Monday, August 29, 2016

Emmy Episodes: The Americans

It’s always my policy to watch every Emmy-nominated episode each year, which leads me to sample a handful of shows that I don’t tune in to on a regular basis. This year, I’m making a special effort to spotlight each of those installments to offer my perspective on shows that I don’t review each week.

The Americans: Season 4, Episode 4 “Chloramphenicol” (C+)
The Americans: Season 4, Episode 7 “Travel Agents” (B)
The Americans: Season 4, Episode 8 “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears” (B)
The Americans: Season 4, Episode 9 “The Day After” (B-)
The Americans: Season 4, Episode 12 “A Roy Rogers in Franconia” (B-)
The Americans: Season 4, Episode 13 “Persona Non Grata” (B-)

All six episodes submitted for consideration for Best Drama Series
Episode 8 nominated for Best Actor (Matthew Rhys), Best Actress (Keri Russell), and Best Guest Actress (Margo Martindale) in a Drama Series
Episode 13 nominated for Best Writing for a Drama Series

I know that there are many people celebrating that this show finally hit it big and earned major Emmy nominations, and I wish that I felt the same way. It’s similar in a lot of ways to “Friday Night Lights,” which earned only minor nominations up until its fourth season, when it finally broke through with a Best Drama Series bid as well as citations for both its lead performers. I’ve read lots of praise for Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, and they’ve finally been nominated, along with Margo Martindale, who contends for the fourth time in the guest actress category after winning last year. Since the show is nominated for Best Drama Series, six episodes were submitted, which led to me watching more of this series this year than I have in the past three years combined. I don’t hate it, but it still hasn’t won me over. As a result, the grades for each episode don’t mean much. I’ve decided to tackle all the episodes, which I watched in succession, in one post.

Episode four is the only standalone episode of this bunch, introducing the season with Frank Langella’s handler Gabriel recuperating from an attack and Elizabeth and Philip away with him since things were going south. The season-long thread of Paige knowing what’s going on and having trouble reporting on the priest to her parents was kicking off here, and it’s clear that it was wearing on her parents. This is definitely the weakest of all the submitted episodes, only because it required a lot of familiarity with the show, especially for any of the Russian-speaking moments to seem relevant, which they didn’t. I’m not sure this will win over a lot of voters if they see this and don’t watch the show on a weekly basis.

Episode seven, on the other hand, is a much stronger showcase of what this show is about in an episode that is focused solely on one thing: Martha. In episode three she talked about how she was seeing a married man but it wasn’t a bad thing, and here we got to the astounding realization from the head of FBI counterintillegence that a KGB operative married his secretary. That truth weighed on the whole episode, which was framed with slow-burn suspense and, fortunately for those sympathetic to the protagonists, Elizabeth being one step ahead of the FBI in finding Martha and bringing her in. Martha taking in the fact that Philip is never going to come to Russia was a dramatic moment, compounded even more by Elizabeth telling Philip that she’d understand if he wanted to leave with her. As a one-off episode, this works very well since there are virtually no subplots.

Episode eight is notable because it’s the submission for all three acting nominees, and I’ll admit that it’s a very good one for the two leads. Screaming matches are certainly helpful, and this gives Keri Russell an enormous boost in a very competitive lead actress category that I’ll analyze in detail soon – every time I watch another nominee’s submission I think she’s going to win. Not only did Elizabeth get to chastise Philip, she also yelled at her daughter for thinking that she could decide how she wanted to do things. Philip coping with having Martha leave provides a positive showcase for Rhys, but I also think he’s not nearly as revered as Russell and not nearly as good an actor. I’m perplexed once again by Martindale, who appeared in just one scene with Langella, but she won last year based on that, so I feel like she could easily repeat given that Emmy voters love her in general. As an episode, the David Copperfield trick frames it in a nice and effective way.

Episode nine was a dark installment whose two main plot points were contrasted sharply by Philip teaching Paige how to drive, which was by far the most pleasant interaction between father and daughter in any of these six episodes. Each family unit and individual watching the TV program about the aftermath of nuclear bombs was haunting and horribly depressing, and that kept the mood of the episode down. The rare occurrence in this hour was Elizabeth having doubts about going through with her latest operation, harming the reputation of a man she knew to be good and making it seem like they had slept together.

Episode twelve picked up a while later with the aftermath of Elizabeth and Paige getting mugged and Paige witnessing her mother kill the man who tried to rob them. That was helpful since it got Elizabeth to open up for the first time about her past in Russia, in a way that even seemed to surprise Philip. Paige asking both Elizabeth and Stan’s son Matthew about the nature of dangerous work was interesting, and it all got to an explosive point when Paige essentially told her parents that she was going to date Matthew to spy on him. When she’s just as involved in malicious deception as them, their operation has turned into a true family problem.

Episode thirteen, the season finale, picked up a nomination for writing, the show’s second in a row in that race. William getting cornered in the park seemed like it was going to expose everything, but then he went ahead and poisoned himself, keeping him alive long enough to share a few thought-provoking words of wisdom about actions and regrets to a seemingly sympathetic Stan and his partner. That Stan came home from watching William die and his first instinct was to tell Philip that their kids might start dating is extremely intriguing since it represents just how close he is to everything without having any clue. Philip speaking up at Est about not liking being a travel agent and being told that he should quit led to the surprising news from Gabriel that Elizabeth and Philip are indeed in imminent danger and need to pack up and leave right away. If I was a regular viewer of this show, I would be crazed that I had to wait until next season to find out what happens with them.

It wasn’t as miserable or boring an experience as I had expected watching six episodes of this show, and I can see why some people like it. I’ve started singing along to the music of the opening credits, but maybe that’s because I’m just watching too much TV straight for many hours. I don’t see this show winning since it broke into the race but didn’t earn any nominations aside from the five mentioned above, hardly a serious competitor to the likes of “Game of Thrones.” But it’s in the race now, and I think that’s a solid achievement. It’s not my choice, but I might put it ahead of “Homeland” at this point, which says something.

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