Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Americans: Baggage Review


It is true: we are all in some ways prisoners of our pasts.  Baggage gives us such wonderful ideas about the things we carry and the things we leave behind to make our own lives (and mistakes).  We get a great double meaning that shows the intelligence The Americans has, and best of all, we find that Annet Mahendru's Nina is not dead (at least not yet).  Could our favorite double agent still have some hope?

Nina is in prison, apparently waiting for her execution, when she gets a new cellmate, Evi from Belgium (Katja Herbers).  Nina flat-out doesn't care, knowing that she will die very soon.  She does meet with Oleg's father, the Minister of Railways, who tells her his son begged the Minister to help Nina somehow.  She tells him to give Oleg a message: she never faked her feelings when with him.

Back in the States, Oleg (Costa Ronin) tracks down Nina's ex-lover, FBI Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), and threatens to shoot him.  Beeman tells him that if he's going to kill him, shoot him in the back while he walks away.  Oleg couldn't do it.  The incident does rattle Stan, to where he seeks comfort from his ex-wife Sandra (Susan Misner), who rebuffs Stan's offers of love.  Beeman is the lead agent in the extraction of Soviet defector Zanaida (Stevlana Efremova), an analyst with a fondness for Milky Way candy bars.  She is smuggled via a crate.

Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) for their part have to take the body of their agent Annelise out of the hotel room where in a fit of rage Yousaf (Rahul Khanna) murdered her.  Now in their hands, Yousaf is pressed to provide information of the CIA Afghanistan Group which is working against the Soviets.  He does give them access, but when Yousaf goes off to a bar with one of them, Elizabeth follows over Philip's objections. 

This is bringing a great crisis for the Jennings.  Elizabeth is working to get Paige (Holly Taylor) to join the family business, but Philip is dead-set against it.  Complicating matters is that Elizabeth insists Annalise would not be dead if she had handled Yousaf, but Philip uses Annalise to say that Paige could meet the same fate.  Elizabeth, for her part, shows little wavering: her mother approved when she broke protocol to tell her she was joining the KGB.   Why could it not be the same here?

Baggage has wonderful visual and verbal puns.  The most overt is in having to stuff poor Annalise into a valise (a particularly gruesome sequence that is painful to watch).  We also have the arrival of Zaniada, who arrives via crate (in baggage claim).  Then there is the more subliminal baggage. Elizabeth's 'baggage' of her father's desertion of the Red Army and subsequent execution as well as her mother's endorsement of joining the KGB.  There's Stan's baggage of his lost love Nina and the failure of his marriage to Sandra.  Oleg has his baggage of not being able to rescue Nina.  Philip's own baggage of keeping his daughter out of this sordid business, and Yousaf's murdering someone he had feelings for.

Each character has their own burden, and they can find no one to help them carry it. 

Every performance is excellent, even in the smaller work like Mahendru's Nina, who has a few brief scenes but is so effective as this woman who has given up on life because she knows she has nothing left.  Seeing Russell and Rhys fight it out we get the idea that it isn't just about methods, but about raising children.  Here is where the brilliance of The Americans comes through: we don't just get the intense espionage bits, but we get a story of family.  Just how much should one know about one's parents?  Is it right to make our children follow in our footsteps or should they follow their own path, even if it diverts from our worldview?  The Americans tackles these issues wrapped in an exciting tale of espionage, which lifts it above so much other television fare.

We even get a bit of comedy through Zanaida's growing obsession with Milky Way candy bars, which she devours at every turn.

If I have a complaint, it involves Yousaf.  It isn't with Khanna's performance, which is quiet and effective.  Instead, it is with the character himself.  For a bright man, one with power and influence, I thought he was rather dim if he wasn't aware that these two figures were playing him, placing him in a trap of his own making.  I also don't get why Elizabeth can't see that her mother is not her daughter.

Oh well, such is life.

I'm just so glad that Nina is alive and, well, alive.  Baggage is a strong episode, which is par for the course in The Americans.   



Next Episode: Open House

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