The Americans: The Unseen World

 Posted by on March 20, 2014 at 5:27 pm  The Americans
Mar 202014

ta_32014Intelligence work always sounds like a thrilling job. We imagine James Bond, satellites, top-secret packages passed from hand to gloved hand. Not so, says The Americans: these people live lives of banality and anguish, from watching a guy do his laundry to slamming another guy’s arm repeatedly in the trunk of a car. It’s a dim view, and each week it darkens further.

A Little Night Music shows us the process Philip and Elizabeth follow — attract, engage, distance, detach — as they pursue their latest marks. The first, a Russian dissident professor, gives a talk in the first scene to an audience that includes a disguised Philip.

[Russia is] the world of unseen things, unseen people … a society in which Jews are turned into non-persons. – Anton Baklanov

Unfortunately for Baklanov, the unseen world reaches far beyond the borders of the Soviet Union. Hints of it appear throughout the episode: Stan and Nina navigate Cold War politics, and the Jennings couple tries to weave the business of family into their endless job.

Case in point: the Jennings couple are taking a nice drive. Elizabeth has just said, “We do not need a new car, Philip,” when a figure appears through their windshield: Claudia.


Back in her accustomed spot in the Jennings backseat, Claudia invokes the deaths of Emmett and Leann and makes the case for working together. “We need the same thing now,” she says quietly. “You need to help me find their killer.”

So that’s what the diligent operatives do. As Elizabeth goes after their first mark, Philip hears from Stan, who’s had a tough day at work. Over drinks, Stan spills his dark soul:

I’m having an affair. All these years, I’ve never. Never. … We hardly see each other. There’s a lot we can’t share. – Stan

Philip, whose partner in business and intrigue is his wife, is quiet and sympathetic. He knows this kind of raw human pain isn’t intelligence, but he tells Elizabeth about it anyway. “We’re friends,” he adds.

In Elizabeth’s view, raw human pain is a tool — even when it’s her own. With Brad, she repurposes her own vivid memory of being raped in KGB training to embroider her lie about his Navy colleague’s crime.

He just got really mean, and he had me on the ground … I remember I said no. No! – Elizabeth

She’s convincing, and poor Brad is deeply convinced. Elizabeth knows she’s good at this — “Piece of cake,” she tells her husband later, of Brad — but she’s not as good as she thinks she is.

Claudia knows. “I see something in you, something you’re not aware of,” she tells Elizabeth quietly. “I don’t want to lose anyone else.”

Philip has learned that Agent Gaad has put Stan’s work on a back burner; he now has changes to make in his alter ego Clark’s relationship with Martha. Clark promises Martha “a lazy morning,” then promptly spoils it by picking a fight.

Did you WASH your HAIR in the kitchen sink?! – Clark

This is a pretty brilliant maneuver, actually. There’s nothing like an impossible schedule and a bad wig a grumpy morning to make a girl feel like dumping you.

Over at the Rezidence, things are going well for Comrade Oleg: he’s gotten a new security clearance, and is thus able to read all of Nina’s reports of her undercover work with Stan Beeman. The man’s been hitting on her for weeks, but now his overtures are considerably more personal.

When we train the parts of the body that can love, to lie … That is hard on the soul. – Oleg

Nina dismisses his concerns (“Oleg Igoravich, I have a job to do”), but she has reason to be afraid: she’d considered allowing Stan to help her defect, a fact that Arkady alone knows. Her work with Stan is helping her “redeem herself.” This is a considerably bigger deal than getting sexually involved with a source for strategic reasons.

Philip’s strategic spouse, meanwhile, is good and mad. She’s applying for a job and can’t reach her husband on the phone. Again: It says ‘married’ or ‘single,’ Clark, she rants. I’m married. I’m putting your name down.

But Clark is busy. He and Elizabeth ambush the dissident Balanov, but he’s got bodyguards, and one of them goes for Elizabeth in the resulting fight. She snaps, focusing on beating the guy repeatedly — and pointlessly — instead of minding their escape. His accomplice jumps into the driver’s seat and takes off in the Jennings family car, leaving the spy couple exposed.

And now, it seems, in need of that new car.

Closing thoughts on this episode:

Yes, I have relegated Paige to the end of the recap. Perhaps because this kid is the age I was in 1981, she gets on my very last nerve. Paige lies all the time, more or less pointlessly, and her born-again Christian best friend is a lousy way to rebel. Sure, I let the Campus Christians’ cute guys talk to me about their personal savior, but I never actually went to any of their damn revival meetings! Have some pride, Paige Jennings.

A Little Night Music is the name of the Mozart serenade Elizabeth and Brad listen to on their first meeting. I thought of the idea of “night music” again, in the scene where Elizabeth confronts Paige about lying. I Melt With You, from the Modern English record Mesh and Lace, plays on Paige’s radio.

When Agent Gaad bids Stan good night, am I the only one in America yelling, GOOD NIGHT, JOHN-BOY! at my TV? Please tell me I’m not.

Stan Beeman’s drinktuition is terrible. I can only hope that telling the Russian spy about his affair is part of a deeper design — perhaps he’s working to convince the Russian spy that they are, in fact, friends?

Intellivision was a real game console, and a pretty good one for its time. We had the football game, and also one called Pitfall. The graphics were fantastic.

Intellivision's "Pitfall": thoroughly rad.

Intellivision’s “Pitfall”: thoroughly rad.

While Elizabeth and Philip are a terrible example of work-life balance, it doesn’t seem to be hurting their marriage. They have as intimate an understanding of each other’s lives as any couple I’ve ever met. I guess the couple that creeps together, keeps together?


  4 Responses to “The Americans: The Unseen World”

  1. “Sure, I let the Campus Christians’ cute guys talk to me about their personal savior” ouch that hits close to home. Thinking a boy was interested in you when all he wanted was your eternal soul. Love these, Anne.

  2. I didn’t think that Martha would have to die this early in the season — but yeah. Do we see a “suicide” coming?

    • If our heroes are lucky, that’s what’s in store. I expect something messier: Martha finds out her “husband” doesn’t exist, dumps him, then casually mentions his nonexistence at the office … which leads to searches and sketch artists and all manner of stuff.

      She’s going to make a mess for Philip. Mark my words.

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