Hard Pill to Swallow.
Warning: Full spoilers for the episode follow…
With a three year time jump, from 1984 to 1987, and only 10 episodes to play with here in its final run, FX’s The Americans kicked off Season 6 with an absolute stunner.
First off, let me just tell you all that I watched this premiere episode, “Dead Hand,” via online press screener at a coffee shop (I watch a lot of screeners out in the wild) and when Elizabeth stabbed that guard in the neck I screamed out “oh s***!”
I got many a look.
The last time that happened for me – the involuntary “oh s***!” while wearing headphones and watching a screener – was during the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad’s third season. So it had been a while.
I don’t know what I was expecting. Of course she had to kill him. Not only did her killer maternal instinct kick in, but she knew once that dude checked up on Paige and found out that her alias didn’t exist, she could have potentially become some sort of person of interest. I guess I just thought she’d try to pick his pocket or something to get her fake ID back, not gank him in the throat. I was very wrong.
A dead body will probably draw a bunch of heat to the operation too, and the general vicinity of the Naval Observatory, but at least Paige is in the clear.
By the way – and this doesn’t mean he deserved to get massacred – but that guard was was pretty aggressive and s***ty about asking Paige out for a date. Taking her ID hostage like that. Again, he didn’t deserve to die, but him pushing on Paige like he did definitely sucked some sympathy away from his sucky scenario. All in all, it was a really gripping two-punch scene, with Paige having to play it cool and keep her cover while “M. Hanley” wouldn’t take no for an answer and then Elizabeth reassuring her daughter that she did a great job under pressure.
It’s here though that we see Elizabeth’s half-measure shortcomings as a spy mom. If Paige was a fully formed covert operative, she would realized that she was blown and handled things herself. Either right then or later on, like Elizabeth wound up doing. But Elizabeth is still coddling Paige out of love and a sense of protectiveness. With Paige, she’s vulnerable. It’s not a flaw, per se, but she’s also doing that thing she always does where she absorbs everyone’s burden. Like how she’s allowed Philip to retire from the life completely. She’s not sharing just how dastardly and filthy the spy life truly is with her daughter. She carries the weight for everyone and not only is it destroying her, but it’s now led her to a very dangerous dead end.
Season 6 has a very tricky objective. It has to wrap up a six-year story while also interweaving things into actual history. The Cold War ended and so the Jennings saga also must come to a close. We’re right up against the Reagan/Gorbachev summit now, just nine weeks out according to the premiere, so how do you ramp up the tension when actual peace is on the horizon? Well, there are always enemies of progress and Elizabeth is now finding herself linked to hardline Gorbachev opponents. Old minds, old guards, who will do anything to stop change from happening. Elizabeth has run for so hard, for so long, that she’s finally encountered Philip’s greatest fear: Compromised Orders.
We began “Dead Hand” with not only a reminder that Crowded House was a freakin’ great band, but with a perverse look at both Philip and Elizabeth’s ideal lives. Since The Americans began, the dynamic has always been that Philip actually enjoyed his American cover life and Elizabeth always preferred a detached duty-driven covert existence. Now they’re both swimming in their respective pools. Philip, having found his smile, is out of the spy game and running the (now bigger) travel business. He’s the present parent while Elizabeth bounces from op to op – becoming more hollow and exhausted with each costume change.
For Elizabeth, it’s a “be careful what you wish for” scenario. For Philip, it’s a “you can never really leave” type situation. Quite superbly, Season 6 looks to pit Philip against Elizabeth as Oleg, out of a very sheer and noble dedication to the greater good (man, I love Oleg), risked life and limb to contact Philip and warn him about who Elizabeth was being directed to meet with. She’s almost incapable of thinking for herself right now. She probably doesn’t even want to. We heard, early on in the episode, that she doesn’t trust “peace.” Or, more specifically, American promises of peace. Paige is hopeful while Elizabeth remains nestled in skepticism.
Will being given a cyanide capsule, for the first time in her entire covert career, be enough of a warning sign for Elizabeth? It’s hard to say. She’s such an existential mess, often staring off into the middle distance, living somewhere between depressed determination and repressed regret, that you can’t really imagine her being able to spot danger from her superiors. She doesn’t doubt orders. It’s not her nature. Meanwhile, Philip is a natural questioner and Oleg was smart enough appeal to him on a family man level (with Oleg having left a wife and infant son behind as well).
Nevertheless, it was awesome to hear Peter Gabriel’s “We Do What We’re Told” during Elizabeth’s cyanide reveal scene. We got a big time jump, sure, but Peter Gabriel was a musical force all throughout the ’80s and this was a nice bookend to “Games Without Frontiers” from Season 1’s finale.