Friday, July 18, 2014

The Americans: Safe House Review


A Series of Most Unfortunate Events...

What can one say about an episode where divorce is the LEAST tragic moment in it? Safe House is one of the most devastating hours I have seen, one that shocked me, moved me emotionally, and did what no episode of Doctor Who or Sherlock has managed (the fanboys/girls be damned). 

Safe House made me almost burst out in tears. 

Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) and his wife Elizabeth (Keri Russell) have to do one of the hardest things they've done in their lives.  It isn't kill someone for Mother Russia.  It isn't to bring about sabotage in the United States.  It's telling their children Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) that they are separating.  Pushing the pause button, Philip tells them.  Both of them are naturally devastated by this news, Paige in particular, blaming Elizabeth for the break-up and Henry too withdrawn to say much.  The Jennings try to keep a brave front when at a get-together at the Beeman's house, where loose lips of both Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and his partner Chris Amador (Maximiliano Hernandez) let out the story that for the deaths of the FBI agents from Mutually Assured Destruction, they are going to perform an extracurricular assassination of new Rezindentura head Arkady (Lev Gorn), whom they blame for the crime.

Philip, however, doesn't learn this at the party.  He learns this as 'Clark' from Martha (Alison Wright), FBI Agent Gaad's (Richard Thomas) secretary and Philip's unwitting mole.  Perhaps out of frustration, perhaps not, Philip and Martha make intense love.  A little too intense for Amador, who has become fixated on his former girlfriend and finds this man leaving her apartment.  Amador breaks out a pocketknife, but in the struggle ends up stabbing himself.  Philip takes him to a 'safe house', where Elizabeth realizes who he is.

Stan immediately becomes concerned when Amador doesn't show up for work.  He goes to his apartment and finds he hasn't been there.  Stan deduces correctly that the KGB has him, but is wrong about the reasons.  In retaliation, Gaad has authorized Arkady's killing when he goes for his usual run.  Arkady, however, unbeknown to the FBI, burned his hand and cannot make his usual run.  His running partner, Vlad (Vitaly Benko), goes anyway, and while the FBI calls it off, fearing Amador will be killed over this, an angry Beeman orders the runner abducted, unaware at first it is the wrong man.

Things spin completely out of control.  Amador will not divulge the target of the FBI's assassination, and in his delusional state thinks Elizabeth was one of his many one-night stands.  Arkady, meanwhile, is puzzled as to why someone would call, threatening to kill a low-level Embassy employee like Vlad, a cultural attaché.  Things are more confused because Amador believes that by now Arkady is dead (which is why he gave them the name), but when Elizabeth contacts the Rezidentura, Arkady, very much alive and well, answers.   Vlad, for his part, is terrified by his abduction and intense questioning by Beeman, insisting he knows nothing about this Amador.  Only Nina (Annet Mahendru), Beeman's KGB mole/mistress, appears to be putting things slowly together: her lover's partner is the man the FBI is looking for, the one for whom they have taken Vlad for.  However, by this time it is too late: Chris Amador is Dead.  In desperation, the Jennings dump his body.

In another unfortunate and tragic result of all the confusion and erroneous conclusions, an enraged Beeman calmly gives Vlad a hamburger, asks him if he's KGB (to which Vlad meekly admits to), and then calmly shoots Vlad in the back of his head.

The tangled and confused lives of all the characters collide in horrifying ways in Safe House, where we see how one incident that was misinterpreted (Philip believing Amador was there because he had discovered Philip is KGB) built up and up into a full-blown crisis.  Each decision both the FBI and KBG made, while in certain ways correct, led to more confusion, chaos, and death.  If only one person had made one simple decision (Gaad not ordering the assassination, Vlad opting not to run, Beeman not abducting Vlad, Amador not taking a knife to Philip, Stan not killing Vlad, the Jennings not withholding the morphine until Amador talked), the circumstances could all have turned out much different.

As in life, a single misinterpreted moment, word, or action, can lead to so much tragedy.  If European leaders had not reacted to passionately to Archduke Ferdinand's assassination by setting off threats to each other, World War I might have been avoided.  This situation is smaller but no less chaotic and tragic.  Beeman was right when he thought the KGB took Amador, but he could not have known that it was Amador's jealousy and fixation on Martha that forced Philip's hand.  Similarly, Beeman's emotional reaction to finding his friend's body caused an innocent to be killed.  Vlad had nothing to do with Amador, but in the fog of war things become so distorted that Beeman at that moment might not have even cared if Vlad WAS responsible.  He was KGB, KGB took his best friend, case closed.

Safe House works so well not just because this was such a tightly-written story, but because in between all the brinksmanship we were allowed flashbacks and hints of Chris' life outside both the FBI and his own swagger.  We learned of his military service in Vietnam, his family life (one of the messages on his answering machine was that of his mother, asking him to come to a family reunion) and his mad love for the ladies.  Beeman could not have known that it was one woman, one he worked with every day, who inadvertently triggered the situation.

Safe House also gives us insight into the Jennings' lives.  The sex scene with Martha and Philip/Clark appeared to be a release for Philip's pent-up frustrations over losing Elizabeth.  Martha, who has genuinely fallen in love with 'Clark', is giving him what Elizabeth, cold and methodical but also deeply hurt, cannot or will not give Philip, who in turn yearns for Elizabeth to give him what Martha so freely offers: not just sex but true love. 

There isn't one bad performance in Safe House: from Rhys' emotionally wounded Philip to Wright's lovelorn Martha to Emmerich's avenging angel Stan and Benko's terrified Vlad to Russell's professional Elizabeth to Taylor's angry Paige and Sellati's withdrawn Henry.  I know Hernandez left The Americans for greener pastures (his role as Agent Jasper Sitwell in both Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), but seeing his character killed off in such a brutal and so needless manner doesn't diminish the impact.

The genius of Safe House is that the story is so tight technically and yet so emotionally resonant.  We see that one bad choice/wrong conclusion led to more and more, climaxing in the deaths of two people who didn't have to die.  That's the tragedy of it all, and that's what I responded to. 

An episode that is both intellectual and emotional?  Only in The Americans...

In Memoriam


Next Episode: Only You

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