Thursday, April 17, 2014

From Russia With a 2 Kid, 1 Car Family, 2 of whom are Soviet Spies, a Clueless FBI AGent who Lives Next Door, and a Promise of Sympathy Distortion

Those are my words, those last two, and sympathy distortion is something the fan of FX's "The Americans" must learn to live with.  Or stop watching it.

The KGB family brings brownies for the FBI agent under whose nose they reside

If you don't watch much TV, then you, like I before a friend told me about it, may not know about this show. It's a little difficult to explain unless you are a Cold War nerd like myself, but basically, the "stars" are a couple (marriage arranged by the KGB) from the Soviet Union, their accents somehow magically erased, living in a cushy split level in 1980s Washington, DC, next door to a clueless FBI agent; amusing themselves with kidnapping, forced repatriation of the odd Russian intelligentsia, a fake marriage (the husband's), meeting cool people and killing them, and by magically keeping their kids from knowing they are KGB spies from the Soviet Union (don't these kids wonder why they never meet their grandmas?)  While all this is going on, the clueless FBI agent not only misses the KGB agents under his nose, but has fallen desperately in love with the woman he believes is his KGB informant, but who used him to get her way back into the good with her "Soviet ambassador" boss, and who may have been in love with him, but is now sleeping with another sort of free-agent agent who is extorting FBI information from the FBI agent by threatening the life of his KGB "informant"/triple agent informant/lover.  All in the context of wives, children, and innocent bystanders who are flicked away like so much acceptable collateral damage.

Are you getting all this?

And John-Boy Walton plays a higher-up in the FBI who used to be the FBI agent who live next door's boss but was demoted and sent away somewhere after the FBI somehow erred in a way I really don't understand. 

 No one in this show over the age of 15 seems to have a conscience.  Except for the FBI agent's wife (note:  I said conscience; I did not say an ounce of self-worth) and the fake wife of the husband of the KGB-fake American couple.  This woman, Martha, has a better excuse than the FBI agent's wife because she is totally in the dark about the bigamy, national origin, and motives for his requests that she purloin stuff from work, of her fake husband, as well as her real marital status (did I mention that she is the secretary for the clueless FBI agent who lives next door, and that she brings secret stuff home from work for the man she thinks is her husband?)....but she is on the way to figuring it out.

I have an old Brenda Lee song I want to share with Martha should I ever run into her.  It's not a perfect fit but evokes the same, honey, someone needs to tell you this before it REALLY gets out of hand feeling.  (Try not to look at Ms. Lee's outfit.  Sometimes child stars never quite get over themselves).

I have such an uncanny mixture of feelings when I watch this show, but it always drags me back to itself to see more, like a train wreck or like the stupid boat and tower Angry Birds level I'm stuck on.  I've started counting some of the things that cause me to yell at the TV, at whatever character is doing something completely inexcusable.  Like, how many things will Phillip and Elizabeth (really Mischa and Nadezhda; I like to think of them as Boris and Natasha, but they're really not as funny) yell at their kids for doing that they get paid  top ruble for everyday (lying, breaking and entering, coming home at an undisclosed time)?  How many times will any of the spies in the show gain someone's trust and then shoot them in the back or back of the head as soon as that person relaxes?  (Phillip is really the king of this, but Elizabeth seems to be catching up, and Stan, the FBI agent/neighbor/bitch of the triple agent at the Residentura is no amateur; just more of a stupid pro.)  And how many times will this happen just when I have started thinking, well that person's not so bad....did the writers plan it that way?  

And what happened to Richard Thomas's mole?!!

There are imbalances too, apparently, in the writers' biases.  How many times will American prosperity (or decadence as it may be portrayed) be pooh-poohed or even spit upon by everyone in the cast, Americans included....and will the writers ever include a scene concerning dissidents in Moscow, or more than a roomful of desks and computers at a gulag location, or something about what Phillip and Elizabeth went through growing up in an economic wasteland?  

Take this week for example.  Season 2, episode 8, "New Car."  There is a new car in it; a nice new car, a Camaro in fact; and it is subsidized by the KGB for Phillip and Elizabeth.  The only flack this causes is Phillip and Elizabeth's (weekly) argument in which Elizabeth says, "We're not here for THAT!" and Phillip says "We might as well enjoy it while we're here."  Phillip and their young son (I think he's 12; around that age) pull in the driveway in the brand new car,  and Elizabeth's look prompts Phillip to say, essentially, "I know we're not here for THAT but we might as well enjoy it while we're here."

What you don't hear is the fact that Phillip and Elizabeth (who wouldn't be married unless they were KGB agents assigned to Washington DC, but work with me here) would have had to wait at least 6 months to get a car back home, with no choice in color, model or horsepower[1].  Here Phillip just basically walked in with his son, sat in the front seat, maybe took a test drive during the edit, and Ta-da!  New car!  New late model car!  New sexy Camaro!

And take Lucia.  Well, the late Lucia, now, because she finally got taken out by the US Navy informant who was giving secrets to the KGB and was also responsible for the death of, oh about a gazillion Nicaraguans.  Since Lucia, who is probably about 18 but doesn't look a day over 14, has appeared on the program, mentored by Elizabeth she has been very, very devoted to the cause.  Which understandably worried Elizabeth, because intense passion usually doesn't work out very well for spies.  Before this week she had already planned to completely mess up her first assignment by killing the navy guy (who she blamed for the death of her family) as well as hundreds of other people in a Contra demonstration to be held nearby.  So Elizabeth had had "a talk" with her, there's a plan much bigger than your plan for revenge; the KGB doesn't take kindly to rogue spies, yada, yada, yada...but this week she broke into the guy's house and attacked him with a dart gun.  He tied her up, called Elizabeth, and they were just about to trade Lucia for Elizabeth's promise he'd be able to totally get out of his double agent role after a few pieces of information were obtained....and the little vixen reaches behind her for a corkscrew off the table and tries to kill him with that.  And he kills her while Elizabeth watches, clearly moved, but not enough to save the girl, who would have probably just continued to get in the way.

What you don't see is the Nicaraguan Communist government bombing, forced resettlement, and shootings of the Miskito Indians in Nicaragua, as well as the corruption the smiling face of President Daniel Ortega hid. 

So do you see what I mean about sympathy distortion?  Whom do you care about?  Whom do you root for? Stan?  He's cheating on his wife and so stupid he's more of a hindrance to the FBI than a help.  Nina, his triple agent lover?  More and more she seems to be scheming for herself rather than actually experiencing the passion she fakes for Stan and, probably, for her new lover; and the loyalty to her country.  Or to Stan.  

Elizabeth and Phillip are always tempting as a source of gratification; after all the show's about them, and we know all the things they fear or dread....often pretty reasonable things, like walking into a hotel room and finding another Soviet-DC-planted couple shot dead along with their daughter; or hearing a Soviet sub was sunk by fake plans they procured from the US (not knowing they were fake, of course), but sometimes, awfully their too-good-to-be-true children going to Bible studies or breaking into a friend’s house to play video games, not disturbing anything else (remember these are things we see Phillip and Elizabeth do every week--er, not the Bible study part but definitely the breaking and entering part).  But then they do something so callous, because, that's part of their job too.  Phillip took a tape he got of Stan, Martha's boss, talking about how he'd need to drink 10 beers and put a bag over her head before he'd want to sleep with his wife....ruling him out even more.... and fixed it so that instead of Stan saying it about his wife, he was saying it about Martha, to Martha's apartment.  Greeted, as always, with unabashed, unposessive affection from her, he couldn't do it.  But he thought about it!  And he worked on that tape!

Vassilli, the Residentura, is tempting as well as a sympathetic character contender.  Probably the worst you can say about him is that he works for the KGB. 

If you read "Spy Handler" by  Viktor Cherkashin, you'll get a little peek into that world of KGB agents, and it's not pretty.  KGB officers, big and little, did not escape the purges and the famines and the gulags and the other politically arranged atrocities of the USSR (OK, the purges and the famine affected the NKVD which would later become the KGB, so sue me).  And the best of the best were trained not to have an ounce of feeling if they participated in the deceit of other agents to get them to their execution or imprisonment.  Cherkashin gives a long description of an erstwhile DC diplomat/KGB agent who he convinced that the younger man needed to get on a plane right away to Moscow to receive a reward for what a wonderful job he was doing.  Cherkashin describes him as a loving father, a kind man, someone he had never had a negative feeling toward.  And Cherkashin knew as he sent him on that flight...without his loving wife or children....that all would be greeting him in Moscow would be a bullet to the head, after it came to light that he'd shared information with the Americans.

I'm not saying the CIA or FBI never did that; I don't know, I hope they didn't; things got out easier to the press in the US until a few years ago then it did in Pravda.  But it gave me such a cold feeling about Cherkashin and his ilk that, well, I just wonder about Vasilli.  But he's still in the running as one of the two sympathetic candidates, the other being Martha.  

I think what's most chilling about this show is that in a real way, every character (aside from the children) is a real politician, even Vasilli and Martha (who continues to dutifully get information for Phillip, or Clark, as she knows him, from work).  None of the adults seem to have scruples so great that they won't toss them out temporarily to make someone else happy and to earn favors.

 I take that back.  Elizabeth is a hell-bent patriot for the USSR, and nothing, not her beautiful sweaters, the shoes that Phillip points out in this episode, the freedom from want in which they live, will take that away from her.  But she could be hiding a big surprise.

So in other words, "The Americans" is a show from a highly volatile part of US and Russian history that features spies who lie, spies who kill people who don't deserve dying, spies who pretend to be a man named Clark and pretend to marry a wonderful woman--as his real wife looks on, disguised as his sister; as spies become double agents and triple agents, as spies sit at their American table with their American wife and son and seem totally out of place, unable to carry a conversation, and then 2 episodes later show such passion for their KGB triple agent girlfriend that they are willing to betray their country and deliver information to the man telling him he will blackmail the girlfriend and risk her life if the spy doesn't comply; where kids with no worse habits than sneaking in next door to play a video game or sneaking out to go to a Bible study get grilled by parents who do worse....oh, and who by the way have ensured that these children know nothing of their real origins.

All this by writers who glamorize the life of the KGB agents and get a bunch of digs in at the US and capitalism, but fail to show how communism crushes the life of the KGB agents' countrymen.  What a nihilistic, ugly, distorted, piece of work.

I can't wait till next week!

[1] Soviet Joke of the Blog Entry: Igor and Natalya are sitting with a car salesman on a lovely spring day.  They are so excited, they have paid for their first car.  Now they are negotiating when it should be delivered.  The salesman offers, “What about next January?”  “January,” says Igor, thinking.  “In the morning or in the afternoon?”  “What does it matter, morning or afternoon?”  “Well, the plumber is coming in the morning next January.”

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