The Americans doesn’t have many easy entry points for comic relief. It’s a serious show about serious people doing serious work during a serious time in human history, so it takes its chances for a laugh (or even a quick grin) when and where it can. Usually, that’s through 1980s pop culture, Easter eggs in the form of a Frusen Glädjé container, Henry’s Tandy Championship Football game, or the Yaz tape in Kimmy’s Walkman. Grounding the show in a recognizable re-creation of the recent past, these are pleasing callbacks for viewers who lived through the ’80s and quaint spots of color and character for those who didn’t. On a grander scale, they’re signals that no matter how tense the lives of the Jennings or Stan or Oleg may be, they still distract themselves with the same sorts of ethereal creature comforts that we seek out in 2015.
A patiently and proficiently nerve-wracking episode, “Do Mail Robots Dream Of Electric Sheep?” calls out for a pint of Frusen Glädjé, but part of its power is in the way it withholds the sweet stuff. Then again, there is that eponymous machine. Regular readers of these reviews won’t be surprised to learn that my absolute favorite period detail on The Americans is the FBI Mail Robot, a silly prop introduced in season two that’s gained a new significance in recent episodes. Mail Robot ascends to a titular and central role in tonight’s installment, a development that receives my full endorsement.
I love Mail Robot because it’s impractical and malfunction-prone and and a vision of a future that did not come to be. I also love Mail Robot because it feels like it shouldn’t be there. The Americans is based in fact, and Mail Robot has historical precedence, but there’s a pleasing sense of juxtaposition any time this piece of primitive artificial intelligence scoots into frame. It’s like one of the Galactic Empire’s boxy little mouse droids escaped from George Lucas’ space-opera dreams and landed in an otherwise grounded depiction of 1980s Washington D.C. Between an execution-style shooting and the slow poisoning of an old woman, the letter-carrying machine gives “Do Mail Robots Dream Of Electric Sheep?” a chance to crack a smile and draw its breath—but Frank Gaad kicked the shit out of Mail Robot last week, so the episode stays bleak for its entire running time. (It’s a well-crafted, highly watchable type of “bleak,” though.)
In a thrilling example of The Americans’ “every part of the buffalo” approach, Mail Robot has been transformed into a poignant symbol of the things Elizabeth and Philip risk every day in the field. Joshua Brand’s script doesn’t put too fine a point on it, but I think we’re meant to draw a direct line from the Jennings following Gabriel’s orders to the out-of-service Mail Robot. At the very least, the Philip K. Dick-alluding title of “Do Mail Robots Dream Of Electric Sheep?” points us toward another story of humanity, empathy, and free will.
“I’ve been well-trained,” Elizabeth tells Betty (guest star Lois Smith) during tonight’s episode. She might as well say “well-programmed”: More so than any other point in season three, “Do Mail Robots Dream Of Electric Sheep?” dangles the notion of choice in front of Elizabeth and her husband. They chose this life, but they do not choose how it plays out. Sometimes their hands are tied: When a witness stumbles upon the Jennings while they’re bugging Mail Robot, the witness must be killed. But sometimes their hands aren’t tied: Elizabeth could kill Betty swiftly and violently, but instead opts to let the woman overdose on her heart medication.
But choice can break your heart, too. Without toppling over into saccharine territory, Elizabeth’s brief time with Betty accounts for some of The Americans’ most potent emotional material. It’s made all the more remarkable by the way those scenes play out, forming a one-woman show about the peaks and valleys of a life that’s about to end. Because this is The Americans, marriage accounts for most of what we hear from Betty: a husband overseas during World War II, a divorce and a reconciliation, a death that put the machine shop in their son’s hands and left Betty seeking moments of connection in the silence of wee-small-hours bookkeeping. It’s all so efficiently and effectively told, with a modicum of exposition and a shorthand that makes it feel like Elizabeth isn’t the first person to hear all of these stories. If Smith’s performances feels stagey at times, it’s only because she’s an award-winning veteran of the stage, doing TV work in a role and an environment of theatrical simplicity. The actress has to carry a huge portion of “Do Mail Robots Dream Of Electric Sheep?”, and she does so in haunting fashion.
And just before her character expires, she jabs this finger in Elizabeth’s eye: “You think doing this to me will make the world a better place?” In her response, Elizabeth’s faith in the cause sounds shaken—Keri Russell has never made her character look so uncertain before. “Do Mail Robots Dream Of Electric Sheep?” is a highly cerebral installment of The Americans, sparing with the physical violence (not that the length of the sequence makes Hans’ murder of Todd any easier to stomach) and restricting its conflicts to mind games being played between Elizabeth and Philip, Philip and Gabriel, and Stan and Oleg. Differences of opinion on the Paige issue leave Elizabeth without an ally when she most needs one: Every second she spends with Betty is a reminder of the time she’s not spending with her own ailing mother. Russell is unflinching in her dealings with Betty, but like the necessary catharsis of The Americans’ pop-culture flourishes, the dam has to burst eventually. With her back turned to the husband who’s hearing her but not listening to her (“How much longer do you have?” she asks earlier in the episode; “I’m trying, Elizabeth,” he snaps back), she fights her tears. The light is dim on the machine-shop floor, but director Stephen Williams positions Russell in such a way that confirms she’s no emotionless automaton.
“Do Mail Robots Dream Of Electric Sheep?” is minimalist Americans: Aside from the tinkering with Mail Robot and Todd’s murder, there’s some advancement with Stan and Oleg’s “exchange Zinaida for Nina” scheme and Martha’s attempt to restore domestic normalcy with Clark—but that’s about it. (This Week In Paige And Henry: Paige has a bookmark on practically every page of her Bible, and Henry needs to get some sleep.) It’s a scaled-back installment that allows all of the major players to survey who they’ll take orders from and how they’ll accept those orders. Aderholt doesn’t let a warning label determine how he takes his medicine, and Stan follows suit. Stan only needs that medicine because Oleg went off script while fleeing Zinaida’s apartment. Hans’ commitment to the anti-apartheid cause overrules his instructions from Elizabeth. It appears the sense of mercy Elizabeth discovers in the presence of Betty is something Hans hasn’t picked up from his mentor.
It all builds to Philip’s burst of sentience over the Scrabble board. Frank Langella is such a figure of calm on this show that the tone and intensity Matthew Rhys takes in this scene lands with the impact of a thousand 59-point words. (Even as “SPHYNX” is laid out, Langella’s reaction is muted and unemotional.) It comes as a surprise, but there are too many people counting on Philip now—not just Elizabeth, Paige, and Henry, but Martha and Mischa, too—for him to have no control over his next move. That’s all over now, setting the stage for another tense installment next week. Because even the soldiers of the Soviet Union have enough humanity left in them to veer off their predetermined tracks. The great boogeyman of communism has always taken the form of an unquestioning public, an army of conformist robots commanded from on high by a single controller—but “Do Mail Robots Dream Of Electric Sheep?” suggests that communists fear becoming those robots as well.
- The Americans Wig Report: Season Three, Week Nine: The Americans Wig Report is off this week, so that we may bring you this special presentation of…
- The Americans Hat Report: Season Three, Week Nine: C. While wigs are where The Americans’ wardrobe department gets to cut loose, its use of hats is far more practical. Elizabeth, pragmatic as ever, sports a familiar baseball cap at the start of this week’s machine-shop break-in. Philip, yearning to break free from the pack, dons a newsboy number that suggests the continental flair of a beret while staying just this side of square and undetectable. (Because of how and why The Americans uses hats, The Americans Hat Report can really rise no higher than the middle of the grading scale. Until Philip buys a Stetson to go with those boots from the pilot.)
- The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season Three, Week Nine: The Americans Soundtrack Report is off this week, so that we may bring you this special presentation of…
- I, Mail Robot. You Mail Robot. We All Scream For Mail Robot!: There are two Mail Robots in the machine shop. TWO MAIL ROBOTS! I take this as a sign not that the entire Mail Robot enterprise is a bug-ridden mess, but that the Mail Robot we already know and love will soon receive a Mail Robot companion. And just as it has made rich and compelling TV characters out of spies attempting to destroy the American way of life through sabotage and wanton copulation, so will The Americans transform two sputtering pieces of outdated technology into the medium’s new power couple. Three cheers for the rise of the machines!