A Soviet-Jewish nightmare comes true on The Americans

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The Americans Cold War spy show on FX
Well. That was gut-wrenching. I’m a little speechless. Our anti-hero protagonists just reached into my own personal life and gave it a shake. Or, more to the point, it’s like the KGB reached out and tapped my parents on the shoulders — really, every Russian that I knew as a child — and said “Here you go. Your nightmare. Watch. Watch how easily we could have done it to you too.”

I wasn’t planning to write another post on The Americans, but here we are.

MAJOR SPOILER ALERT – DO NOT KEEP READING IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED IN LAST NIGHT’S EPISODE OF THE AMERICANS, “THE DEAL”

Last night’s episode concluded the story arc of the Jewish refusenik scientist, whose botched kidnapping was seen in the previous episode. The unknown defendants of the scientist were Mossad agents, one of whom is captured by Elizabeth and Phillip, while the other drives off with the scientist. Within twelve hours, the Israelis have traded our refusenik hero for their Mossad agent, and shortly after, he finds himself, quite literally, on a slow boat back to hell – handcuffed against a metal wall on a freight ship, watching America, his wife, his son, recede through the porthole. And as I watched, I thought of that moment of relief, that first realization that freedom has arrived, which every immigrant I’ve interviewed has spoken about. There’s always a single instance, and it’s always very specific, when they finally exhale and relax and it all becomes real. The moment on the plane when they realized it won’t turn back. Or when they noticed the brightness of the Vienna sun, standing on the tarmac of their first western country.

This is the episode that says, “Sorry, but you’re never really free. It’ll never be over. We can find you anywhere.”

I mentioned the paralleling between the spy and the refusenik last time, and that was amplified in this episode, both by the Mossad agent, who keeps reminding Phillip that at least he gets to go home for Passover, and by scientist, who so desparetly begs not to be sent back There, There, of all places. He cries, he offers to work for the Soviets in the US (I think he offered up ARPANET at one point). And there’s a moment when you’re watching and hoping for Phillip and Elizabeth to win, like you do every week. It’s such a wrong thing to wish for.

“Please. Please don’t send me back There. Please don’t send me back.”

Phillip delivers him to the shipyard, and the look on his face is truly tortured. But I don’t think it’s the torture of what he’s done to this person, but the injustice of it – that he stays exiled while someone else is forcibly repatriated. He comes home and curls up on the couch with Elizabeth and talks about the icicles in Moscow as they left for the last time. Theirs is the sentimentality of thousands of immigrants, and yet. The fears, nightmares, hells of some 250,000 Soviet-Jewish immigrants of that era just beamed into my living room, at the hands of this pair. As a statement on exile, on principles and loyalty, on the futility of the entire Cold War exercise, this is seriously effed up.

As the scene closes, the kids are waking up and hollering for their parents, like every kid and every parent, and it’s so stunningly familiar. Our heroes have succeeded, and I’m relieved for them, because that’s how one is supposed to feel when our heroes succeed. But, but, but.

Also, in the final few moments, we hear a radio broadcast that the Soviets have suddenly, for reasons unknown, granted 1,500 Jews exit visas for Israel. A little redemption for the Israelis, or did that just twist the knife that much more?

I usually enjoy the subtleties of The Americans, the way we really never know who we should be rooting for. This episode was a little too… too… real? Personal? I wrote yesterday about how I find the premise of the show a little preposterous. But the storyline – this one, at least – is true to something else instead. Our fears and paranoias, our worst “what if’s” that keep us awake at night.

It’s one effed-up episode.

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Comments

  1. Alexander Avtsin says

    Hey! I am so happy you are writing about The Americans. We watched the whole first season last year and were the only one in our circle watching the show. It flew completely under the radar then.. This season looks like they did a major marketing push – everyone seemed to at least check it out :)
    Anyway, I am currently in Israel, will watch the two recent episodes when I have access to Hulu again in a few days. Until then, I am not scrolling this page up :)

    • says

      Hi Alexander, it definitely seems to have flown under the radar, but I’m starting to hear a lot more about it. I’d love to hear what you think about the episode once you’ve seen it. I had a lot of thoughts (obviously!), but it’s also fun to see a Soviet Jewry storyline in the mainstream.