Thursday, February 12, 2015

Breaking down last night's brilliantly directed hour of The Americans

At the end of the breakout second season of FX's riveting Cold War spy drama The Americans, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) Jennings learn that the KGB wants them to recruit their teenage daughter Paige (Holly Taylor).  After a season of them united in their front to keep Paige away from her burgeoning interest in Christianity, season three has found them at loggerheads with each other over how to react to this news.  This week's episode, "Open House," continues that boiling plotline, but comes at it from an indirect and artful angle, thanks to some spectacular direction from Thomas Schlamme.

Schlamme is famous for his work on The West Wing, which was known for its signature "walk and talk" scenes, but he's been doing a terrific job on The Americans since the show's inception, and "Open House" is by far his best work to date.  This show has always been able to generate meaning in subtle ways -- simple glances on The Americans can conjure up just as many emotions as a plot twist would on another program.  Schlamme takes it up another notch by making sightlines the entire thematic underpinning of the hour.

You see, Philip and Elizabeth aren't seeing eye-to-eye.  Philip is staunchly against recruiting Paige, thinking that she's too young and also worried that spending her entire life in America has left her unequipped to become a KGB agent.  Really, though, he just doesn't ever want his little girl putting herself in the same danger he does.  Elizabeth, always the one more committed the cause, is slightly more open to the idea.  Schlamme literalizes this opposition in the first scene that they share together, when each of them are recounting their days at the end of the night.

Elizabeth tries to initiate intimacy by undressing and telling Philip about a recruit who tried to hit on her earlier in the day.  But there's even a sense of remove to her seduction, since her back is facing Philip as she does so.

The camera cuts to a closer shot, as she finally turns around to look at Philip to gauge his reaction, but his magazine is completely blocking her sightline and dominating the frame.  Earlier in the episode when Philip visited Gabriel (Frank Langella), the latter remarked how "Elizabeth looks at you very differently now."  But now, Philip is the one who is looking differently, not even really noticing his wife's efforts.

The next glimpse we get of Philip is only through a mirror, a reflection of him looking down and away from Elizabeth.  They've rarely been more at odds than they are now.  We close the scene with Philip and Elizabeth going to bed, their backs facing one another.

Which brings us back to Paige because, after all, this whole schism is about her.  In a later scene between Philip and Paige, Schlamme returns to the theme of mismatched sightlines, deliberately blocking the two of them in this manner to convey meaning.

It starts off with this shot of Philip entering the living room while Paige obliviously watches TV.  He's framed looming over her shoulder, pondering her fate, as she's tucked in the corner of the shot, out of focus and completely unaware of what kind of plans are in store for her.

Then, the camera rotates as Philip walks across the room to meet Paige eye-to-eye.  It lands on this shot-reverse-shot setup, as Philip tries to apologize to Paige for his and Elizabeth's work schedule and tells her not to worry.  But of course, this is classic Americans doublespeak.  Characters on this show constantly have to say something else in place of the truth, either for their own safety or because they lack the self-awareness to really get to the heart of the matter.  So Philip tells Paige not to worry about him, but he's the one worried about her.  And he tries to look at her face-to-face as a way of telling her (but actually himself) that everything is going be okay.

Everything may not be okay, however.  Ultimately, Paige's future is probably inevitable, and just as she walks out of the frame with her back turned, she's bound to exit his cone of protection, leaving him just as much of a shrunken background mass as he is in this shot.

Eyes are a powerful tool, not just for the way they can project connection, but also for what they can take in.  We see that in the opening scene, where Elizabeth is teaching an Afrikaner recruit how to case an environment quickly and effectively.  And then it comes back later, when Elizabeth uses her observational skills to realize she's being tailed by the CIA as she and Philip are listening to a bug on a target.  Eyes, windshields, mirrors -- they're all windows of sorts, and Schlamme uses them all as a way into these characters and their relation to one another.  Just a quick flick at the rearview is enough to tip Elizabeth off.

This leads to an extended car crawl, as Elizabeth tries to evade the multiple cars that are following her.  Even in its most action-packed moments, The Americans prefers a simmer to a blaze, and this sequence is slow-burn spycraft at its finest.  It's a draining set of scenes -- the sun goes down from the beginning to the end of the sequence, and each time the episode cuts back to Elizabeth in her car, her hair is more frizzy, her face more weathered.  Eventually, backup KGB agents are able to swoop in and provide aid, and it turns into an even bigger cat-and-mouse game, piling layer upon layer of tailing and mismatched sightlines.  The watcher is watching the watcher doing the watching.

It turns out that the car chase is only the plot centerpiece of "Open House," but the emotional climax comes later.  With the help of a few diversions, Elizabeth is able to shake off the CIA agents following her, and she returns home to an anxious Philip.  The two of them share a warm embrace (as a warped version of "The Star Spangled Banner" plays on a TV in the background), but when they kiss, Elizabeth winces in pain from her tooth, a lingering result of her fight with two FBI agents in the season premiere.

That bum tooth has served not just as stakes raiser, but also as a symbol for the state of Philip and Elizabeth's relationship in the wake of the bombshell from the previous season's finale.  Just when Elizabeth starts to forget about the tooth, the pain comes back, stinging its way into her mind like the looming threat of Paige having to join their ranks.  She and Philip can't go to any hospital or dentist to get the tooth removed, lest they be flagged by the FBI.  Likewise, they're in disagreement on just how to handle the Paige situation.  It's impasses all the way down, and this is tearing them apart.

Until they finally just decide to take matters into their own hands.  In a beautiful bit of synchronization, Stuart Zicherman's script-level metaphor about the tooth and Thomas Schlamme's visual metaphor about eye contact dovetail when Philip takes Elizabeth down to the basement and attempts to extract her tooth with a pair of pliers, and for the first time in the entire episode, the two of them truly look each other in the eye.  After three episodes of disagreements and doubts, here are Philip and Elizabeth placing trust wholly in the other's hands.

Schlamme films the scene with a growing sense of intimacy, starting with a wide shot of them looking each other in the eyes, and then cutting to increasingly extreme close-ups of their faces.  The Americans is a show that usually likes to keep the camera back, giving the story a cold remove, so this choice is deliberate and thrilling.  It almost feels like a sex scene, in fact.  No words are exchanged, just a series of heavy breaths and groans amidst the sounds of teeth pulling.  And it's got such a carnal rhythm to it -- when Philip realizes he's only pulled out a part of the tooth, he just shares a wordless sentence with Elizabeth and the two of them plunge into the situation with a fiercer determination.  It's disgusting.  It's a little terrifying.  But it's also deeply romantic.

After all of the praise heaped upon The Americans last year, the backlash started pouring out of every crack in the internet.  Some of the common criticisms of the show are that it's cold and lifeless and bland.  While I don't necessarily agree with them, I definitely see where that's coming from.  This is a very chilly show, one that asks you to do a little searching to get on its wavelength.  Yet once you crack through that icy veneer, there's a fiery emotional energy gushing out of its core.  What's more, it hits you from unexpected places, which only increases the impact.  Sometimes it's something as simple as two characters diving headlong into the windows of each other's souls.


  1. If there's one thing I never seem to notice when watching something, it's blocking. I have to say that I didn't have an inkling of how intricately Philip and Elizabeth's positioning was this episode, but I certainly noticed how intimate the tooth scene was. By far one of the most uncomfortable scenes I've seen in a while.

    I do agree that this show, at times, seems to lack an emotional hook. If anything, the character that I feel for the most is Stan (though that may have to do with the fact that I just like Noah Emmerich). But there are definitely moments that hit me throughout (including the Season 2 Premiere when Philip sees the kid about to go into his own family massacre, pre-plot twist), and Philip tends to draw me in whenever he gets intensely upset about something (Example: His outburst at the pastor last year and his general issues with Gabriel and Elizabeth's plans for Paige this year).

    Maybe that's because Elizabeth so often feels at odds with Philip and her family "for the cause." I wonder at times if the Jennings' final enemy may end up being themselves.

    1. I think not alot of shows put as much care into blocking as The Americans always does. Mad Men and The Knick are two other shows that have excellent blocking.

      I had a hard time finding a way into the emotions of the show in the first season, but now it makes me more emotional than almost any other show on television. Every episode has at least one moment that just knocks me off my feet. As I mentioned in the post, I think alot of people find it dry since it's rare that a show keeps its emotions so close to its chest.

      But I'm very amused and interested that you find Stan the most compelling. I like him, but they haven't really done much with him this season, so his whole sadsack schtick is getting a little tiresome.

    2. I mostly mean in regards to his relationship with his family, and those scenes where he talks with Philip alone. Honestly I think what they're doing with him now is far more interesting than when he was getting duped by Nina. At least he's (somewhat) on the same page now.

      I'm really looking forward to whenever they pull the trigger on Stan finds out about Philip.