THE AMERICANS: “Echo”

“Echo” is an incredible examination of The Americans’ characters’ motives and emotions, and it typifies the slow burn approach that makes the show great.

Paige is your daughter, but she’s not just yours. She belongs to the cause.

-Claudia

“Echo,” the second season finale of The Americans ended not in a hail of gunfire or an FBI raid, but gathered in the Jennings family kitchen, just like most episodes this season have, and that’s the natural place for the show to end its sophomore season. Anyone hoping for an action cliffhanger, something like Stan staring at Philip down the barrel of a gun, just doesn’t understand how The Americans operates. The show has always valued realism and subtlety, and it mines the complex, emotional toll that covert work exacts on its practitioners rather than revel in melodramatic spy tropes. One of the show’s biggest hallmarks is its slow burn, the way ideas and emotions fester inside its characters waiting for pent up frustration or worry to boil over after weeks of simmering under the surface. So when “Echo” ends with Philip and Elizabeth at separate ends of the table, both real and metaphorical, contemplating their daughter’s future, if she’s destined to be “like them” and enter the spy game – an echo of Philip and Elizabeth’s own life in clandestine Soviet service – it’s the culmination of a season-long focus on the pull between country and family as well as a look into the future of the series. It may not be the most exciting place, but it’s definitely the right one.

Now, let’s take a look at how we got to that excellent ending. “Echo” begins with Fred, overmatched, but willing to try for the cause, trying to get Elizabeth and Philip the samples of stealth paint that they need. Philip goes over the plan: walk across the stealth workroom floor and get out quickly. Frank’s special shoes will pick up the microscopic fragments, and then he just needs to drop the shoes in a dumpster and call the Jenningses from a payphone a few blocks away. Reassured by Philip’s faith, Fred drives to the stealth development plant while Philip and Elizabeth wait by their predetermined payphone chatting about growing up in the Soviet Union. Suddenly, their police scanner crackles to life with alerts for an overweight man running away from the stealth center with a gunshot wound, and Philip’s payphone starts ringing. Frank was caught on the workroom floor, and he was shot trying to flee, but he did manage to make the drop. He presses a bloody hand against the glass of the phone booth, mortally wounded but happy to have supported the cause. Poor Frank; he wasn’t made for the espionage game, but he did his part, wanting to help and gain Philip’s approval. The Jenningses rush to retrieve the shoes as police cars swarm in the opposite direction towards Frank’s payphone. For a show I just described as a slow burn, it’s the most heart-pumping scene of the season as Philip and Elizabeth avoid the police and squeal through the streets against a backdrop of Golden Earring’s “Twilight Zone,” a perfect musical choice from 1982 with its driving bass and suitable theme (sample line: the gun is still warm). Philip retrieves the shoes, and the show mercifully cuts to the opening titles. We need a second to catch our breath.

While mom and dad were working, Paige was at her church group military protest until it was broken up by the police, and Pastor Tim was arrested after chaining himself to the Air Force base fence. Paige is obviously ecstatic about the experience and pleads to her mother that this is what the church is about – making the world a safer, better place. She is like Elizabeth, needing a cause to fight for, but Elizabeth just wishes Paige would choose something else to support. She also wishes Paige could drop Pastor Tim and know about someone who really made a sacrifice for their cause today: Fred. With Paige finally exhausted and asleep, the equally exhausted Philip admits “if she said one more thing about nonviolent resistance I was gonna punch her in the face” in the episode’s darkly funniest line before heading out to his weekly rendezvous with Martha.

Our one Martha-centric scene this week revolves around “Clark” and Martha discussing last week’s admission that Clark doesn’t want children. Clark doesn’t see himself changing his mind and asks if she’s okay with that decision. Martha admits that she isn’t sure what that means for their relationship, and the two decide to discuss it more over some wine, but searching for Martha’s corkscrew (our corkscrew, she chides) Philip stumbles across a snub-nosed revolver in Martha’s drawer. The gun Martha was considering buying for protection earlier this season again rears its head, and Clarke is shocked to see it, but he barely has time to ask if she knows how to shoot the “Lady Smith” before the phone rings with a call from “Clarke’s sister.” It’s Elizabeth, of course. The Center can’t account for Larrick, who is back in the country and AWOL, and she pleads for Philip to come home. Telling Martha it’s urgent, he flies home and they collect Paige and Henry for a “surprise vacation” and flee to a mountain inn in New York – in the same town where Jared is sheltered. Henry enjoys the nice trip to the mountains, but Paige finds the whole trip suspicious, and she tells Henry she can’t wait to go to college and hang out with normal people when Elizabeth is out for a hike and Philip runs to the store.

Elizabeth’s “hike” is spending time with Jared at the same cabin where she once recovered from a gunshot wound, and he is currently sheltered awaiting exfiltration. They walk together in the woods discussing Jared’s parents, how much they loved him, and the dangers of spy work. Jared takes it all in, stone-faced, and continually asks about Kate, Philip and Kate’s recently deceased handler who Elizabeth caught meeting with Jared after his parents’ deaths. Elizabeth remains tight-lipped about Kate’s fate, but Andrew Larrick, her killer, suddenly pops out from behind a tree with gun drawn, seizes Elizabeth’s weapon, stuffs it in the back of his waistband, and walks them back to the safehouse where Jared is staying. Opening the trunk of his car reveals Philip already inside, captured while he was at the store, and handcuffed. Larrick explains that he’s tired of the deceptions and intends to turn Philip and Kate in to the FBI. Suddenly, Jared pulls a gun and shoots Larrick, wounding him, while also taking one of Larrick’s bullets to the jugular. In the chaos, Elizabeth bends Larrick over the trunk and Philip is able to pull Elizabeth’s seized pistol from Larrick’s waistband and shoot him several times through the chest. Just like that, the season’s biggest villain is dispatched, and Elizabeth quickly tends to Jared who’s bleeding to death. Questioned as to why he had a gun, Jared admits that he was ready like any other spy would be. Not the innocent son of murdered parents, he’s already involved in the game, and he’s used a gun before. When his parents fought back against his spy work and relationship with Kate, he killed them and his sister in their hotel room and then went to the pool so he could “stumble upon” their bodies when he returned. It’s a startling admission, and all a little too easy. This is exactly the type of scene The Americans consciously seems to avoid. The big villain of the season is quickly and easily dispatched, and a dying character spurts a huge revealing exposition just before he succumbs to blood loss. For a show that prides itself on its measured pace, this is a messy moment.

Elsewhere, Stan Beeman is still trying to decide his next move. He can either stay loyal to his country and let Nina be tried for treason in Moscow, or he can hand over the titular stealth echo program and save her. With Nina’s future hanging in the balance, he visits the Echo lab and examines the program on a lab computer while covertly snapping pictures of the code on a camera concealed in his tie pin. When the disk is safely locked away (that’s right – one of America’s greatest secrets lives on a 1.2 MB 5 ¼ inch floppy disk), Stan goes to meet Arkady who tells him where he can drop off the program the next day. Noah Emmerich is incredible in these scenes portraying Stan’s indecisiveness. He’s so good at playing the everyman FBI agent that his excellent acting often disappears into the background, but his body exudes the stress of both Beeman’s failing marriage and his imminent decision on Nina’s fate. You can see a stiffness in the way he walks, in the way he carries himself. He looks like there’s a literal weight on his shoulders. Stan’s scenes are all beautifully shot, using exteriors from across Washington DC to portray Stan’s troubled mind (The Americans is shot in New York, so scenes with the actors in DC is extra special). In one such scene Stan mournfully looks at the Potomac with the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument over his shoulder, symbols of the American ideals he stands to betray. When his estranged wife asks him what’s wrong, that she knows him and she can see something weighing on him he replies “maybe you just don’t know me as well as you think.” Yes, she does, Stan. You just won’t admit it. His stress manifests itself in a dream where Stan imagines himself in his office where Martha is blatantly stealing files, his wife is openly having sex with another man near his desk, and his secretary has been replaced by Vlad, a Soviet worker at the Rezidentura that Stan murdered. Perhaps it’s foreshadowing that his subconscious seems to suspect Martha of stealing classified files?

Obviously, the stress of his double dealings is destroying him from the inside. Maybe the FBI is just too deep inside his soul for him to easily betray it. After all, he told Henry that he’d dreamed of being an FBI agent since he was a kid. Whether he just couldn’t do it or Arkady commenting on he and Nina’s relationship made him realize that she’d been talking about their life together behind his back (“Don’t tell her you love her so much. A Russian woman doesn’t like that. She won’t respect you.”  Ouch!) Stan finds that he ultimately can’t betray his country. He goes to the drop site, but he leaves behind a note instead of the pictures. The short, typed note reads only “Tell Nina I’m sorry.” For the relationship they had, the note isn’t handwritten, and it isn’t even addressed directly to her. Nina’s led out of the Rezidentura as a broken Oleg watches longingly, and she’s driven to the airport. As the car pulls away from the Rezidentura, Nina spies Stan, watching from a parked car as she’s taken away to her fate. The former lovers exchange a long, silent look that, frankly, doesn’t need any words. Nina’s is hurt, and reproachful. Stan’s simply says “I’m sorry.”

With Larrick finally compromised to a permanent end, the Jennings family returns home, and Philip and Elizabeth go looking for answers. They find them in Claudia, their former handler returned once again after Kate’s demise. She tells them that Jared was part of a new, second generation spy program intended to get the KGB access to the CIA and deep within government programs that foreign-born citizens are excluded from. Jared was the program’s first target, and they still contacted him despite Emmett and Leanne’s refusal to cooperate. Claudia assures Elizabeth and Philip that this is the future for the KGB. Furthermore, she tells them that Paige is the Center’s next target for the program, and “no” won’t be a suitable answer. Yes, she might be their daughter, but she’s also the product of a KGB-arranged marriage. Had the KGB chosen Paige before Jared, it might have been the Jennings family, not the Connors family, that ended up shot to death in a Virginia hotel. Philip and Elizabeth are shocked and adamantly refuse to offer up Paige, but again Claudia assures them that this is the future. Margot Martindale is always great, and The Americans has greatly missed her this year. Despite being a middle-aged woman she’s an incredibly daunting and intimidating presence, and just when Elizabeth and Philip were starting to see the wisdom in her cold, methodical, business-like actions compared to Kate’s techniques, Claudia drops this bomb on them. The entire season has been devoted to Philip and Elizabeth protecting their children from the dangers of the spy game, and now Claudia says that Paige is about to be brought into the game whether they like it or not. You can see the conviction for the cause drop out of Elizabeth and Philip’s eyes almost immediately. Later, as Arkady browses through magazines at a store, a disguised Philip slides up next to him and identifies himself to the Soviet Rezident. It’s Philip and Arkady’s first screen-time together in the entire series and it barely lasts 90 seconds. Philip keeps his voice low and tells Arkady that if the KGB ever contacts Paige then he and Elizabeth are done with their work for the Soviets. Arkady nods and Philip disappears into the night, his message received.

When Philip returns home Elizabeth nearly has dinner on the table, and he assures her that their message was heard loud and clear. But Elizabeth begins to demur. Elizabeth reminds Philip that Paige is just like her in a lot of ways. They just stand for different things. What if they could redirect Paige’s interests to the Soviet cause? They could teach her to believe in the things she and Philip believe in, and she could stand for something that matters, not a Christian fairytale. Philip can’t disagree more having just seen the way that the KGB helped tear apart the Connors family. “It would destroy her,” Philip says. “To be like us?” Elizabeth counters. And then Paige and Henry arrive for dinner, and the episode ends – in a standoff after all. Philip on one side, Elizabeth on the other, and Paige right in the middle with that same slow burn simmering underneath. The season ends with a final look at the theme that’s haunted the show for its entire second year: Family or Country. And, then, a third possibility: Can it possibly be both together?

Stray thoughts/Theories:

-I’ve long thought that Martha’s gun would show up again, and it finally did. Unfortunately, it’s also the one big undeveloped plot point from this episode. The Martha storyline feels like a big gaping hole in an otherwise excellent episode. I’m also on record saying that I think Martha’s demise ultimately comes from that gun. One of season three’s big hurdles will be finding some focus for the Martha storyline. Naïvely buying Clark’s stories, stealing classified files from the office, and now a pistol HAVE to add up to something soon.

-Co-showrunner Joel Shields says Nina will definitely be back at some point in season 3. She still has Oleg’s envelope of cash, and deportation to the Soviet Union hasn’t stopped Anatoli (the former Rezident) from having a part to play on the show. Hopefully this can be the start of her doing things for her own motives, not just being used by the men in her life.

Season Wrap-up:

I thought most of The Americans first season alternated between good and bad episodes. Season 2 also alternated, but this time it was between good and great episodes. The Americans has quietly tuned into one of TV’s best shows even if it doesn’t get the same online love and buzz as Mad Men or Game of Thrones. It’s also has some of the best performances on TV. Matthew Rhys probably can’t beat Bryan Cranston and Matthew McConaughey, but his performance in “Martial Eagle” was as good as any other by a male star this year. Likewise, Keri Russell is always excellent portraying both a strong female agent and a worried mother. “Behind the Red Door” was probably her strongest moment of the season. The oft-forgotten Noah Emmerich is also stellar. He embodies a quieter, more internal style of acting when big showy performances are the ones that win awards. He’s so good at being an everyman FBI agent that he often blends into the background, but if you look closely at his work in “Echo’ it’s amazing how he acts with his body physically showing the stress of his double life. The show also excels at casting character actors. I’m always fawning over Margot Martindale’s Claudia, but Lee Tergesen’s Andrew Larrick and Costa Ronin as Oleg were equally great. Gaad and Arkady are always great for some of the show’s best lines.

I’ve largely covered the show’s slow burn approach (see above), and the show’s writing is also excellent, artfullyy weaving in the show’s themes week after week. The plots are so intricate that they’re often hard for me to recap, let alone the staggering difficulty that they must be to write. Add in excellent direction, and you can see how the show manages to be so good: great writing, an even better cast and solid direction. I can’t shout enough that this is a show you SHOULD BE WATCHING! It’s an incredible balancing act making Americans root for a pair of KGB spies in a story that we all know how it’ll inevitably end. At some point the Soviets are going to lose the Cold War. What that means for Philip and Elizabeth Jennings is the bedrock of what makes the show great. Remember: the plots are always secondary on The Americans. Our characters’ emotions always come first.

Season Grade: A-

Best Episodes: Martial Eagle, Behind the Red Door, New Car, Arpanet, Stealth, and Echo

Worst Episodes: Yousaf, The Deal, Cardinal, and A Little Night Music

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