Episode M.V.P.: The Sound Effects Team
“Baggage” was another episode of The Americans filled with fantastic performances, but let’s be honest: This episode belonged to the team that created the sound effects used in the scene that gave the episode its title. “Baggage” will forever be known as “That episode where they broke a dead woman’s bones to fit her in a suitcase,” and so much of the unforgettable horror of that scene came from the sounds of Anneliese’s bones breaking. No television scene has ever produced that kind of visceral reaction in me before. I didn’t know which to cover—my eyes or my ears. In the end, it ended up being the sounds that are still haunting me hours later. And I think that was supposed to be the case. The scene was so eerily quiet except for those sounds, emphasizing the cold, businesslike attitude of Elizabeth and Philip as they went about snapping a woman’s bones like it was just another day at the office.
Some might think of those sounds (and the scene as a whole) as gratuitous (especially because it all centered around the dead, naked body of a woman). However, that scene needed to be as disturbing as possible to prove a point about the life Philip and Elizabeth lead (and the life Anneliese got herself involved in): It’s absolutely brutal. If this whole season is going to center around the conflict of whether or not to let the Center recruit Paige, then we need these reminders of what exactly Paige could be asked to do (or could have done to her). As Elizabeth’s motivations are becoming clearer and more emotionally compelling with each passing episode, Philip’s also need to be just as clear and compelling. The disgustingly vivid sensory details of that suitcase scene made Philip’s words about never wanting his daughter to have to put a body in a suitcase or end up in a suitcase hit home in a way they wouldn’t have without hearing those horrible, bone-snapping sounds before hearing him say those lines.
The sound effects needed to be perfect in order for that scene to affect the audience the way it needed to, and the team that created them was more than up to the challenge. I know I sound like a broken record when it comes to this show and Emmy nominations, but if the sound effects team doesn’t get recognized for their outstanding work in this episode with at least a nomination, then I’ll have even less respect for the Emmys than I already have.
Favorite Scene: Elizabeth telling Philip about her mother
On a show that emphasizes subtlety and silence as much as The Americans does, body language, blocking, and shot composition are heavily relied upon to convey the emotional message of a given scene. This has always been especially true when it comes to quiet moments between Philip and Elizabeth. The way they stand, the way a scene is set up to resemble a past moment, and the amount of space between them in the frame often tell more of the story than the actual dialogue reveals.
In “Baggage,” Elizabeth opened up to Philip about her mother’s reaction to her being recruited by the KGB in the same place where she opened up to him in “EST Men” about her mother’s illness—their office at the travel agency. However, the similar setting only served to highlight the way the tension between them had grown just within the course of one episode.
The scene began with Elizabeth at her desk and Philip on the floor—in the same room but not really sharing the same space, which was symbolic of their division over what to do about Paige. However, Elizabeth chose to extend a gesture of intimacy to her husband by sharing more of her past with him, hoping to help him understand that she’s only trying to do for Paige what her mother did for her. Keri Russell was once again brilliant as Elizabeth told Philip that her mother didn’t hesitate to tell her daughter to do her duty when she was called. I loved that her body language as she approached him was once again so vulnerable, almost curled in on herself like a wounded animal. Elizabeth wants so badly to be understood and accepted by Philip, and it’s making her vulnerable in ways she’s never been before. Elizabeth isn’t someone who’s used to letting herself want things, and Russell has done such a great job over these past two seasons of showing how physically uncomfortable that new vulnerability makes her feel at times.
As Elizabeth talked about her mother, she sat in almost the same hunched way we’ve seen when she listens to her mother’s tapes, which I thought was a beautiful touch by either Russell or the director. Elizabeth was raised to believe in duty (especially after her father’s desertion), and all she wants is for Philip to say it’s okay for her put duty above everything else as her mother encouraged her to do; you can hear her pleading with him to get it—to get her—in every line that Russell said during that scene.
However, sometimes understanding isn’t enough to lead to acceptance—even when we love the other person. Philip might have a better understanding of why Elizabeth supports Paige being recruited, but that doesn’t mean he can accept that it’s the right choice to make. I loved what Matthew Rhys was able to do with silence in this scene. Unlike in “EST Men,” he never moved to hold her hand or comfort her, but he also didn’t cut her off or argue with her. He simply listened to her story and then went to sit back in his chair as she went back to hers. That act of separating himself from her in the frame of the scene was so visually important. “EST Men” ended with them together, holding hands. “Baggage” ended with them still in the frame together but almost as far apart as they could be while still being in the same shot.
Philip and Elizabeth are still a team, but they’re growing farther apart with each argument over Paige’s future. They still love each other, but sometimes love isn’t enough. No amount of convincing—no matter how earnest on Elizabeth’s part or impassioned on Philip’s—is going to change the other’s mind. They’re at an impasse, and it’s a painful one for both of them. And through the work of the actors and director in this scene, we as an audience were able to feel that pain for both characters, which is when The Americans is at its best.
• The revelation that Elizabeth’s father was a deserter made so much sense for who she is and how she was raised. It explains her deep desire to do her duty as a daughter of Mother Russia and her own mother’s unquestioning support of her KGB work. (She surely felt and still feels pressure to bring honor to the family after that honor was lost.) It also explains her furious reaction to Philip thinking about defection in the pilot, which she would surely see as a betrayal and show of cowardice like her father once showed.
• Paige’s straightforward statement that her parents care more about each other than they do about her and Henry killed me. Sometimes I forget how often the Jennings kids are left alone, but when I remember it breaks my heart to think about how confused Paige must be by all the secrets around her.
• Speaking of lines that killed me, Nina asking Oleg’s father to “Tell him I wasn’t pretending with him,” actually made me cry. Annet Mahendru can emotionally destroy me with one line like few others on the show. And that line gets to the core of every relationship dynamic on The Americans: The strongest ones are the ones where there’s no pretending, where real intimacy can develop because there are no secrets.
• In other Nina news, her new cellmate is surely going to be someone important, right? And could Stan and/or Oleg try to trade the defector for Nina?
• Why is there no secret KGB dentist for Elizabeth to visit, but there was a makeshift ER for her to go to when she was shot?
• On a very shallow note, Rhys looked ridiculously handsome in the glasses he wore while interacting with Yousaf. More of this alias, please.
• Noah Emmerich was all kinds of wonderful in this episode. His confrontation with Oleg was a highlight of the hour, his answering machine message broke my heart, and his scene with Sandra was so honest and real and SAD.
• Who else wanted to stress-eat a Milky Way bar (or 10) after that episode ended?