The Americans 5.02: “Pests” Review

The Land of Lincoln

A Television Review by Akash Singh

NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!

In 1955, Illinois State Senator Fred J. Hart introduced legislation to make “Land of Lincoln” the official state slogan of Illinois, replacing “The Prairie State.” The idea was to differentiate the state from other Midwestern states with a heavy grassland and or agricultural presence and at the same time call back to one of the most celebrated leaders in American history. The Land of Lincoln calls back to the idea that a land once divided was brought under the guiding hand of one visionary man, a heroic figure in an office that has lacked a decent quantity of heroic figures. The annals of history are naturally far more complicated than the picture painted by the proclamation, but the romanticization of history through singular leaders is hardly a recent and or rare phenomenon. The metaphor is an apt one for the world of The Americans, one split along sharp divisions every which way while guiding figures for various reasons try to look over those divisions and try to bridge them in some capacity or another. They may or may not be heroes or villains, but they exist within divisions that may very well paint them in such terms. Certain characters come quite close to the marker, however, even crossing over the lines into a villainy that would by the basic standards of human empathy seem to be off the table. Elizabeth and Phillip are under the impression that there are certain things both the Soviet Union and the United States wouldn’t do to one another, that there were some things that could not be used as pawns on the proverbial chess table. One of those pawns were food supplies. Capitalism was trying to prove its superiority to Soviet-style Communism (which in and of itself altered significantly throughout the country’s existence) but the government who was its most ardent champion would not starve Soviet citizens to prove that superiority. Or so the Jennings’s thought.

The most effective sequence of the daring and subtle “Pests” was Elizabeth investigating an innocent-seeming greenhouse. Chris Long effortlessly directs the sequence as it were taken from a horror film, maneuvering his camera to create a sensation of vivid claustrophobia. The few snippets of light penetrate the vast darkness of the room, illuminating the few tips of plants and a lonely Elizabeth walking through the aisles, trying to find some of the answers she was looking for. The sound design and mixing is excellent throughout, amplifying the considerable tension sharply at just the right moments. There’s a quiet sense of dread building like a crescendo, escalating with each step Elizabeth takes deeper into the arena of greenery. She casts looks about her surroundings with a keen awareness that something was wrong, even if that feeling at this juncture just comes with the job. There’s a part of Elizabeth perhaps that simply does not want to believe what she suspects and Keri Russell does an excellent job of displaying that internal battle on her visage. Then Elizabeth sees the literal, titular pests swarming around the crops in the greenroom. The horror of Elizabeth’s journey isn’t just due to the technical prowess and Russell’s terrific performance, however. The horror sinks in because of the philosophical underpinnings that there were certain rules that were followed in espionage. Neither Phillip nor Elizabeth are under any sort of naive misconception about what their work is somehow dripping with morality, but there was something about the depravity of the circumstances that hits close to home for her. It’s a sharp, compounding reminder of the poverty she grew up in and what she believed so ardently she was fighting for.

The Paige subplot this season continues to be absolutely fascinating. Her budding relationship with Matthew has shades of the clichéd boyfriend across the street tropes, but it has evolved from that into a character study for herself and for Elizabeth. Paige is frustrated and quickly Elizabeth and Phillip realize that her frustration is valid, which in and of itself is something stereotypical parents would not become aware of. They are keen enough to understand that simply pushing Paige’s buttons in regard to Matthew would just cause her to backfire on them. Elizabeth instead takes the extremely wise road here, making sure that Paige knew what the intricacies of their concerns were. It wasn’t that Paige would spill their secrets because she didn’t know any better or that she was untrustworthy. That, of course, was ridiculous. Nor were Elizabeth and Phillip behaving like typical parents freaking out about their child becoming sexually active. That, Elizabeth noted, was perfectly normal. The concern, they calmly note, was that Paige was unaware of the emotional complexities of sex, that she was unaware that in those moments she might end up saying and doing things she would otherwise eschew. Paige seems to be more understanding of this calm, calculative approach. When Elizabeth offers to teach her a technique that she could employ during sex to keep her mind focused if she felt it slip, Paige acquiesces. One wonders what Elizabeth would think during those moments when she deployed that technique herself.

While Elizabeth was discovering a method for destroying Soviet crops and helping Paige, Stan was discovering a rather unfortunate note of his own. Faith in a variety of forms has always been a strong tenant of The Americans, but “Pests” focuses instead of the unraveling of faith, primarily in institutions whose power rests upon that belief. Stan, in part due to his unraveling personal life, made his work at the FBI an intransigent part of his being. Stan in a sense became inseparable from Agent Beeman. When Oleg committed the fairly selfless act of trying to prevent catastrophe, it was a one-off act before he returned home to ostensibly live out the rest of his life in some capacity. The one-off nature often works in the same vein as the narrative trick of “only one more job before I retire for good” and it isn’t long before Stan finds himself at the request of the CIA. The CIA wants to use Oleg’s conscientious act as a way to lure him into becoming a reluctant asset. One of the critical pieces missing here is that this simply isn’t the best way to recruit an asset and the division of how the CIA and Rezidentura largely operate in this particular capacity has been fascinating. Stan presses to no avail that if Oleg was shunted towards becoming a mole for the CIA, there was no way he would survive the challenge and make it through alive. He’s met with a shrug and his implore to the FBI is met in essence with the same conclusion. Oleg would be forced to become a mole for the United States while operating in a bureaucratic position in the Soviet Union. If the assignment meant his death, then so be it. He’s a tough cookie, they reasoned, and if he could abscond with the information he already had, perhaps there was simply more to be mined out of him. As Oleg sits on a bench in Moscow, he receives that surely ill-fated letter and a storm of despair washes over his fatigued visage.

Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:

+“How does he feel about his parents?”

+The shot of Elizabeth washing the bugs out of her hair was striking

+“I wish I was in charge of the whole goddamn FBI.”

+“Americans are always busy, busy, busy.”

+“I’d rather die back home than live here. It’s such a stupid thing to say.” Tuan is an intriguing addition to this season and his sharp, pointed beliefs make him a character worth watching.

Great

8.5/10

Episode Title: Pests

Written by: Joel Fields & Joe Weisberg

Directed by: Chris Long

Image Courtesy: EW

Source: Belleville News-Democrat

Musings:

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