if he ever gets close to the truth about his neighbors, Martha’s alone and underfed, Paige feels awful about lying to her boyfriend, and Philip and Elizabeth have just done one more thing they have to keep from her, even as they’re pulling her deeper and deeper into this dirty business.
Some other thoughts:
* When Philip and Elizabeth are winding down from their bowling date with Alexei’s family, we get an Americans rarity: an extended glimpse of them changing out of their wigs and makeup as they return to their regular identities. We’ve seen Philip remove his wig a few times before (and, once, had it removed in mid-fight), but it’s still unusual to see them getting in or out of character at length like this.
* Before he crosses Martha’s path, we get to see Oleg at work trying to get to the bottom of the corruption that’s depriving so many people in the USSR like Martha of food. Oleg is very good at what he does, and far more sincere and well-intentioned than he seemed when he was first introduced back in season two. And now he’s on the road to ruin because he did the right thing with Stan and the virus sample. That stinks.
* This week in ’80s pop culture: Her parents come home to find Paige watching M*A*S*H*, which would have to be a syndicated repeat, since the famous series finale aired a year before the events of this episode. Philip and Elizabeth’s disguises in Oklahoma don’t map onto specific characters from Dallas, but definitely evoke that glory period of big oil, big hair, and big shoulder pads. And Roxy Music’s haunting “More Than This,” heard earlier in the episode’s bowling alley scene, plays as Philip and Elizabeth dispose of the body of poor Randy Chilton.
* Tuan comes across as even more bitter and resentful about Americans than he did last week. The kid definitely seems like he’s going to cause trouble down the line.
* It’s unclear what Stan and Aderholt are up to, or if they’re just generally trying to cultivate new assets from Soviets living and working in Washington. I did chuckle at Aderholt eating the food that their first man left behind just to avoid talking to them.
* Mischa still hasn’t made it past Yugoslavia, but at least he’s making a connection with someone who might be able to get him further along. At the rate he’s moved thus far, though, I wonder if this will be a Game of Thrones situation where a character spends an entire season getting from Point A to Point B, and we won’t actually see him arrive in Falls Church until next year.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com