In 1961, three months after the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, professor Stanley Milgram started work on a controversial obedience study in a school-hall basement at Yale University. The Milgram experiment involved three people: The “experimenter” in charge of the session and two volunteers, a “teacher” and a “learner.” Both the teacher and the learner were told that they were participating in a memory study, focusing on the effect punishment might have on a subject’s ability to memorize content.
The true focus of the experiment is the teacher, who’s asked by the experimenter to deliver “shocks” for wrong answers, with the shocks increasing in 15-volt increments. In reality, no actual shocks were delivered at all, but the learner acted as if they were, issuing yelps of pain that could be heard from the other room. The point of the experiment was to see how far up the dial the teachers would go when prodded by the experimenter. The results were disturbing: In Milgram’s first set of experiments, a whopping 65 percent of teachers delivered the maximum 450-volt shock, and every one of them delivered shocks of at least 300 volts. As a species, Milgram’s study suggested, we’re inclined to obey orders, rather than our conscience.
Peter Gabriel’s “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37),” from his 1986 album So, refers to Milgram’s Experiment 18, in which 37 of the 40 participants were prepared to deliver maximum voltage. In “Dead Hand,” an astonishingly good season opener, Gabriel’s song kicks in when Elizabeth meets with General Kovtun from Strategic Rocket Forces in the back of a cantina in Mexico City. Because they’re both speaking subtitled Russian, the song can be played unusually high in the mix without missing the substance of what’s being said. Kovtun asks Elizabeth to monitor a Gorbachev-aligned emissary to see if the man plans to make a critical concession in the upcoming summit between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Kovtun is concerned that a system called “Dead Hand,” which issues an automated retaliatory strike against the U.S. if Soviet leadership is decapitated, will be offered as a bargaining chip if Reagan’s administration kills its Star Wars missile-defense program. The kicker: Elizabeth can’t tell anyone about the mission, including her husband.
The use of Gabriel’s song over Elizabeth’s Mexico trip is not even subtext. When we hear the chorus, “we do as we’re told” repeated, that’s text. Yet there’s complexity to that sentiment. On one level, Elizabeth has been a loyal foot soldier in the Cold War — surely more loyal than Philip, whose tortured misgivings about the job have been thoroughly documented. The Center gives her an assignment, and she follows through on that assignment. She’d had to live with tragic mistakes, like killing an innocent lab assistant last season over a supposed plot to sabotage Russian wheat fields. But those could be written off as mistakes, collateral damage in the larger — and ultimately just — mission of disrupting the enemy.
Yet The Americans has never written Elizabeth off as a mere conformist. She has to wrestle with difficult choices all the time — on behalf of the mission, on behalf of her husband, on behalf of the children, on behalf of herself — and she isn’t the type to obey thoughtlessly, even if being obedient comes with the terrain. To an extent, Elizabeth’s investment in the job becomes its own affirmation of what the job entails: If she ever has to admit to herself that the cause is unjust, then the bodies that have accumulated and the abuses she’s suffered will have been for worse than naught. And that’s to say nothing of Paige, who’s now part of the next generation of naturalized spies.
But as “Dead Hand” lays out so effectively, the era of Gorbachev and “glasnost” has arrived and, with it, a sharp division in the ranks over where Russia might be headed. After spending last season in Moscow, dodging threats on all sides over his collaboration with Stan, Oleg is lured back to the states by Arkady, now the deputy chief of Directorate S, who spells out the political stakes clearly. Arkady notes a division between Gorbachev and higher-ups in the KGB, who reject his push for reforms and arms negotiations with the United States. Oleg is told that Gorbachev doesn’t have the power to get rid of his KGB adversaries and that he’s needed to stop the agency’s plans to sabotage the summit. Arkady mentions someone outside the organization is meeting with “an illegal,” whom we know to be Elizabeth. Arkady wants Oleg to contact the illegal’s husband, who’s understood to be “different,” and convince him to spy on his own wife. And just like that, the stage is set for the final season.
At the end of season five, when Philip and Elizabeth talk about retirement, she insists that she can’t bear to see how miserable the job has made him and he insists right back that she needs him. Nothing is said in the remarkable pre-credits montage that opens this episode, but it’s immediately clear that the dissolution of their working relationship has, to paraphrase the Crowded House song that’s played over the sequence, built a wall between them. Philip is running a spruced-up D.C. travel agency and cruising around in a brand-new Lincoln Continental with the sunroof open; Elizabeth is showering off after bedding some miserable old man for the state. They can’t share secrets anymore and they can’t share burdens, either, like they did when they were both in the trenches. Their marriage would be in trouble even if Oleg decided to stay in Moscow.
Philip is line-dancing. Elizabeth is clutching a necklace with a cyanide pill inside. They are no longer on the same page.
Hammers and Sickles
• The song selection on The Americans has always been excellent, but “Dead Hand” is a standout. The show’s willingness to allow full songs to play over montage sequences — like Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” in last season’s finale and Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” here — is not only effective, but true to ‘80s music videos, which often laid songs over short stories. It’s no easy feat to find contemporaneous (or close enough) songs that sync up to the action on screen, but this week’s quartet of Crowded House, Peter Gabriel, Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman,” and Talking Heads’ “Listening Wind” get the job done.
• Elizabeth’s brutal dispatching of the Naval security man who questioned Paige is an early indicator that mom will still keep ugly secrets from her daughter, even if she’s ostensibly on the inside.
• And how about Philip line-dancing? He’ll surely get pulled back into the world he’s managed to escape, but after five seasons of weight-of-the-world misery bearing down on him, it was exhilarating to see him scooting around in cowboy boots with a big dumb smile on his face.