This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans Season 5 Episode 3
The Americans doesn’t do fan service. Hell, until recently the show probably didn’t feel like it had many fans beyond Alan Sepinwall and John Landgraf*. It’s a little surprising then at how unabashedly fan service-y “The Midges” is.
*They say write what you know and write for yourself. So I will never….NEVER stop making Uproxx critic Alan Sepinwall and FX President John Landgraft jokes and references.
Well I’m a fan. And consider me served.
Here is a brief list of things that happen in “The Midges” that appear to be designed just for .gifs to pop up online tomorrow in-between lots of heavily exclamation pointed sentences:
– The Jennings go bowling again. Only this time they’re in disguise as the Eckerts. Elizabeth still rules at bowling while newbie, and decidedly unwilling American Pasha is terrible at it. It’s here that we learn that Pasha’s dad Alexei is mostly upset with the U.S.S.R. for killing his father. But also that whole food thing. And did we mention that there’s bowling???
– Paige watches an episode of M.A.S.H.
– Philip and Elizabeth go undercover in Oklahoma City and Philip wears a cowboy hat!
– Elizabeth puts on that cowboy hat in a seedy Oklahoma motel room!
– They sexy dance to country music!
– They have sexy cowboy sex!
– Then they encounter a scientist during their undercover mission to research the midges destroying Russian crops and they have to kill him.
– Philip even has a timely quip! “Should we tell Paige about this?” he says after stuffing the body into a trunk.
Hmmm what else, what else. Oh right. WE SEE MARTHA! When Oleg is visiting a grocery store to investigate how they have access to such delicious tangerines, the camera lingers on a barren grocery store shelf where Martha is perusing the meager food options.
That’s….a jam-packed episode of The Americans. It’s no secret that The Americans is a, let’s say, deliberate show. Like many other dramas that take themselves seriously (and rightfully so), The Americans dishes out juicy story and big moments when it wants to. This often translates to it being a slow starter. Consider the slow start over. While episodes one and two of season 5 were delightful in their own expository way, “The Midges” announces that we are right in the thick of things now.
Let’s start at the end. In our current plugged-in all-the-time culture, it’s hard to avoid outside context when watching a show. In the case of The Americans this presents an interesting perspective. We all know by this point that Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell are a real-life couple with a little Welsh-American baby and everything. Having that knowledge colors the scenes in which they’re intimate. It’s impossible to tell what is acting and what it real-life bits of affection but whatever the ratio is, it leads to some breathtakingly intimate scenes.
I would rather watch a scene of Elizabeth and Philip flirting with each other in a dingy motel room than a scene of almost anything else on television. And it’s not just for prurient reasons. Rhys and Russell or both breathtakingly attractive obviously but these scenes go way beyond that. Sex means so many things on The Americans. It’s first and foremost a tool for Philip and Elizabeth to gain access to more information in their roles as spies. It’s also undoubtedly something that turned their “fake” marriage into a real one. Here, it’s a way for Elizabeth to help Philip in a vulnerable moment.
“All this land out here, you know what it looks like? Home,” Philip says about Oklahoma. And then he adds. “We’ve got this too. Why can’t we grow enough grain ourselves?” Philip is the more sensitive of the duo and he has his limits as we learned last year when the program granted him and Elizabeth an extended break. Things seem to be getting to him again: Alexei’s story of the U.S.S.R. murdering his father, Paige falling for Matthew, the food situation back “home”, all of it.
So Elizabeth helps.
And it’s beautiful, sensual, fascinating, creepily voyeuristic on our part – everything.
Elizabeth puts on his stupid cowboy hat. “You think they’re gonna make me queen of the rodeo this year?”
They dance to some country music on the radio. They kiss passionately. Then later they get back to work. Capturing real human emotion on camera is hard. Capturing all the various intricacies of something as complicated as a marriage is next to impossible. The miracle of this show is that they are frequently able to do so in the smallest, subtlest of ways. I don’t know how much credit to grant to the writing, Rhys and Russell’s acting or their real-life chemistry. Whatever the concoction is, it works and it works beautifully.
It is also wonderfully melancholic when considered with what comes next. In previous reviews, I’ve marveled at the show’s appreciation of cosmic unfairness (that’s the best way I can think to describe it). Philip is the more sensitive one and the murder necessary to their job takes a grander psychic burden on him. So of course murder has a way of seeking him out like a cat always somehow seeks out the person in the room who is most allergic.
Things are going well for Philip and Elizabeth’s mission at first. They successfully break into the laboratory in the Oklahoma strip mall. Then they find the crop-destroying “midges” they’re looking for. Then of course, Randy Chilton has to come in for some late night work and ruin everything. Randy lets Philip and Elizabeth know what he knows about the bugs. The bugs are wheat-eating pests and he works for a company called AgriCorp. He even gives them AgriCorp’s address. Then Philip breaks his spine, killing him instantly.
I rewatched the pilot’s remarkable 11-minute “Tusk” opening scene when researching this piece on Americans and ‘80s music. One thing I forgot about it was that Philip has a hell of a quip at the end of it. When Philip and Elizabeth finally reach the drop off point to put a Russian asset on a boat back to Russia they find that the boat has already left. “Why does everyone in this business have to be so god damn punctual?” Philip quips. At the time it seemed a little out of place with what the show eventually became. But I couldn’t possibly have appreciated the return of Quippy Philip more this week. His “Should we tell Paige about this too?” is the exact perfect response for a person who has been shit by the universe as Philip has been in that present moment.
Speaking of telling Paige things. Philip and Elizabeth decide that this whole “Americans destroying Russian food supply” thing is just the kind of age-appropriate propaganda to try out on their daughter. Paige is suitably horrified but once the topic changes to her parents’ use of disguise and espionage, she’s far more interested.
“Who does the Russian guy think you are?” Paige asks.
“A pilot and a stewardess.”
“Is it hard pretending to be other people?”
“Yeah. Sometimes it’s really hard.”
It’s moments like that that reveal maybe Paige is in fact cut out for this industry. She understands the intimate more than the big picture. She wants to know what it’s like to pretend to be someone different…especially since her whole life has essentially been that without her own knowledge or consent.
She also gets a chance to try out her parents strategy for keeping cool under pressure. The thumb and forefinger tip helps Paige come up with a suitable excuse for why she is acting weird around Matthew. Just a paper on Napoleon she assures him. She laters tell her mother that it was easy to lie to Matthew and she didn’t like it. Little does she know that no other sentence more succinctly sums up her parents’ lives. Lying is easy and we don’t like it.
Something that really good shows do is flashbacks without flashbacks. WhatI mean by that is that good shows give you an estimation of their characters’ past in other characters. The best example comes from The Wire…as most things do. Marlo Stanfield was introduced in season 3 partly to show what the rise of original characters Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell’s life in crime would have looked like.
The Americans sometimes does flashbacks to Elizabeth and Philip’s life in Russia. There’s even a brief one in this episode. But the “real” flashbacks come from other characters. We see what Philip’s life back in Russia is like through his biological son, Mischa. In “The Midges,” Mischa finally makes it out of the country. Things still don’t go smoothly, however, because why would they to these poor cosmically cursed Jennings boys. And then you have Paige as well.
When she goes to meet Matthew he tells her about his dad’s burgeoning relationship with the new lady from the gym. Then Paige tries to explain away her weird behavior by saying “The world is so messy right now.”
“There’s nothing we can do about it,” Matthew responses.
In that moment, however, it’s entirely possible that Paige realizes she can. And that’s how it begins. One day you realize that you have the resources and abilities to change the world. The next day you’re shoving poor Randy Chilton into the trunk of a car.