Snark Tank; Recap
Just the Dark Parts: Review of The Americans, Season Six, Episode Two: “Tchaikovsky”
“Just draw the dark parts, don’t draw the light parts,” commands Erica Haskard, becoming one of the few people who is capable of giving Elizabeth Jennings an order. That order – to draw the outline of a mug – is one of two scenes in this episode that aims to give Elizabeth a lesson in art appreciation. It’s the last thing she wants; but perhaps it’s the only thing that can soothe her troubled soul?
In this episode, one of the greatest artists in Russian history finally appears on The Americans: Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky. His version of “None but The Lonely Hearts” Op. 6, is an achingly sad and beautiful opus that is just right for The Americans as it closes out its run.
Although not as driven as the season opener, a pall hangs over this episode that gives the events a natural tension. Whereas in past seasons, we were pretty sure the core foursome of the Jennings family would be safe, now that the show is in the home stretch, anyone could die at any minute. That’s why I found myself holding my breath at both of Elizabeth’s meetings with the General. Elizabeth survives – barely – but she’s clearly of the belief that her days are numbered. She even asks Claudia to continue mentoring Paige in the event that Elizabeth doesn’t make it. The request has the vicious and cold Claudia, of all people, turning to Tchaikovsky to offer succor to Elizabeth.
Watch Me Work
The subjects of Work and Art are both at the heart of this episode, and indeed, at the heart of Communism and Russian history. Russian literature, art and music are spectacular, beautiful and complex. But politically, Russia has always been fatally attracted to ideology, and having something to fight against has long animated the State. This desire for ultimate revolution has then twisted everything from art (as we saw in last week’s Soviet movie about the glories of a work dormitory), to sport (as we witnessed with the Soviet hockey team’s shock defeat in 1980) into propaganda with a deeper meaning about the State’s ideology.
Communism is a profoundly idealistic idea: everyone in society should be treated equally; every worker deserves an equal share. Consequently, the State owns everything to prevent unfairness in distribution. Frederick Engles wrote that it was essential to the cause of social equality for the Communist system to spread throughout the world.
Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are foot soldiers for that idea, that social and financial equality must be permitted to spread across the globe. However, as we have seen, Philip has doubts about what he has done for his country, and he has been seduced by the lifestyle of capitalism. In this final coda, he is now living the *bourgeoisie lifestyle that Communists hate: he owns his own business and enjoys material comforts.
*Although Communism is a mostly-dead ideology today, the Communist critique of capitalism – that it represses the poor and that the government will be run by the rich, for the rich, still has merit.
It is notable that in this episode, Philip loses a longtime client of the travel agency because of a low-budget travel group. In this, Philip is getting a glimpse of capitalistic competition which is totally foreign to him. As viewers, we know that the internet will eventually enable every person to act as their own budget-conscious travel agent, and as a result, most of the travel agency business will bite the dust.
As for Elizabeth, she has been separated from the actual effects of Communism in the Soviet Union for quite some time. Unlike Oleg, she has not had to suffer the consequences of food shortages and mass corruption in the Soviet government. She has performed whatever mental gymnastics are necessary to continue to believe in this ideology.
This is the perfect time for the show to use music by Tchaikovsky, since we are witnessing Elizabeth’s final transformation into a Weapon for Revolution. It’s a transformation that leaves no time for art, or even family. While explaining the dire situation for Erica, Elizabeth tells Claudia that she thinks art is useless.
Tchaikovsky is a composer whose melodies brim with Romanticism. His focus on melody and emotion goes over better in the West, where critics were generally welcoming. But Tchaikovsky has often been criticized back home for the very same qualities: his emotional 19th century style was not in vogue at the time, and his music was not considered nationalistic enough for 20th century Communist fanatics.
Elizabeth’s fear of art – her fear, ultimately, of anything that does not materially contribute to the Revolution – is shaping up to be a fascinating part of this final season.
“None but the Lonely Heart” is the segue for a startling conversation between Paige and Elizabeth about sex. Paige has read that the KGB uses sex to gain information. Elizabeth’s maternal instincts take over for a second as she flatly denies the claim. But Paige knows she’s lying, and Elizabeth knows that Paige knows, so she finally gives her a version of the truth. As viewers, it’s hard not to see how Elizabeth’s loneliness and isolation are destroying her from the inside out. She wants the world to think she is A-Okay with Paige’s future as a Soviet agent; but as the narrator in our heads often says: she was not.
Who is Rennhull?
The General Renhull who bites the bullet in this episode was The Colonel who figured prominently in the season 1 finale, titled, “The Colonel.” Back then, the Jennings were debating whether this Renhull guy, who wanted to give the Soviets secrets pertaining to Reagan’s Star Wars program, was on the level. Philip thought the mission was too dangerous for Elizabeth… while Elizabeth tells her husband she is prepared to die. In fact, in what may well be ominous foreshadowing, Elizabeth said if one of them has to live to raise the children, it should be Philip.
About those children: they are nearly grown. Henry is at boarding school and Paige is becoming a Soviet agent. Philip seems curiously detached from the Agent Paige drama, considering his strong feelings against Paige’s participation in their career. What changed?
Meanwhile, Elizabeth is fighting her doubts about Paige’s ability to be a spy (and her concern for her daughter’s welfare), by half-confessing her fears to Philip, and by stating that Paige is bound to have an easier time than she and Philip. The plan is for Paige to graduate and embark on a career in a federal agency like the State Department, where Elizabeth is hoping she will have something like a normal life.
Of course this is a total delusion. We see just how ill-advised Paige’s career choice is when she fears that Renhall has shot her mother. “Mom, are you okay?” yells a panicked Paige, totally breaking with protocol and blowing their cover.
Is Elizabeth okay? I doubt it.
- The Spy Game takes its toll on marriages, as this episode demonstrates. Stan would really rather not be bothered with babysitting Sofia and Gennadi, and he’s reluctant to tell Renee his work will make him late for dinner. Aderholt refers to his own first marriage. Sofia is really to bolt, leaving her spy career – and all those secrets the FBI X-rays in a diplomatic pouch – in tatters.
- How much did you love watching Henry do a Faux-Russian accent on the phone while imitating Stavros? Henry still doesn’t know he’s Russian.
- The Joes explain how the diplomatic pouch works and what was going on in that bathroom in Slate’s podcast. The pouch cannot be opened, so the agents had worked out a way of x-raying the contents while hiding in the bathroom stall. Yes, this was a real spy trick.
- Going it alone has got Elizabeth making mistakes and taking enormous risks. Her escape plan and disguise to get in and tour of the State Department was ingenious, but if she had been working with Philip, he would’ve argued for some changes for safety reasons, and also would’ve had her back.
- Elizabeth hears rumors that Reagan is going senile. A person told me this was “liberal propaganda” by the show. About that: Reagan later confessed that he had Alzheimer’s disease, on camera. You’re welcome.
- This is another stellar directorial effort by Matthew Rhys. Speaking of his alter ego, anybody else notice that Claudia’s description of lonely, motherless Tchaikovsky also fits Philip?