The Americans, Season 1

What Spies Can Learn From Dogs
Talking television.
April 17 2013 11:00 PM

The Americans, Season 1

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A spy is like a dog—loyal, fierce, and obedient. As long as it respects its handler.

Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings and Paul Fitzgerald as Patterson
Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings and Paul Fitzgerald as Patterson

Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/FX

In Slate’s TV Club for The Americans—which was created by the Slate Group's editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg’s brother, Joe Weisberg—June Thomas will IM each week with a different partner. This week she chats with Vanessa Parra, TV fanatic and daughter of Cold War-aficionado Cuban exiles.

June Thomas: Vanessa, I'm so happy to be chatting about yet another great episode of The Americans. I wanted to discuss the show with you because you love television, you’ve spent years working in human-rights organizations, and as a Cuban-American, you know a little something about people who have left their homeland but maintain a deep emotional connection to it.

Vanessa Parra: Thanks, June. The Americans is probably my favorite show on TV right now, so it's great to be able to obsess about it further.

Thomas: Let’s begin with the final scene between Elizabeth and Grannie. Russia might be a bear, but the Russians sure talk a lot about dogs—Zhukov used his own dear pooch to model loving, loyal relationships to Elizabeth; and last week Grannie described herself as a "guard dog." Dogs are also fierce, and they can sometimes turn on their masters. Is Elizabeth turning—or just standing up to a bad master?

Parra: I did a foreign-exchange program about 15 years ago in which I got to spend some time in Moscow, and I was struck by the loyalty people showed toward their dogs.

Elizabeth has always been a loyal German shepherd dog, but I wonder if the recent turmoil in her marriage, the loss of Gregory, and the death of a beloved mentor, Gen. Zhukov, has begun to break the fabric of that loyalty. She's a wounded pup right now, and wounded animals do dangerous things.

Thomas: It's striking that Elizabeth’s memories of Zhukov all seem to involve him advising her to let a little love into her life. It's as if thus far she has prioritized the part of her training that stressed commitment and tradecraft. Now she's in pain, and she suddenly craves love and connection.

Of course, Elizabeth wasn't the only character talking about family this week. Nina lured Stan back into her arms by supplementing old-fashioned seduction (points for knowing that putting on a bra can be as sexy as taking one off) with a reminder that she's all alone in the world. "I don't have anything anymore," she tells him. "No country to go back to. My family, I will never see again. I only have fear and you." That last sentence in particular was solid gold. Though I thought she rather gilded the lily when she added, "Family is everything."

Parra: That was such a great scene, particularly since in Episode 8 there was a lot of conversation about how taking pity on her was pointless, because she is a spy and this is what they do. Well, here you go.

It's interesting to compare the scenes in which Stan is arguing with his wife, Sandra, and when he's talking to Nina. One is fire, and one is ice, but they're both going to burn eventually.

Thomas: Being accused of being cold obviously cuts deep for Elizabeth. Patterson saves his own life when he yells: "You have no heart. No soul. No conscience. Your hands are covered in blood. Do you care about anything? Do you love anyone?" We've never seen Elizabeth so emotionally destroyed as after that speech. That's her Achilles’ heel, it seems.

And when Philip comes and finds her in that state, the thing that makes her so crazy is knowing that she lost control. "It's OK; it happens," he tells her. But she can't accept that and just walks away.

Parra: Patterson hit the jugular with that one.

In the end, though, I wonder if rather than Zhukov or Philip, it was thinking about her kids that set off that reaction. Paige and Henry’s response to the separation is so black and white. They blame her for being cold and intractable, and it clearly cuts her to the quick. After all, Zhukov was talking about how love evolves when you take care of something. That applies to the kids more than Philip.

Thomas: Yes, and I’m told that Malysh, the name of his beloved dog, literally means toddler in Russian, though the endearment is typically translated as baby. Either way, it evokes children as much as, if not more than, lovers.

Do you think she knew then that Grannie was playing her? That her loyalty was being manipulated? That her handler wanted her to disobey her orders?

Parra: I don't think it hits her that it's Grannie until well after she loses control. Had she known then, the response might not have been so visceral, so personal.

Thomas: I agree with Zhukov that learning to take care of someone or something is what makes us human. (Or as the song "Nature Boy" puts it, "The greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.') He's right to stress longevity and patience, but by now Elizabeth and Philip have been in America for so long, perhaps they're learning to love it, too. Zhukov seems to be telling her the story to make her realize what's going on with Philip, but it's just as true of her relationship with America.

Parra: I think every character in the show has a relationship that is a metaphor for their relationship with America, and for Elizabeth, it's Stan's wife, Sandra.

Elizabeth always seems shocked by the sincerity and the openness that comes from Sandra. It throws her off her game a little. America is like that for her in some ways. It's taken a long time to take root, but it’s there.

Thomas: A few weeks ago, I said Stan Beeman was the most heartbreaking character on the show. I was wrong; it’s Sandra. Almost everyone else has a dark secret—that they're spies who've committed murder without a second thought, that they're having an affair, etc. Sandra, on the other hand, appears to be an open book. And yes, that does seem to throw Elizabeth. When Sandra asked her if she'd ever dated anyone from a foreign country, Elizabeth flinched in a very un-spy-like way.

Parra: Elizabeth always gives Sandra a wary eye but, of everyone Elizabeth talks to on a regular basis, her conversations with Sandra seem the most emotionally honest.

Thomas: Oh, we forgot another family reunion. Martha surprised Clark with a visit from her parents. How is he going to get out of that situation? Martha is providing him with such high-quality intel, he can't just disappear. But he is dangerously close to being exposed. (And speaking of exposure, it seems insane for Elizabeth to let Patterson go after he'd seen her face and heard her voice. The, wig, glasses, and scar aren't exactly an impenetrable disguise.)

Parra: Yes, meeting the parents! And what a slice of Americana they are. I can well imagine what would happen if I tried to spring that on a man. Let's just say I won't be providing surprise introductions to my colorful Cuban-American family anytime soon. Philip’s meeting the parents was a nice note of comic relief for the episode, even though it probably wasn't intended as such. Martha’s love for Clark does mean he probably gets higher-quality intelligence than he would otherwise, but I guess it means he's going to have to walk a very fine line in the interim. When that ship goes down, it will definitely be an episode to watch. Hell hath no fury ...

Thomas: Speaking of walking a line, Elizabeth needs to stay in control of her emotions around Grannie. It was one thing to beat her after the extreme provocation in Episode 6, but it seems ill-advised to threaten her again. Ticking off your handler is as dangerous as ticking off your hairdresser.

Parra: Maybe Elizabeth has ticked off her hairdresser, or at least the person who is in charge of the wigs, because the quality of the hair is very questionable at this point. I don't even want to know what the wigs are going to look like for the season finale.

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

Vanessa Parra is a media relations professional for international humanitarian and human rights causes. She lives in New York.