Wednesday, March 28, 2018

REVIEW: 'The Americans' - Philip and Elizabeth's Separate Lives Push Them to the Extreme in 'Dead Hand'

FX's The Americans - Episode 6.01 "Dead Hand"

It's autumn 1987. As a major arms control summit looms, Elizabeth is pushed to her limits as never before. Philip has settled into running the newly expanded travel agency - until an unexpected visitor makes a disquieting request.

At its heart, The Americans has always been a series about marriage. The marriage between Philip and Elizabeth has always been fraught with tension. They were devoted to their country and have served in jobs that have completely changed their lives and identities. They were always split on their devotion to the cause. But they were always united for their family. It became an actual marriage of trust. And so, it was a huge deal when Elizabeth told Philip that he should quit this job at the end of the fifth season finale. At that point, they had both talked about going home again. But in the end, Philip had reached his breaking point. It came right after Elizabeth had told Tuan that this isn't a job anyone can do alone for very long. She was willing to carry that burden in order to keep Philip alive. And now, the show is exploring the consequences of that action. The drama jumps ahead a couple of years to the autumn of 1987 for its final season. It's a time jump that shakes up the lives of every single major character. But it also establishes a new rhythm for Philip and Elizabeth. They have been living these separate lives for awhile. Philip is now running the travel agency while Elizabeth continues to do the spy work. She has recruited Paige to the cause as well while she's also attending college. Henry is away at high school and has become quite the hockey star. This family isn't the same as it once was. The need to retreat to various corners of the house in order to have a private conversation is gone. They can speak openly almost anywhere. But their paths so rarely cross right now because of the amount of work they have to do in their separate lives. It's tiresome and it really shows. And that sets the stage perfectly for the final conflict of the series.

The time jump also brings the show closer to the end of the Cold War. Mikhael Gorbachev is now in charge of the Soviet Union. His leadership ideas clash with the world that Philip, Elizabeth, Claudia and company have always known. As such, divisions have emerged in the KGB. There are those who support Gorbachev's plans for a more open relationship with the rest of the world. And then, there are those who continue to act the same as always because the world is as unreliable as it has ever been. This conflict comes on the eve of a major weapons summit as well. The leaders of the world are all coming to D.C. to negotiate a treaty to lessen the amount of weapons that can be used to kill each other. It's a summit that on the surface seems pretty noble. It's a good idea for this war not to end in the death of the entire world. The tides are turning and that is having an effect in the day-to-day lives of these spies. Philip is already living his dream life. He has retired and is just able to relax into his cover identity. He can love America and go country line dancing whenever he wants. That sequence of him dancing is such a strong callback to the series premiere. It's him getting everything he has ever wanted. He's happy and smiling. And yet, that mood isn't destined to last. This premiere quickly pulls him out of retirement and into a new conflict. There are moments where "Dead Hand" is very expositional. And yet, the emotions attached to this new story make it one of the most dynamic premieres the show has ever produced.

Elizabeth is tired. The Centre hasn't really stepped up and given her a full time replacement for Philip in the field. She's the one being forced to make all of the tough calls and difficult decisions. Yes, she is still working with a team. That surveillance operation now includes Paige whom the others don't even know is Elizabeth's daughter. They just worry that she is too young to be doing this kind of work. But it's still ultimately Elizabeth who is carrying out all of the lethal actions. She's the one who is always approached for the difficult jobs. She's the one who is always scarily skilled and dangerous at a moment's notice. This premiere brings the tension up considerably with the split in the KGB and Elizabeth's role in that story. She goes down to Mexico to meet with a general. This is a meeting that the rest of the Centre doesn't know anything about. It's instead a very secret inner circle of people who don't trust Gorbachev in maintaining Soviet secrets. They are close on finishing a program that will launch missiles at the United States should America ever eliminate the entire Soviet government. These people believe their leaders are leveraging this program in exchange for information about the Americans' own stealth program. This intelligence is so top secret that it means Elizabeth now has to walk around constantly with a necklace containing a cyanide pill. That's a stark realization that really intensifies the pressure for Elizabeth. She was the spy targeted for this mission because she was already living a cover identity with one of the American negotiators. She is spying on the meetings taking place in the lead up to this summit. It's surveillance that is very intricate while having the ominous tone of becoming deadly at a moment's notice.

And things do take a lethal turn in this premiere. It doesn't come from anything Elizabeth has to do to maintain her cover or protect Soviet secrets. It comes simply from Paige losing her fake college I.D. when she is stopped and questioned by a naval officer. That too is one of the most tense scenes of the premiere. There was always danger in bringing Paige into this line of work. In the years since, she has formed a completely new relationship with Elizabeth as well as a grandmotherly bond with Claudia. They all sit together and watch Russian films. It's a way to bring the culture into this family unit. It's a way to continue to support Paige's education so that she can be a highly placed spy for the Centre. It's a risk taking her out into the field considering she should just be pretending to be a normal U.S. citizen attending college. And yet, she handles herself well under pressure. She is stopped by this naval officer. She has all of the right answers but he is creepily flirting with her. He is demanding a date and won't take no for an answer. As such, he keeps her college I.D. as a way to pressure her into things. Paige doesn't freak out about it until later when she updates her mother on everything that happened. Elizabeth too is able to keep everything together in the heat of the moment. She is able to assure Paige that it isn't a big deal. She did everything she was suppose to do. She doesn't have to worry about it any longer. After that, Elizabeth immediately goes to track down this guy and promptly kills him. It's such a shocking moment. It's once again Elizabeth all alone on the street in the middle of the night attacking someone to protect her daughter. It's a familiar image. And yet, it's packed with so much anxiety and tension because of just how tired and dangerous she can be. She does all of this over a fake identity. She views it as a necessary action. But the severity of it all shows that she is close to her own breaking point after being at this job solo for too long.

And then comes the ending that ominously sets up the end game for the series. It includes a sit-down between two major characters who have never interacted previously: Oleg and Philip. Their lives have changed so much during the time jump. They both believed they were out of the spy game for good. Oleg has gotten married, had a son and is working for his father in the Department of Transportation. One day, Arkady comes knocking on his day to tell him about the severity of this mission and needing to know if there is a plan to take out Gorbachev. Elizabeth may not be a willing participant in it. She may just be being manipulated right now. But she needs to be monitored very closely leading up to this important summit. They want to recruit Philip for that mission. He'll be tasked with spying on his wife. It's such a rich theme to explore for the final season. It's a familiar spy vs. spy construct. But it has a whole new lawyer of complexity because they are husband and wife. They are committed fully to this marriage. Philip only reluctantly goes to this meeting with Oleg. He only takes Oleg seriously once he talks about just how dangerous it is for him to be in America right now. It's such a sensitive mission. One that could be potentially figured out if Philip and Elizabeth were communicating openly and honestly with each other. They aren't though. Elizabeth feels the need to keep Philip in the loop with the bare minimum of what she is doing. He knows that it's difficult for her. He sees that it is wearing her down. He is living this dream life. But he isn't able to enjoy it any longer. His future is in jeopardy because of this demand from Oleg. He needs to talk about it with Elizabeth. But when she comes home, she is short-fused and just needs sleep. She has precious little time anymore because she has to devote herself completely to the mission. She screams at Philip for staying up so late just to have a simple chat with her. It's not a simple conversation though. He is carrying sensitive information. But so is she. They are both aware of just how high stakes the world has gotten all of sudden. And yet, they are standing opposed to one another in a conflict that is bound to become quite destructive.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Dead Hand" was written by Joel Fields & Joe Weisberg and directed by Chris Long.
  • The series has always been noted for its excellent musical choices. With the jump to 1987, that opens things up to a whole new collection of music as well. This premiere is overflowing with solid moments. The best is probably the opening montage depicting Philip and Elizabeth's new lives set to Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over." And of course, the show had to fit in some Peter Gabriel and Fleetwood Mac as well.
  • It has long been surprising that the show didn't lock Margo Martindale in as a series regular at the start of the second season. As such, she has always been busy with other jobs. She's still starring in Amazon's Sneaky Pete. But it's also nice to see her finally get that upgrade for the final season. She has won two Emmys for this role. And now, she's bound to get lots of great material in these final episodes.
  • Arkady hasn't been seen since the fourth season finale. And yet, his presence was necessary to explain why Oleg would so quickly leave this new life he has built for himself to return to spycraft in America where he would face death once again. It also comes with the reveal that Arkady has been promoted to Deputy Director of Directorate S.
  • There are lots of changes going on with the FBI side of things as well. Stan and Renee are married now. However, it's still unclear if she's a spy working for the Soviets or some other government. If so, it would have to be a long game mission. But more importantly, Stan is no longer working in the same office and partnered with Aderholt. Now, they only share the one mission of being the handlers of Sofia.
  • It's nice to see character actors Scott Cohen and Miriam Shor pop up as the new marks that Elizabeth is targeting. They play a married couple. He is a negotiator for the Americans working on the deal before the summit. She is an artist who is terminally ill. It's ominous to think of Elizabeth as an at-home nurse. Does she have the skills to keep this woman alive long enough for her to get the information she needs? Probably but we'll have to see.