Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The Americans,’ in Its Melancholy Fourth Season, Was ‘Breaking Sad’

Elizabeth and Philip Jennings have sported a lot of great disguises over the course of “The Americans,” but in the Season 4 finale, “Persona Non Grata,” Philip wears one of my favorites: hair brushed back, wire-rim glasses, saggy mustache, the beaten visage of a J.C. Penney men’s outerwear model who’s just been laid off. I think of this disguise as “Sad Walter White.”
The parallels between the Jenningses’ story and Walter’s in “Breaking Bad” have been on my mind this season. When FX announced that “The Americans” would end after two more seasons, I thought that setting an end date was a good idea, partly because, much like “Breaking Bad,” it involves an intimate cat-and-mouse game and has a sense of compounding dread that can’t be spun out endlessly.
There is, however, a core difference between the two dramas. “Breaking Bad” explored the idea that Walter’s crimes, however costly and evil, brought him for better or worse to his authentic self. “I liked it,” Walter confessed to Skyler in the finale. “I was good at it.”
“I liked it” describes pretty much no one’s relationship to his or her job on “The Americans,” no matter how good he or she is at it. American or Soviet, they are weighed down by their work, tired of the compromises, resentful of systems that use them in the name of a larger cause.
“The Americans,” the masterly, melancholy fourth season proved, is more like “Breaking Sad.”
Certainly William (Dylan Baker) doesn’t feel self-actualized, not as he lies alone, disillusioned, dying in an isolation chamber as he is literally eaten from the inside by the product of a mission he didn’t believe in: The biological agent he was smuggling for a government he doesn’t trust to use it.
His F.B.I. captors, watching him from behind protective glass, may be on the winning side of history. But they haven’t felt especially victorious either, as they’ve been humiliated by the discovery of a bug in their offices and haunted by the sense that whatever cases they win are symbolic at best. A plot is discovered, a diplomat is banished and the process grinds on.
Season 4 finds the Cold War at a point when, as on a serial cable drama, the end is in sight but it still promises plenty of heartbreak before we get there. (The season spanned from just after Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech to the 1984 Super Bowl, whose broadcast included the Apple Macintosh ad in which a young woman hurled a sledgehammer through a video image of Big Brother.)
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All this adds a note of gloom even to the tensest moments in this drama: Pursuer or pursued, no one’s heart is entirely in this spy game. Philip, always ambivalent, finally says this to himself flat-out through the coded message of his EST session, where he vents about work at the “travel agency”: “You don’t want to make arrangements for people you don’t know and don’t give a [expletive] about.”
The EST meetings, which seemed like a quirky period detail at the beginning of Season 3, have grown into a kind of “Americans” equivalent to Tony Soprano’s sessions with Dr. Melfi. But there’s a sense that, while it may make Philip feel better to talk, Western self-help doesn’t have any concrete answer for him. Like Dennis’s offer of a Coke to the dying William, it’s a palliative better suited to first-world problems.

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