“What’s the Matter with Kansas?” is a great episode of The Americans because it’s a weird episode of The Americans.
The weirdness begins with the title. Historically, episodes of The Americans that end in questions marks have performed very well. See the all-time great “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?” That title was, of course, a play on the Philip K. Dick short story that eventually became Total Recall.
This title, however, comes directly from another book. What’s the Matter with Kansas? is a 2004 book from journalist Thomas Frank which details the rise of anti-elitist conservatism in the United States. Interestingly, the books was published in other English-speaking countries as “What’s the Matter with America?”
It’s a cheeky title given that the something that’s the matter with Kansas in this instance isn’t its conservative identity but rather the fact that Philip and Elizabeth simply don’t want to go to Kansas.
Gabriel meets with the duo and let’s them know they’ve identified two single executives of AgriCorp operating out of Kansas. And just like that baby, you’ve got yourself a honeypot going. Philip and Elizabeth object. Paige is beginning to take up more and more of their time and they’re already working this Pasha angle. Is it really time to add another iron in the fire?
So Gabriel does what handlers do. He handles Philip and Elizabeth. This is important and they have to do it. The implication of the title here is “what’s the matter with Kansas?” as in: what’s so bad about it? It’s a state. You two have been to other states before. Go and do your jobs.
There are deeper implications of the title as well. I’m drawn back to the English and Australian versions’ title of Mr. Frank’s book. What is Wrong with America? Well to those readers, it’s undoubtedly the rise of extreme conservatism. Ask Philip and Elizabeth (though Philip) especially the same question in 1984 and the answer would have to be a begrudging “not much at all.”
In season five, The Americans has spread out geographically more than ever. We get to see Oleg try to create a new, lasting life for himself in Russia. This week he admits to his mother that he’s being blackmailed by the CIA. This poor woman who wants nothing other than to see her one remaining son happy and whole tells him that he needs to do whatever it takes to survive. Just like she did for the five years she spent in a camp.
Unbeknownst to them both Stan has pulled the brass-balled power move to end all brass-balled power moves to save Oleg. He admits to his boss that he killed a Russian agent on American soil as revenge for Amador’s murder way back in season one (he of course doesn’t say the “season one” part as that would be baffling).
“Do you want to be arrested? Prosecuted?” his boss says.
“That’s up to you but if the CIA uses the tape to blackmail Bourov, I will go public and confess. You’ll keep quiet like the rest of us and find a way to make sure the CIA leaves Oleg Bourov alone.”
And he’s right. Oleg, barring any last minute foolish acts is free to continue to get to the source of shady grocery store dealing,* which means that Russia could potentially be a setting for the entire season.
*I JUST realized this week that Ekaterina Rikova, the grocery store owner who Oleg is investigating is played by All Kliouka, who played Svetlana in The Sopranos. I really have nothing more to say on the topic other than this blew my mind for some reason and we also need many more working Eastern European character actors.
Then there are the non-Russia U.S.S.R. countries. Philip’s son Mischa escapes Ukraine in a rather brilliantly conceived way. His sketchy helpers have him get in the back seat of one car and then they attempt to drive through the border. The helper in Mischa’s car builds a rapport with a border agent about a soccer match on the radio. Then the driver behind him distracts the guard by complaining about how long the first car is taking due to the soccer convo. It’s ingenious and by episode’s end we see a sight that is nearly as jarring and unexpected as Martha in Moscow: Mischa has arrived in JFK airport. Philip’s dance card is about to be even fuller.
Even within the U.S. itself, the scale has expanded in meaningful ways thanks to this season’s focus on food. This expansion masterfully serves the season’s overarching themes so far. For four seasons now the Russia that Philip and Elizabeth are fighting for has been an abstract. We understand “home” as a motivator but never got to actually physically see it. Now that we see both Russia and its sub-states compared to several U.S. states the message is clear. This isn’t about good and bad. This is about winning and losing.
We can even see that as a microcosm in the level of success between Philip and Elizabeth’s respective honeypot missions. Elizabeth’s couldn’t possibly go better. She is tasked with seducing AgriCorp. exec Ben Stobert. She stages a meet-cute in a health food store when she accidentally spills some beans onto the floor. Ben, who is ruggedly Kansas-ly handsome, helps her pick them up and before you know it Ben and “Brenda Neal” are traipsing through the woods on an outdoor date.
Philip’s mark on the other hand? She likes her work. I mentioned that “What’s the Matter with Kansas” was a great episode in part because it was a weird one and decidedly single but not lonely AgriCorp executive Deirdre Kemp is a big reason why. So many characters on The Americans are hyper-competent. It’s part of what makes the show so good. No one wants Philip and Elizabeth to routinely be on the verge of capture because they’re hapless weirdos. But Deirdre’s brand of weird is just a delight.
Philip presents himself as lonely businessman at the gym “Gus Alexander” to her and chats her up to find out what the hotspots in Topeka are and hey, maybe if she’s not busy they can get dinner together. Deirdre is just not having that nonsense. She loves her work and apparently dislikes attractive men flirting with her. Do you, boo. Does this mean Elizabeth is better at her job than Philip? I’m inclined to say no. Philip’s approach is textbook and he and Elizabeth’s disguises are equally attractive.*
*When the series is finished and we’re treated to a montage of Elizabeth’s hottest disguises, the one in “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” will certainly close it out.
But she’s just not that into him. God knows why. That’s the risk of dealing with people as part of your business. People are strange, unpredictable beasts. It’s a lesson that Philip relearns this week with Deirdre and then again with Alexei Morozov at the bar. Upon returning home from Topeka, Philip meets with Alexei as Mr. Eckert and Alexei engages in his favorite pastime: shitting on the Motherland.
Not knowing that Philip just returned from the rolling fields of Kansas, Alexei complains that Russia and the U.S. have the same great, fertile land. One of them just figured out how to harvest and transport the fruits of it in an efficient way. One country got a Deirdre and one country got a Ben. What’s the matter with America? Who cares as long as you get to eat.
By the show expanding its scale comparing and contrasting these two countries we get to see what really matters and what the terms of this war. It’s comfort. It’s happiness. Philip and Elizabeth have so much of it in their new home despite their various stressors. Yet still they cling to the old one.
That idea of identity and home is so powerful that it infects another member of the Jennings clan who has only ever seen her supposed “homeland” once. Yes, Paige is really proving herself to be cut out for this whole spy business.
In “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” she babysits for Pastor Tim* and Alice. Before he leaves, Pastor Tim gives Paige Karl Marx’s book so that she may better understand her parents. She responds to this by almost immediately snooping through Pastor Tim’s shit. She finds that he keeps a diary and gives it a cursory glance to see if her parents are in it.
*Pastor Tim is another one of The Americans’ all-time great weirdos.
Her genius in spying goes even beyond that when she later tells her mom she did it because maybe there was some blackmail-able info hiding in there. You know, just in case.
Paige’s interest in spying reflects her parents’ values. There’s nothing the matter with Kansas or America or Paige. Everything is fine. But the mere knowledge that she might one day connect with the “real” version of herself. The version that knows she is Russian like her parents drives her like nothing else.