“I am infinitely strange to myself.” That’s a line from The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the 1981 film version of John Fowles’s novel. The movie is at the center of two scenes in “Comrades,” the season-two premiere of The Americans. Its recurrence is a masterstroke, and not just because it lets us watch FBI agent Stan Beeman suffer through it twice. It’s a meta-movie based on a meta-novel: a book about fiction writing that was adapted into a movie about acting (and actors).
Of all the movies from 1981 that series creator Joe Weisberg and co-executive producer Joel Fields could’ve chosen to highlight, The French Lieutenant’s Woman might be the most appropriate, because it’s about how (and why) we suspend disbelief when we listen to a story or watch a performance. The conviction of the actor/performer becomes analogous to the conviction of the writer in a novel. Bits of stagecraft matter, too — and I love how deftly this episode uses different accents and wigs (including the one that Phillip loses during the pre-credits fight in the Afghan restaurant). But sometimes a story or a performance succeeds for reasons that have nothing to do with the teller or the actor. Sometimes it’s all about the audience, and what they want to believe, or need to believe, based on their desire or upbringing or pathology. And sometimes the actor gets lost in a performance and forgets which end is up. (In Soviet Union, drama plays you!)
Written by Fields and Weisberg and directed by Thomas Schlamme (of The West Wing and a zillion other series), “Comrades,” shows how the characters have become entangled with the roles they play. That’s one of the dark joys of this series — the way it lets its people play characters within characters and enact dramas within dramas.
The opening sequence is but one example: Philip impersonates a drawling American in a meeting with Afghans seeking funding and weapons to battle the occupying Soviet army, and kills both of them after a brief struggle in which his wig comes off (thus answering the wig plausibility concerns raised in season one recaps). To top things off, Philip shoots an innocent busboy who happened to be there during the bloodbath, a chilling Godfather II–style reminder that, while we may necessarily identify with coldblooded protagonists, we shouldn’t mistake them for good people.
If marriage (and marriagelike relationships) formed the dramatic center of season one, family is shaping up as the core of season two. Paige is getting more suspicious of her parents’ furtive behavior and frequent disappearances and starts snooping around. It’s fascinating that, of all the discoveries she might have made, she stumbles upon her parents in a 69, not the sort of sexual position that’s typically undertaken by a mom and dad who are going through the proverbial motions; the delayed and very ‘80s-comedy punch line to this scene is a distorted subjective shot from Paige’s point-of-view of Elizabeth eating bacon. Paige’s bedtime surprise is emblematic of Philip and Elizabeth’s mutual re-commitment to a marriage that nearly foundered in season one. (This season is set two months after the end of the last one, incidentally.) They’re playing at being a typical American couple, and over time they have become that very couple.
This predicament is shared by another Directorate S couple that Philip and Elizabeth partner with on two missions: a sex-fueled intimidation of a defense contractor (the dynamics of which are reminiscent of the scam Philip pulls on Martha in season one, and that eventually leads to their “marriage”) and a mission at an amusement park whose plot specifics I’m not too sure about (though it involves John Carroll Lynch of Zodiac and Fargo, so hooray).
The latter results in the other Directorate S family being murdered (save for a teenage son who was out when the bloodbath occurred). I love this whole sequence, which has the dirty, chilling feeling of a violent sequence in a 1970s thriller, though it goes too far in revealing Paige with the same face paint as one of the victims (yes, Americans, we get it — the Jennings children could end up dead, too).
Elsewhere, we’ve got shams within shams. Martha is secretly taping the goings-on at her FBI office to please her “husband” Clark, who’s actually Philip. Philip, in the episode’s marvelous closing scene, comes “home” to Martha and has the sort of boring and exhausted conversation about his workday, and his professional misgivings, that a “real” couple would have. Stan Beeman halfheartedly keeps up appearances with his wife Sandra by accompanying her and a girlfriend to see The French Lieutenant’s Woman not long after watching it on a bootleg VHS cassette in a love nest with Nina. (Nina wonders if Stan’s selection of that movie means he thinks she’s a whore; Nina is acting out a relationship with Stan, but also really feeling that relationship, and acting and prostitution have been entwined in people’s minds for centuries.)
All in all, this was a dark and crisply plotted season opener. I love it when a strong freshman drama seems to gain confidence in its sophomore outing; you can sense themes being planted here that are going to flower in the near future, in intriguing and, in some cases, horrifying ways.