THE AMERICANS: “Amber Waves”

O beautiful for spacious skies! The Americans returns for Season 5. 

In September of 1989, six months before he would become the first president of the Russian Federation, Soviet politician Boris Yeltsin toured the Johnson Space Center in Houston during a diplomatic visit. He was politely admiring, but not overly impressed with America’s space facilities. The USSR had a space program of their own, and they, not the Americans, had been the first country to put a man in orbit. Still, the trip had a profound effect on the Soviet politician. Yeltsin, his entourage, and his American handlers made an unscheduled stop into a local Randall’s grocery store so that the future Russian president could get a better feel for the normal American way of life. He was shocked at what he discovered.

Yeltsin’s biographer included the grocery store visit in his 2000 biography of the Soviet leader, and its impact. Yeltsin spent much of the flight back to Moscow with his head in his hands, wracked with pain and guilt for the Soviet people. Just hours before he had walked through a randomly selected grocery store unannounced and found the shelves stocked with food. It wasn’t just the staples, either. There were plentiful luxuries, and he and his men had even been offered copious free tasting samples from employees. “What have we done to our people?” Yeltsin asked aloud. He believed that there would be a revolution if the Soviet citizens knew the edible luxuries their political and philosophical enemies enjoyed while they were forced to stand in bread lines. Political experimentation, market fixing, and corruption had destroyed the Soviet food supply while the Americans lived with not only enough food to eat, but with an incredible array of available options. It was in that moment that “the last vestige of Bolshevism collapsed” within Yeltsin, his biographer noted.

Enemies at Home…

It’s five years before that moment, back in 1984 with the Cold War still in full swing, that The Americans begins its fifth season, conveniently, with a moment about food. Tuan Eckert, an Asian-American student, works his way through a school lunch line, picking and choosing his meal before sitting down at a table with a new student at the school, Pasha. Pasha speaks only broken English, but the two strike up a conversation and it isn’t long before Tuan is taking his new friend home to hang out and meet his parents, revealed to be a costumed Philip and Elizabeth Jennings.

It’s all part of another fake family mission, this time with Philip and Elizabeth pretending to be an airline pilot and flight attendant couple with their adopted son. Tuan’s new friend Pasha is the son of Soviet defectors with Pasha’s father, Alexei Morozov, advising the Department of Agriculture on the Soviet Union’s problems with food production. The Eckerts live right down the street from the Morozovs, much as the Jenningses live across the street from Stan and Matthew Beeman, and sharing a mutual goal of gathering information about the neighbors (it’s turtles all the way down).

Alexei has no nostalgic love for his homeland, comparing it to a dilapidated airline as the Morozovs and Eckerts share a neighborly dinner. He curses the Soviet bread lines while praising America’s bountiful harvest as he urges his son to speak only English at the kitchen table. He’s keen for his son to assimilate, and thrilled that his son has a new friend — making it all too easy for Philip, Elizabeth, and Tuan to sneak past the Morozovs’ posted guards and to their kitchen table. America is the land of plenty, and there’s plenty of food, conversation, and new friendship to go around.

The conversation is too much for true believer Elizabeth, of course, dismissing Morozov’s complaints as ungrateful on the way home with Philip. She remembers her childhood when there wasn’t bread to stand in line for, and thinks back to her mother always pretending to be not hungry when a small amount of food became available for her children.

Philip isn’t as sure. He too has memories of hard times, back when mother used to make an onion soup that was mostly water, but he considers Alexei’s comments under a different lens: It wasn’t long ago that their biochemical warfare scientist compatriot, William, was captured by the FBI, and Gabriel was urging the Jenningses towards extraction. The world Alexei described in such detesting detail was nearly the Jennings’ home country again, and Philip can’t shake how the shift to that world would have ripped his family apart. Going back to the USSR would have been a harsh reality.

But it would have been a reality. What the Jenningses retained in food and opportunity by staying in America, they gave up in truth. The truth about their lives as Soviet spies remains hidden, ever in danger of being discovered by the FBI agent across the street, and ever more complicated by Paige’s romantic relationship with Matthew Beeman. The continually clueless Stan is overjoyed by the puppy-loving young couple since it makes Matthew want to live at his place rather than his ex-wife’s house, and he’s happy to make Paige as many fettucine alfredo or take-out pizza dinners (“ever tried eating a vegetable?” Elizabeth asks with cutting humor) as she wants as long as her company keeps Matthew around. He’s happy to see the Beemans and Jenningses as one big happy family, sharing food and talking about his dating life over beers, if the Jenningses feel likewise.

Naturally, they don’t. Paige has only minimal training in spycraft, and is suffering from nightmares after seeing Elizabeth kill a man in self-defense. She’s already spilled her family’s secrets once before, and Pastor Tim was a hard enough mouth to shutter. The repercussions would be far worse if she slipped up around a trained FBI agent. What if she stays over with Matthew one night and wakes up screaming about Soviet spies? As Elizabeth and Philip are keen to point out, there are other boys in the world.

…And Abroad

Season 5 has an obvious interest in food, comparing and contrasting its production and availability in America and the Soviet Union. It’s not only present in the dialogue, but onscreen all across the episode. The Mozorovs and Eckerts share a family meal, Stan cooks for Paige, Lipton ads play as Tuan watches an episode of The A-Team to stay culturally aware for his undercover work. Director Chris Long wants to keep the audience thinking about food even when the show isn’t overtly discussing it.

Take Oleg’s discussion with his new boss: Despite Oleg’s return to the USSR at the end of Season 4 he remains a part of the show, now working to uncover corruption in the Soviet food system. His new boss knows all too well that that system is failing and citizens are suffering from malnutrition, even as he chooses a scrumptious pastry from a passing cart. Wherever Soviets are facing hunger, as Oleg seems to wordlessly note, it doesn’t seem to be in this particular office. His new job will require tight lips. The very people who have dined at his Party Elder father’s own table may be the people he ends up investigating, and his new boss demands that their conversations never leave the office. Is that just a normal confidentiality request, or does this new boss have an inkling of Oleg’s former quiet affiliation with Stan Beeman? It remains to be seen.

William’s Last Mission

The last sequence in “Amber Waves” is an examination of what makes The Americans such a captivating show in microcosm. After Gabriel debriefs Elizabeth and Philip on William’s probable demise due to his purposeful self-infection with biological agents during his capture, Gabriel reveals to the spouses that their old compatriot still has a role to play in the Cold War before he can rest for eternity.

Gabriel directs Philip, Elizabeth, and a covert team to a secure location where William’s corpse lies buried under the watchful eye of America’s intelligence services. The team sneaks in under the cover of darkness and begins to dig. And Dig. And Dig still. Wordlessly, the digging continues for a five-plus minute sequence as Gabriel’s team slowly unearths their departed compatriot, exchanging only furtive glances and other silent communications amidst a metaphorical backdrop of deeply buried secrets. The Americans has always preferred tense emotional moments to action-packed spy sequences. The latter is a rarity while the former is a multiple-times-an-episode occurrence. It’s a captivating sequence with expert direction as Long allows Philip and Elizabeth’s disagreements and discussions from the episode to hang in the air as they work, punctuated by heavy breathing and the scrapes of shovels.  Finally, a shovel scrapes the metal surface of a hermetically sealed coffin that the team is forced to cut open with a blowtorch, and the newly opened coffin reveals a decomposing William.

The KGB knows a lot about America’s biochemical agents due to William’s work, but the one thing they never saw was their effect on a living, breathing human subject. It’s one final thing that William can tell them. Phillip cuts a piece of the corpse’s decomposing torso away, careful not to expose himself.

Hans, Elizabeth’s screw-up protégé, isn’t so lucky. Hans hasn’t been seen much lately, likely due to the fact that the missions he took part in frequently ended with unnecessary deaths and near-capture. This time, however, the death that Hans causes is his own. He slips and falls into the grave, slicing open his hand in the process. Elizabeth’s only option is to kill him before he becomes infectious, and she quickly shoots him in the back of head after Philip knowingly assures him that everything will be okay.

It’s a proper note to end the episode on. Hans simply never had what it took to play the spy game. He frequently threw caution to the wind, leading to dangerous, uncontrollable results. Philip and Elizabeth are experts in understanding how long-buried secrets can come back to harm you just like William’s dead, buried corpse. Little do they know, however, that their own long-buried secret is rising to the surface. Philip’s long-lost Soviet son, Mischa, conceived outside of his marriage with Elizabeth, is headed their way. He’s finally managed to depart the USSR with intentions of finding Philip. But his ultimate goal is unknown: he may only want to meet his father, but it could easily spell disaster, a biological creation as dangerous and deadly as anything William ever worked on.

The Dead Drop

  • Poor Stan. His misadventures in dating are painful to hear as he’s exalting his exciting connections with women he’s never even spoken to at the gym.
  • Oleg’s continued presence, as well as Nina’s for the previous three seasons before her death last year, show that the series has interest in keeping an eye on characters ever after they depart the U.S. Does that bode well for a return for Alison Wright’s Martha?
  • I fondly remember when my mother took me in the garage and taught me basic self-defense skills.
  • Amazing wigs on Matthew Rhys and Keri Russel in the Eckert sequences.

One thought on “THE AMERICANS: “Amber Waves””

  1. Ummmm…did we watch the same show? The American used to be a strong, coherent weekly thriller. Last season, as things began to unravel for the characters, they were clearly unraveling for the writers and showrunners as well. Never was this more clear than this first episode of season 5. What a horrific mishmash of…of…well, hell, I don’t even know what to call it. They tried so hard to get everyone a few minutes of screen time, but failed to actually do anything with it. Then…OMG…then, spent the last 14 minutes digging a freaking hole. Clearly once Hans’ glove ripped, he wasn’t getting out of the pit/grave–everyone saw that coming, but did you have to take so damn long to get to that conclusion, while shortchanging the rest of the episode? Very dissappointing.

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