Every week, some of Vox’s writers will gather to discuss the latest episode of FX’s spy drama The Americans. This week, Vox critic at large Todd VanDerWerff, deputy culture editor Genevieve Koski, and staff writer Dara Lind are here to dissect “The Midges,” the third episode of season five.
Warning: Major spoilers — like the first word of this recap is a big spoiler — follow after the picture.
Todd VanDerWerff: Martha!
There are many, many things of grave importance that happen in "The Midges," things that help kick the season into a higher gear than it was in previously, but it's perhaps telling that what I'm most interested in talking about is the fact that we see Martha for about 15 seconds, pondering her choices (or lack thereof) in a Soviet supermarket.
Most of the rest of these first three episodes of season five have felt like business as usual, not like the series is on the verge of closing up shop forever (which, again, it will do next year). But the appearance of Martha feels like a nod to the thought that, yes, all of those balls the series has thrown in the air over the years are going to matter, in one way or another, and there is some sort of plan for an ending. (Not that I would expect anything less.)
"The Midges" is also notable for its return to a type of story The Americans often loves: A hapless person who doesn't deserve to die ends up in Philip and Elizabeth’s path. (I almost said "innocent" instead of “hapless,” but even if our humble lab tech is doing his best not to think about what his crop-destroying pests might be used for, he's still breeding crop-destroying pests, presumably at the behest of the US government.) The scene in the lab is excruciating, both for the use of shadowy fluttering to suggest an army of insects and for the way things go south very, very quickly.
And then Roxy Music’s “More Than This” kicks in, and it feels like we're right back in season one, when The Americans had enough of a pop music budget to pull out the big guns. (Roxy Music, in particular, is a favorite of the show, having now been used three times, most memorably to score season four’s time jump.) But there's plenty of other stuff going on here, so I'm curious what the two of you most took away from "The Midges." (Just screaming Martha's name over and over is totally acceptable.)
Genevieve Koski: MAAARRRRTTTHHHHAAAAA!
Ahem. It would be unfair to the rest of this incredible episode to dwell too long on a dialogue-free, 10-second shot of Alison Wright, but Martha’s unexpected appearance in that Soviet grocery hit me like a ton of suspiciously nice-looking tangerines. I never really thought we were rid of Martha for good when she was hustled onto that plane midway through last season, but her reappearance here was so unexpected and well-executed it took on the feel of a Major Twist. I hope we’ll get an actual storyline for Poor Martha (never was she more Poor Martha) at some point.
As for that lab scene you mention, Todd, while I agree that it feels like a throwback to the boots-on-the-ground spywork of earlier seasons, there’s a complicating factor this time out, which Philip gives voice to in the closing moments of this episode: “Should we tell Paige about this?”
Philip and Elizabeth’s decision to loop Paige into what at first seemed like a fairly unambiguous mission — saving a country’s food supply from being decimated — is looking increasingly foolhardy, and not just because there’s now a dead bystander in the mix.
Paige is still struggling to get her head around something as simple — by spy standards — as lying to her boyfriend. Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Philip are functioning on a much, much higher level of moral ambiguity, and they may be trying to bring Paige up to that level too soon, if she can get there at all.
There’s a bit of a mirror this episode between Paige and Oleg, who’s also wrestling with how much he knows and how deep he’s willing to go into some dark moral territory.
Oleg’s storyline is among the most compelling to me this season, simply because I just can’t tell which way it’s going to go. Unlike Paige, who wears her emotions on her ruffled sleeves, Oleg is more of a closed book, and it’s difficult for me to parse his true feelings about being back in the Soviet Union, working in the last remaining department that hasn’t been infiltrated by massive corruption.
But there’s no mistaking the dismay on his face when he realizes what’s on that incriminating tape, and what it means for his current situation. Yet I also have no idea what he’s going to do about it, and that’s what’s so exciting about Oleg’s predicament.
Dara Lind: I was just as tickled as each of you were by Martha (MARTHA!!!). But I would be perfectly satisfied if that’s the last we saw of her. Because Martha in this time, in that place, reminded us of the central truth of this story arc: On some fundamental level, the Soviet Union has failed.
The tangerines at the supermarket might be suspiciously fresh, but what we see of the rest of the inventory isn’t terribly impressive: The shelves are mostly empty, and Martha isn’t the only one looking dourly at her choices.
Oleg and his boss are clearly onto something when it comes to the reasons for the food shortages — in contrast to the investigation the Center has assigned to Philip and Elizabeth, which still has the potential to be a wild-goose chase. But the expression on Martha’s face reminds us that the Soviet Union isn’t just nominal equality as a facade for inequality, but inequality as a facade for widespread dissatisfaction. (I, too, wonder how much Oleg thinks about this in his new life in his old home.)
Philip’s question in the Oklahoma hotel room — “Why can’t we feed our people?” — is the kind of anti-anti-communist heresy we heard from him in seasons one and two, but haven’t heard as much recently, as he’s placed his relationship with Elizabeth ahead of his relationships with either the US or USSR. But it’s clear he’s the one asking the right question, and that it’s not going to be the last time.
That makes Elizabeth’s response terribly interesting. She’s not interested in persuading Philip he’s wrong (beyond a rote defense of the Soviets that even she can see is unsatisfactory); she’s interested in taking his mind off his troubles with a playful seduction. It’s hardly the first time Elizabeth has decided to put her marriage above her ideology, but as Keri Russell plays the scene, Elizabeth is coming from a place of weakness as much as warmth. This is an argument she isn’t sure she can win. And that is new territory for her.
Todd: I have never entirely subscribed to the fan theorizing that Philip and Elizabeth might be boxed into having to defect or turn toward the side of the Americans — this show is generally too complex to have the endgame be something that simple. But in that hotel room scene, you definitely get the sense that even Elizabeth realizes some of her cherished dogmas are coming apart at the seams. And considering how poorly Elizabeth deals with bad news in general, this is rich material for Russell and The Americans’ writers to work with.
But I want to return to Paige, and the recurrence of the "rub your thumb and finger together" trick her parents taught her to help her get through difficult situations. It feels like such a small, simplistic thing that it shouldn't possibly work, but there's something to the idea of attaching larger meaning to the smallest of gestures that speaks to everything on this show.
Obviously, this is just a little panacea, Dumbo's feather, if you will. Rubbing her fingers together isn't going to get Paige through every situation that arises as her parents' homeland falls and the noose draws ever tighter. But that insert shot of her performing that small act serves as a kind of reminder of the massive, monumental stakes that exist concurrent to an otherwise normal teenage romance. (Though Matthew Beeman, Paige? Really?)
What I'm digging about this season so far is how many characters are in play, even as there are a whole bunch of characters we haven't seen in ages (whither Pastor Tim?). In particular, there's something about Stan's do-gooder charm that feels weirdly desperate this season, like he's overcompensating for something.
Which brings me to my next question: Where do you see Stan fitting into this increasingly complicated puzzle, beyond the obvious?
Genevieve: I have to admit, during that moment with Elizabeth and Philip in the hotel room, I was keeping one eye on Elizabeth’s thumb and forefinger as she began canoodling with Philip. Not because I think she was faking her affection — these two have been through too much at this point for that to be a question — but because, as you note, Todd, Elizabeth may be finding herself in need of a reminder of what her marriage is ultimately in service of.
As for Stan, “The Midges” kind of stranded him and Aderholt in the very early stages of an investigation involving Aeroflot, a Soviet airline, and Amtorg, which among other things oversaw exports of raw materials for Soviet industry and agriculture. So it’s fairly easy to guess how this storyline might eventually overlap with what the Jennings have going on (funny how that always seems to be the case with Stan’s investigations, huh?). In this episode, however, it amounts to little more than some tense discussions with would-be sources.
That can be a problem with Stan, whom I usually find much more compelling in his civilian life than in his FBI duties, though the latter is of course integral to The Americans’ narrative machinery. As a character, he’s more interesting to me when he’s juggling those duties with personal issues like a disintegrating marriage, or a schism with his best friend Philip, or trying to hit on that hot lady at the gym.
Stan’s relationship with Agent Gaad was always good for bringing a touch of those personal stakes into the FBI realm, but with Gaad gone (seriously, no one is going to follow up on that??), and Stan becoming more and more disenchanted with the FBI’s bureaucracy, there’s a feeling developing that he’s just going through the motions. That in and of itself could be an interesting character development — and would certainly be thematically in keeping with what’s developing in other characters, like Oleg, Philip, and Paige — but in “The Midges” in particular, it doesn’t leave Noah Emmerich with much to do.
There’s one other major aspect of this episode that we haven’t touched on yet, which is the stuff involving Mischa’s journey, which hits a roadblock in Yugoslavia when the man who was supposed to help him get to Austria, Luka, is revealed to have been arrested, leaving Mischa in the hands of a less-than-savory-seeming substitute handler. I appreciate that Mischa’s trek allows The Americans to engage with a different aspect of Soviet life — those actively trying to escape it — and I can’t wait to see what effect his appearance stateside, if it happens, will have on the Jennings, but I’ll admit I’m having trouble getting too invested in him as a character, or his journey, at this point. Am I alone here?
Dara: You’re not alone in failing to care about Mischa. The Yugoslavia scenes were a refreshing inversion for a show that usually treats anxiety and paranoia as the privilege of characters whose preservation we’re already invested in; it was good to be reminded that not everyone you’re suspicious of deserves it.
But Mischa himself is such a cipher that I’d prefer to talk about Stan, because I’m confident that The Americans knows what to do with Emmerich, but I don’t think the Federal Bureau of Investigation knows what to do with Stan Beeman.
It looks for all the world like Stan’s doing the least effective investigative work of his career. The Bureau is so poorly equipped to investigate whatever it’s trying to investigate that it’s sending relatively senior agents to cold-call Russian executives in public restrooms — either on no intel that indicates they’d be sympathetic, or on bad intel. It’s not going to work, and Stan knows it; this is the opposite of the immersive work on which he built his career.
But what’s the alternative? Stan spent political capital (to no avail) attempting to stop the CIA from pursuing Oleg, partly because Stan understood that Oleg wasn’t ready to turn but partly because (as with Nina) Stan isn’t comfortable pushing people he respects or likes. Asking for things from people you don’t know is ineffective, but asking for things from people you do is ethically uncomfortable. In a way, he’s dealing with the same dilemma Paige is — just decades later, and after having made the choice to do this sort of work for the rest of his life.
This is what Elizabeth Jennings has tried to teach everyone she’s mentored: Empathy deprives you of tactical options. But we’re beginning to see that the absence of empathy can make you less than effective, too.
I’m not convinced the lab manager, Randy Chilton, needed to die — his ultimate willingness to give Philip and Elizabeth the information they asked for was accompanied by a dawning recognition that maybe his clients were doing unethical things with the midges, and maybe it was in fact his job to fix that. But the Jennings never considered that possibility. They are too used to the playbook of killing anyone who surprises them by being present at a workplace late at night.
At the other end of that spectrum are Alexei and Tuan — both of whom, in their ways, are so curdled by their life experiences that they are unable to hold regular conversations. I can only hope the irony of Tuan saying that Pasha complains too much about his father, when Tuan himself might be the most obsessive character the series has produced, is intentional; I still can’t tell whether Tuan is grating or terrifying.
We’re nowhere near The Americans’ strategic endgame. But we’re beginning to see, for many of the characters, a certain sclerosis setting in. Their options are narrowing.
Todd: I rather love Tuan’s diehard commitment to the cause, because it sets him up as a potential end for our central characters. Indeed, even Elizabeth finds his devotion a little hard to take, which is a nice character touch. (Elizabeth hasn’t softened as much as Philip has, but she has softened a bit nonetheless.)
The Americans has always been about the inability of ideology to completely encompass that which makes us human — a useful message for these times — and Elizabeth’s evolution in regards to that very question has been the spine of the series.
But it’s not as though she’s reached the point where she’s willing to ditch it all for Philip and her kids — and it’s highly unlikely she’ll ever reach that point, just as I don’t think Philip will ever seriously consider defecting without his wife and children. In the world of The Americans, there has to be more than life and death, more than an endless clash of civilizations. There has to be more than this.
The Americans airs Tuesdays at 10 pm on FX. You can keep up with our coverage of this season here.