“The Americans”: Set in the 80s but relevant to our time

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 Jennings.

Season 3, episode 12: “I Am Abassin Zadran”

Margo Martindale, who played the Jennings’ handler, Claudia, in previous seasons, makes a welcome appearance in an episode that builds the tension to a heartbreaking level for characters Martha (Alison Wright) and Paige (Holly Taylor).

That’s the contrast in a nutshell: Claudia is in the know, while Martha and Paige at various levels are not.  We see the consequences of that lack of knowledge: Martha is considering making a break for it, while Paige is questioning, shouting at times, every last detail of her family’s cover story.

They’ve reached the breaking point in this wintry episode. Claudia, on the other hand, is her old wise and confident self. “Can you handle the truth?” is an old movie catch phrase-Claudia’s proven that she can. We’re one episode away from knowing whether Martha and Paige can manage the same transition.

But first, we receive another miniature course in spycraft from Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. For months, they’ve been digging up intel about the upcoming CIA briefing/training of a trio of Afghani mujahideen mercenaries. The CIA, continuing its reckless course of upsetting the balance of power in the Middle East, is planning on giving advanced shoulder-fired Stinger missiles to extremists who loathe all things Western (except missiles and money, of course).

The Jennings’ operation entailed becoming smoke bros with a CIA agent’s disaffected daughter (Philip’s thankless task) and an assignation with a hotel manager (Elizabeth’s not-so-sexy time).

But now, having learned the when, where and who, Philip and Elizabeth must pull off the final part of the mission.

It starts with Elizabeth, dressed in drab telephone company drag, sauntering through the back entrance of the hotel. She installs a phone transfer device that Philip, having snuck into the CIA agents’ hotel room, is able to confirm via phone has been properly installed.

Task one accomplished, they returned home, only to find that Henry’s alone, playing his electronic game. Where’s Paige? Off with her pastor and his wife, planning to spend the night.

That’s not going to happen. Paige is strong-willed, but her parents, loving as they are, have iron running through their veins.

They stake out the pastor’s house and when they arrive, collect Paige, although not without a minor standoff with their daughter.

That’s but the first round between them in this episode, but next let’s see what’s going on with Clark aka Philip and his other wife, Martha. As he walks up the street toward Martha’s apartment, KGB trainee Hans drives by with a doffing-his-cap move that means…what? The coast is clear, or not?

Inside, we find FBI agent and coworker Stan Beeman sitting at Martha’s kitchen table saying crap like “we all know it’s the secretaries who make the place run.”

Woven through his rhetoric is the not-so-hidden vein that the workplace is filled with concerns over the bugging incident. Does Martha have anything to share?

Martha does a masterly deflection. “Everyone knows about the state of your marriage. If you’re wanting to talk about it, I’m not the right person,” she says.

Well done. He’s sent on his way without bumping into Clark/Philip. Turns out the cap move by Hans meant “coast not clear.”

In the meantime, the mail robot bugging is continuing without a hitch, except that Rezidentura head Arkady, who works out of the Soviet embassy, is unhappy with the quality of the intel. He’s inclined to shut the operation down, but agents Oleg and Tatiana, who have developed quite a rapport, urge him not to quit just yet. In a later meeting, they tell Arkady that they think they’ve uncovered potential marital misbehavior caught by the mail robot’s microphone.

“Give it some time,” Tatiana says. “It’s in everyone’s interest.”

Another spy operation is having a rough roll-out. Elizabeth, here known as Michelle, is prepping her asset, Lisa, for the first camera-purse day at Gruman, Lisa’s highly secret work site that is building parts for the Stealth bomber.

Such a plane is a potential game-over as far as the Soviets are concerned. The need to know is intense, yet for the moment Elizabeth has to contend with Maurice, Lisa’s grumpy, greedy husband, who’s an interfering presence.

Later, at the meet-up point, there’s no sign of Lisa. Instead, Maurice shows up to hand over the purse and collect the money. He’s rude, indifferent, and we know he has a history of violence. He’s had it easy to this point in dealing with women, but “Michelle” possesses attack skills he can only hope to never experience.

Turning now to the denouement of the hotel operation. Philip is in disguise as a CIA officer when he comes to the agents’ hotel room, seeking some alone time with Abassin Zedran, one of the trio of mujahideen. The phone hack works perfectly. Elizabeth, using a comically bulky ’80s portable phone, pretends to be a case officer giving permission for Zedran to go off site.

Elizabeth and Philip, in their guise as CIA officers, meet with Zedran. They plant seeds of suspicion, in which his two compatriots are painted as being lackeys for the Soviets. Zedran boasts of his bloody exploits, most of them involving the slaughter of Soviet soldiers, and rival tribesmen.

Philip, whose oldest son is a potential target for this man, can only sit and quietly seethe. When Zedran returns to the hotel, he knives to death his two compatriots. Perhaps “knifes to death” doesn’t convey the amount of gut spilling, throat cutting, and smearing of blood involved.  But when the CIA agents rush into the hotel room, they witness in quite visceral terms what their government is paying for off in the remote hills of Afghanistan.

Zedran had professed to Philip and Elizabeth his desire to die as a blood-soaked martyr, but face to face with his actual CIA bosses, he’s not likely to pay that deadly a price for his acts. Zedran has followers back home, after all, so there’ll be two bodies dumped or otherwise disposed of in the Washington, D.C. area, and one cleaned-up Afghani murderer delivered back home. He’ll probably still receive the missile training. The CIA wants fighters well versed in terrorism and brutality.

This undercover operation by Philip and Elizabeth played out perfectly in the short run, but in the long run, we know that the Stinger missiles were still delivered to Afghani mercenaries.

If not for Premier Tereshkova’s later leadership in creating zones of influences in Afghanistan, who knows how it all would have eventually played out.

The Soviet Union to this day still observes the boundaries laid out at that time; the United States has been less compliant, but since we’re currently being drawn into Pakistan’s deepening turmoil in its breakaway state of Baluchistan, it may be that we’ll see American boots on the ground in that region.

I can only hope that doesn’t happen, since who knows when we’d emerge from such an obvious trap. There are too many conservative chicken hawks in our government and in the moneyed class who want to see American equipment and weaponry used overseas (not to mention being used by domestic police officers, which is a growing trend in our increasingly oppressive surveillance state). Profits all around for those who invest their money wisely, albeit immorally.

Philip and Elizabeth’s single well-played operation can hardly stem the coming flow of Stingers to Afghanistan, but they at least played their part.

However, the discussion between elegant Gabriel, the Jennings’ current handler, and an earlier one, the redoubtable Claudia at a diner concerns matters of the heart, rather than missiles.

We learn that last season’s cluster-botch involving a lust-besotted teenaged son of Soviet spies killing his family, was a lesson that rocked agencies back home in the Soviet Union.

“They fired the head of the American department,” Claudia tells Gabriel, and they almost down Directorate S (which is the hidden agents-in-place operation that includes the Jennings family).

“What makes them think they can try again?” asks a dubious Gabriel about the impending acculturation, one might say, of Paige Jennings.

“They think you can do it,” says Claudia.

Speaking of…Paige continues her current trend of bursting in unannounced to her parents’ bedroom. She wants answers now about the faces in her family’s picture album. The cousin’s fake, and so is the aunt, right? Right? Said at maximum volume, which only stops when Paige bridles at her mother’s effort to quiet her down.

Later, Philip joins Paige in her room. “There is no Aunt Helen,” he admits, but says that the pictures aren’t all fake. He shows her two photographs: one of a very young Paige being brought to Elizabeth’s hospital room upon the birth of little brother Henry, and the other of the two children in a tent during a family vacation to the Blue Ridge mountains.

Paige recalls that Henry was afraid they’d be eaten by bears. Philip, surprised, says he didn’t know that. Paige kept Henry’s secret. It bodes well for her future as a spy, that she’s digging out secrets and keeping some, as well.

The next round between Elizabeth and Paige is a much more civil affair but one fraught with emotion. Paige recently learned that her grandmother is dying back in the Soviet Union.

“I talked it over with your father,” Elizabeth says.  “We think you should go with me. It’ll be the only time you’ll get to meet your grandmother.”

Paige takes this in. She’s not hostile to the idea. Her eyes well with tears she’s determined to keep at bay. She’s more like her mother than she may think. Is a trip to Moscow in the cards for next week’s finale?

And now, Martha, back to being poor Martha for this episode. Paige is being spooned more and more information, but Martha has had to make do with far less than that.

She’s picked up by Hans, a “friend of Clark,” so that Clark/Philip can make sure that Martha hasn’t been found out. The meet-up is tense, and later, alone at the apartment, Martha calls her mother. She just wants to hear their voices, and denies to them that she’s having any problems.

When Clark/Philip comes in, however, Martha’s sitting on the bed, a suitcase packed beside her. She’s afraid that the FBI will find out about the pen.

“I can’t be here with you like this,” she says.

Philip has tried various tactics-love, workarounds, and soothing tones-on his wife, but now, motivated perhaps by a level of caring, he does something completely unexpected.

He takes off his glasses and slowly removes his wig. Plenty of pins involved and when the wig is off, a crying Martha, who’s long known of the “toupee”, finally see her husband undisguised.

This unveiling of himself is risky, leaving him all the more vulnerable in this relationship, but it’s granting her a greater sense of agency and connection with this man.

In the course of his work, Philip has dealt out death blows and narrowly avoided those aimed at him. But this may well be the most dangerous act of all.

Next week’s finale is entitled “March 8, 1983,” which is the date on which President Reagan called the Soviet Union an evil empire.

These days, while the rivalry remains strong between our two nations, it’s played out mostly in trade issues, and high-tech battles. We’re still supposed to guard America’s secrets against Soviet and Chinese interests, which is one of the reasons given by our government for invasions of our privacy, surveillance, and de-facto censorship of the news.

Proof of the latter statement? Consider how right-wing Congressmen in league with the arms industry, is pushing for further involvement in Baluchistan. Instead of a reasoned debate played out in prime time, we’re distracted by celebrity catastrophes in a media environment that values novelty over hard news.

Secure in the knowledge that many Americans are prevented from hearing their rhetoric, war advocates are saying, don’t leave it to Pakistan anymore because they’ve made a hash of things. We can’t let the Baluchis break free because they’ll a. align with extremists in the region against Israeli and American interests, and/or b. fall into the Soviet economic sphere.

Whatever the reason given-and regardless of where the battleground is set-it’s about the protection of global capital and increasing America’s share of power.

The ’80s setting of The Americans story continues to have increasing relevance to our time.

Tune in next week for the finale. Also visit the Amerikanskis Facebook page.


Carole Avalon
Carole Avalon

Texan Carole Avalon is a writer and reviewer.