selenak: (The Americans by Tinny)
[personal profile] selenak
Having marathoned the show only a few weeks ago, and despite real life business, I'm rewatching it already. In reverse order, first s2 and now s1. I can't help it! The Americans has two ingredients that ensure its hooks in me: more than one or two interesting characters, and the central relationship as something I can't help but get invested in, not least because whatever the romantic state of affairs between Elizabeth and Philip, they always have each other's backs as partners, and that's something you so rarely see in tv m/f relationships. Also, rewatching with the new knowledge of later events always makes you notice things you missed or didn't pay that much attention to the last time around; makes you judge what remained internally consistent and what didn't. Shows in the pilot and early episodes are still finding their feet, and I find it fascinating, from a writing pov, to try and figure out what comes across as planned (true or not) and what as improvised.




Specifically: one of the few elements which don't work, imo, either in retrospect nor the first time around, is the Stan and Chris Amador relationship. They meet only in the pilot, so it's not a long term friendship with a backstory the audience can assume, and what we see of them in subsequent episodes makes them come across as co workers, not two guys befriending each other. (Especially noticable because simultanously the show has Stan befriending Philip, and that comes across as believable (and is also its own point, so more about it later.) Which wouldn't be a problem except for the fact Amador gets fridged to justify Stan going of on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge (tm). I haven't reached that episode yet in my rewatch, but I remember we suddenly got bombarded with - new - flashbacks to Stan and Chris Amador having intimate chats, which came across even during first watch as a clumsy way of adding emotional depth to a relationship which didn't have any before.

Otoh: the rape flashback in the pilot, in the later context of two seasons, loses its first time possible gratituiteness/clichéness. It's not what defines Elizabeth as a character, but it is part of her history, and the way s2 has her starting to work through what she has repressed for years - without this changing her professional competence, or being the only emotional issue she's dealing with (far from it) in the present - justifies its part in the larger storytelling. If you've only seen the pilot, you could complain or at least wonder whether the rape (and the discovery of same by Philip) was included solely to push the Philip and Elizabeth relationship further, but that's not how the show uses it subsequently.

If you've shades of grey characters, or villains as protagonists or however you want to define it, one of the big, big criteria for me to judge a story - be it profic or fanfic - is how, if it's not a farce, it deals with your main characters' victims. The easiest way is to simply make everyone else worse than Our Heroes, and/or not to give them any characterisation at all. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the occasional tale which does this well; I mean, I liked Chicago - where the sole decent character is Roxy's husband Amos, and he makes it out alive and wisened up -, and adore Kind Hearts and Coronets, where watching Louis dispatch his victims is delicious fun. But outside of this black comedy format, I want some acknowledgement of the humanity of those who stand in the way of the protagonists, especially if the story simultanously wants me to feel the protagonists' angst. One of the things which impressed me about The Americans the first time around and even more upon rewatch is that the show does this, and doesn't wait for it until we're well into the season. The Clock is only the second episode, and what happens to Viola (and her son) is absolutely gutwrenching (and presented as such). That Philip and Elizabeth are acting under strict orders (to accomplish an operation that usually takes at least half a year in a few days) doesn't make what they're doing to Viola okay, and the show at no point implies it does. It encourages us to feel for the desperate blackmailed Viola, just as it encourages us in s2 to feel for the kidnapped Anton when he pleas and cries and curses at Philip, embodying every imprisoned citizen of the Soviet Union ever.

Meanwhile, in the very same second episode of s1, and parallel to the P/E blackmail Viola plot, you have the Stan blackmails Nina plot. Preceded by the "Stan and Amador bully the shop owner" scene which annihilates any idea of seeing Stan as the virtuos herot to his Soviet spy neighbours. For all that the counterintelligence unit Stan works in is paralleled with the KGB by the show, though, it strikes me that from the get go Stan is written and presented as a cop, not a spy. Including the way he recruits, which strikes me as classic "cop gets minor criminal as informer", using the leverage he has against Nina due to her illegal trading and his position as part of a government agency. By contrast, when Nina eventually turns the tables on him and the KGB starts its operation to turn Stan, it's done via fostering his feelings for her and creating a situation where he gets to play the hero protecting her via treason. It's an exploitation of emotional needs rather than of a legal emergency situation. Plus, let's face it, at the cop things Stan is good (looking at evidence, spotting connections, tracking down people), but he's a lousy spy, cheerfully announcing he's not only working for the FBI but for counterintelligence to his new neighbours in the pilot. (No wonder Philip thinks this must be a mind game at first.)

When you go through fanfiction and old reviews, you come repeatedly across the idea that Philip is the soft one and Elizabeth the hard one, and well, not really, but I think it's due to the pilot having Philip as the one who's considering defecting, who appears to be more adjusted to the US lifestyle and more joking ith the kids. None of which actually equals "soft" and "hard". Elizabeth is more of an ideologue/dying for the cause type (as Zukhov tells her, she was chosen for the program because she'll never surrender), but she's also the one capable of forming intense long term connections to people - with Gregory, with Leanne, with Zukhov. Even in an adversarial way with Claudia. Philip is more affable and easy to talk to on a surface level, but aside from Elizabeth and the kids, we don't see him in an intense emotional relationship (that's not faked on his part, which, say, the "Clark"/Martha one is) with anyone. (It's hard to judge how deep the friendship with Robert went because Robert dies in the pilot; evidently not deep enough that Robert told him about having an unauthorized-by-the-KGB wife, though.) Elizabeth first trusts him with her original Russian name at the end of the pilot, and they have the Gregory conversation about her feelings at the end of the third episode; it's three third into s1 we find out Philip's Russian name, he point blank lies to her about Irina at first and later, when the truth has come out, offers an explanation that's very general (and not surprisingly doesn't work) rather than the equivalent of her soul-baring one re: Gregory. It's also telling that when Elizabeth uses bits and pieces of her true emotions for a fake identity, these are very specific - i.e. talking to Matt about the rape, talking to her AA mark about her worries re: Philip in s2, while when Philip does it, he remains vague and general, i.e. telling Martha it had been a very bad day at work. It takes a series of traumatic events in s2 for Philip to confide a specific emotional memory of his childhood to Elizabeth, and one of the reasons why the simple line "I miss the cold" in The Deal comes across as stunning is that it is absolutely atypical for Phiip to admit to a Russia-related emotion/memory to anyone. IMO he has his emotional walls far higher up than Elizabeth does, which of course means that when he has a breakdown, the explosion is spectacular. (With Paige mid s2.) The easy going manner makes for a great cover of that, of course.

Which is why it's intriguing that Stan, who'll be entirely clueless about Nina turning against him and determinedly ignores all the warning signs about Sandra until it's too late, is actually reasonably good at Philip-reading from the get go. You can draw a line from him noticing something "off" with Philip (not Elizabeth!) in the pilot to him noticing that Philip looks worn out (not pleased about his new car, as he should be) in New Car in s2. While he doesn't have a suspicion Philip could be anything but a helpful travel agent beyond the pilot, the show has him seeking out Philip's company from the start; it's Stan who, having spotted Philip and Henry play hockey in 1.02, comes over to have a chat and who pushes for the two of them playing raquet ball together. (BTW, the raquet ball scene early in 1.03 with Stan delivering a lecture in how to play it only to be utterly blindsided by a seemingly stray ball from Philip maybe obvious but is still hilarious.) Stan showing up on Philip's doorstep drunk and desperate mid s1 and confiding his affair in s2 is prepared in those early scenes, where Philip comes across as cautious (to the audience, not to Stan) at first - in case this is some complicated set up, and also because it makes sense with the FBI agent on your doorstep if you're a spy -, and then matter-of-factly (Stan's mood being something of an indicator for whatever is going on with the FBI and hence useful), but from late s1 onwards the friendliness appears to be genuine. As far as that goes with Philip. I think the flip side of his ability not to take something like Stan (unwittingly) shooting Elizabeth personal and in fact ask Stan to take care of the kids half an hour later, because the former happens in the course of business and the later is about Stan as a trustworthy guardian in a time of emergency, is that were Stan to be gunned down in a firefight, it would be less of an emotional burden than having to kill yet another innocent is, friendship with Stan or no friendship with Stan.

Another thing: I had forgotton Arkady was already in ep 2 (pushing Vasili to use the Directorate S agents to bug Weinberger's house), while Agent Gaad gets established as Stan's new boss in the same episode. It's part of the world building that the earliest scenes at the Rezidentura are already competence wrangling, because that is such a part of everyday normalcy in every big institution but not, unless one of them is supposed to be "good" and/or a Western mole (which isn't the case here), part of the presentation of the Soviets in Cold War stories. And in episode 3, of course, we get two of the most important recurring characters introduced, Gregory and Claudia. Rewatching, I especially love how Claudia gets introduced because it sets up so much about her, Philip, Elizabeth and the rest of the show. Because her benign old lady act at the diner is utterly convincing (I certainly had no idea she was anything but during my first watching), yet upon rewatch, you notice Philip has an inkling something might be wrong, because he gets out of the diner with Paige very quickly after Claudia made her remark (and of course later notices her tailing him), which shows, not tells, how good Philip is at his job. (Meanwhile, poor Joyce Ramirez in the same episode, laywoman that she is, has no idea she has an entire FBI team surveilling her.) That he takes offense to her having talked to his daughter specifically is the very first inkling of the big conflict that explodes in the s2 finale. Meanwhile, Claudia tailing Philip and Elizabeth for a while instead of introducing herself straightforwardly as their new handler speaks of her fondness for tests to get a measure of her new charges, while what she does to Joyce Ramirez at the end of the episode illustrates her utter ruthlessness. We also get an impression of her dry sarcasm and sense of humor ("think of me as Gabriel, only prettier"). The way she has an immediate presence in the show from her introduction onwards, with her competence underlined, is a great contrast to Kate's non-presence and incompetence for most of s2.

Something I'm in two minds about: whether the show will manage the dilemma of on the one hand needing Stan to be competent but on the other not to let him catch on to Philip and Elizabeth until the endgame is in sight. So far, their solution has been the Nina storyline which occasionally intermingles with the P/E one but nearly not at all in s2, and that as of the s2 finale is over with. Now, Breaking Bad solved a similar problem by letting Hank track down every drug lord, from minor to major, except Walt, which showcased his skills as a detective, until mid s5 when Hank has his heureka moment, but Stan, as rewatching s1 brings home to me, didn't accomplish much of anything in s2 (except making his big decision at the end of it); even the seeming successes, like stopping the wannabe assassin, were in reality handed to him by the KGB. Whereas in s1 he recruits and uses Nina (until he kills Vlad and she turns against him), is frequently shown as observant and catching on (in 1.03, he spots the guy from Gregory's crew and draws the correct conclusion), and is generally acting, not reacting to events.

Seeing the children in early s1 brought home they grew between seasons, and that The Americans has the same issue like all shows using children: if a season doesn't equal a year in show time, they have a problem. But the characterisation is firm from the get go. Elizabeth telling Paige true stories about her own childhood and her mother (and in the s1 fnale, we'll see Elizabeth listening to the taped voice of her mother, missing her), trying to connect to her (with more success than in s2), while experiencing her daughter's world as quintessentially alien. Henry sharing the fondness for stars and space with his father. Elizabeth saying in 1.02. about Henry and Paige, "he'll adapt to anything" , "he's like you" and "she's delicate, somehow" actually says more about Elizabeth and how she sees all three members of her family than it does about Henry and Paige, though Henry certainly shares not just the space interest and the outward affability with Philip, but also mirrors him in a Doylist sense somewhat (Henry using the telescope Philip gives him for his birthday not for the stars but for watching the neighbors so he can get into their house unobserved and play the much coveted video game runs parallel to Philip's increasing self loathing in s2), while Paige mirrors parts of Elizabeth, though actually in ways Elizabeth for the longest time CAN'T see - the ability and the need to commit to a cause and be all "my way or no way" about it being the most prominent. Elizabeth saying "she's delicate somehow" - something not exactly born out by the very active Paige in both seasons - to me connects to Elizabeth fearing and protesting her daughter getting brainwashed by Christianity in s2, yet unable to voice or even allow herself to think of her own recruitment by the KGB when she was a teenager in these terms. Instead, she's projecting it on her daughter, which is in its own way misreading as much as the way Paige sees her mother, and yet for Elizabeth is also an emotional truth.

Date: 15 Sep 2014 17:27 (UTC)
sistermagpie: Classic magpie (Default)
From: [personal profile] sistermagpie
I was linked here from The Americans com and God, I'm so glad you're watching this show and writing about it! I agree with pretty much everything you've written, and you've touched especially on some of my favorite things. I especially love (and agree!) with your analysis of the personalities of Elizabeth and Philip, how words like "soft" and "hard" are just misleading. I'm always particularly fascinated by all the things you pointed out about the personalities of P&E, the ways they connect and don't connect to people. Also not enough people focus on the Philip/Stan relationship, maybe because it's almost hard to completely understand, but every time I think of it I start with Stan recognizing something "off" about Philip. Like with Elizabeth I think one might get the impression that at best she doesn't really like you or something, but that's very different than being "off."

And I love how there's the parallel of Elizabeth seeming to hold her entire history and what she thinks of her true identity right under the skin, imo, while only after a long night of being worked on does Philip come out with liking the cold, and the single time he started to tell what was clearly an important personality-forming story (in the finale) he was cut off!

In short, I really hope you keep writing about the show because I will love reading it!!!

Date: 16 Sep 2014 15:41 (UTC)
sistermagpie: Classic magpie (Default)
From: [personal profile] sistermagpie
I look forward to your next meta!

The Philip/Stan relationship is so fascinating to me for all these reasons. It has struck me for 2 seasons how Elizabeth, who many people see as the "cold" one, nevertheless has had many important, longterm relationships in her life that are important to her--her mother, Zhukov, Gregory, Leanne and, I agree, Claudia. Even her relationship with Lucia, while brief, is "real" and genuine. She even gives her a presumably true bit of info about herself when she tells Lucia her father was a miner. She has difficulty bonding with someone who doesn't share her view of the world--as you say, the trouble with Sandra isn't that she's American it's that she isn't concerned with saving the world. It's not hard to see why Elizabeth would be rocked by finally realizing that Paige shares her need for something bigger, and to see Paige being recruited as the answer to many of her problems (not that she doesn't see problems with it too).

Meanwhile Philip, the "friendly" one, has almost no one. Even when there's a parallel to Elizabeth. Zhukov presumably worked with both of them, but he doesn't seem as close to Philip. Elizabeth didn't present her revenge plan for his death as something they both should want (she and Claudia shared that). Claudia immediately didn't like him and even when she changed her mind it was Elizabeth she told about it because it was Elizabeth that mattered. With Emmett and Leanne we saw flashbacks to a real connection between the women with nothing like that for Philip and Emmett. (Just Philip saying he was his friend and noting that Emmett didn't like people who didn't see the world the way it was.) Even his relationship with Irina was mostly characterized by lies or potential lies and told us very little if anything about Philip. Last season Elizabeth had an small arc with Lucia and more important talks with Claudia while Philip interacted with a series of loners and misfits. He didn't trust either Charles or Kate as colleagues.

It seems like there's something real drawing Stan to Philip and vice versa, but possibly neither of them can put a finger on why or thinks about it. Why does Stan like to confide in Philip? I don't think it's just that he sees him as an innocent because he doesn't know he's in the game. He once said he thought he was "a good guy," which seems to be Stan reading him just as he did when he saw something "off" about him. Philip doesn't seem to feel the same impulse to confide in Stan in undercover ways, but as you point out, Philip doesn't confide in anyone. It is interesting that, as you say, there really was a defensiveness on Philip's part about it. I think maybe he himself doesn't like to think too hard about what he might get out of or hope for in his friendship with Stan in the way that, say, Elizabeth could articulate and own the need for true connection she got from Gregory.

Date: 16 Sep 2014 17:12 (UTC)
sistermagpie: Classic magpie (Default)
From: [personal profile] sistermagpie
Excellent point re: Charles. I remember in the first season talking a lot about how Charles was a really interesting contrast to Gregory as a recruit, since he seemed to be Philip's as Gregory was Elizabeth. Because Gregory seemed to approach the job much like Elizabeth. He presented himself as a small, presumably non-political, time dealer and kept his true self from the people he lived/worked with, but his true emotional life was with Elizabeth. Where as Charles had this whole fake persona where he actively pretended to be a right wing convert. It seemed fitting that Philip's recruit was somebody who'd embraced that kind of cover and deception.

But it's true, they seem to have a long history and Philip does talk to Charles even more openly than he does to Elizabeth about his frustration with all this killing--he even openly says to him that he's not sure it's for a good reason, which he doesn't say to Elizabeth. In a way, now that you say it, Charles is maybe the closest he comes to a pretty intimate friend in that Charles seems to speak to him pretty freely about what he's like and what he thinks. Even if, again in contrast to Gregory, their interaction has a deception to it with Charles bluffing about his drinking and Philip saying he doesn't want proof and then asking the bartender after Charles is gone. Philip might not be an alcoholic but he does seem to be falling apart in his own way. Charles's cynical attitude to his problems maybe just mirror's Philip's own.

Stan, otoh, really does embody a completely different person. He's not an adrenaline junkie and he maybe is also dealing with the stress of not knowing who he is after years undercover.

Date: 17 Sep 2014 16:10 (UTC)
sistermagpie: Classic magpie (Default)
From: [personal profile] sistermagpie
Heh--I've been reading about Kim Philby all morning (just got the new book about him) and I was definitely thinking of him too. I think early on Charles even speaks smugly about fooling everyone, like he holds them all in contempt. But that might be a hard place for him to be all the time. Philip, by contrast, isn't like that. I think he gets a satisfaction out of doing his job well, but he doesn't hold people like Martha or all Americans in contempt and he's not aggressively pushing a right wing agenda.

I totally agree about Philip's defection plans. In fact, I keep expecting a story where Philip himself realizes how naive he's being on that front if he thinks all he has to do is wait it out long enough for Elizabeth to come around and then retire into Witness Protection. I think the FBI would have huge demands from the two of them--look at how they responded to Stan's ideas about ex-filtrating Nina right away, and Philip is not at all interested in working against the USSR or the cause. I think it's presented that he believes in the cause, he just doesn't see the things he's doing as advancing it in any real way, so he's just killing innocent people. His ideas about defection seem like something he just needs to believe is an out in ways it isn't, because unlike Elizabeth, he's not eager to die for the cause.

So it is interesting to wonder about him saying this to Charles--and this in a scene where Philip is openly distrustful of Charles himself as an ally. If he sees him as a drunk he can't count on during a mission, why be freely telling him that you doubt the point of the mission at all? In a way it's a direct parallel to the times Elizabeth went to Gregory in tears saying she couldn't live her cover life with a husband and a child. In both cases the other agent didn't tell. And maybe in a twisted way Charles' response wasn't so different from whatever Gregory would have said to get Elizabeth ready to go back home.

Now I want to go back and analyze their conversation in the bar to see if there's anything I might be missing in it. Like maybe, given the fact that Charles isn't particularly shocked by what Philip says in the way many others would be, he's heard it before. Which one wouldn't expect between a handler and his agent, but maybe there's some oddness there. I understand why Elizabeth would put enough trust in Gregory to express her doubts (plus her doubts were about her ability to live as an American because she was devoted to the cause), but Charles seems like a less likely choice.

Date: 23 Sep 2014 15:21 (UTC)
sistermagpie: Classic magpie (Default)
From: [personal profile] sistermagpie
Thanks so much for this transcript! Of course, what's great about it is it does still read like two people who have years of history that probably informs everything they're saying, only I don't know what it is so I can't interpret it all correctly. Neither of these men seem as straightforward as Elizabeth and Gregory.

I did definitely note the two things you noted. The "you did what you had to do" has to be a go-to thing to remind anyone feeling conflicted. And of course early on in the season Philip starts to question that when Elizabeth said he "didn't have a choice" whether or not to use Henry in the brush pass and Philip says he did have a choice. (Another moment that sets up that conflict at the end of S2.)

But especially, yes, I love that Charles says he has value to Philip and to the cause, like he's stressing the two things as different. After all, he could have said "I have value to you" with the implication that "you" means the cause/Philip's people. Charles definitely seems to be stressing a personal value as well--and of course this is right after what seems like the first time Philip brought him along on this kind of mission as a partner and he didn't do so well.

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