Recap: No One’s The Good Guy in ‘The Americans’

Part of what makes “The Americans” one of the best shows currently airing is the nuanced and often unexpected ways the episodes of the season fit together to make what is usually a truly great narrative arc. This style can lead to individual episodes feeling somewhat sluggish, but that’s generally not a problem in most episodes where the audience gets to savor the brilliance of actors Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell, and Noah Emmerich, among others.

I wrote over the last few weeks that the season seems a bit slow. This episode made me rethink my analysis. The season is definitely slower than previous ones; that hasn’t changed. But it might be less of an issue than I first thought, because these first few episodes, taken together, constitute the beginning of a metamorphosis for both Stan and the Jennings.

The Jennings, of course, are all on their own journeys of moral evolution and emotional self-discovery. Philip, who has questioned his allegiance to the Soviet Union multiple times over the course of the show, is brought back to those questions by the defector working in the Department of Agriculture. Are bread lines so much better than restaurants and supermarkets? Elizabeth is more of a true believer, but her experience with her children will certain test her allegiance to her mother country. And Paige, who is learning to fight and lie like her parents (but feels terrible about it), will surely come to a point where she either must commit to living like her parents, or tell the world their secret—a possibility that would not end well for any of the Jennings.

Even Stan’s steadfast belief in the U.S.’s fundamental goodness was shaken in episode two, after he came face to face with the shrewd pragmatism of his country’s intelligence agencies. The F.B.I.’s willingness to blackmail former Soviet diplomat Oleg, even though it would put him in mortal danger, forces Stan to rethink his commitments. This episode, we see the F.B.I. acting on their plan, as Oleg is delivered a recording of himself revealing state secrets. In the wrong hands, the tape could mean a very dead Oleg. To further emphasize the U.S.’ lack of moral superiority, this scene takes place just after Oleg refuses a bribe from the operator of a Soviet grocery store trying to evade inspection. There’s a deep irony here: one of the few decent men left in the Soviet government is blackmailed by a country which claims the moral high ground.

So far, season five of “The Americans” seems to be all about knocking America down a peg or two with cold, hard facts (abet through the edifice of fiction). This episode, Philip and Elizabeth discover that mass production of crop-destroying insects has already begun. As they explain to their daughter, “they [the U.S. government] go after us any way they can, including the food people eat.” Their work, then, takes on a certain moral quality, as Philip describes: “if we stop this, then a lot of people won’t have to suffer.”

Before you feel the need to come to America’s defense, know that I do not mean to claim anything as reductionist as “the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. were each as bad as the other.” Rather, I’m pointing out that “The Americans” plays an important role in presenting another perspective on the Cold War. The Cold War was, in essence, a series of reactions, as the show does a good job of portraying: The U.S. develops biological weapons, the U.S.S.R. develops their own; the U.S.S.R. sends deep cover agents to steal secrets, the U.S. does the same. There’s a reason this period is often referred to as an “Arms Race,” after all. And indeed, the Jennings commit various atrocities in the name of their country, from murder to sabotage. “The Americans” is not a show about giving one country a moral edge over the other, but rather about leveling the playing field and showing each side that theirs is not the only story.

—Staff writer Noah F. Houghton can be reached at noah.houghton@thecrimson.com.

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