MARCH 17, 2016
This week on Dear Television:
- “Memory Gaps,” from Lili Loofbourow
- “The Ballad of the Cool Dad,” from Phil Maciak
By Lili Loofbourow
March 18, 2016
“Glanders” began with the wet crunch of a face getting smashed in. It ended with Philip inspecting a small glass vial for invisible cracks. Is this a sign? A hint that the Jenningses are evolving out of blunt trauma into trauma’s other less visible forms? It’s safe, in any case, to say that the infantile brutality of the first mirrors the panicky gentleness of the second. Philip’s rock and William’s vial bracket this new season’s tone, its spectrum of fear, its range of damage. And that range is extensive, Phil! Philip, your namesake is a mess. Paige is a mess. Martha is a MESS. Stan is a mess. Elizabeth’s the only one holding it all together. That’s a lot of chaos to manage, and the show’s perennial questions — will they leave or will they stay? — are blossoming, despite Elizabeth’s conviction, into a lethal urge to confess. Philip’s yearning to be American matches Paige’s reluctance to become un-American in one respect: father and daughter want to testify, and that tendency is getting worse.
Phil, I’m very taken with your account of Philip’s function as Cool Dad, both because you’re exactly right — he does get “credit” for this — and because it’s materially wrong (if anyone’s a cool dad to Henry, it’s Stan!). How does the show both create this impression and simultaneously correct it? I want us to talk more about the legerdemain of The Americans over the course of this season, along with other ways it tricks the memory and triggers patterns that aren’t there (among them your Mad Men angle — do we agree, I wonder, that Stan Beeman is The Americans’ Don Draper?)
But first I need to come clean: after this episode, the feelings in my gut are all for Paige and Martha. I’m enjoying everyone else, and it’s great to see Dylan Baker, but Holly Taylor and Alison Wright aren’t just brilliant in this thing, they’re unexpectedly transformative. Their characters are rapidly, and against all odds, becoming the greatest threats to … well, everyone they know. Philip and Elizabeth, the US government, Gene, Pastor Tim … Martha and Paige have become the show’s Glanders. They’re the precious unknown quantity in the vial that you can’t take proper precautions for, or dead drop, and have to constantly check for cracks.
I’m taken with Paige and Martha precisely because they’re dramatically and vocationally uninterested in the question you identify as central — not just to Mad Men, but to every “antihero” prestige drama of the last several years, namely: “is there virtue in the virtuosic execution of evil deeds?” The answer, in most of those shows, is affectively Yes, even when it’s diegetically No. Walter White’s meth is THE BEST PUREST ARTISAN METH (er, terrible and bad for society). Don Draper’s ads are THE BEST NOSTALGIATRUTH (lies). The impressionistic caps are louder than the parenthetical correctives. In order to keep rooting for the antihero, these shows help the audience love to relish their success. Consciously or not, we do give virtue points for their proficiency, their competence, their professional aptitude.
I think The Americans is doing to that Mastery > Morality trope exactly what you suggest it’s doing to gender relations, namely, activating our expectations and our judgment in order to restore some nuance to a genre that bent a little too far into the dark. There might even be some idealism or integrity hiding in there.
Because Phil, Martha broke bad in this episode, and it is a tragedy. I don’t mean her whole story arc, which is phenomenally sad. I specifically mean her turn in this episode, her undeniable, absolute revulsion at what Philip did and her decision — coerced by the fact that he literally killed “for” her — to overcome it. It is not glorious. It is not secretly kind of badass. It is awful, and it’s awful because she has a conscience.
I’m still not over what Wright did with her face and her voice when Philip tells Martha he’s killed Gene. Her performance felt just arrestingly true — the fragility, the infantile, beseeching “Nos,” the heavy, judgment-laced, exhausted retreat. Combined with those accusatory eyes of Wright’s, which do beautiful work even as she embodies a wounded animal going dark, eyes which continue to accuse even after she ostensibly forgives and joins him. I was so affected by that scene, Phil. And now I know why: I’m so used to morally convicted antiheroes with complex issues and a talent for compartmentalization that I hadn’t registered how much I missed watching a non-pathological character react. “I didn’t agree to this,” she says, and she’s right, and it matters terribly.
I was similarly moved (though obviously not to quite the same extent) by Paige standing outside her classroom as her classmates chew gum and yawn and drone the Pledge of Allegiance. It is so smart, so right, to write Paige as a serious person who values honesty — so much so that she excludes herself from the rituals that mean little or nothing to the actual Americans, of which she was so recently one. Paige poses an impossible problem for the moral relativism that defines everyone else in the show (and, arguably, our own viewing habits). She makes no sense in a television landscape that’s trained us to overlook peccadilloes like murder. You put it so well I’m going to quote you: “we give him credit for baby steps. He’ll capture and kill men and women, kidnap a defector and tear him away from his family, stage the suicide of an innocent bystander, but he feels yucky about seducing a teen girl. Congratulations, Philip!”
Paige will not give him credit for any of this.
It’s funny — I’ve been scanning comment sections after the first episode, and I’m struck by just how many viewers are so eager to dismiss Paige’s qualms that they categorize her as a “failure.” It’s a form of thinking that seems pretty … evil? Some have suggested that Henry is the “true” (that is, worthy) heir to the Jennings’s family business. (Remember when he picked up that bottle? He’s got what it takes!) One or two even suggested that Henry, unlike Paige, has figured everything out by now; he’s just pretending he’s an American kid playing video games. Other commenters assert that Elizabeth’s kills outnumber Philip; he’s more of a softie. It’s a claim that’s demonstrably untrue (Philip’s onscreen kills nearly double Elizabeth’s) and yet, because she’s firm and he feels, this impression lingers.
Why does this show invite these impressionistic and largely unfactual readings? Why do we think of Philip — who besides being a very strange person is also so distant from his kids in practice that Henry spends most of his time at Stan’s — as a Cool Dad? Why do we think of Elizabeth as emotionally disconnected even after we saw this powerful scene?
We’re being worked.
This is related, I think, to another phenomenon: my main question as I watched Alison Wright give that stunning performance — as Martha’s voice changed and her heart shattered into incoherence and panic and guilt and grief over the news that “Clark” killed Gene — was wait who is Gene again?
That’s NOT okay. This is one of my favorite shows — it really is — and I usually have a decent memory for television, but The Americans trips me up. Somehow the details of the show match up poorly with my emotional investments, and as a result I’m routinely surprised by details I’m apparently supposed to remember. It almost feels like the show manufactures memory gaps. The good news (for my brain, not for humanity) is that I’m not alone. A LOT of people had this “who is Gene?” experience Wednesday night. Similarly disorienting was the man who kept appearing near Dylan Baker’s character William whenever Elizabeth and Philip tried to meet him. Who is that? I wondered. A new enemy? Wait, is it their guy? Oh! Is it Hans, that South African guy Elizabeth was training? But isn’t Hans dead? (Checks. Hans is not dead. Check IMDB page for Peter Mark Kendall. It is Hans! But why did I have to work that hard to remember, to confirm?)
This slippery imbalance in the narrative is intentional, Phil. The memory gaps are, I suspect, where the show’s moral lesson lives. After all, The Americans alerts you to relevant stuff all the time in its “previously, on The Americans” segment — we could have been reminded of Gene’s existence (and Hans’s!). Instead, we’re shown the EST lecture on feelings. “Trust your gut,” the show says, but our gut fails us just as badly as Philip’s did when he aborted the mission without cause. The gut lies. I didn’t see what I thought I expected, and I’ve forgotten a lot of what I DID see. To put it in the EST guy’s language: “You’re confusing the feelings with the event itself, but they’re different.”
My expectations and perceptions were badly scrambled by this episode. I thought we’d begin by mourning Martha’s death. I didn’t think she’d survive “Clark” turning into Philip; we’ve never seen the Jennings “work” someone this hard or this far. I am genuinely stunned to find that she’s no longer quite expendable. Instead, she’s become a tortured recruit — someone perilously close to the nuclear family who might not have the moral flexibility they need. She’s brittle and desperate and unconvinced and pretty damn compelling. (The same goes for Paige, who at this point is basically the ultimate biological weapon.)
Here’s something else I didn’t expect: I never expected Martha — poor, gullible, decent Martha, to become someone Philip would confide in more than Elizabeth!! When I realized Philip was delivering a version of the confession about his childhood he shared with Elizabeth in season two but never finished, I thought Martha was dead for sure.
But this makes sense, yes? The problem with telling Elizabeth is that she would understand! Elizabeth is impressively good at absolution, but Philip doesn’t want understanding, he wants condemnation, maybe penance. He wants the horror of what he’s done to register. Martha offers that. Her horror at Gene’s death is exactly what Philip needs. And her reaction helped me see what my own reaction to the spectacle of Philip faking a suicide note on Gene’s computer while Gene dangled in the background ought to have been. Instead, I forgot Gene ever existed.
This, I think, is how the show reproduces, in its audience, the peculiar experience of being a Jennings. You’ve trained and killed so many people (or watched them be killed) that you don’t even know how badly the vial’s cracked. It’s interesting, then, to register the magnitude of your own moral degradation by how minimally the deaths you’ve caused imprint on your memory. These were tools, not people. It’s a perspective we thought we were above; turns out it’s every bit as contagious as Glanders. We’ve watched a lot of people die on this show, and a lot of our moral outrage died with them.
But even if you forget the event, you don’t forget the feeling. Philip remembers Gene to Martha, whose horror he needs now that he’s incapable of producing his own. By remembering Gene’s robots and action figures, by answering Martha’s questions regarding whether Gene suffered,
Philip is trying to get some sense of how far he’s drifted from normalcy. His relief at finally having someone to whom he can confess is palpable.
Martha is not relieved. “I’m glad that you told me. I have to know everything. Even if it’s hard,” she says, swallowing. (Wright’s ambivalence is beautifully done here — her face is a study in shear force.) But Philip gives her no time to absorb; he immediately instrumentalizes his confessor’s willingness to share his burden in order to get her to send files.
“I keep having these memories from when I was a kid,” is how Philip confesses to Martha. “It’s dumb stuff, but you know how some of it makes you think, I wonder if this is why I act this way or why I’m so angry about that?” I thought about that when Paige, a kid herself, is standing in the hallway as her class says the Pledge. What does it look like when a deeply moral person turns? “It’s more about getting people to trust you,” Elizabeth says, and it’s amazing to watch Paige wipe her tears, walk into her classroom, and smile and joke with her friends as if nothing’s wrong.
Not everyone sees it that way,
The Ballad of the Cool Dad
By Phillip Maciak
March 17, 2016
Lili, we’ve been wanting to write on The Americans for a while, you and I, and I’m so excited to be pulling up to our driveway in the Northern Virginia suburbs with you for our first weekly review project since Don Draper ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of Tony Soprano. So, before we get going: readers, there will be spoilers! If you aren’t caught up, CATCH UP! And if you’re really not caught up, please get moving on this. It’s important.
So, I want to start with Mad Men because it is the only thing I care about, and every sentence I write is but a pale imitation of a sentence I could be writing about a hypothetical, alternate universe eighth season of Mad Men. Oh, Matthew Weiner we love you get up! I’m mostly kidding, but I think that some conversations we — as a WRITING COLLECTIVE — have had about the weird situation of Don Draper as protagonist will be helpful to contextualize something that interests me about The Americans. That is, we always wanted Don Draper to be more ambivalent about the things he’s virtuosically good at. We wanted him to feel bad about being such a successful Lothario, and, especially toward the end, we got that wish a little. But, more so, I think we wanted him to think twice about his true talent for advertising. We wanted him, we wanted the show, to make room for a little more of an acid critique of his art. The show gave us this critique in a variety of ways — the arcs of innocuous figures like Harry Crane and Ken Cosgrove becoming curdled by the business, the ominous appearance of the Monolith and the swallowing of Sterling-Cooper by the Leviathan of McCann in the final season — but rarely through the consciousness of Don Draper. Mad Men made Don Draper regret a lot of his sins, but it never made him feel bad about being good at a potentially bad thing.
Needless to say, murdering people is a categorically worse thing to do than writing catchy jingles to market ethically questionable products. And that’s what our leads — Philip and Elizabeth — on The Americans do. They also parent, and they have super hot sex, and they run an apparently successful travel agency, and they ruin people’s lives without killing them, and they wear wigs, but then of course they also just regular old kill people. They’re spectacular at it. All of it. Part of the show’s thrill is the sheer competence with which they dispatch their duties. If advertising is Don Draper’s talent, then the violent art of espionage is the talent of our Jenningses.
Unlike Mad Men, though, The Americans has been interested since the very beginning in what that feels like. Prepping for this, I went back and watched a bunch of early episodes. And, apart from the fact that they are staggeringly good and confident right out of the gate, they really reinforce the extent to which this question — is there virtue in the virtuosic execution of evil deeds? — is baked into the show. Their work is less a cold execution of commands than it is a craft, with room for creativity, affective investment, and individual distinction. (All of which seem to work counter to the basic idea of being a Faceless Man on behalf of the Soviet Union.) Maybe because it’s an art, maybe because they do it virtually alone, without an enabling institution to prop them up at all times, there’s lots of space for questioning.
But what’s especially striking is not just that this ambivalence is on the list of ingredients for the show, but that so much of it is centered around Philip. In the very first episode — it was actually a shock to me that this happened so early — he tries to convince Elizabeth to defect so that they can protect their family. He also murders a dude with his bare hands in that episode, but he really thinks about it before eventually acting impulsively. His learned — or perhaps natural, as we’re asked to imagine this episode — response to anger or difficulty is violence, but the pilot is setting up the idea that he’s becoming self-conscious about it at least, guilty at most. In other words, Philip questions the value of their vocation. This is all tied up in his budding romance with American culture and his desire for greater actual romance with his partner in crime — the doubling of domestic dilemmas for global ones, which is what this show does so unbelievably well — but it’s avowedly Philip saddled with the moral compass, however wiggly the needle. He is, to some extent, the most visibly ruthless of the two — inasmuch as we see more of his extended courtship and even long-term relationship with vulnerable, useful women — but we also see it wear on him more.
This visibility of Philip’s ambivalence, his near constant Garden of Gethsemane face as of late, sets us up for a few things that are in and of themselves kind of deceptive about the show. The simple narrative that the show teaches us from the outset is that Elizabeth is not super reflective about their craft, that she is motivated by an uncritical patriotism or a sense of revenge and retribution whereas Philip has all the feelz. Elizabeth has emotions, but they are directed, controlled, motivational. I think this is definitely a part of the show’s structure, but I also think it’s a bit of a feint. Philip is a good dad, and Elizabeth is a good Russian spy. Philip’s looking out for the family, and Elizabeth is looking out for the Motherland. Philip gets really emo about all of the hearts he has to break, and Elizabeth is just a black widow, crunchin’ up horny bros and sweet old ladies like it’s nothing.
But watching the show carefully, it’s easy to see that this binary is untrue, that it vastly oversimplifies a complex relationship, that it takes Philip’s (very AMERICAN) willingness to articulate his emotions out loud as proof that he has them and Elizabeth’s focus on their job and its righteousness as proof that she doesn’t. If anything, this dynamic is a common, lopsided parenting cliche. Philip is the fun, demonstrative dad while Elizabeth is the stern, withholding, manager of a mom. And, just as in parenting, it’s easy to see the way this gendering can obscure what’s actually going on. Philip’s emotionality is something like a luxury. His ambivalence and his hesitation are, in some perverse way, irresponsible. Elizabeth is there — just as she was when he bought a sports car — to give a disapproving look and get this rascal back on track.
I don’t offer this reading in order to psychoanalyze these fictional characters, but I think that the show’s management of this dynamic, and its slow build on Philip’s romance with the U.S. and Elizabeth’s kind of anti-sentimentality (except when it comes to the movement), gives us a way of approaching a murky moral swamp. Especially last season — when Philip’s long-time source Annelise came to a gruesome end, when they had to scapegoat Gene the innocent FBI computer tech, when wonderful, misled, functionally fatherless Kimmy came on the scene — we were invited to see Philip’s waffling, his forlorn looks, as triumphant. We were invited to see the minimal gains he made toward human empathy as worthy of praise, worthy of hope. The Americans has been convincing us to believe in the resilience of Philip’s smothered integrity from the very first episode, and so we give him credit for baby steps. He’ll capture and kill men and women, kidnap a defector and tear him away from his family, stage the suicide of an innocent bystander, but he feels yucky about seducing a teen girl. Congratulations, Philip! Achievement unlocked!
In other words, in order to watch The Americans, we need to embrace a double standard. The show doesn’t work if we are constantly rooting against its heroes. But that double standard gets doubled and re-doubled over and again throughout the show. It’s not just murder. Philip, for instance, is the beneficiary of a Cool Dad double standard. When my partner walks into a grocery store with our baby strapped to her, nobody thinks twice. When I do, people look at me like I’m a Knight of the Round Table. Philip’s blend of laid-back dadliness and lethality — bolstered, not contradicted, by the violent lengths he’ll go to to protect his children — lets us view him as a hero even in the absence of heroism. Thinking about it this way, the silence with which Elizabeth performs her motherhood to Paige, her steadfastness in contrast to Philip’s manic ingratiating/enraging fatherhood, reads as a radical strength in the face of catastrophic fragility. If The Americans is a show about Soviet spies in the U.S. that’s really about family and identity and what it’s actually like to know another person, then Elizabeth is unquestionably its hero. Philip and Elizabeth are co-leads of this television series, but it doesn’t seem inconsequential that Philip clearly sees himself as the protagonist of his family’s life.
To be clear, I think the show is in control of this. I don’t think it’s playing unintentionally into gendered power dynamics but rather using our own assumptions about gender and parenting to clarify the show’s ethics. This season, we’ve already seen flashbacks of Philip’s first kill as a child — the feeling of regret paired with satisfaction at a job well done that’s so recognizable in grown-up PJ. This could easily be the kind of clunky Draperesque flashback we so loathed on that other, dearly departed show. But The Americans uses flashbacks well, it always has. And here it poses an alternate identity for Cool Dad Philip. His pangs of conscience are most visible to us, we notice, in relation to children. He doesn’t want to use Kimmy as a mark, he feels bad about Gene because of the toys in his apartment, and, this season, we see that his killing ways are traceable to his adolescence. If Philip’s struggle to be Good is in some ways his arc for the past three seasons, what do we make of a flashback that puts him in the exact same moral quandary as a child? What if this isn’t an arc but a case of arrested development? It’s probably too obvious to say that Philip Jennings is, after all, a false identity, too. And the main thing all these put-on identities share isn’t violence or sexual prowess or charm. It’s that they’re all grown-ups.
We’re not taking requests,