The Americans "ARPANET" Review: Call and Response
For anyone looking to turn skeptics onto this show with a single scene, "ARPANET" offered two frontrunners in the final moments of both Philip and Nina’s storylines. Each one tied up related themes of trust and deception in its own way, following two worthwhile technology-centric missions—Philip’s to "bug" the '80s internet, and Nina's to defeat a polygraph machine. Each one offered a window into the insanely stressed and extremely capable mind and heart of one of the KGB's finest—Philip a proven hero, and Nina an impresario by necessity, and possibly a triple agent. Each one also shined the spotlight on the role of high-tech machinery in the world of espionage. Whether it's spies using "technology" to complete a mission, countries warring over the right to possess it, or societies using it to communicate, it was only a matter of time before gadgetry received its much-deserved screen time in a season that keeps raising the bar.
We knew something was up when Nina took over opening narration duty with her Russian rendition of "Previously on The Americans...." Continuing her fallout with Stan from last week, Nina began what would basically be "her" episode by agreeing to the polygraph test. Did you know that before 1988, employers could use lie detectors on their employees? ("Did you work your hardest today?" "Yes." "These squiggles tell a different story....") With a newfound ability to bend the truth, Nina continued her withdrawal from the arms of the increasingly lonely Stan, while outwardly appearing to do the opposite—because she's just that good. Also, who thought a scene where one character just says "yes" and "no" could be so riveting? And that look square at Stan during the Vlad question? Dang. Tragic romance is a staple of the spy genre, and Noah Emmerich is doing a damn fine job embodying that, even if it is hard to watch the FBI agent descend further and further.
I’ve always rooted for some sort of union between Nina and Oleg, and it looks like The Americans answered my cries with a training sequence that lead straight to the bedroom. Dissections of the spy's mindset provide a fascinating insight into the headspace of pros, and in this case further connected the world of performative drama with counterintelligence. First Philip called Kate a "spy in an old movie," there's always the wigs, and then Oleg came off like a Julliard-trained acting coach, talking about believing the lie and whatnot. To think, Nina didn't trust Oleg at the outset, and now she's cuddled up with him, ducking in and out of English, possibly still in character. All the world's a stage!
Apart from the psychological stuff, the actual technical aspect of how a polygraph works earned its keep. This show is as much vintage-gadget porn as it is taut thriller, and what better device to feature than one that purports to suss out the truth as your body tells it? Scenes like Oleg drawing on insect metaphors and Cleopatra mythology to train Nina as the spy she was meant to be popped like a Communist flag whipping in the D.C. wind. Even more chilling was the notion that as Nina rose to the demands of Oleg’s secret gamble, she might have been forming a strategy herself to use against this new mentor. If anyone learns quick, it’s Nina.
I can think of several reasons why she would end up sleeping with Oleg. Self-preservation, actual romance, Stockholm syndrome. All seem like viable options. One moment she’s telling Stann she thinks Oleg’s a "pinhead who works for himself," the next she’s calling Oleg her "secret weapon" to his face and kidding naked in her native tongue. Less one language barrier, their pillow talk was effortlessly steamy ("You can bind my wrists, tie me naked to a chair..."), touching ("You were my secret weapon"), and ambiguously manipulative from both sides ("You are a very good liar, Nina Sergeevna)." Nina could never have this much fun with Stan, or at least she could never behave the way she does around Oleg. Then again, what woman could resist passionate charmers like "You passed"? Mr. Darcy eat your heart out! On the other side of things, Oleg gushed, "You have no armor. Nothing to protect you except your wits, your courage, and your beauty," along with other compliments—to which Nina replied in both Russian and then English, "What is this, Oleg Igorevich? Call and response?" Is she aware that he might be playing a part to get something from her? Is he aware that she’s aware of that?
In only its second season, The Americans has proven it knows how to juggle storylines big and small, like a classically trained cello player plucking the strings to a masterpiece, and brief-but-effective visits with Kate, Andrew Larrick, Lucia, and a few minutes dedicated to Henry’s adventures in home invasion reminded us of the overarching plots going on. Like a daughter to her mother, hot-under-the collar Lucia gave Elizabeth some grief with plans of her own to execute Larrick. "The operation and Larrick are bigger than your wish for revenge," reasoned Elizabeth the same way Claudia might have talked her down in another time.
I hope we get to see Larrick in action, what for all this talk about how unpredictable and monstrous he is. All we got this week were some vague threats along the lines of, "You can’t be too careful nowadays. It’s hard to feel safe." He might as well have continued, "It’d be a real shame if something were to happen to you." Larrick seems like he’s making an exit, but he’s at least promised to help the Jennings gain access to the Contra commanders. I bet Lucia dies in the process of killing him, only because that seems like something she might do, and something that would screw a lot of stuff up for the Cause.
Henry did a little spying of his own on the family across the street and their vacation plans. Paige has received the majority of Jennings children's screen time, so it was nice to get a taste of what was basically a little-kid adventure. You've got to hand it to Henry for making his Intellivision happen just like his old man would. If handled gingerly, these juvenile moments of illegal exploration could prove useful in both building out the Jennings as a TV family (something the '80s seemed to have a surplus of ), and offering a respite from more intense storylines. In small doses, kid danger like Paige and Henry’s afternoon with a hitchhiker in "Trust Me" reminds us just who these young people are as individuals, and why they’re worth protecting.
I definitely liked everything about Philip and Charles Duluth’s mission to gain access to the early makings of the internet, and I especially liked Professor Rosenbloom’s smooth, animated sequence (complete with the camera traveling between floors) explaining a technology that today has reshaped the world as we know it. Character actor Geoffrey Cantor was fantastic, talking us through what was partly a lesson in computer science, partly a set of heist plans, and Reg Rogers always does a remarkable job as the swaggering, drunken wit. An "interstate highway system through which all information flows" is a pretty concise description of our World Wide Web, its value certainly known to anyone alive today, but the fact that at this time the military and science communities shared a network makes it pretty clear why the Russians wanted access so bad. If ARPANET didn't seem Golden Goose-y enough, Rosenbloom even went on to compare the technology to God.
Normally on the sidelines, Duluth provided a novice’s commentary on what would've otherwise been a straightforward mission, right down to toasting the exhilaration of an improvised job well done. "I haven’t had an adrenaline rush like that," blathered Duluth, "since I did the esteemed Madame Senator from Missouri in the Capitol washroom during conference. I see how you could develop a jones for that kind of thing, it’s addictive." Easy for him, as Philip was the one to shoulder the burden of killing an innocent lab dork, all for a few "Xs and Os on a virtual highway." But maybe Duluth is onto something, maybe Philip's body is in some way addicted to the chemicals that happen during these missions. Eh, something to explore way down the road.
With moody music, this closing interaction between the two played out like something from a film noir: Philip stepping into the role of a cold, emotionally damaged hero, and Duluth the sad sack accomplice lying about his sobriety and spouting desperate claims like "I’m not pathetic!" I’ll give it to Matthew Rhys for his ability to go from warm, fatherly horsin’ off about Camaros with Henry to lecturing drunks about how many people’s he’s killed, all while ensuring that Philip feels realistic.
Apart from family and Elizabeth’s sexuality, Philip’s relationship with death has subtly become another season-long thread worthy of investigation. He killed that young restaurant worker in the first episode, walked in on Emmet’s family in a bloody heap, and caught an earful from Anton and the Mossad agent about his "monster" status (the same term Elizabeth used to describe Larrick in this episode; maybe spies fear becoming monsters). In the same way that Elizabeth went a little paranoid about protecting her family, Philip, more introspective, is looking at ways he’s damaging others, while he’s left alone to clean up the mess inside his soul.
– Computer people please chime in about the importance of these featured, real-life computer machines!
– "He was a miner. Coal." So Elizabeth was a coal miner's daughter. Huh/Heh.
– "Glad you enjoyed yourself." —Philip
– Larrick's off to Selva Negra to help mining operations.
– Kate looks like a spy in an old movie.
– "Driving my life away, looking for a better way for me," —a little Rabbit Eddie
What'd you think of "ARPANET"?
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