The Americans, Season 1

You Never Forget Your First Recruit
Talking television.
April 10 2013 11:03 PM

The Americans, Season 1

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On this show, KGB operatives are motivated by principles, FBI agents by a thirst for revenge.

 Derek Luke as Gregory and Margo Martindale as Grannie
Derek Luke as Gregory and Margo Martindale as Grannie

Photograph by Craig Blankenhorn/FX

In Slate’s TV Club for The Americans—which was created by Joe Weisberg, brother of the Slate Group's editor-in-chief, Jacob Weisberg—June Thomas will IM each week with a different partner. This week she chats with D.C. native Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them, which will be published on May 30, 2013.

June Thomas: Elliott, thanks so much for joining me this week. Before we start, I want to make a public service announcement to Slate readers who enjoy The Americans: Elliott’s novel, You Are One of Them, which comes out at the end of May, is a fantastic read, and the setting—D.C. in the '80s and Moscow in the '90s—and themes—like what secrets do to families—will be familiar to viewers of this show. I'm so glad I got a chance to read it early, and I recommend it unreservedly.

But now to this episode, which may be my favorite of the whole season. Given the Bonnie and Clyde–like final scenes, accompanied by Roberta Flack’s haunting "To Love Somebody," let's begin with what love means to the characters in this show. Am I crazy to see nobility in Gregory's decision to commit suicide by cop? Sure, he protected Elizabeth and Philip, but he also killed at least one police officer.

Elliott Holt: I'm so glad that you mentioned the Roberta Flack song. I thought it was genius to have a love song underscore that final shootout between Gregory and the cops. His suicide was, after all, a grand, heroic gesture of love for Elizabeth. Last week Stan lost his beloved partner/confidant, Chris Amador, and this week, Elizabeth loses Gregory. Both Stan and Elizabeth are married to people they can't confide in—as Stan says to Philip in this episode, "You can't be married and not have secrets." 

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I love the tension in The Americans between real intimacy—an ability to be open and honest—and false, posed intimacy. This episode explores those tensions so well.

Thomas: Yes, it's strange that the most open and honest relationship in the whole show should be between Gregory and Elizabeth. In The Americans’ universe, one's first recruit is more significant than one's first love (though Gregory might well be both for Elizabeth). I know that the show has to put its thumb on the scale to make sure we sympathize with Philip, Elizabeth, and maybe even Grannie, but it doesn't feel quite fair to the FBI characters that the KGB have principles that they can articulate, and all Stan can put into words is, "We're goddamned Americans, right?" Perhaps I feel this way because I miss the days when I had a clearer ideology, however misguided it might seem to me now.

Holt: It's funny, because Elizabeth praises Gregory for his loyalty to "the cause," but it's clear that his ultimate loyalty is to her, not Communism. His passion is personal, not ideological. And meanwhile, on the FBI side, for all Stan's patriotic talk, he is especially invested in this "war" once he loses Amador. On both sides, these Cold Warriors are officially fighting for ideology, country, organization, but they are human beings whose personal loyalties influence their actions. In this episode, those personal loyalties are revealed to be more powerful than anything else. And the show is ruthless—as ruthless as the Cold War—about spilling blood. Gregory was Elizabeth's great love (I love the chemistry between Keri Russell and Derek Luke), but The Americans had no qualms about killing him off. 

Thomas: I'm also really glad that the show is tackling race—even though with Gregory gone, the show no longer has any significant black characters. We're both white, but you grew up in D.C., and I lived there in the second half of the 1980s. How does the portrayal of black D.C. strike you?

Holt: I was born in Washington, D.C. in 1974, so in 1981, when this season of The Americans takes place, I was 7. The D.C. of my childhood was "Chocolate City," but it was really segregated. A majority of the city's population was black, but northwest Washington, where I was raised, was overwhelmingly white. 

The Soviet Union recruited a lot of black Americans by pointing to racism in this country as an example of the evils of capitalism. (As early as the 1920s, black Americans were going to the USSR in hopes of finding a colorblind paradise.) As a civil rights activist, it makes sense that Gregory would be attracted to Communism—officially, Soviet ideology condemned racism, and celebrated equality. It's plausible to me that a black guy from "the projects" in D.C. would be successfully recruited by Elizabeth.

Thomas: I almost wish we'd gotten to see Gregory's response to Moscow—"cosmopolitan, much more so than Washington," according to Elizabeth—but I think we all know how that would have worked out.

Holt: I'm quite sure that Gregory would have agreed to defect to Moscow if Elizabeth went with him. When I was growing up in Washington in the 1980s, hearing about Reagan's "red line to Moscow," I thought of the Soviet capital as D.C.'s equivalent. They were the Superpower capitals, after all. Then when I first visited Moscow in 1993, I realized how different from Washington it is. In many ways it is more "cosmopolitan"—art and literature are certainly more important in Moscow than in D.C.

Thomas: The ruthlessness of the Russians really came through in Grannie's great speech about why she's so good at her job. "I'm a guard dog, I don't take any chances with the people I protect." We've seen her do horrible things—the way she disposed of Robert's widow and child in Episode 3 springs to mind—but she will do anything for her agents. Elizabeth beat her face to a pulp a few weeks ago, but she’s still loyal to her. Stan is motivated by revenge—he said as much to Curtis. That somehow seems less noble to me.  

Holt: Stan is motivated by revenge, but it's also clear that he is motivated by some kind of real love for his late partner. In this episode, we see the way grief and loss motivates people: Stan loses Amador, Nina loses her friend Vlad, Elizabeth loses Gregory. These are profound bonds. And the bond between Elizabeth and Philip is rekindled in that final scene with Gregory, when Philip agrees to let Gregory go and face the cops.

Thomas: I found it interesting, and surprisingly moving, that Gregory should tell Elizabeth that he likes her "because you're committed, uncompromising, and stubborn." He warned her not to let Philip soften her up. Of all the long-term deceptions Elizabeth has to maintain, I suspect that hiding her astonishing competence might be the hardest. She's so good at being a spy, and hardly anyone knows it!

Holt: I was also really moved by that. I love the way this show celebrates strong, fierce women. Gregory says, "You Russian girls are tough," and Elizabeth says, "I guess we had to be."

But even as Gregory tells Elizabeth not to let Philip soften her up, we know that Gregory softened her up. I mean, she fell in love with Gregory, she cries when he dies. We see a softer side of Elizabeth with Gregory than with anyone else.

Thomas: One thing that really came through to me this episode was that there's no way out. It's all very well to have an exfiltration plan, but I don't believe any of the characters could ever retire. Sandra Beeman's dream of just walking away and living with Stan and their son Matthew in a shack? That could never happen. I guess spies get second acts, if we take their cover stories as second identities, but there are no third acts for them.

Holt: You're right. That's what’s so tragic. There's no way out for any of these people. Gregory asks Elizabeth to run away with him. Sandra tells Stan that they can run away together. But we know that's not true. Defecting to Moscow wasn’t a real option for Gregory—he's smart enough to know that he won't be happy there—so death is his only escape. The stakes are so high for these characters! And it's such great TV.

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

Elliott Holt's short fiction has appeared in The Pushcart Prize XXXV, among other places. Her first novel, You Are One of Them, will be published on May 30.

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