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The Americans Watch: The Commitments

The setup of The Americans has made us invested in Philip and Elizabeth's marriage. But the dramatic, sad "Only You" questions whether we should be.

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Craig Blankenhorn / FX

Spoilers for last night’s The Americans below:
The Americans killed off a major supporting character last night, but that wasn’t the most daring thing about “Only You.” At this point, really, killing off significant characters is pretty much the price of admission for a cable drama of a certain level of ambition.

What was distinctive, and fascinating, and sad, about the end of Gregory was how it came about. There were no fireworks. Nobody ran or screamed or fought back. There was no excruciating execution, a la Big Pussy on The Sopranos. There was no Breaking Bad-style derring-do in which Walter White raced to engineer some way to divert the authorities and stave off a reckoning. It was simply a gradually dawning realization that this way the way it needed to go down.

It began, with Granny’s announcement and machinations, as essentially the world’s crappiest HR downsizing meeting. The evidence in Amador’s killing pointed back to Gregory’s people, and it could not be permitted to point further. The KGB had planted evidence to in Gregory’s home to ensure that, but look on the bright side: it would relocate him to Moscow, give him a decent but not luxurious stipend, and essentially retire him in an entirely strange land. (“We’re not monsters,” she might have said, as Stan did when lying about Vlad’s death.)

And Gregory accepts this. Because he’s committed. It’s in the job description. Yes, he resists going to Moscow and clings to the idea that he could get plastic surgery and start over in Los Angeles–he knows nothing from living in Moscow, there aren’t a hell of a lot of black Muscovites, and, though the episode does not delve into it, Russian society is not without its race issues either. But he does not see any injustice in this. On some level, he must know that, yes, an L.A. move could work for him, but there would be a slight risk, and taking any risk in his interest is not in Granny’s job description. There’s nothing to be done. Nothing personal!

Where it does get personal is in his goodbye with Elizabeth, whom he clearly still loves and who loves him. There’s no acrimony there, either, only heartbreak and frustration. He has to be who he is, he says. (Who he is, we should remember lest we get too sentimental, is also the kind of guy who decides to suicide himself by taking as many unsuspecting cops as possible with him.) And before leaving, he asks Elizabeth to remain who she is–and not to go back to Philip, but to find someone who will love her for her “commitment,” not in spite of it.

Can you say he’s wrong? I’m beginning to wonder if there isn’t a kind of 500 Days of Summer dynamic on The Americans. That is, as in that breakup movie, we’re set up to root for a certain romantic pairing because that’s what we’re led to expect from the situation. 500 Days of Summer played against our expectations of romantic comedies–that love would win out, despite the character’s protestations that she didn’t want it–and made us see that, in this case, that particular relationship really wasn’t meant to be.

In this case, the audience is conditioned to see if Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage can work because, well, he loves her, and he’s fighting for love, and you’re not supposed to be against love, right? I certainly don’t know where this story is going, and it would be unlikely for The Americans to split its two lead characters up entirely. But in an episode like “Only You,” The Americans invites us to at least consider the possibility that Gregory might be right. Philip’s situation might be sympathetic, and yet he could still–through no fault of anyone’s–just not be right for the woman he was set up with.

All this makes the climactic scene, with Philip, Gregory, and Elizabeth together, impressively complex and sad. Elizabeth is the committed one, but not completely: true commitment to the cause, and Gregory knows it as well as she, would demand she pull the trigger and kill him there. (How does she know the police won’t take him alive?)

Philip, meanwhile, has to confront the fact that his estranged wife is saying goodbye to the man that she has loved more deeply than she ever loved him. He watches this man kiss his wife goodbye, and his response is to attach a silencer to his gun–not to avenge himself on the man who cuckolded him, but as a gesture of caring for Elizabeth (“You shouldn’t have to do this”). Philip is ready to kill Gregory for Elizabeth, and he lets Gregory go for Elizabeth.

Does this mean that Philip is, or can ever be, as right for Elizabeth as Gregory was? Maybe not. Is it possible, contra the title “Only You,” that there can be more than one right person for her, in different ways? Maybe. This episode didn’t answer the question. But it was another powerful, emotional demonstrated that there is more than one way to be committed.

4 comments
Majnun
Majnun

The heroes of the story decided that, since a guy had to die anyway, he may as well murder a bunch of American cops. Which is super weird. That's not just spying on another country, or murdering a guy who got in the way, it's going out of your way to murder police officers. Am I wrong, or is that ten times as "bad" as anything else they've done? Interesting to think about where it goes.

jponiewozik
jponiewozik moderator

@Majnun If you mean Elizabeth and Philip by "the heroes"--maybe I'm misremembering, but wasn't it Gregory's idea to go out via suicide by cop, not theirs? Or am I forgetting something?

TheHoobie
TheHoobie like.author.displayName 1 Like

Bummer! To my endless dismay, I'm 5 episodes behind on The Americans. Catching up on it is my #1 televisual priority, in front of even Mad Men* and Top of the Lake.

But am I going to let the fact that I'm 5 eps behind and haven't seen the one in this post stop me from commenting on it?! Hells, no! Like Clint Eastwood and Elizabeth and Philip, I will adapt, improvise, and overcome. (By which I mean I will lightly skim James's post, not specifically address anything that's actually in it, and lamely base my comment on the five episodes I've seen, the last of which was five episodes ago. Party!)

The main thing I wanted to comment on is just how amazing Keri Russell is. She's knocking my socks off, with how well she manifests Elizabeth's complicated combination of control and vulnerability, guardedness and openness. And you can tell why both Philip and Gregory would find her irresistible.

I loved how, in the premiere, Elizabeth's subtle but eyebrow-raising reaction to her daughter's history teacher having a cleft lip tells you so much about where she came from and the perspective it gave her.

And in the episode where she is beaten by a source, I loved how Russell showed you Elizabeth's pride in having (ugh) taken her licks but gotten the job done. And how, when Philip is determined to go and beat the source's a** in retaliation, their conversation escalates until Elizabeth says the cruel thing that stops him because she knows she has to stop him and she knows that remark will stop him. But Russell manages to make us feel both the necessity of the remark and the mix of regret and triumph behind it.

Not to give the other actors on the show short shrift! Matthew Rhys is also excellent, as well as being, um, easy on the eyes. (A month or so ago I was idly leafing through an Entertainment weekly near our 3-year-old son and came to a review of The Americans with a picture of the two leads, with Rhys looking, um, smoking hot in a turtleneck. I gasped audibly, and our son asked brightly, "You like that lady, Mommy?" I said, "Oh... I do like that lady, but I like that guy a lot, too. He's very handsome. Almost as handsome as you, and Daddy!" I only hope my domestic secret-agent fu worked there....) 

Noah Emmerich is also kicking butt and taking names; one thing I really like is how Stan's competitive alpha-male banter with Philip and Amador often has quite the sharp edge to it, an edge you're never sure how seriously to take in the moment.

I also love the dull palette of the show and, of course, the music!

*I still haven't seen the Mad Men premiere, and although I know I will watch it, I'm surprised to find that I'm not really in any hurry. I'm having trouble gearing up for another season of Don's Rich Middle-Aged White Guy anomie. (Though I am eager to see Peggy and Roger again.) I've let myself be "spoiled" for the "plot" developments in the premiere, but, as so many critics have said, Weiner's spoilers aren't really spoilers at all. And weirdly, the spoilers are making me neither more nor less eager to watch the premiere. I wonder, though, if Weiner's attempts at super-tight control of the "spoilers" aren't part and parcel of why the show sometimes feels overcontrolled, airless, hermetically sealed, and, to quote my mom's devastating one-word review of the one episode she watched with me, precious.

Lucelucy
Lucelucy like.author.displayName 1 Like

@TheHoobie And if you can find it On Demand or on the net, add Spies of Warsaw to your list.  At least, I loved it.  Or maybe it's David Tennant I love.  Sometimes hard to tell the difference.  :)