THE AMERICANS: “EST Men”

One of TV’s best shows returns for Season 3, now with questions about parenthood in the mix.

We’re getting her ready to find out who we really are…who she really is.

–Elizabeth, about Paige

The Americans is finally back, and we can thank our lucky stars – be they the ones on the American or USSR flag. Despite the low (but growing!) viewership numbers and awards recognition, this reviewer firmly believes that it’s one of the great shows on television.

The Season 3 premiere “EST Men” picks up right where Season 2 ended: the brewing battle over Paige Jennings. The KGB still wants Paige as a second-generation agent, realizing that her natural-born citizenship would give them opportunities they’ve never had before. Philip remains steadfastly opposed to the idea, recognizing the dangers of the spy game. Elizabeth, however, sees it as an opportunity for Paige to learn who she really is and grow in her already developing anti-American Military sentiments. Season 3’s opening scene features Elizabeth taking a bath, remembering taking Paige to the swimming pool as a child. Paige is scared of the water, but Elizabeth comforts her, telling her everything will be okay – and then throws the child in over her head. A little too on-the-nose? Maybe, but it also highlights the difference between Elizabeth and the American mothers at the pool. They get into the water and hold their children’s heads above it, coddling them and their fears. That’s definitely not Elizabeth’s way. Paige will sink or swim on her own. Elizabeth is just there to provide the push.

Most of the episode’s drama stems from Elizabeth’s meeting with a disgruntled female CIA agent who was passed over in favor of an underperforming male colleague, and wants to sell out the CIA in revenge. She gives Elizabeth a list of names of Near East and Special Activities Division operatives fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, which Elizabeth promptly loses when she’s nearly captured by FBI men — including Stan Beeman’s direct superior Frank Gaad — on the way home. She narrowly escapes, but she loses the list of names in the process. Worse, she lets Gaad get a good look at her face. Just how good of look he got through the pain of his broken nose (go Elizabeth!) remains to be seen.

So where were Philip and Stan while this was all going down? Philip was accompanying Stan to the first session of the EST self-improvement conferences that Stan’s estranged wife, Sandra, found so helpful last season. The group leader (seemingly a Frank “TJ” Mackey clone stepped directly from the reels of Magnolia) stresses the importance of self-awareness and awakened experience. Stan writes the sessions off as pure junk, realizing the predicament it places him in: the seminar’s first goal is honesty. If he’s not honest about his true feelings on EST, then Sandra will know he never really invested in the teachings. And if he does say how he really feels? It’s a catch-22. The perennially underrated Noah Emmerich effortlessly plays up Stan’s current loneliness. Watch how he cozies up to Philip, making himself at home in the Jennings house and causally searching the refrigerator for a final beer. Stan’s a man looking for a place to belong, desperate to not return home to an empty house. With Sandra moved out and Nina on trial for treason in Moscow, he’s utterly alone.

The episode’s title is plural, though, referring to EST men – not just the singular Stan. The seminar leader highlights sex and near-death experiences as ways to understand the “awareness” that the EST program experiences. Of course, those are both constant facets of Philip’s spy work. In “EST Men,” we see him twice having sex with women other than Elizabeth. He and Martha try out positions from the Kama Sutra while “Clark” (Philip in disguise – lest you’ve forgotten) hilariously keeps checking the manual. That can be written off as part of Philip’s job. Martha and Clark are married, and Philip has to keep Martha happy and unawares. A later tryst with Annelise, however, isn’t work-related.

The Americans has always been great at using physical proximity to exemplify emotional intimacy.  We see Clark and Martha deeply…shall we say…intertwined? But Elizabeth and Philip spend much of the episode apart. They’re frequently on separate missions, and we never see them engaging in the marital activities that highlighted their emotional coupling last season. The one time we see Philip hold Elizabeth is at the kitchen sink, shortly after Elizabeth’s near capture, and it’s a moment that feels incredibly awkward. Elizabeth is battered and bruised, and Philip is more leaning on her than embracing her. With Philip and Elizabeth at odds over Paige’s future, maybe the fragile bonds that hold the Jennings family together are starting to fray again.

“EST Men” also features the first appearance of Frank Langella as Gabriel, Philip and Elizabeth’s first handler. After years of seeming the Jennings mistrust Claudia and Kate, it’s great to get to see them with a supervisor that they actually trust. Philip and Elizabeth seem warmly at home in his small apartment. Langella is a fantastic acclaimed actor, and a huge get for the show. He doesn’t get much screentime in this episode, but I can’t wait to see this character develop. Gabriel’s main purpose this week is to give Elizabeth a tape with news that her mother is gravely ill back in the USSR.

At the Rezidentura, being separated from someone you can’t help is something that Oleg can understand. He’s also dealing with Nina’s absence, unable to help her. His powerful father isn’t willing to use his connections to aid her. It’s a nice parallel to Elizabeth’s situation. Our brief glimpses into the Rezidentura cover the arrival of a new female superior that neither he nor Arkady know if they can completely trust.

The episode ends with a shocking new development. Under Philip’s direction, Annelise attempts to extract information about ISI operatives fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan from her lover, Yousaf. The Soviets have found themselves bogged down in Afghanistan, and the KGB need information about ISI operatives in part due to the list of names that Elizabeth lost. Things take an unexpected turn, however, when Yousaf takes the revelation of Annelise’s true motives badly and strangles her before Philip can intervene. Philip does manage to confront Yousaf, attempting to leverage Yousaf’s precarious situation into the information that the KGB needs. The episode ends as the two men stare at each other over Annelise’s dead body, trying to figure out what to do next.

Annelise’s murder is sure to reinforce Philip’s desire to keep Paige out of the spy game. If the show’s first season explored the meaning of Philip and Elizabeth’s fabricated marriage, and Season 2 dealt with the conflict between duty and family, Season 3 may be looking to explore parenthood. It’s still a little early to say, but that would be my guess. The opening flashback to Paige being thrown in the pool as a child coupled with Paige’s baptism during the “This Season on The Americans” montage points in that direction.

Season 3 of The Americans is starting much like Season 2, with a KGB operative murdered and Philip and Elizabeth dealing with the resulting fallout. The Americans made the decision when it first began to explore characters and emotions rather than a series of “shocking” twists and turns. It’s what keeps The Americans excelling while another cable spy drama, Homeland, is dying a painful death over on Showtime. By now you know what to expect. Much of “EST Men” is just The Americans setting the table, but there’s a season-long feast to come.


The Dead Drop

-Trying out a new name for my additional info section this year.

-One thing that The Americans has always been great at is intertwining their story with historical events. It’s never stated, but the traitorous woman giving Elizabeth the list of names after being passed over for recognition comes just on the heels of the Equal Rights Amendment’s failure a few months earlier in 1982.

-For everything the show does right, I’m very discouraged by their use of Annelise in this episode. She doesn’t get anything to do but have sex (twice), cry, and get murdered. It’s like the trifecta of bad uses for female characters, and it’s worrying. The scenes from upcoming episodes showing Philip and Yousaf stuffing her body in a suitcase is equally bad, and seems downright misogynist in 2015. There’s other ways to develop your plot without a complete disregard for women’s welfare.

-I remain convinced that Martha’s pistol is a huge wildcard. I was harping on this all the way back to last season. The scene where Stan is teaching her to shoot is there for a reason. Chekhov’s gun seems to literally be Martha’s pistol.

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