Paging the Greater Good
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
There are always those questions that you furiously want to ask, but a small part of you never wants to know the answer. You have been wondering about those particular questions for quite a while, to the extent that when you go to bed, they’re adrift in your dreams, or even your nightmares. When you wake up in the morning, the questions come rushing back at you as if they are indignant that you might have dared to get a decent night’s sleep, untethered from them. Those questions are in a fashion the most extreme forms of a Hobson’s choice – damned if you do, damned if you don’t. You could ignore those questions, even though they would bug you in some part of your brain for a significant amount of time. Or at last you break down and finally ask. In the latter option, there’s usually a simultaneous flood of relief and anxiety as the answers begin to pool in. For Paige, it’s more akin to a torrential thunderstorm of terror. Their odd behavior has been bothering her for a significant amount of time, but she just assumed that there was something wrong with her own perception; no wonder she found some form of solace in the progressive church headed by Pastor Tim. Yet the nagging suspicions remained steadfast and she at last confronts her parents. The anxiety is present. There is no relief, however.
There is always a question of the greater good and what it truly means in the grand scheme of things. The very concept of the greater good is more often than not tied into what an individual believes to be true themselves, whether or not that actually is what is the best thing to do under the circumstances to secure the future. A certain degree of delusion lies within the points of view that ascertain themselves to be the greater good. In some aspects, that can be true, as everyone often has different vantage points from which to view circumstances and can thusly see things more clearly than others. But to behold that into an entire worldview that would validate the eternal question of “Do the ends justify the means?” is another thing entirely. Elizabeth, more than anyone else on the show perhaps, has always taken that position, most wonderfully last week with Betty. Her first impression upon arriving in America was that the people were weak, made so by the materialistic goodness that lay in abhorrent abundance. It was a small expression of the underlying allegiance to her motherland that has remained impressively intact. Even with her recent expressions of emotions, however, the notion that she is working towards a greater good by working to preserve the Soviet Union is (at least for now) something that has not wavered in the slightest.
That is the very line of defense Elizabeth tries to use for Paige, but her daughter cuts off that line of discussion without a moment to spare. Elizabeth this season has been taking the mission to convert Paige fairly slowly, unraveling the threads one at a time to lessen the impact of the truth being eventually revealed to Paige about her parents working for the KGB. As Elizabeth noted to Hans last week after he murdered Todd, things seldom go as planned. Being ambushed at one o’clock in the morning in the kitchen by their teenage daughter, who demands to know what they’ve been up to was hardly something that either of them were expecting. She has a fair number of points to make, all pointed towards how atypical their family structure is despite all of the attempts to make it look otherwise. They have no relatives to speak of anywhere and what types of travel agents pick up the phone and then go off at random times during the day and night? There’s no family brunches with an aunt and uncle in the Midwest, for example, and a normal American couple in their forties with teenage kids would be sound asleep at the time that the Jennings are out, desperate for some sound sleep before the morning clock began running again.
Surprisingly, it is Phillip who breaks the news to their daughter about who they are, beginning with the most innocuous-sounding line: “We were born in a different country.” There’s a morbidly hilarious mixture of hesitant optimism and dread in Phillip’s voice, as if that would solve the question of the missing relatives in America. But Paige is a fairly astute and observant teenager and she isn’t satisfied with that answer. Then they quietly reveal that they were born in the Soviet Union, with Elizabeth quickly adding that much of what Paige has heard about the country is a lie and that “We’re here to help our people.” Neither of them openly say the key word, but Paige beats them to it. “You’re spies?” she asks quietly, in the most incredulous of voices. They admit to it, with Phillip adding that “If you do tell anyone, we will go to jail, for good.” There was a definite pause in his voice and for a moment I thought that he was going to threaten his daughter’s life, but placing the responsibility of their safety in her hands was a powerful move. Even as Paige lies quietly in her bed, the overwhelming shock of what had just happened to her completely ensuring any other thought, she still needs to hear something that would make everything she just heard true. In a quiet, heartbreaking moment, Elizabeth tells Paige in Russian that she loves her very much and Phillip translates.
There were a plethora of other stingers, if you will, scattered throughout the episode, touching bases in a very Game of Thrones fashion to ensure that the pieces were set in motion for the rest of the season to follow. Zinaida is quietly revealed to actually be a Soviet plant, codenamed “Willow.” Anton and Nina make a quick connection over her ability to speak English and her time spent in America. Phillip and Elizabeth establish themselves in a hotel where an ISI connection is going to meet with the CIA over Afghanistan. Stan forms a wonderful father-son bond with Henry (who gets the most screen time he’s ever gotten) over movies and games, such as Strat-O-Matic. Gabriel notes that he had the Center arrange for Mischa to get an early release from Asghanistan, but that he had refused (I still think he’s dead). Gabriel quietly asks if Phillip wants to force his son to go back home, ut Phillip refuses to do so. Gabriel is a bit surprised and perhaps a bit disappointed, but if Phillip has ever wanted anything, it is for his children to have a choice. Mischa made his. Stan for the first time became suspicious of Martha, finding her to be absent from the office on ‘family business.” The most direct application of Stingers title-wise, however, is in direct reference to the missiles the CIA provided to the mujahideen. Those missiles are in a unique place in history, members of a group of historically vital fulcrums that were nevertheless sort of forgotten by history itself. Those missiles are nevertheless credited with being the key for the war in Afghanistan turning against the Soviet Union. It just so happens that in the case of the Jennings’s household, they hit a little too close to home for comfort.
Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+“It can be light on the whole God part.”
+“I think it’s always a good time for parents and children to become closer.”
+Some thematically resonant cultural references this week: Tootsie is about a man in disguise, TRON is about a man fighting for the rights of oppressed programs, and when Zinaida is in the bathroom, the background music is the theme song to Sting
+Family trip to Kenya? It’ll certainly be awkward now.
+“A kid like Paige really needs to treated more like an adult than a child.”
+Zinaida doesn’t like Tootsie. Of course she’s a double agent.
+“In Soviet Union, that would never happen.”; “It’ll never happen here, either.” LGBT rights in the 1980s.
+“I think you’re the only one who cares about me.”
+“They’re going to stay at the Clayton in Crystal City. These guys won’t know the difference; they’re used to sleeping in caves.”
+Paige gives up on LEGOS? They’re so much fun, no matter the age!
+Henry’s pre-internet porn stash was hilarious – the photo of Sandra is still in there
+Anton needing photographs to complete his work and Nina’s observation of how slow Soviet bureaucracy moves. The simplest of things, am I right?
+“This is my direct line.”
+“Then tell me the truth.”
+The phone ringing on and on
+“Are you okay?”; “I don’t know.”
+“Do you hate me?”; “No.”
+“But things change, Phillip. They changed.”
+Henry’s impression of Eddie Murphy in “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” from Saturday Night Live was spot on
+Elizabeth’s reaction to “bitch”
+“I don’t feel good about leaving right now.”
+“There’s no way around this.”
+“Yeah, just have to live long enough”
+“Trust?… It just fell apart.”
+“She says she was threatened. By one of ours.” Arkady chastises the compartmentalization of the Soviet system, noting to Tatiana how annoying it was that a KGB operative unaware of the Zinaida plant might blow the lid on the entire operation. The left hand rarely knew what the right was doing in the Soviet Union and that was arguably what brought the entire house of cards tumbling down.
+There were a number of beautiful shots from director Larysa Kondracki (The Whistleblower, Better Caul Saul, The Walking Dead, Reign), but three shots in particular stood out.
+The first one was the cutting back and forth between Phillip and Elizabeth in the travel agency and Paige at home as she called Pastor Tim, telling him that she followed his guidelines on talking to her parents. She remembers Phillip’s warning, however, and refrains from spilling the whole truth. Meddling in the Jennings’s family affairs isn’t going to end well for Pastor Tim, I’d say.
+The second shot was of Phillip sharpening the knives in the foreground as the camera was focused from Paige’s point of view. Subtle yet telling.
+Holly Taylor gave the best performance of her career so far in this episode, and there’s a perfect mixture of realization as she stares at Stan walking away from their kitchen. She was shocked to her core earlier, but in that moment she realized, if you indulge me, how close the missiles hit, indeed.
Written By: Joel Fields & Joe Weisberg
Directed By: Larysa Kondracki
Image Courtesy: Fanaru