This review contains Americans spoilers…
In the Sopranos pilot, Tony Soprano told his new shrink something that would encapsulate his era perfectly: “Lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” He was, of course, referring to the twilight days of the east coast Italian mob, but it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in literature to know that’s not the only thing writer David Chase was suggesting. Tony Soprano in the late 90s was giving voice to something most of us were feeling. We were coming in at the end of something… but just what exactly?
Two years later, the Twin Towers fell and put a stark period on the previous era of Western life. Just what that era was is still a question for sociologists and poets, but no one can argue that it’s long over. David Chase may be seen like a magician for being able to predict a paradigm changing event years in advance. But he wasn’t a magician; he was a statistician. He’s a statistician that knows we’re never far away from another end…of something.
The Americans season three premiere, EST Men, knows this as well. It’s 1982 setting, however, brings added benefit of hindsight making the reality of an era close to its end all the more clear. This doesn’t mean that the show is close to its end game. This is only season three after all, and FX President John Landgraf has recently said he envisions the show running at least a few more years. But the Cold War is much closer to the end than the beginning. Afghanistan is becoming the U.S.S.R’s Vietnam (just as one new character predicts) and Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhnev’s death is announced quietly as Paige turns the channels. Sooner rather than later the world is going to be very different for Philip, Elizabeth, Stan and so many others.
The beauty of “EST Men” is that each character seems aware of this to varying extents, but still behaves as though they have all the time in the world.
Elizabeth begins the season in the bathtub reminiscing about the day she taught Paige to swim by throwing her into a pool.* Then she meets up with a disillusioned C.I.A. employee named Charlotte at a bar, whose first question to Elizabeth is “do you have a daughter?” The undercover Elizabeth’s answers “no.”
*The Americans to all other shows: “Bro, do you even symbolism?”
Charlotte represents Elizabeth’s own potential end: a capable woman cast into a role as a mother and nothing else. Elizabeth exploits this to receive a document with the names of every C.I.A. agent working in Afghanistan. Charlotte’s better judgment prevails and she calls the C.I.A. to report what she’s done. This leads to a time-honored Americans season premiere tradition of “Keri Russell kicking dudes asses.” Though, in the process she loses the files.
Elizabeth’s interactions with Charlotte coming so early in the season are telling. The Americans is so adept at marrying the difficult role-playing associated with espionage with the difficult role-playing associated with day-to-day life. Elizabeth is still a capable agent and obviously a physical threat, but more and more both the U.S.S.R. and the world are casting her as the archetype of “Mother” and little else.
She’s forced to confront the idea of motherhood in the abstract, when she finds out her own mother back in Russia is dying. She has not seen her own mother in decades and what’s really dying for her is an idealized version of motherhood that she has the capacity to revive with her own children.
Later, Philip and Elizabeth’s former handler Gabriel (a much-welcomed Frank Langella) jokes that she should do their dishes like a “good American housewife.” Elizabeth laughs, but moments before Gabriel made it clear that the Rezidentura’s biggest goal for her is to be a good mother and convince their daughter to join the “family business.” It’s no wonder that Elizabeth is growing warmer to the idea.
Philip and Stan Beeman are confronting some unrealistic expectations of their own. One aspect of The Americans that creators Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg have been vocal about wanting to explore is Philip and Stan’s friendship. Matthew Rhys and Noah Emmerich do have excellent chemistry and it’s never been on better display than when Philip and Stan exchange eye rolls over the EST presentation that the episode takes its title from. “EST” refers to “Erhard Seminars Training,” which was founded by Werner H. Erhard and was dissolved in 1984 (what’s that about things always being on the verge of ending, again?)
“You assholes haven’t had a single real experience in your whole lives,” the instructor tells Philip and Stan. “You’re living in the realm of non-experience.” What’s non-experience exactly? “Let’s say you’re balling (EDITORS NOTE: “Lol”) a woman, you’re banging her good and your want her to have an orgasm. When you think about her orgasm are you experiencing?”
Philip and Stan understandably find the seminar less than helpful. It’s yet another narrow view of masculinity that advocates selfishness and non-intellectualism. It’s advocating that the only way to feel pure and whole is through, mindless, selfless sex or facing down death. It’s, in a word, dumb. But the primal ideas are more applicable to Stan and Philip than they’d care to realize. Stan brings up his EST experience to his ex-wife, who encouraged him to go in the first place. He’s expecting kudos for attending it and finding it interesting (which he does not), but Sandra wisely sees past it. “You were always yes-ing me to avoid conflict and disagreement and you weren’t being yourself,” she tells him. And that’s true. In his never-ending government work, Stan never had an identity at home. He was playing the role of “husband” just as much as Philip plays his.
For his part, Philip has become the passive male sex object that the weird EST instructor was speaking of. His role as Martha’s husband and later Annelise’s handler means always focusing on someone else’s orgasm, to speak both literally and figuratively. To a person singularly focused on deceit and manipulation in pursuit of a singular goal, simple, old-fashioned selfishness is both a pipe dream and a threat. Philip responds to this by doubling down on his efforts for Paige to have a normal life.
Elizabeth tells Gabriel that she and Philip are slowly conditioning Paige to be open to the idea of spying for the Russian government. She later tells Philip that she was offering up this information just to get the Rezidentura off their back but Philip understandably has his doubts. All parents have conflicting ideas about how their children should be raised or even merely what direction they should be pointed in. Philip and Elizabeth’s is just particularly dire. The difference here is not just the severity of the decisions Philip and Elizabeth must make but the speed in which they must make them. The deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan are making the Soviets desperate for a win – like a 14-year-old who can go deep undercover within the U.S. for many years.
“We are so close. In a couple of years she can go to college and have her own life,” Philip says. Unfortunately, as any parent can tell you: they grow up so fast. Just your standard Afghan War as a metaphor for growing up.
Strained gender roles and Afghan wars as metaphors all sound like a drag. Like the best Americans episodes, “EST Men” knows how to wow ‘em in the end. Last year, Philip enlisted one of his many sources, Annelise to seduce an Afghan diplomat named Yousaf for more information. This seems like another opportunity for more sexy, sexy espionage. But it all comes crashing down quickly. Annelise falls in love with Yousaf and wants to let him know about her extracurricular activities (which she thinks is spying for the Swiss government, and not the Russians). Yousaf responds by immediately and wordlessly strangling her. Philip has to improvise quickly, convincing Yousaf that his best chance for survival is with him.
Annelise’s life, just like Paige’s childhood, the EST men and the Cold War all end quicker than you’d think. Philip and Elizabeth know they’re always on the verge but still can only ever react. Maybe that’s the best anyone can do.
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