This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans Season 6 Episode 2
“Look at that mug. It’s not really a mug,” Erica Haskard tells Elizabeth near the end of “Tchaikovsky.” She’s dying slowly, painfully, and she’s drawing to draw as much human interaction from this unwelcome interloper as she can. And she’s doing so through art.
“It’s light and dark. That’s all,” she says. “Draw the dark parts. Don’t draw the light parts.”
Elizabeth maintains that she knows nothing about art. But she does, however, know quite a bit about the dark parts. Breaking down all aspects of life into the good and the bad, the light and the dark is an unfair way to try to capture the enormity of existence. It’s a helpful little heuristic though, one that Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are undoubtedly familiar with.
The Americans Season 6, Episode 2 “Tchaikovsky,” is all about the light and the dark. Hell, any episode of The Americans could be conceivably be described that way. A show about a happily married couple who also happen to be trained highly-trained assassins is always going to have its fair share of both the light and the dark.
What sets “Tchaikovsky” apart from the traditional Americans pack, however, is how it’s able to find the dark and light dichotomy in both the mundane and the violent.
Elizabeth knows the dark because she has to find a way to keep Erica alive and in agony against her will until the upcoming summit has passed so that she can continue to work her husband, Glenn for information. Elizabeth also knows the dark because by episode’s end she will have another human being’s brains, blood and viscera fired all over her face while her daughter watches.
That’s heavy stuff. That’s violent stuff. But not all that’s dark and difficult has to be inherently violent and traumatic. Elizabeth gets a hint of it when she’s stymied in her mission regarding the summit over lunch, of all things.
While in disguise as “Megan” she bumps into an old CIA contact Patrick McCleesh. McCleesh seems like he’ll be an absolute font of information, spilling state secret after state secret just because he found a friendly face at a bookstore. But when Elizabeth suggests they should get coffee some time, McCleesh enthusiastically accepts on the grounds that they do so at the CIA lunchroom.
In the same episode where Elizabeth kills a man (our returning friend Colonel Lyle Rennhull) her most challenging exercise is infiltrating a cafeteria. I mean, she does, of course because she’s Elizabeth Jennings but still. Where to find lunch should be a Philip problem, a Henry problem, or even a Stan problem.
There’s a common adage that those in developed countries or who live lives of relative privilege are in no position to complain. Who cares about your problems? There are starving kids in China…in Africa….in Santa Cruz….wherever. There are starving kids somewhere and you’re not one of them. But the human brain doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t do context. It just sees the dark parts and the light parts in equal measure in every situation to build up your own perspective reality.
So while Elizabeth is shouldering the weight of the Cold War on her soldiers, Philip is losing a client, and Stan is playing marriage counselor.
“I asked her to bring me another beer,” an incredulous Gennadi tells Stan about his wife, Sofia. “She was already standing!” That’s just another problem, another dark part that anyone can certainly be familiar with. Not everyone is as lucky as Philip and Elizabeth. Stan sure as hell wasn’t.
Stan left his old job behind but not before that job cost him his marriage. Now he’s in a position where he still has to do his old job because these final dangling Sofia and Gennadi threads aren’t resolved yet and not only that but he’s once again in the position of saving another marriage.
If that all ends up being too much for the guy, he also now has another old problem to go back to as he discovers that Oleg is in town. Stan has left every possible personal and political war behind, yet his ocular nerves know how to find the old dark parts all the same.
Meanwhile, Philip’s streak of an episodes without exhibiting “Classic Sad Philip Face” ends at one. Philip loses a client at the travel agency – a big one. It’s understandable. He knows why it happened. He dropped the ball – he got complacent. He delegated on an important client that he should have handled himself, a suddenly very-wise Henry confirms as much on the phone.
It happens. The extent to which it gets to Philip is noticeable though. “Tchaikovsky” spends a not-insignificant amount of time on Philip’s saga of mild professional failure and Philip physically responds to it not dissimilarly to how he responds to murder. He’s out of the game but his brain isn’t yet. Light and dark – your serotonin receptors only know how to respond to stress and failure one way when they’re as shot as Philip’s are.
Paige has a different perspective in all of this, obviously. She has neither the standard adult problems that Philip has, nor the high-level “holy shit the Cold War might really come down to my performance as a spy” problems. This whole spying business is still fresh and exciting to her. She has a cause, and she might even be good at it.
In fact, Elizabeth tells Philip as much, when he finally gets her to open up.
“I think Paige is pretty good at this,” she says. “But she made a mistake the other night. She got someone’s name wrong.”
“It happens. It happened to us. You grow into it,” Philip says, not knowing that Paige’s name mistake got an innocent man killed. Or maybe he does. He knows the drill.
Still, regardless of Paige’s performance or whose names she’s getting right or wrong, she still has a rather unsophisticated view of all this. She asks her mother if their organization ever uses sex to get information. She read something in a book, you see. What follows is one of the most awkward birds and the bees talk in history.
Elizabeth vehemently denies that spies like them would ever do that, but then has to soften her stance to the more moderate “well, you never know…” That’s enough for a kid as attentive and smart like Paige. There’s some more of the dark creeping in.
Then Paige gets an even more uncomfortable lesson. Elizabeth is charged with getting an important weapons sensor from the Americans to defend the homeland. To do so, she goes back to an old face from her and Elizabeth’s past.
It’s a testament to how long this show has been on and how thoroughly it’s covered the ‘80s that when Elizabeth tells now General Rennhull that he helped their people get orbital missile defense technology in 1981, I assumed Elizabeth was referring to some other agents of the KGB. But no, General (then Colonel) Rennhull really did help Philip and Elizabeth back in seasons one and two.
He’s not in as big a helping mood this time. Elizabeth comes to him three times and three times she’s denied. On the third time she is denied in a particularly aggressive fashion as Rennhull pulls a gun on her. At first Elizabeth begs for her life. Then, because it always had to end this way, she dives for the gun and in the ensuing struggle Rennhull brains are blown out all over Elizabeth.
Paige, hearing the commotion arrives just in time to see her bloodied mother and the very dead man. Forget the coffee mug, this would make a hell of charcoal drawing.
“Tchaikovsky” is probably lacking the narrative oomph to go down in the all-time Americans canon (yes, even with the brain-exploding bit). But it’s a welcome entry into a so-far very satisfying final season. Like its Russian composer namesake, “Tchaikovsky” knows that sometimes life is as lovely as a mother-daughter trip to “The Nutcracker” and sometimes its as harsh as the name “The Nutcracker.”