Elizabeth’s Black-And-White Thinking Gets Covered In Red On ‘The Americans’

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A review of tonight’s The Americans coming up just as soon as we subpoena the shoes…

“Just draw the dark parts. Don’t draw the light parts.” –Erica

The spy game is not one that invites much healthy self-examination. Philip was constantly questioning the nature of the things he had to do for Mother Russia, and the reasons for doing them, and it eventually left him unable to function. Elizabeth has never had the innate need to question herself or her orders, so while she’s exhausted at this point in the series (Elizabeth smoking in a baggy sweater outside the house is among the least glamorous depictions of tobacco use in the history of filmed entertainment), she still has no doubts about what she’s doing and why.

This allows her to keep doing the job that her husband couldn’t, but it also means she has blind spots about both herself and her cause that he doesn’t, even if he’s reluctant to do anything about Oleg’s request for him to spy on Elizabeth. She has never been able to recognize how unhealthy this life is for Paige, and even while she’s working an operation so dangerous and delicate that she’s required to carry a suicide pill on her at all times, she still is thinking about way for her daughter to continue in espionage without her, telling Claudia to finish what they started in the event the worst happens. And when Paige starts questioning her mother about the many terrible specifics of what she does — which Elizabeth fends off with blanket denials that have absolutely zero potential to blow up in her face if Paige learns the truth about honeypots, right? — Elizabeth tries to explain that the world is complicated, and that black-and-white thinking gets you nowhere.

What’s funny about that exchange — one of several dry, black comic moments in what’s otherwise an inescapable march towards inevitable tragedy — is that Elizabeth Jennings is by far the most black-and-white thinker of the series. The mission, and the ideology behind it, are all that matters to her, and she will do whatever she must to serve both. She empathizes with Philip’s qualms because she loves him, but she’s rarely understood or agreed with them. Winning this war is everything to her, and the idea that people could care as passionately about anything else — much less something she finds as frivolous as Erica Haskard’s sketches and paintings — is baffling to her. She’s a literal thinker who has no room for art or ambiguity, just problems to be solved by any means necessary.

In “Tchaikovsky,” she finds herself running into trouble both because she’s overextended professionally, and because she’s unprepared to come up against someone who proves to be more committed and inflexible than she anticipated.

Much of the episode is devoted to her having to pull off yet another impossible mission on short notice, when her asset McCleesh (Reed Birney from House of Cards), believing she works in the State Department, insists on meeting her for lunch at the State cafeteria. This is more than she should have to risk alone, especially with the 27 other operations the Centre and now her new military contacts have her running, and it’s something of a miracle that she’s able to get outside to the picnic tables before State security spots her as the lost tour group member.

The lunch is mainly useful for hearing about the unsettled state of the White House, where senior staffers are worried about POTUS’ mental fitness(*), including President Reagan’s belief that the Strategic Defense Initiative actually works. This is a nice callback to season one, when Philip and Elizabeth’s primary job was getting information about SDI, which concluded with an American colonel named Rennhull telling Philip that it didn’t really work. Which also makes it a nice segue into the return of Rennhull, now a general, and someone the Centre wants Elizabeth to blackmail into handing over a lithium-based radiation sensor.

(*) All this has happened before, and it will all happen again…

But the mission goes pear-shaped because it’s only Elizabeth involved. Philip was the one who met with Rennhull back in the day, and the one who understood that Rennhull wasn’t a traitor to his country, but someone understandably fearful that belief in this bogus technology could lead to an arms race and even more bloodshed between the two superpowers. He’s an ideologue, too, but not so rigid that he can’t see when the good of the country isn’t being served by the people running the country. Elizabeth assumes her target will give in to pressure, even though the circumstances are wildly different, and is surprised when he pushes back, and then pulls a gun on her at their final meeting. She’s younger, faster, and more ruthless than her opponent, and thus able to avoid being gunned down by him, but in the tussle, Rennhull dies, leaving the mission a failure, and Paige gawking at her mother covered in the blood and brains of a military officer.

This isn’t the first time Paige has witnessed Elizabeth in a violent, fatal circumstance, but the attempted mugging had nothing to do with the spy work — just two seemingly helpless women being preyed upon by opportunistic criminals who had no idea whom they were attacking. It’s the sort of incident that Elizabeth would shrug off as the unfortunate cost of doing business if the roles were reversed. But Paige is not her mother, not even after spending years hanging out with Claudia watching movies and listening to classical records. Paige still sees more nuance than her mother does — and the barriers of her own black-and-white thinking extend differently from Elizabeth’s — and this seems like the sort of dark part from which no lightness can emanate.

Some other thoughts:

* We have our first — and hopefully not last — Mail Robot sighting of the season as Stan gets the call to leave his new office and return to the old one, which it turns out is now being run by Aderholt. No word on what happened to Agent Wolf, but given the abbreviated season and the focus on the endgame, minimizing the number of ancillary characters is probably wise.

* That thought, in turn, has me hoping that the marital problems with Sofia and Gennadi will wind up intersecting what’s happening with Oleg, Philip, Elizabeth, and the other major players, because it wasn’t a season five thread that felt in particular need of tying off.

* After a premiere that seemed to be wall-to-wall with late ’80s music, the soundtrack was a bit skimpier this time, with Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” (played during the bathroom x-ray gambit with Gennadi’s diplomatic pouch) the most notable song, along with “None but the Lonely Hearts, Op. 6, No.6” by the episode’s eponymous composer.

* Party like it’s 1987: “Tchaikovsky” was also a bit lighter on other period references, besides Glenn Haskard listening to Chili Davis get a big hit for the Giants. But the travel agency runs into the first ominous signs of what will eventually happen to the industry, when Philip’s right-hand man Stavos loses a longtime client to a budget travel agency, the start of a “cheaper is always better” consumer philosophy that will lead to the rise of big box stores, and then the internet wiping out whole segments of the retail and service industries. It’s too bad the story should be done well before we get to the mid-’90s so we won’t get to see Philip’s alarmed reaction to the birth of Travelocity and friends.

* Stavos messing up with the client creates an opportunity for a member of the Jennings family to speak openly with a foreign accent, as Henry — the only one who doesn’t know where mom and dad were born — busts out a decent Stavos impression while on the phone with his dad.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His new book, Breaking Bad 101, is on sale now.

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