Is there a more quintessentially Americans scene than the one between Stan and Gennadi in “Tchaikovsky”? Summoned to a meeting in one of the dozens of Washington, D.C. parks that must just be lousy with representatives of various nations meeting clandestinely, our former counterintelligence agent meets with the Soviet hockey star, assuming they’ll be talking some courier business. One cut later, we learn the situation is graver than a blown cover: Sofia kicked Gennadi out of the house.
Now, this still matters to the espionage at hand, because any conflict between married operatives could lead to betrayals, slip-ups, and disclosures. All of that is at the forefront of Stan’s mind when he meets with Sofia, but their conversation is like that between him and her husband: That of a friend lending an ear to a couple in crisis. People’s lives are at stake, but the political, as ever, is trumped by the personal. Stan is providing to Gennadi and Sofia the same thing Claudia gives to Elizabeth when she puts “None, But The Lonely Heart”—from the episode’s titular composer—on the turntable: Emotional support for people who can’t just turn anywhere or to anyone for emotional support. She’d never accept it, but it sure does look like Elizabeth is in a therapy session when she’s on the couch, talking about Erica Haskard’s assisted suicide plans and her own lack of art appreciation.
“Just draw the dark parts, don’t draw the light parts,” the ailing artist tells her undercover nurse at the start of their impromptu drawing lesson. “Tchaikovsky” is a reminder of both, concerned with the presences and the absences in the final season of The Americans. As the weight of Elizabeth’s new mission grows heavier, its gravity pulls in more contacts—one we’ve met before, one we’re just getting to know. The Centre’s potential source for something called a lithium-based radiation detector is none other than General Rennhull (Victor Slezak), who, back when he was just a colonel, nearly got Elizabeth and Philip arrested. Patrick McCleesh (Tony winner Reed Birney) was previously seen being photographed by Elizabeth during a Crowded House guitar solo; this week, he runs into “Megan from State” in a book store, and their interactions—and Elizabeth’s “he likes to impress me” comment—suggest that the pair has the type of relationship that Paige is just starting to learn about through her extracurricular reading. (And that Elizabeth vehemently denies is part of her job.)
As with Gennadi, Sofia, and a certain automated carrier of letters and packages (more on that below), what “Tchaikovsky” gave me with these characters was a renewed sense of how big the world of The Americans is, and how its terrain is littered with loose ends that could trip up Elizabeth, Philip, and Paige. With its focus on the interpersonal dynamics, the show has never demanded an encyclopedic knowledge of every adversary who’s crossed the Jennings’ path and lived to tell the tale, amplifying the impact and surprise when somebody like Rennhull shows up in “Tchaikovsky.” It’s the sort of double-life tension that The Americans used to derive from the Clark-and-Martha arc, like finding yourself in the middle of a dream where you feel like yourself, but you’re not in your beautiful house with your beautiful wife. If only Elizabeth were sleeping enough to dream.
Prior to putting on “None But The Lonely Hearts, Op. 6, No.6”—a title I only know thanks to the FX publicity department, although I could identify Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” from note one—Claudia says of the motherless Tchaikovsky that his “life was full of loneliness.” You know who else lost a parent at a young age and lives a life full of loneliness? Philip Jennings. We see this in “Tchaikovsky,” the absences in Philip’s life illustrated by his after-hours phone call to Henry, or his desk-chair swivel toward the empty space where Elizabeth used to sit at the travel agency. The office they’re no longer sharing has taken on symbolic significance in the first two episodes of season six: Forever walled off from the rest of the agency, the workspace now seems intentionally sealed off, a time capsule of late-’70s/early-’80s decor preserved from the interior updates the rest of the travel agency has undergone. Elizabeth’s not there, but at least it still looks like she could walk through the door at any moment and sit down at her old desk.
It’s empty, but it’s an emptiness over which Philip can exercise some degree of control. That sense may have already been slipping; the impression that I get from “Tchaikovsky” is that the meeting with Oleg has only loosened his grip. It’s in the minor drama of the lost client, but it’s more pronounced in that abortive conversation with Elizabeth. Even if she could tell him the truth, he’s too long out of practice to get it out of her, so they succumb to stalemate. Can he sense that Elizabeth’s late nights, increased smoking, and newfound embrace of shruggy cardigans (the official prestige-TV wardrobe of discontent) are about more than Paige? (If they were ever about Paige in the first place?) The sigh Matthew Rhys lets out at the end of the scene certainly sounds like it.
This evasiveness is mirrored in Elizabeth and Paige’s walk-and-talk later in the episode—though if the earlier scene is a chess match, this one, with its Tchaikovsky backing, is more a ballet of lies. The melody plumes into the silences between mother and daughter, transforming an uncomfortable question-and-answer session into something fresh for The Americans. “Tchaikovsky” performs the same trick, minus dialogue, during the “Slippery People” sequence, in which a mundane spy task (which Stan is none too pleased to be roped back into) that was diagrammed out in a previous episode gets a jolt of energy and drama from its soundtrack.
It’s great to see that the show is still able to draw so much power and locate so much thematic resonance in its music after all these years, though the staging and the picture editing deserve kudos, too. Neither Elizabeth nor Paige takes the lead in their little “None But The Lonely Hearts” pas de deux until they arrive outside Paige’s apartment building, where the slope of the sidewalk puts Keri Russell a full head above Holly Taylor. Paige might have been trying to catch her mom off-guard, but she winds up looking like a damn whippersnapper in these shots, being talked down to (and being talked down to) by Elizabeth. It’s the standout sequence in an episode that ends in bloody combat and also finds the Soviets hearing rumors of Ronald Reagan’s senility.
About that bloody combat: It’s going to complicate any further effort by Elizabeth to shield Paige from the darker aspects of their work. She killed Rennhull in self-defense, but she still killed him, and not in a way that can be hidden from her daughter like the naval officer’s death could. The things she’s hiding, the lies and half truths she’s telling, have once more erupted in lethal violence, and the evidence is splattered all over Elizabeth’s face. It’s just the right bookend for “Tchaikovsky,” a cliffhanger in the Dead Hand saga with echoes of Stan and Gennadi’s park-bench chat. We see the signifiers of spy work, but what we hear is a daughter concerned for her mother’s safety, and a mother demanding that the daughter go wait for her in the car. From beneath the pile of three other identities, the real Elizabeth Jennings makes her presence known.
- The Americans Wig Report: Season 6, Week 2: B+. Sometimes, it’s not the hair that makes the disguise so much as the accessories, and State Department Megan has some great taste in glasses and earrings. My question: Is the Megan wig hidden beneath the disappearing tourist’s longer locks, and if so, how would the RuPaul’s Drag Race judges rate its ruveal?
- The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season 6, Week 2: A-. Talking Heads is my favorite band of all time. That love affair began during the first week of 2003, on the return flight from a high-school marching band trip to London. At the time, there was a duty-free HMV in Heathrow’s international terminal, so I spent the cash that I hadn’t already spent at an actual HMV in the city (where I should’ve, but didn’t, buy the U.K. version of Is This It with “New York Cops” and the original, Spinal Tap-esque album art) on two deeply discounted CDs: Tragic Kingdom by No Doubt, and the Talking Heads compilation Once In A Lifetime. I boarded the plane knowing only the title track, “Psycho Killer,” “Burning Down The House,” and “And She Was.” I disembarked as a Talking Heads convert, and the Stop Making Sense version of “Slippery People”—with David Byrne’s call-and-response with Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt, and Chris Frantz throwing thunder bolts in the outro—had a lot to do with that. It was a revelatory experience, as was discovering the Staples Singers’ cover a decade later. And that’s all an extremely long-winded and navel-gazing way of saying that I’ve always associated “Slippery People” with airports, and while the Heads and Tchaikovsky don’t exactly equal the musical heights of “Dead Hand,” both of tonight’s musical moments totally rule.
- Was there any Mail Robot? So here’s the thing: There is a Mail Robot, but is it our Mail Robot? Stan has to take an elevator to get from the Criminal Investigative Division to counterintelligence, and as far as I know, we’ve never been given any indication that Mail Robot travels from floor to floor. So while the identity of this particular Mail Robot is in question, the significance of its appearance is not. Stan pays Mail Robot the proper amount of respect and deference, moving out of the path of the mechanical co-worker that nearly took down his old boss. And the appearance itself is preceded by those signature, Mail Robot beeps, each one a miniature symphony of robo-kitsch. This is the absolute best type of fan service: Short, sweet, and featuring Mail Robot.
- “Tchaikovsky” is an episode that’s light on Philip scenes, but not on Matthew Rhys—this is his third time in the Americans director’s chair. I can only assume he was assigned this episode because the script didn’t require him to be in front of the camera as frequently as other weeks.