The Americans: Meet the Eckharts

Amber Waves, the season five premiere of The Americans opens with the wheat crop in the Soviet Union failing. The Jennings, a Potemkin Village of a family, may be nearing their own implosion. There’s the Paige/Matthew romance, Mischa on his way to America, wild card Henry with his foster-dad the FBI agent across the street. Who knows how long this cardboard house will stand?

We open in a high school cafeteria in Granville Illinois – doesn’t have quite the ring as a Roy Rogers in Franconia Tuan who recently moved from Michigan, is befriending an even more recent newcomer – Pasha from Soviet Union. He takes him over to his house to hang out, and meet his parents, who are of course Elizabeth and Philip, here the Eckharts, a pilot and flight attendant, which explains why they’re so often away. Philip makes a lame “dad” joke, the type of joke that maybe dad’s always made, or maybe they learned to make from sitcoms. Tuan – not his real name – is a spy kid not a poor Vietnamese orphan adopted by a kindly American couple, and probably older than he looks like the cops on 21 Jump Street. Yet, he and his “parents” are consummate professional phonies and already have the banter that makes them look function like a “real” family.

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How are things going in the Motherland? The opening credits give us period footage of wheat dying on the staff, long lines for food and empty shelves, lots of empty shelves, while the soundtrack plays America the beautiful in Russian. And somewhere in the bowels of Moscow officialdom, a woman wheels in tea and pastries, and an official, who doesn’t have to wait on  line ever even in a country of equals, eats.

It’s good to be commissar.

Back in Illinois we get another look at the Jennings new gig. Tuan is reporting to them about the family of his new friend. Pasha’s dad does nothing but complain about how terrible life was back in Russia. Tuan thinks “You” as in “You Russians” should have put a bullet in his back. Sounds like Elizabeth is going to love ruining his life. Also Tuan has noticed someone in a car watching his new friend’s house, so they have to be careful.

Oleg’s in Moscow at his parent’s spacious apartment. Mom’s happy he’s there, but the house is like a shrine to his dead brother. His recent arrival home is discussed over at the FBI by Stan and his boss Mr. Munchkin. They’re not sure if he was called back and is in big trouble because the KGB knows he put Stan onto William, or if it was just a turnover in staff. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that maybe he wanted to leave the land of the free.

Young Mischa (Philip’s other son) has his fake passport ready and is at the airport, nervously approaching passport control. He tells the man he’s going to Yugoslavia to visit family, and has never been out of the country before. Stamped and approved.

The Eckharts are having dinner with Pasha’s family. Dad works as a consultant for the US Department of Agriculture. He’s obviously the target, and Tuan was right. During dinner he talks about Russia – the corruption, bribery, shortages. He tells them there were three families living in their communal apartment and one bathroom. For a moment, it looks like Elizabeth isn’t sure if he means that as a bad thing. We know that behind her lying spying eyes she’s remembering when they shared a space with ten families, and had to use an outhouse, and oh what she wouldn’t give to be back there.

Stan is making dinner for his guests, Paige and Henry. He takes Paige aside to tell her how thrilled he is she’s dating Matthew, while back in Illinois, Elizabeth is chatting in the kitchen with the new best friend she will destroy – Pasha’s mother, who didn’t think the Soviet Union was that bad, and is worried because Pasha really “no want to go to America.”

Ah, opportunity! “Run Pasha’s mother, run,” we, the audience want to shout at the screen remembering previous Elizabethan victims like Young Hee, Lisa, and Betty.

After dinner, they leave Tuan in the house and head out.  In the car, Elizabeth vents. Philip reminds her they’ll have a chance to go home someday, but Elizabeth wonders if that’s true. When they get home Paige reports on the dinner with Stan. They still aren’t happy about the Matthew thing, but Paige tells them she has a bigger issue “nightmares” and what sounds like flashbacks of watching her mom calmly gut a man. But her problems will apparently have to wait, as their lonely guy neighbor has seen the Jennings car pull in, and is stopping by to share some brewskis with his bestie. He seems chipper, and can’t wait to tell Philip about the babe he hasn’t quite met yet at the gym. I’m betting she’ll be important. Could she be a spy?

Mischa is now on a bus somewhere in Yugoslavia, recalling a letter from his mother, full of regrets for “choosing the wrong life.” She mentions his father. Does he even understand that his father has a cover?

Oleg’s new boss is the man we saw scarfing down danishes while his countryman waited hours to get in to stores only to find empty shelves. He’s a KGB Colonel. Oleg’s new assignment: Investigate the corruption, double-dealing, and outright theft that’s causing all the food shortages, which don’t effect people like them. The Colonel warns him the investigation will reach important people, including people his family knows. Oleg gets it.

Gabriel and Claudia (Thank God they’re back and together again!) are mostly acting as the Greek chorus, reminding us that Mischa is coming. They know he left his job and has disappeared.

More of these two please!

At the Jennings’ house, Paige is putting away her wardrobe of flannel shirts which is totally going to work for her after she comes out at Sarah Lawrence. Her mom tells her she’s going to help her with her nightmares by beating her up (and making her fight back) because that is parenting Elizabeth style.

Gabriel meets with Elizabeth and Philip. He tells them how William died a hero, having injected himself so he wouldn’t live to talk, he was taken, but he has one more mission. Huh? What kind of a mission could a dead guy have?

We soon find out. There’s a looooong final sequence in which Elizabeth, Philip, Hans, and some other possible red shirt are dropped off by a fence and make their way to a spot where they start digging, and digging. And sure, we know Elizabeth is strong like bull, but is a 40-something year old woman really the best choice for a task that’s all about upper body strength and has to be done as quickly as possible?

What are they digging for? It hasn’t been spelled out yet, but they finally reach a metal container, more than six feet under. They use a blowtorch to open it, and therein lay the remains of William, encased in a plastic bag and with various bio-hazard warnings. Suiting up, they cut out a chunk of flesh because the Soviet Union will get its pound of flesh out of him and that damn virus sample! Only something goes wrong, and Hans who was trying to help them up, and is not properly suited, falls in and cuts himself on the contaminated knife. He tells Elizabeth that it didn’t hurt, and she tells him it’s nothing. When he starts climbing the ladder she promptly shoots him in the head. Wordlessly she and Philip squeeze him into the metal casket with William.

Good-bye Hans! Just one thing, would a body completely contaminated by an extremely deadly virus have been buried like that? It’s the kind of detail that once it occurs to you ruins the moment. Too many mental workarounds. Maybe they didn’t have a crematoria big enough for a human body over at Fort Detrick, but couldn’t they have rigged something up? It just doesn’t sound like someone would say, “Hey lets wrap him up real good and put him in a metal box! It’ll be fine.” Frankly, that’s the type of thing the Soviet Union would have done.

While there was really no other choice for poor Hans, once again we are reminded that when it needs to be done, Elizabeth is the one who does it. Yet, we saw her begin to crack last season after Young Hee. Can we look forward to more of that this season? Hans wasn’t exactly like a son to her, but one wonders how his death and their interactions with Tuan will impact on their career choice for Paige. Tonight we saw two possibilities for Paige’s future: She could get killed – possibly by one of her own, like Hans, or turn into someone as cynical and rigid as Tuan – or her mother. Speaking of the younger generation, can’t wait for Mischa to meet the family!

Marion Stein

Marion writes television recaps and reviews for the Agony Booth, and books you can find over at Amazon.

TV Show: The Americans

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  • Thomas Stockel

    I love this series, although for some reason season four dragged for me. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe I was just getting tired of the premise? But the season opener was okay.