Welcome back to our weekly discussion of the best show on television, comrades! I can’t wait to spend this season talking about mothers, grain supplies, my deep love for Paige Jennings, and wigs with all of you!
Title: Amber Waves
Episode M.V.P.: The hole
You didn’t think I was going to discuss this episode without singling out the hole, did you? Everything about that scene was made for digging into deep analysis (pun intended), and it set up the season in such a revelatory way that I’ve found myself unable to think of much else when I look back on this episode. “Amber Waves” didn’t spend a lot of time with one character or actor, which made it difficult for me to pick an actor for M.V.P., but it did spend a lot of time with the hole—so much time, in fact, that I could see why it might have bothered other people. Devoting the final 10 or so minutes of your penultimate season’s premiere to a mostly wordless scene involving digging in the darkness is something no other show on television today would even attempt. The scene called for a mixture of storytelling patience, actors who can convey huge amounts of thoughts and emotions without words, and an audience comfortable with long periods of silence—and The Americans has proven that it has all three of those things in spades.
The scene also called for an incredible amount of confidence from the writers and director—confidence in both the moment they were creating and confidence in their audience to appreciate it. The entire scene was a ballsy move, especially in a season premiere, and the risk paid off. It showed the relative monotony of realistic spy work while still leaving viewers on edge, and then it reminded us brutally that no one is safe in this world and that we can never let ourselves be lulled into a false sense of security by the show’s moments of silence and methodical spycraft.
Yes, the scene was gutsy in its monotony and shocking in its conclusion, but that’s not why I think it was the most valuable part of the episode. It was the way it set up what appears to be some of this season’s major themes that made me believe it’s going to be one of the most valuable scenes of the entire season when all is said and done. Philip and Elizabeth keep digging themselves in deeper; that’s a metaphor that was hard to miss. They’ve been digging a hole for years that could very well be their grave. But it was Hans’s fate in the hole they dug that struck me the most in terms of what it means for the future of this show. Philip and Elizabeth made it out of the hole they dug, but Hans didn’t—sweet, idealistic, young Hans who trusted them (especially Elizabeth) almost as parental figures; this was especially evident in the way Elizabeth reassured him in a motherly tone that things were going to be okay before she shot him. Literally one misstep was all it took for Hans to fall into the hole they dug and become exposed to something deadly and dangerous. And once he was exposed to it, there was no way out; there was only one way for his story to end. Elizabeth being the one to shoot Hans was the perfect choice; for her, practicality has always come before emotional ties. But the look she and Philip shared afterward showed that these kinds of choices and sacrifices aren’t easy for either of them.
Philip and Elizabeth were aware of the risks they faced in that hole, but Hans was supposed to be relatively safe from his place above it. It reminded both of them—and us as viewers—that even simply being around the hole Philip and Elizabeth have dug and the deadly possibility at the center of it is dangerous.
If you just read all of that and somehow managed to not be terrified for Paige and Henry (especially Paige), you must have nerves of steel. This season seems to be about children (both real and stand-in) and their parents, and ending the premiere with the image of Elizabeth and Philip’s wide eyes after she shot the agent who was like a spy son to her seems to point to dark and dangerous moments and difficult choices ahead for Philip, Elizabeth, and their children.
Favorite Scene: Elizabeth teaches Paige to protect herself
Anyone who knows me probably would have guessed this was going to be my favorite scene from the moment it was shown in trailers and commercials for this season. Paige is my favorite character on the show, and her relationship with Elizabeth is one of my favorite dynamics—so seeing it take on this new facet makes for fascinating viewing for me. The way the show has taken Paige’s story from a place where no one would ever have believed she could follow in her parents’ footsteps to a place where she now seems on the cusp of doing exactly that has been masterful. I love watching Holly Taylor and Keri Russell play off each other, as both are physical actors who excel at using their bodies to convey emotions. (I will always shout from the rooftops that having two former ballerinas play mother and daughter has been a huge help in terms of developing their dynamic.) That’s going to make these training scenes incredibly intense and packed with layers of development and emotions for both mother and daughter, and I can’t wait to see them continue.
I loved that teaching Paige to fight was Elizabeth’s way of helping her deal with her nightmares and anxiety. Elizabeth is a woman of action, and she was raised by a woman of action. Elizabeth’s mother was not one to coddle or even comfort, and Elizabeth took after her in that way. Elizabeth also knows from experience that sometimes the only way to feel like you have some control over your life is to physically take control of a situation, and, as such, she feels she is genuinely doing the best thing for Paige by teaching her to defend herself. Was it hard to watch Elizabeth push Paige around, especially looking at the very realistic tears in Taylor’s eyes? Of course. But I also found myself surprisingly moved by the pride in Elizabeth’s eyes as she watched Paige make a strong fist. And then I immediately hated myself for enjoying that Elizabeth seemed proud of her daughter for following in her footsteps, which is when this show is at its best.
Ultimately, the main thing to take away from this scene was Elizabeth telling Paige that she has to do whatever must be done to protect herself. I can’t help but feel that is going to be prophetic in some way. Who is Paige going to hurt to protect herself and/or her family? And, maybe more interestingly, is Paige going to get hurt because Elizabeth has to protect herself, or is Elizabeth going to have to hurt someone because Paige is an extension of herself—someone she will do whatever it takes to protect?
• The theme of mothers and their children—and what they will do for each other—extended far beyond Elizabeth, Paige, and Hans in this episode. Mischa started out on his journey because of his mother, and it’s her voice we hear as he continues on his way. Oleg returned home to be with his mother. Philip and Elizabeth talked in the car about their mothers and the sacrifices they made to keep them fed. Pasha’s mother is far more concerned about her son than her husband is. And Elizabeth’s reaction is the one the camera lingered on after Tuan talked about Pasha’s mother babying him and wishing someone would have put in bullet in Pasha’s father’s head.
• Food was also a recurring motif in this episode—from Stan learning to cook and feeding Paige to Oleg’s mother cooking for him to the central concern over Russia’s wheat supply and the Americans’ involvement with it. That feels like a very deliberate connection to the theme of mothers, because it’s typically mothers who are associated with food and feeding their kids.
• I thought the expanded scope of the episode—the scenes in Russia, the chilling montage of contrasting wheat fields with “America the Beautiful” playing in Russian—opened up new avenues for storytelling but actually took a while for me to adjust to. This show has always had such a tight, intimate scope that the widening lens threw me off balance for a little while.
• However, taking some time to focus on Russia allows Oleg to remain in the story, which is a great thing. I love Costa Ronin, and I’m excited to see what this potential double-agent plot has in store for him.
• Poor Stan. His story about the girl at the gym was so realistically pathetic it made me cringe, but I want to watch it again if only to enjoy Matthew Rhys’s facial expressions during that scene one more time.
• Since we’re spending time in Russia this season, can we please check in on Martha? (I’m still going to hold out hope that she will meet Oleg and they can live happily ever after together somewhere far away from everyone else.)
• I think I’m more excited to see Philip and Elizabeth handle Tuan than I am to see them handle the Russian family they’re keeping tabs on. He’s everything Elizabeth could have hoped for in a kid—devoted to the cause, ruthless, good at his job—but something tells me spending time with him is only going to make her more wary of Paige entering the family business.
The hole! A perfect pick for episode MVP. Sean was not a fan of that scene, but I was riveted the entire time. I love the tension this show creates from keeping the viewer guessing. When they first starting digging, I had no doubt they were going to dig up William. But I was questioning the motive…did they want to send the body home, or simply retrieve the weapon? Then they kept digging and digging and digging and I started to question. That was a deep hole, maybe it was meant as a mass grave for those that came out there with them? Was there actually a body? In the end it was kind of a mix of both…it was to find the body, to retrieve the weapon, but the grave also took an extra victim. While some shows beat you over the head with narrative, this show is on the opposite end of the spectrum. You have to be patient and piece things together slowly, and I find it challenging and refreshing.
Poor Hans, another casualty of the cause. I find it fascinating how all of these people know how dangerous their jobs are, and might even convince themselves they are willing to die for the cause, but when that moment comes, its hard to admit defeat. The very basic human instinct is to survive at all costs. Hans wasnt ready to admit defeat, but Elizabeth knew it was over.
Last season with the bio-weapon they explored at what point does the cause takes a back seat to humanity in general, but from the compare and contrast between Russia and the US and the story with Pasha’s family, it looks like we are going to be focusing back on the idea that maybe Russia isnt worth the toll everything is taking on the family. In a way, Phillip and Elizabeth have already chosen America. They were told to get out, but decided it “wasnt the right time”. But will there ever be a “right time”? Especially for Paige and Henry. Its also something I see Oleg struggling with, since he seemed to have no problem living in America.
Fabulous write up as always, and I cant wait to see what the show has in store for us this season!
I loved what you said about these characters seemingly being willing to die for the cause, but when the moment comes, they fight like hell against their fate and try to convince themselves that they aren’t going to die. It all goes back to the fact that this show works so hard to remind us that all of these characters—on both sides of the US/Russia divide—are human. I loved that this theme was reflected in Gabriel and Claudia’s brief conversation, too: Claudia sees Philip and Elizabeth as fearless agents; Gabriel knows them better and sees them as human beings who might be good at their jobs but are terrified all the time (which reminded me of Elizabeth saying back in Season One that all she wanted was one day where she didn’t have to worry).
I also totally agree with what you said about the show not beating us over the head with its narrative. It throws right into the middle of the action and treats you as smart enough to figure it out. That was evident right from the start with the introduction of Tuan; there was no hand-holding there—we had to put the pieces together as the episode went on. That’s why The Americans is a show I adore but won’t recommend to just anyone; it’s a show for people who like a challenge. Everyone I know who loves the show is a very smart person, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
It is a week late, but I have finally watched the first episode!
I didn’t even make it through your MVP section without being reminded of why I love your reviews for this show. Halfway through the hole scene, I was so focused on how daring a move it was and how it was so smart of this show to showcase that I wasn’t even thinking about themes. Everything you said about Elizabeth and Philip continuing to dig themselves deeper and the way that affects the lives of everyone around them was brilliant, babe. I am so ready to see how that theme plays out over this season and be worried the whole time.
Pingback: TV Time: The Americans 5.02 | Nerdy Girl Notes