This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans Season 5 Episode 2
There’s an innocuous little scene partway through The Americans season 5, episode 2 “Pests” that communicates something important.
Philip, in drag as “Mr. Eckert” is visiting Vietnamese child spy Tuan at his big, beautiful, completely fake American home. Philip isn’t there to rendezvous and share pressing secret info. He’s there to undertake one of the more important, mundane American dad tasks: clean out the gutters.
Philip declines from the ladder and presents Tuan with what was blocking the flow of water. Turns out it’s just a nest. Tuan identifies that it’s a robin’s nest. How does Tuan know that, Philip asks. Tuan’s former foster father in Seattle was a bit of a bird nerd it seems.
“Were they good people?” Philip wonders. Sure they were. The dad was nice to Tuan – took care of him. And that’s it. That’s the scene.
Being a combatant in a war, cold or otherwise means forgetting a lot of things. It means forgetting (or just ignoring) that the people on the other side of the war are just that: people It means forgetting (or just not caring) how this whole thing began or how it will end.
Once upon a time there was a country of people who had a different opinion as to how the government should run from a different group of people. Those people fought together in a World War and when it was over they realized that their differences meant they couldn’t co-exist as big players on the world stage.*
*Of course, we’re yada yada yada-ing a few war crimes and genocides here or there.
Here we go again. Back to war. And things carry on until one day you’re undercover and cleaning out the gutters at your fake Vietnamese son’s fake house, listening to him talk about an unambiguously positive fake life he built with another American family.
The Cold War is weird. Being alive is weird. And perhaps no show has expressed this better than The Americans.
“Pests” is another stellar entry in the show’s catalogue. Since the last 15 minutes or so of last week’s premiere functioned more as an epilogue for season 4 than a real beginning for season 5, this episode shoulders a heavier burden than most second episodes. “Pests” has to get the story really started, show us where we are and where we going. Thankfully, it’s up to the task.
This week we get further clarification about how food will function as the primary mission/theme/task this season. Tuan’s friend, Pasha’s dad was in the Department of Agriculture back in the Soviet Union it turns out. Gabriel shows up early on to tell us precisely why that’s so important.
The Soviets suspect that the Americans are messing around with their food exports. “Half of our grain comes from America and its allies,” Gabriel says. “If they do something to it, we’ll starve.” Philip is shocked that the Americans would do something like that. And this comes before his serene little conversation on Americana with Tuan. Gabriel isn’t surprised. Once upon a time America meant Abraham Lincoln. Right now it means Ronald Regan to Gabriel.
Gabriel informs Philip and Elizabeth that there is an undercover American lab on a farm in Indiana and they’re going to infiltrate it. So Elizabeth goes on a modest little road trip to check things out. By all appearances it looks like the U.S. really is doing something to the food exports. Elizabeth encounters a greenhouse full of dying crops and annoying little flies to go along with them. Normally a scene of Elizabeth showering would be a boon to creeps across the Internet but when its accompanied by thousands of little fly carcasses gathering around the drain, it’s not quite as exciting.
Philip’s disbelief that the people from the place he’s lived his whole adult life in could do something like this turns out to be unfounded. Yes, they can. It doesn’t matter how many nice bird watchers there are living in Seattle, every country is fully capable of taking food out of another country’s collective mouth. Pasha’s dad knows that. He still thinks America is an absolute marvel. Never has the salad bar at Bennigans seems more like a hallmark of true freedom.
That’s a lesson that Oleg is learning about his own country. Oleg’s boss it turns out is a shockingly honorable dude. In fact he might be the only member of the Communist party actively trying to do his job. He warns Oleg of the many tricks merchants and grocery stores use to bribe party members into looking the other way. Unfortunately for Oleg, while his new Soviet boss is invested in doing the right thing, his old American acquaintances still see him as a juicy asset.
Stan is called into a meeting with his boss Agent Wolfe and another CIA bigwig named Strider. Strider can’t help but notice that a once-useful FBI asset in Oleg now happens to be in the belly of the beast in Moscow. Why not push that relationship a little harder? Stan is adamant that Oleg is done. Him helping the FBI was just a one-time thing to avert bioweapon armageddon. But just like the Russian merchants and their food and just like the Americans and their pests to destroy said food, the FBI doesn’t like to let a good toy go to waste. And so Oleg is approached on the streets of Moscow by a CIA agent who says “Agent Beeman sent me.” No good deed goes unpunished is a worthwhile aphorism in any language or culture.
It’s probably a lot easier for Stan to come to terms with the mishandling of his one-time buddy halfway across the world because everything seems to be going well in his personal life. Philip finally gets to meet, Renee (played by Walking Dead alum Laurie Holden), the new lady in Stan’s life from the gym. She likes sports and drink beer so Stan is thrilled. She’s like Philip, only hotter.*
It remains to be seen where Stan’s storyline goes with Renee. Maybe she’s a Russian uberspy. Maybe she’s just a nice woman who likes sports and drinks beer. For the time being, however, I’m just happy that Stan is happy. It’s been a long road for Agent Beeman. And he deserves a breather before things fall apart. Make no mistake: fall apart they will. This is war, remember?
War has victims. It’s easy to forget that when you’re in the land of the free, eating at the Bennigans salad bar and fishing robin’s nests out of storm drains. Philip and Elizabeth get a small reminder from Paige, however. Paige’s inability to sleep has escalated.
When Philip and Elizabeth return from their meeting with Gabriel they can’t find Paige and they panic. They then find her asleep in her closet. It’s the only place she feels comfortable enough to sleep peacefully. She’s still traumatized by witnessing her mother’s act of efficient violence.
Later on, Philip and Elizabeth try to convince her to stop seeing Matthew Beeman as though that will help. The first step to convincing a teenager not to do something is certainly not to tell them not to do it, however. So Elizabeth has an idea.
“I’m sick of treating her like a god damn kid,” she says upon coming home from dinner. They elect to treat her like the budding spy she is instead.
“We can’t stop you from seeing him but we can help you manage things,” Elizabeth tells Paige. Whenever she is in a situation and feels overwhelmed or feels pressured to admit the truth about her parents, all she has to do is rub her thumb and forefinger together and picture Philip and Elizabeth.
This in theory should remind her where she comes from. What Philip and Elizabeth can’t quite articulate to her, however, is exactly what that means. Where does she come from? Does living in America her whole life, not knowing anything else make her an American? How many robin’s nests does one have to pull out of idyllic suburban American homes’ storm drains before one feels like an American?