“The Americans”: Exploring lesser and greater evils

Imagine an alternate reality in which FX’s hit drama “The Americans” is being reviewed in a modern world where the Berlin Wall came down but the Soviet Union has survived to the present time. Join us, comrades and retro ’80s fans for a weekly review as we follow the exploits of undercover agents Elizabeth and Philip.

Season 3, episode 13: “March 8, 1983”

How do you decide what are lesser evils and greater evils? What is the greater good? How do you squeeze a body into a suitcase? Only the third question is answered unambiguously during this season of The Americans. (Answer: bend the limbs in queasy-looking angles, as we learned earlier in the season).

The finale is titled the date of President Reagan’s famous Evil Empire speech to the National Association of Evangelicals. The nuclear freeze movement was at its height around the world, and was of great appeal to many people of faith. Reagan’s speech, littered with religious imagery, explicitly bound the U.S.’s nuclear escalation with protecting people of faith against aggressive Soviet atheism. Because of the speech and the propaganda unleashed around it, American evangelicals would increasingly see the nuclear freeze movement, and any parleying with the Soviet Union, as being un-Christian and un-American.

A few weeks after the speech (and the events of this episode), Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, a.k.a. Star Wars. If it worked as advertised, such a space shield would ward off nuclear weapons and other missiles, and since the U.S. was hard at work on perfecting stealth technology-and NATO was about to roll out new nuclear missiles in Europe-then why would the Soviets not do everything to protect itself? If your enemy has nukes pointed at you right on your doorstep, has secretive ways of flying nuclear-armed aircraft, and plans a space shield to keep you from retaliating, then you are detoothed and declawed as a global power. The U.S. then has free rein to continue crushing liberation movements around the world, dictating the terms of international trade and propping up any U.S.-friendly tyrants it so desires.

We know that Reagan’s coopting of the religious left largely succeeded, although SDI turned out to be a bust. We’re lucky that Premier Tereshkova’s sudden rise to power came after Reagan left office. It’s unlikely that the decision to greatly reduce both nations’ nuclear arsenals would have taken place during Reagan’s watch.

As for our series’ stars, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, their mission statement from season one to Wednesday night’s finale has been to keep the Soviet Union from falling dangerously behind on the strategic military front.

They’ve been wounded, nearly killed, emotionally savaged, and in turn killed others in order to protect their homeland.

On the surface, this has affected each of them differently. Philip (Matthew Rhys) seems increasingly cynical and bleak, focused almost completely on his family rather than on the people he’s supposed to be defending. Elizabeth (Keri Russell) has seemed stronger, since she experienced a harsher childhood in the tough post-WWII years, and believes that if the real Americans gain a decisive advantage over the Soviets, they’ll crush her people or at the least make them struggle the way she and her mother did.

In this season’s finale, we see more clearly what their mission has done to Philip and Elizabeth. The episode opens with the Jennings family at the air terminal, for Elizabeth and Paige are indeed off to West Germany for a surreptitious meet-up with Elizabeth’s cancer-ridden mother.

Now, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Elizabeth are walking on a street in West Berlin, which back then was walled away from the rest of East Germany (historical note: West Berliners liked to binge-shop at cheaper-priced Eastern stores, which created shortages in East Germany and aggravated tensions between East and West).

Elizabeth describes her mother to Paige, “She’s tough; she had to be. She’s not like your classmate’s grandmothers.”

Long accustomed to hyper-alertness, Elizabeth’s Spidey sense picks up a potential problem. Are they being watched? “Let’s go straight ahead,” she says.

Paige wonder if she has to be careful all the time. “When I’m working, yes,” her mother replies.  

After a restless night in their hotel room, there comes a knock on the door. The Soviets, with help from East Germans, have managed to smuggle in Elizabeth’s mother for a brief visit.

Her mother (played by gloriously cheekboned Aleksandra Myrna) sits in a wheelchair. She says, in Russian, “Oh my little one, all this time has gone.”

Elizabeth’s face is raw with grief and love, all the emotions she’d had to suppress for decades pouring out in tears and soft words to her aged mother.

Elizabeth is on bended knees, listening as her mother says sadly but proudly, “I had to let you go. Everything was at stake.”

“Pa-eege?” Grandmother says with a Russian lilt and reaches out her hand, which Paige, uncertain throughout, clasps. The three hold hands but such a moment cannot last, for in the next scene Elizabeth watches from a window up above as her mother is loaded into a car.

She’ll never see her mother again. Weeping, Elizabeth turns from the window. She finds Paige in the bathroom praying. Elizabeth eases to the floor and watches as Paige continues praying silently.

Later, while they lie in separate beds, Paige asks, “I don’t get it, why she let you go like that, let you leave forever. Could you let me do that?”

Elizabeth assures her daughter that she’d never have to do anything like that.

However, once they’re back on American soil, walking through the airport, Paige says, “I don’t think I can lie like that to Henry, lie to all my friends-lie the rest of my life.”

“Everybody lies,” Elizabeth tries to reassure her. “It’s a part of life, but we’re telling each other the truth now. We’ll get through this, I promise.”

Elsewhere, the season-long arc with Zinaida reaches its zenith. We learned in an earlier episode that she is indeed a spy, but in this episode, Oleg Burov gets his proof of that. Both Oleg (a KGB intelligence officer) and FBI agent Beeman carry major torches for the exiled and disgraced Nina, so much so that the pair concocted a scheme wherein Oleg pretended to be shadowy, mustached Soviet agent sent to terrify Zinaida into returning to the Soviet Union. Zinaida essentially laughed in his face.

The Chief of the Rezidentura, Arkady, gathers his full team and shares new orders from the Centre. There are to be no unauthorized assassinations or attempts. He received unconfirmed reports of someone doing an operation, but no one was hurt.

One can almost see the light bulb go off over Oleg’s head. Zinaida is a fake defector. He and Beeman meet to set up the next stage of their Free Nina campaign.

Beeman then meets with FBI supervisor Gaad in their spy-proof vault to present the tape on which Burov (strategically) admits that Zinaida is a spy.

Gaad is boiling over Beeman’s rogue operation, so much so that he accuses Beeman of placing the bug in his pen, which Beeman denies. Beeman wants to trade Zinaida for Nina, but Gaad is all about ending Beeman’s career.

Gaad almost gleefully tells Beeman later that Zinaida will be traded for a high-value CIA asset, so forget about hooking up with Nina.

But then Beeman has another meeting, this time with the Deputy Attorney General, who’s pleased with Beeman’s work. “If you have a problem with red tape, you come to me,” the official says. “Your mission continues with Burov, but Nina can’t be released.”

Nina, who is the object of Beeman and Oleg’s desires, has her own system for getting ahead: she’s out of the Moscow prison and tasked with figuring out how to manipulate Anton, a disaffected scientist whose field has to do with figuring out how the U.S.’s deadly stealth bomber works.

In an exchange between Anton and Nina, conducted in English in his dorm-like apartment, Nina says, “You know why they brought me here.”

“I assumed, yes,” replies Anton. She’s been sent to spy on him.

Nina’s face grows even more pensive, if such a thing is possible. “I can’t keep doing this. Buying back my life a piece at a time…I don’t know if it’s worth it.”

Anton advises, “You don’t have to do it their way. First you turn down everything they ask for. It’s hard, but then they start to lose their power.”

Is Nina faking it, so that Anton will trust her more? Is she using her truth in pursuit of the control-Anton goal? At this point, it’s hard to know.

In contrast to Nina, it’s clear that Philip is in a lousy mood these days. When he meets with Yousaf, the Pakistani agent who killed the luckless Annalise, Yousaf asks, “Was it worth it, doing all this?”

Being that part of what happened was cleaning up after Yousaf’s panicked kill, Phil is ticked off. He points out that for now the CIA is holding off on issuing Stinger missiles to the Afghani mujahideen/mercenaries. “A lot of young men won’t die because of what we did,” Philip says, mentally adding to that list his biological oldest son, who’s a Soviet paratrooper stationed in Afghanistan.

Philip breaks off his half-hearted harangue. “Yousaf, I feel like shit all the time.” Philip is burned out and has been for a while, but he’s not in a line of work that allows him to completely rest and unwind.

He can hardly unwind when he meets with the Jennings’ handler, Gabriel, who’s upset with him over Elizabeth’s sneak visit to visit with her mother.

Gabriel’s also unhappy with Philip self-righteous blinders. “You can’t see ten feet in front of you. I’ve been trying all along to take care of you. Grow up,” he tells Philip, who’s not ready for this dose of truth therapy.

But now Philip must attend to his job. It’s something that’s had to be done ever since the spy pen was discovered in Supervisor Gaad’s office. A fall guy is needed, and it can’t be Martha, who is Gaad’s secretary and Clark/Philip’s secret wife.

Not only does Philip need to keep the trail from leading to his spy operation, we feel by now he’s also sincerely motivated to protect Martha. Those of us (me included) who thought poor Martha wouldn’t last the season have been proven wrong.

This however isn’t good news for Gene, the computer geek who’d initially been looked at by FBI investigators as the possible mole.

Philip, wearing a droopy mustache and even droopier hair, hides out in the man’s apartment where he greets Gene with a cloth soaked in chloroform.

As the body hangs from a suicidal noose, Philip leaves carefully/carelessly hidden tech gear behind along with a message typed on Gene’s stone-age computer screen: “I had no choice. I’m sorry.”

His feelings churning from the act, Philip attends an est meeting alone (est being one of those fix-yourself not-the-world fads back then). Sandra, newly divorced from Beeman, is there.

The meeting’s leader isn’t the jerk we’ve seen from previous sessions. He says at one point, “The feelings in your gut are more important than all the shit in your head.”

“Why are you here?” Sandra asks. Philip tells her he doesn’t know, but that there was something he liked about it.

“In this seminar we tell each other everything. No secrets,” Sandra says.

“Don’t know if I can do that,” Philip accurately says. It’s the snarky phrase “I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you” made all too true for him.

Sandra suggests that they share with one another honestly, but Philip says he’ll think about it. Too much to think about, for Philip.

Back home, the women in his life arrive. Paige declines food and heads immediately upstairs, leaving the adults to catch up with one another.

Phil tells his wife that he shut down the threat to Martha, which leaves the question of how to deal with Martha’s reaction when she learns that a coworker has a. admitted to being the spy, and b. committed suicide.

Elizabeth advises telling Martha sooner rather than later about what happened. “I don’t think you’re seeing things clearly,” she says calmly.

Philip stumblingly tries to tell Elizabeth something about his emotional torment, but then President Reagan comes on screen to remind the couple of what they’re up against.

The speech is bellicose in calling the Soviet Union the focus of evil in the modern world, even more belligerent an address when we know what the U.S. had done to that point and was doing at that time.

Crushing liberation movements around the globe, using the CIA to assassinate African leaders and South American politicians, propping up the apartheid South African government, undermining leftist governments everywhere, pushing American corporate control of foreign natural resources, thwarting union organizers – all these actions directly led to countless deaths and massive environmental destruction.

If that’s not evil, then what is?

Most Americans were shielded from that knowledge by our government and controlling media. We heard about the Soviet Union’s malevolence, without learning the context of actions that on the face of it looked hostile. Speaking before Christian evangelicals, President Reagan is crystallizing the right-wing’s plan on how to manipulate social conservatives into joining the Republican party.

Paige is a sincere Christian who belongs to a liberal congregation. She is struggling to understand what is happening to her world view, and more importantly to her parents and herself.

In tears, she sits in her bedroom and picks up the phone. She tells Pastor Tim that she’s tried praying, but it doesn’t help.

“They’re liars, and they’re trying to turn me into one. They’re not Americans. You can’t tell anyone this…they’re Russians.”

With that, we conclude the third season of The Americans. Some of you have theorized that Pastor Tim is a KGB operative set in place to provide Paige a safe sounding board. Whatever the case, the show is likely to return next season having advanced the time frame only a little. The year 1983 was a tense one for U.S.-Soviet relations.

From the looks of it, the Jennings’ household will serve as a microcosm of that conflict.

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Carole Avalon
Carole Avalon

Texan Carole Avalon is a writer and reviewer.