Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Spies Keeping and Breaking the Faith



THE AMERICANS:
A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC

Most children go through a rebellious stage, and what greater way to rebel for the daughter of sleeper Soviet agents than in finding religion?  A Little Night Music continues The Americans strong second season of mixing the main characters business (spying for the Soviet Union) and family issues (their daughters flirtations with Jesus).  We even have the extra bonus of having Margo Martindale's brilliant Granny return.  Friend? Foe? Something in between?

There's fallout from two earlier killings.  For Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), there's the murders of their co-workers/friends Emmett and Leann.  Claudia aka Granny wants them to find out who did it, and she has a prime suspect.  He is Andrew Laric, a military official who was being blackmailed by Emmett and Leann due to his homosexuality.  Laric is about to start a covert training program in Nicaragua and the Soviets believe, the only one who could have pulled off this targeted killing.

The Jennings also have to deal with Anton Baklanov (Michael Aronov), a Soviet Jewish Refusenik who is using his clout as a physicist and exile from the Soviet Union to draw attention to the plight of the Jews in the U.S.S.R.  They are ordered to forcibly expatriate him back to the motherland.  They split the assignment: Philip will tail Baklanov, while Elizabeth will use her feminine wiles to gain the sympathy of Brad Mullen (Jefferson White), who can get information on Laric as a Navy recruit with access to Laric's files.  Elizabeth appears to share with Brad a similar passion for Mozart, who is different than most of his Navy buddies in that he has a strong appreciation for culture, and is probably either a virgin or extremely inexperienced with women.


Laric must be deeply closeted, as Elizabeth convinces Brad that Laric raped her but has escaped prosecution.  She, however, has a mild freakout when attempting to seduce Brad, and Claudia believes that Elizabeth is not yet fully recovered emotionally from her shooting.  She and Philip have greater problems however: their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) has found religion.  She has started secretly reading the Bible and attending the Reed Street Church and its Youth Group (as a side note, simply the squarest Youth Group I've ever seen, and I've seen my fair share of YG though I was never asked to attend one as a youth myself...not that I'm still bitter about that all these years later).  Paige's growing fascination with Christianity horrifies her parents, who hold the Marxist doctrine that religion is the opiate of the masses. 

However, they can't take their eyes off the ball, as they must kidnap Baklanov.  They discover that he has a mistress, whom he sees frequently.  It's decided to grab him as he leaves one of his liaisons, but for once the Jennings are thrown for a loop when they themselves are attacked by another pair of trained agents.  In the ensuing chaos one of the other agents speeds off with a dazed Baklanov, while the Jennings find themselves stranded with a wounded agent. 

In a subplot, the Rezidentura is having an undeclared war between the head officer Arkady (Lev Gorn) and the upstart Oleg (Costa Ronin) as to who will decide what.  Oleg has used his connections in Moscow to get a higher security clearance, which worries Nina (Annet Mahendru), concerned that her own double-agent status and romps with FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) will be revealed to someone she genuinely dislikes.

A Little Night Music does what The Americans does best: put a domestic family drama in the midst of the nefarious dealings of the Soviet agents.   The best scene in the episode is right before Philip and Elizabeth try to grab Baklanov.  There, they discuss Paige's secret life as a potential born-again Christian.  The interplay between Rhys and Russell is oddly natural given the somewhat bizarre situations.  Philip is not taking Paige's religiosity all that seriously, suggesting that she will skip praying over her meal if they eat at a later hour (hunger will force God out, he reasons).  Elizabeth for her part is irritated at her husband's reaction to all this, as she is herself is a True Believer: in Stalin, Socialism, and the State.  Despite being Soviet agents about to try and kidnap someone, they also are in a lot of ways like other American parents, wondering whether they are good parents.

A Little Night Music doesn't hold back on other elements.  We see in Russell's performance a woman who has, at a certain level, proven Claudia right in that she is still struggling with the physical.  Russell also excels when she recounts her 'attack' to Brad, making it quite believable that she really was the victim of a violent crime.  It was a quiet, understated performance, and seeing Russell balance all these different roles showcases what a strong actress she is.  Rhys is her equal in the episode, displaying no emotion when hearing of the Refuseniks' struggles in the Soviet Union but having an unhinged moment when as "Clark", the husband of the unsuspecting Martha (Alison Wright), he becomes shockingly aggressive.  It's as if the masks he's been wearing are finally wearing on him, and through Clark, Philip can unleash some of the pent-up rage he has been forcing down.

It is also excellent to see Martindale back, even if it was only for a guest turn.  Her scene with Rhys and Russell as she talks about Emmett and Leann might show a woman who is herself haunted by what has happened throughout her time as their minder: the killings and what has happened to Elizabeth.  However, as Granny continues on, we never fully know if she truly feels something or is using the very human nature of being sympathetic to get people to do her work.  One never knows where one stands with Granny, and Martindale in her quiet manner makes things so mysterious.  She was one of the best parts of The Americans, and it isn't surprising that Martindale received two Emmy nominations for her work on the series (as both Supporting Actress and Guest Actress).

It's also good to see that Holly Taylor really holding her own against two excellent actors in Rhys and Russell as Paige.  She is still somewhat moody (as most teenagers are) but we see that she is slowly starting to seek answers about life.  The Bible is one method of trying to make sense of the world around her, and her growing curiosity about her parents is another. 

Getting the wild twist of the Jennings getting attacked themselves is a great ending to A Little Night Music, throwing things we weren't expecting. 

I have been too long away from The Americans.  It's good to be back, for this tale of the perfect American family who happen to be working to destroy America continues to hold a mirror to the issues of trying to balance work and home...even if work involves bringing down our government. 

Bless Me, Lenin, for I have Sinned...

7/10

Next Episode: The Deal

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