The Americans rightfully gets a lot of credit for its ‘80s soundtrack. No period-piece is complete without some period music. There was no more perfect an introduction to the mood and pace of the show than Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” in the pilot. As much credit as the show gets for the songs it chooses, however, it deserves even more for the songs it doesn’t include.
Having never seen the ‘80s myself, I have a fairly limited, stereotypical view of the decade. Which means that while watching the low-key but incredible “Born Again” I had Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams” rattling around in my head like a drunk pinball.
Honestly, it’s a little surprising that this is the first time that’s happened. After all “Sweet Dreams” is about as ‘80s and ‘80s get – an easy cultural touchstone for 1983, both the year the song came out an and the year The Americans occupies. Still, I’m sure there was little to no consideration given to ever including it as it’s A. Very on the nose and a little corny, and B. Likely very expensive. But that doesn’t even matter. The cultural shortcut we’ve all built for 1983 means that it’s hard to watch these characters struggle for meaning and not hear your brain’s jukebox begin to whisper “everybody’s looking for something….everybody’s looking for something.”
Everybody is looking for something in “Born Again,” even if they’re not quite sure what. Paige is looking for something and makes a big commitment to the church with her baptism celebration to begin her journey in finding it. Stan is apparently beginning to see the benefits of EST philosophy in pursuit of that elusive truth as he invites his rather spartan EST ladyfriend, Tori, to dinner at the Jennings. Even Philip whips out a hail mary of his own.
It’s not just a cause, per se, that the characters of The Americans are looking for. Most of them have capital “C” Causes. Now it’s just a matter of figuring out what meaning they can still derive out of this wringed out causes.
The problem is that sometimes you live within a Cause for so long you forget that there it’s possible for something meaningful or something truthful to exist outside of it. Or as Nina puts it in her cell with Evi: “In America I had two lovers: one communist, one capitalist. I loved them both in different ways. In the end they both loved their countries more than they loved me.” By the end of the episode, Nina has found a new cause: herself. But even something so seemingly pure and uncomplicated features as a byproduct a poor Belgian girl screaming in terror as Soviet guards drag her away.
The aforementioned capitalist in Nina’s sad realization to Evi, Stan, is finally beginning to let go of the things he’s dedicated himself to for so long. Props as they were, his family was always an important part of Stan’s “cause.” He couldn’t be an all-American hero without a wife and a kid in the suburbs. Tori begins to bring him out of his post-divorce reverie with her EST-ian insistence on getting Stan to live in the moment. This continues when Stan finds out a good friend of his has died in a plane crash. We’d never seen, met nor heard of this friend before but Noah Emmerich’s acting is so good we can see that the news is breaking down yet another wall somewhere within Stan.
As for Philip and Elizabeth, well, their cause makes up the entire premise of the show. They believed so much in Soviet Russia that they changed everything about themselves to conform to a culture they hated. They even brought two new lives into the world just in the pursuit of a deeper cover to support this cause. Of course, they grew to love those children and now the fact that their cause wants to claim one of their children for its own again is tearing them apart.
Ok, tearing them apart is a bit strong. Philip and Elizabeth have had some explosive moments in their Paige War but they seem to have settled into a peaceful détente. They know each other’s sides: Philip wants Paige to have her own life and Elizabeth wants Paige to join the cause she holds so dear. They’re going about it, in subtler, sneakier ways now, spys that they are. Philip helps Paige hang up a poster and tells her ““You should always do that. You know? Stand up for your beliefs.” Later Elizabeth takes her to her friend Gregory’s* neighborhood and tells her apart her activist years. “I’m more like you than you think,” she says.
*Remember Gregory from season one? Derek Luke? Went down in a hail of bullets? Remember?
Philip and Elizabeth are downright peaceful in “Born Again.” Their marijuana adventure is purely hilarious, charming and a helpful look into the chemistry that makes their marriage work. It’s like now that the battle lines are drawn and the rules of engagement are clear, they’re happy to operate within them.
There are no rules of engagement when it comes to Kimmy, however. I remain astonished with how well The Americans is handling this storyline. Dictating a plot to the point where a grown man may soon have to sleep with a 15-year-old girl is a lot to chew on for any writers. But I’m not sure any other show on the planet can pull off what The Americans has done with it. It’s like the world’s quietest horror movie. Philip, on the surface, has all the power. He’s the adult after all and a professional liar. Still it’s not to see him as some kind of victim or prey. He goes for a near literal hail mary by invoking his character of Jim’s own “born again” decision to go back to church to get out of what seems to be an inevitable sexual encounter.
Philip’s exuberance at pulling it off is infectious. Matthew Rhys plays him as a man who just won the lottery. Then Gabriel intervenes. The KGB wants weekly reports from the bug he placed in Kimmy’s dad’s briefcase. This means getting closer to Kimmy than just a “still feeling each other out” relationship.
So Philip does something interesting. He combines his initial appeal to religion with a little bit of truth from his own life. He has a son, Mischa, that he’s never met. Gabriel informs Philip that Mischa is now a Russian soldier deployed in Afghanistan. The idea is to light a fire under Philip to end this war as soon as possible. Philip sticks to his story of finding religion to Kimmy but he adds an important detail: the truth.
As he asks her to pray, Kimmy says “Please watch over James son wherever he is.” James isn’t real. But that son is, and Philip will likely never see him unless it’s in a scythe and hammer flag draped coffin.
It’s no coincidence that religion plays such a big role in “Born Again,” and for that matter this whole season. Philip and Elizabeth’s uber-pa Marx may have called religion opium for the masses, but it’s really more of a dream – a revealer of deeper truth to those who want to see it that way and absolutely nothing to those who don’t. Everybody’s looking for something.