Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Americans: Born Again Review


ONE thing I'll say about Born Again, the brilliant The Americans episode that pushes the show to greater levels than its already achieved: like Elizabeth and Philip Jennings.

I don't like Paige's church either, with their hippie-drippy lefty liberation theology.  I'd accept that Paige could fall in with a conservative evangelical church.  That seems more accurate given how the Religious/Christian Right was a powerful political force in the 1980s (and whose power has dimmed in the ensuing years, thanks to the rise of such things as transgenderism and same-sex marriage virtually replacing heterosexual marriage as the norm).  What ARE the chances of Paige therefore, finding this church that has the trappings of religion but thinks that the Lord's work involves nuclear freeze and anti-apartheid protests? 

They MUST be Episcopalians...

Born Again has the standard The Americans brilliant acting, brilliant script, and sets up more of the stories that will be part of the season that is already turning out to be one of its best.

As stated, Paige (Holly Taylor) got baptized, which didn't please her parents Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys).  At the moment, though, her turning to the opiate of the masses is just one of the issues they have to face.  Philip still struggles with the pressure his minder Gabriel (Frank Langella) is putting on him to sleep with Kimberly (Julia Garner), the girl who is close to Paige's age, to get to the recording device in her father's briefcase.  Gabriel also has some more news for Philip: his former love Irina, whom we met in Season One's Duty and Honor has been captured and sent back to the motherland.  Gabriel also tells Philip that the son they had (whom he didn't know he had until he and Irina reunited) is serving in Afghanistan.

Gabriel also has a task for Elizabeth.  Hans (Peter Mark Kendall), her protégé, has inadvertently stumbled upon a major player for the South African government, here to discredit the anti-apartheid movement.  Getting at the SA agent would be a way to strike at President Reagan and the American government, so she is ordered to follow up on Hans' investigation. 

Elizabeth for her part does a little follow-up of her own, this time with Paige.  She takes our girl to the ghetto to talk about her old friend Gregory, their involvement in the civil rights movement, and to show that they are more alike than they realize.  It is also Elizabeth's way of slowly working into conversation the fact that Paige's parents are Soviet spies.

It's interesting how despite their atheistic worldview, faith has a powerful hold on the Jennings.  Elizabeth is a believer...in the Soviet system.  Philip's faith is more ambivalent, brought down by the acts his faith requires of him.  He, a decent man whose conscience plagues him, knows he has chosen this life.  He, however, struggles much with all the things coming at him: sleeping with minors, seeing his daughter both slip into something he believes to be wrong AND being dragged into their sordid lives.  The war that his country is involved in might end up killing the son he does not know.  Add to that that unlike Elizabeth, Philip doesn't dislike America (he seems rather fond of the place, having become a country music fan). 

This is the real Cold War: between Elizabeth and Philip.  It isn't overt: they don't hate each other by any stretch.  However, they now are coming into conflict on many issues, particularly when it comes to their children.  Both want what's 'best' for them, but they don't agree on what is 'best'.  To Elizabeth, doing work for the Great Soviet cause is what's best.  For Philip, doing what they want is what's best.  All that the Jennings have seen and done is causing that rift: Philip's fears for Paige and Henry, Elizabeth's hopes for Paige and Henry. 

We see this in how both of them attempt to silently influence Paige.  Philip goes to her room and tells her to be herself, to not let others take her down roads she doesn't want to go.  Elizabeth takes her down those roads, to the ghetto to begin a slow indoctrination.  It is almost as if Paige is now just another American Elizabeth has to lure to work for the Soviet Union.  The tug-of-war between them is a highlight of Born Again.

We see Russell and Rhys give really great performances, particularly when they take a few hits from the marijuana Gabriel gave Philip to use with Kimmie.  As they talk and find Philip's excuse for not sleeping with Kimberly amusing (he had to pray first, using Paige's methods of prayer), one got the sense that they were saying more than what the words were.  In fact, one wonders whether Philip wishes there were a God to absolve him of his sins.

This isn't to say that the other subplots are short-shrifted.  Nina (Annet Mahendru), still rotting in the gulag, has her own moral choice, one that is easy for her.  She sells her cellmate out and is rewarded with a good steak dinner...and a chance to live and outwit the death sentence she is under for having worked for the Americans.  Her scenes are brief and pop in and out quickly, but they didn't interrupt the flow of the story.  Instead, they serve as an opening to what I hope will be more stories on Nina, since Mahendru is an underused and unsung aspect of The Americans

I will say, given how she is in a rotten place, how can Nina still look so good?  Granted, she doesn't look glamorous, but she still is a knockout despite being locked up.  No woman looks that good on Orange is the New Black

We also got brief scenes of Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) slowly moving on with his life: he brought a date and slept with her, and he seems to figure that there really will be no reconciliation.  I think it's a bit of a set-up for the rest of his personal story this season, but it works.

I was really impressed with the acting all around.  The various teams (Langella/Rhys, Taylor/Russell, Rhys/Russell) all work so well that there is a great pleasure in watching this ultimately tragic story of families caught up in realpolitik.


Next Episode:  Walter Taffet

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