One of The Americans biggest perceived barriers to entry is its dark, at times hopeless tone. I would argue that the show can be charming and downright hilarious at times, but there’s no denying that the show is at its core relentlessly bleak.
This week, New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum argued (successfully, I’d say) that this bleakness is what makes the show great. Still, I understand why no amount of reasoned, well-put arguments to the contrary would make someone want to sign up to have their perception of the world questioned and/or souls crushed.
That’s why it’s exciting that this episode was named “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?” That’s some fun word play! The mail robot, everyone likes that guy! He’s like R2-D2, except he spits out mail for the FBI. And wouldn’t you know it, that’s a reference to Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” That was made into Blade Runner, people like Blade Runner. Then you watch the episode and the A-plot is Keri Russell poisoning a sweet old grandmother to death with her own heart medication. Какого черта, американцы?*
*That’s Russian for “What the hell, Americans?”
Whatever. I’m joining Team Nussbaum and throwing in the towel on seeing the sunny side of Joe Weisberg’ and Joel Field’s Cold War. This is sad, brutal stuff. And it’s also wonderful, near-perfect television. It’s not just wonderful because it’s bleak and subsequently the buzzword for disposable modern TV: gritty. It’s wonderful because it’s human. It knows what makes humans both powerful and vulnerable and is able to articulate that superbly. Strange as it may sound, the episode that so callously murders an old woman is an episode all about love…and also just how shitty it makes us.
One of the major themes inherent to The Americans is how love is both a curse and an asset. It’s love of country that turns Philip and Elizabeth into damn-near superheroes and love of family that has kept their children safe so far. But when those two loves begin to intersect and conflict with each other, it makes both institutions weaker. Philip is a far worse spy now than he ever was. And Elizabeth is a much cruel person than she ever was. The ratio between country and family is just off a few ticks for each of them in opposite directions and it’s created disastrous results. Even when Philip succumbs to merely sentiment it just leads to more pain.
Philip is clearly developing some warm fuzzies for Martha now that she has proven herself to be a loyal wife and gotten with his program. When Gabriel tells Philip and Elizabeth that Martha will eventually have to bug the mail robot, Philip can’t imagine repaying her loyalty with such a dangerous mission and he convinces Elizabeth to bug the robot themselves, while it’s out of the FBI’s office for repairs. This leads indirectly to…well, you know.
Stan and Oleg are still in love with Nina and are bound into an uneasy partnership because of it. They’re determined to prove that Zinaida is not who she says she is even if it means committing treason against each of their respective countries. They stage a break-in at her hotel where a disguised Oleg threatens her to renounce her American escapades and beats the snot out of Stan in the process.
Even young Hans behaves monstrously when he senses something he loves is about to be taken away from him. Whether that something is his cause or Elizabeth is debatable but the end result is the same. In order to keep his cover and remain an asset to the Jennings, he brutally murders Todd, who made the mistake of seeing Hans’ face while kidnapped.
If you’re keeping score at home, in one episode the human capacity for love and need to love and be loved has caused: a gashed open face, at least three treasonous acts, one brutal murder, one forced suicide of a senior citizen and one very tense game of Scrabble. Still, characters on The Americans continue to love through the pain. Much like we all do. Anyone, who has ever fallen in love has felt like it was doing to their guts what Hans did to poor Todd’s face. Hell, anyone who has even just felt strongly about someone or something would go through all manner of suffering just to prove that they’re justified in holding something so dear. Or as the old woman, Betty says: “You think doing this to me will make the world a better place? That’s what evil people tell themselves when they do evil things.”
I’m a little specious of seemingly everyone Philip and Elizabeth meeting having a marital or parenting conflict that applies perfectly to their current situation but I’ll bite my tongue in this instance because what Betty represents is so important. Also, to a certain extent almost everyone has a marital or parenting conflict that can apply to pretty much everyone else.
Betty describes a life with her husband that isn’t perfect. She knows she cannot discuss the war with him and she knows she cannot discuss the woman he remarried after their divorce. But they could talk about enough. They weren’t together forever but they were for 27 years, which is close enough. She describes, in short: Philip and Elizabeth. Earlier this season Elizabeth asked Philip if he ever had to fake it with her. “Sometimes,” he replied. “But not right now.” That’s what matters: right now. In her dying moments, Betty asks if Gil sent Elizabeth to her to ease her transition. There is no doubt that in the same last moments, Elizabeth would ask an angel of death if Philip sent her as well.
As far as The Americans is concerned, there may be no such thing as “real love” or “true love.” There is something close enough, however, just like Gil and Betty. There’s intimacy, like pulling your partner’s shattered tooth out. And there’s time spent together and there’s trust. It’s love or something like love. It’s beautiful and destructive, just like The Americans.
Philip is beginning to understand that. Over their weekly Scrabble game, Philip finally cracks and tells Gabriel: “What’s the problem? The problem? The problem is you, Gabriel. All this talk because you think you can wrap me around your little finger. I trusted you and your job was to look out for me and now my job is to look out for my family because no one else will.”
Philip loves his family and is finally willing to put those cards (or Scrabble tiles) on the table in front of his country. I wonder who that love will get killed this time.