Tuesday, March 7, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Americans' - The Jennings Dig Deep for the Mission and Their Family in 'Amber Waves'

FX's The Americans - Episode 5.01 "Amber Waves"

As Philip and Elizabeth struggle to contain the risks from Paige's growing relationship with Matthew Beeman, the Centre sends them on an operation unlike any they've ever had before, straining their family and marriage to its limits.

The fourth season of The Americans ended with Gabriel suggesting to Philip and Elizabeth that maybe it's time for them to return home to the Soviet Union. This premiere provides the largest glimpse yet into what life is like inside the Soviet Union in 1984. But it's also pretty ridiculous that Philip and Elizabeth would actually leave now - with Paige and a still-in-the-dark Henry. There are still two seasons left of the show and the action requires that they stay exactly where they are. The suggestion from Gabriel largely just serves as a statement for how dire things have gotten for them as of late - even after they got a seven month break from spy work. After working with him for a season, William was captured by the American government before he could hand the Lassa virus over to Philip. The Centre has no idea what all he would tell them. Fortunately, he injected himself with the virus and died before giving up anything. So, that means Philip and Elizabeth's covers are still safe for now. But it's clear the tension is only continuing to rise as the Jennings continue to do bigger and more dangerous missions for the cause.

Of course, "Amber Waves" is a little playful with the season-ending cliffhanger as well. This hour opens with a teenager, Tuan, walking through a school cafeteria and setting down with a classmate, Pascha, who comes from the Soviet Union. It seems like the show is reinventing itself by choosing to leave the Jennings in the ambiguity of their situation at the end of last season and pick up this year with a new family of spies in America. Of course, that's not the case at all. When Tuan returns home, it's revealed that his "parents" are Philip and Elizabeth in brand new disguises. This is simply a new mission of theirs. Something that is just getting started but one that has eerie parallels to the real family drama happening with the Jennings. Pascha is a lot like Paige in that he is the child of Soviet citizens who came to America for personal reasons and are struggling to adjust to the new normal. With Pascha's family, his father has so much disdain for the Soviet Union. He complains about the life there and how great it is to be in America. It's a brutal dinner for Philip and Elizabeth to sit through because they actively disagree with this guy who knows much more about the Soviet way of life than the average American. They can smile when an American says something bad about the Soviet Union because they aren't well informed on the situation. But with this story, it will be much more difficult because this man has no great love for the motherland.

And then, there is the additional detail that Philip and Elizabeth are now working with a teenager on one of their missions. For years, the Centre has been pushing for Paige to become a part of the family business. It's been a real struggle for everyone involved. Paige is still just slowly realizing the brutal lives her parents actually live. She is still having nightmares about the mugger Elizabeth killed right in front of her. Her parents are able to brush it off and tell her that it will get better. Paige doesn't want it to get better. She wants things to be normal again. And yet, that's a hopeless pursuit. Right now, the most Paige can do is act out by dating Matthew. That's a relationship Philip has seemingly cooled off on in between seasons. But it's clear Paige is dating him to annoy her parents just as much as she actually likes Matthew - and, by extension, Stan. Philip and Elizabeth are struggling to control her. That could manifest into a problem later on this season. But it's also fascinating seeing them work with a kid in their new mission. A rapport is there already. And yet, it's also clear that Tuan has his opinion on Pascha's father and makes it known at every possible moment. That rashness could complicate the mission and show just how unpredictable it could be to put young agents in the field for these life-or-death missions.

Elsewhere, it's compelling to see the show spend a considerable amount of time in the Soviet Union in this premiere. It helps the audience immensely to see the lifestyle of the country Philip and Elizabeth are so bravely fighting for. They have their ideals which they largely stick to. This isn't the first time the show has told stories from the Soviet Union either. But the life Oleg has is very different than the one Nina did. He's not a prisoner. No one in his government knows that he betrayed his country to deliver William to the Americans. He left the Rezidentura in order to be with his family again. And now, he's going to be at the center of an ongoing investigation into corruption of the country's major food corporations. On the surface, that could appear a little dry and disconnected. However, the show makes sure to point out the stark differences in food availability in the two countries throughout the hour. That sets it up as one of the more important stories of the season. That's also true of Mischa's trip out of the Soviet Union in order to reunite with his father. It's a trip that the Centre is fully aware of. Claudia and Gabriel know they should be on alert. But it's also just fascinating to see the tension and uncertainty surrounding Mischa as he walks through security not sure if his papers will actually hold up. They do and he continues on his venture. He's still a long ways away from his grand reunion with Philip though.

However, this episode is all about that brutal and elongated sequence that happens at the end. From a narrative perspective, it's simply the show wrapping up one last dangling thread from last season's story. Philip and Elizabeth lead a team to break into Fort Dietrich to collect a tissue sample from William's body - which will contain the Lassa virus. Only after that's done will William he seen as a hero in his country. It's a mission that carries huge risk. This is a massive facility for the American government. The team has to dig for hours and go extremely far into the ground just to get to William's body. The show does such a remarkable job in showcasing the agony and toil this mission wears on the people involved. It's a sequence that lasts a long time. It covers the entire final act of the premiere. Cut after cut, the hole gets bigger and bigger. What starts as a simple job with everyone working on it soon turns into something more physically draining. They have to work in shifts of two. They have to use a ladder just to get in and out of the hole. They have to do all of this without being detected. It's remarkable to do a sequence like this with very little dialogue whatsoever. And yet, that's exactly what this show does and it succeeds for committing to it.

And then, there is the devastating twist that happens at the close of the sequence. One simple mistake forces Philip and Elizabeth to make a deadly choice. Hans just gets too close to the edge of the hole. He slips and falls in. He cuts himself and is exposed to the virus. It's just a minor scratch but everyone knows it's not a risk any of them can afford to take. Elizabeth shoots Hans in the back of the head. It's simple and effective. But it's a solid twist because of all the history the audience knows between the two of them. Elizabeth was the one who trained Hans into being an effective spy. She built him up. And now, she killed him with no hesitation. All that hard work with very little to show for it. Hans was largely a glorified extra to show that Philip and Elizabeth had some counter-surveillance in the field. But now, that safety net is gone. He's killed for one mistake. But more importantly, Elizabeth is now training someone new. She's teaching Paige how to defend herself. She does so fully knowing how dangerous this line of work can be. She does so to connect with her daughter once more. But Paige is still in the dark about the true realities of her parents' jobs. She's being exposed to more and more of it. This training will likely continue that and it will only add to the devastation upon realizing just how monstrous her parents are capable of being.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Amber Waves" was written by Joel Fields & Joe Weisberg and directed by Chris Long.
  • When Elizabeth takes Pascha's mother aside, she comforts her by telling her to be patient with the adjustment. It will just take time for him to warm up to this new way of life. It's also the advice Elizabeth is telling herself with Paige as she hopes things won't always be this difficult with her.
  • Stan is largely seen as a family man in this premiere. At work, he does get the notification that Oleg has returned home which could mean the operation has been blown. But largely, he's just enjoying the happiness of the Paige-Matthew relationship. Plus, he thinks he likes someone at his gym who smiled at him once.
  • It's great to have Margo Martindale back as Claudia at the start of the season. Hopefully, that means more of her this season as well. She's still a series regular on another show. But now, that show (Amazon's Sneaky Pete) is overseen by Graham Yost, who also works on this show as an executive producer.
  • Claudia and Gabriel's brief scene largely just showcases how they have differing opinions about the Jennings. To Claudia, nothing scares them. To Gabriel, everything scares them. Both of those assessments are true as well as why the individual each believes it given their recent experiences with them.
  • Not a whole lot of time has actually passed in between seasons. So, this new mission with Tuan must have taken shape very quickly for Elizabeth and Philip after they decided to stay and continue to work. Of course, it also leads to that great exchange between the two of whether the time will ever be right to leave.