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The Americans Recap: No Future in His Sleep Tonight

“I don’t see a whole lot of future in my sleep tonight.”

Stan Beeman says that to Phillip Jennings in “Only You,” my second favorite episode of The Americans after “Gregory.” And as it happens, “Only You” feels like a sequel, or at least a bookend, to “Gregory,” killing off one of the show’s most memorable characters, Derek Luke’s Gregory — the American-born ally of the KGB and Elizabeth Jennings’ sometime-lover — in a lyrically violent set piece preceded by an emotionally wrenching buildup. Stan delivers that line while sitting in the recently separated Phillip’s hotel room, and although it plays in the scene like an amusing, accidental inversion of what he probably meant to say (“I don’t see a whole lot of sleep in my future tonight”), it comes to seem like foreshadowing near the end, when Gregory goes out in a hail of bullets in a suicide-by-cop.

I am very, very sorry to see Gregory go, not just because he added such dimension to Elizabeth, but because he was a great character in his own right, one who illuminated the predicament of the politically aware African-American in ways that American television rarely attempts. A lot of people who aren’t part of the majority culture sometimes feel like strangers in their own country, and Gregory was one of those people; but he acted on his estrangement and became a fifth columnist, helping the Soviets in their covert war against the U.S. on American soil.

The scene between Gregory and Claudia where his fate is laid out for him, and all the subsequent scenes involving Elizabeth and (later) Phillip, drove this notion home; so did the short scene between Stan Beeman and Gregory’s fellow operative. When Stan tries a patriotic appeal, the man stares at him blankly. “You and me don’t have much in common, but we’re both goddamn Americans, right?” Stan says. His prisoner’s face reminds me of the punch line to that Lone Ranger–and-Tonto-surrounded-by-Apaches joke: “Speak for yourself, white man.” (He comes around, but one gets the sense it’s to save his own skin, not because he’s suddenly turned into a Frank Capra character.)

What happens to Gregory is a truly horrible betrayal. He’s being turned into a sacrificial lamb and offered a deal that he suddenly (and to his surprise) realizes that he can’t accept. He never felt like an American — not in the way that native-born white people did — and now, faced with the prospect of relocating to the Soviet Union and learning Russian and teaching the next generation of agents, all of a sudden he does feel like an American somehow, or at least more American than Russian. Sometimes you don’t feel like you’re a part of something until you can’t be a part of it anymore — another dreadful irony. He would have been safe in Moscow, but he didn’t want to leave the United States. He wanted to move to Los Angeles. No dice, Gregory. You die here, comrade. At least he got to choose his own fate, but even that had a nasty, mournful overtone: He shot a lot of cops in the process and may have further complicated the KGB-FBI war.

I love the detail, established in “Gregory,” that he and Elizabeth met when they were civil-rights activists in the late-sixties, and that he was her first recruit. It makes sense: Elizabeth was a woman to him, but she was also an ideal, a tough, smart “American” woman who was actually opposed to American values and who saw him not primarily as a black man, but simply as a man. What a great, tragic love story this was — and how beautifully Luke played the role. Hopeless, unquenchable desire is a damned hard thing for an actor to play without coming off as ridiculous, and yet Luke never looked ridiculous. There was something deeply chivalrous in his demeanor, and it had to do with restraint — with holding back whenever possible, just as Gregory would have held back if he were a real person in these same situations.

Just look at how he reacts when Elizabeth calls him in this episode and signals that she needs his help by tapping on the receiver; Luke simply acknowledges the signal and hangs up, as the character has probably done dozens of times before. But go back and look at his eyes: There’s something gravely seriously there — maybe a premonition? A stirring in the Force? Whatever it is, it’s great for being understated, just like the way Luke/Gregory looks at the cop he passes on the corner at the end, and the way he looks at that cop car pulling upon the corner in the background behind him, and the way he pulls his gun and assumes a combat pose, then keeps firing and ducking like what he always was: a soldier.

Odds and ends

  • This episode was written by Bradford Winters and directed by Adam Arkin, the veteran actor-filmmaker. I hope the Emmy voters remember both names.
  • The second half of this season has brought a string of senseless, horrible killings, including Stan’s partner Chris Amador, stabbed during a scuffle with the disguised Phillip, and Nina’s colleague Vlad, murdered by Stan as revenge for Chris’s death. What’s most fascinating to me about this — beyond my concern that The Americans is burning through major characters and plotlines so fast that it’s at risk of going into Homeland mode next season and becoming a parody of itself — is the black comic overtone. This episode and last week’s reminded me of a Coen Brothers’ thriller, something like Blood Simple or Burn After Reading, in that so much of the mayhem results from misread or withheld information coupled with poor impulse control.
  • Related to the bullet point above: Phillip and Stan mirror each other in a lot of ways, including the fact that they’re both estranged from their wives, but this episode added another one: Each is secretly responsible for the death of someone who meant a great deal to another character that they’re close to. In theory, Phillip is only friends with Stan so that he can keep tabs on what the FBI is up to, but over the last few episodes, their fake friendship has started to feel like a real one; this is another example of that Vonnegut line I am constantly quoting in these recaps, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” That early scene in Phillip’s motel room where Stan talks about Amador’s death is poignant but deeply uncomfortable because Stan is sitting across from the guy who stabbed his partner. The subsequent scene in Stan’s love nest with Nina is uncomfortable for similar reasons. She’s distraught, talking about how her friend Vlad was a decent man who really meant no harm and who intended to quit and become a doctor — “Vlad never wanted to be KGB … He joined to make his uncle happy” — while Vlad’s killer is right there next to her.
  • Related to the Gregory observations, I like how The Americans imputes casual racism to Gadd and makes it seem like a perfectly normal quality in an FBI man of his generation. Stan tells him he didn’t catch the suspect at the housing project because, “He’s a little too fast for me,” and Gadd replies, “Figures.” 
  • More great details related to divorce in this episode. The scene in which Paige refuses to let her mom dress her down gave me a chill. I have a teenage daughter about her age. At some point she’ll figure out that I only have authority because she’s agreed that I have authority — and then I won’t have authority anymore. This realization might have happened much further down the line if Elizabeth and Phillip hadn’t split up, pushing Phillip out of the house and turning Paige against her mother (I have a feeling that if Elizabeth had moved out and Phillip had kept the house, she’d have hated Phillip, but that’s just speculation).
  • Related to the above point, the timing of Phillip’s arrival in the kitchen is perfect. He gets to “rescue” his kids from an unpleasant confrontation. As a child of divorce in the seventies and eighties, this show is really hitting me where I live. Does anyone else feel that way?
  • The choice of music in that shoot-out montage was perfect: Roberta Flack's version of "To Love Somebody." The lyrics do double-, maybe triple-duty as a Greek chorus on the action: They express Gregory's unrequited love for both Elizabeth and the causes that they fought for. The repeated phrases "You don't know what it's like" and "to love somebody" work together and apart to express the powerful feeling that Gregory himself doesn't articulate to anyone but Elizabeth.
  • There is an excellent possibility that both this episode and “Gregory” will be on my year-end list of the best drama episodes of 2012. The only question is whether to consider them separately or put them on the same line. I’m leaning toward the latter solution; the more I think about them, the more they feel like two halves of one story.
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