The Importance of Peter Gabriel to The Americans

Elizabeth Jennings. Photo: FX

The Americans has a habit of returning to certain musical artists. Songs by Yaz have shown up on the show’s soundtrack more than once, as have tracks by Roxy Music. Fleetwood Mac, whose “Tusk” was featured notably in the pilot, made its third appearance in Wednesday’s season-six premiere, during a surveillance sequence that unfolded to “Gold Dust Woman.”

And then there is Peter Gabriel, who has loaned some of the more haunting selections in his discography to major turning points in the Jenningses’ story, and did so again in the first episode of the final season, “Dead Hand.”

“We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)” from Gabriel’s album So underscores the most significant sequence in “Dead Hand”: the meeting in Mexico between Elizabeth and General Kovtun. There they discuss the Dead Hand program, a computerized response designed to unleash Russia’s nuclear arsenal on the United States should the Soviet’s leadership be taken out in a preemptive American strike.

Kovtun asks Elizabeth to keep tabs on Nesterenko, a man who may be attending the upcoming U.S.-Russia summit and, at the behest of Mikhail Gorbachev, attempting to trade Dead Hand for America’s Star Wars program. If the trade takes place, Elizabeth must notify Kovtun and his colleagues immediately so they can take out Gorbachev. Then, just to add extra pressure to an already high-stakes situation, Kovtun hands Elizabeth a necklace with a suicide pill inside it, implying that if necessary, she must take her own life rather than reveal the details about Dead Hand to anyone, including her own husband. It’s instantly obvious that this responsibility will weigh on Elizabeth and, most likely, define the trajectory of the entire last season.

The significance of the moment also comes through loud and clear because of the insistent presence of “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37),” whose first synthesized notes can be heard faintly when the general mentions the fact that Elizabeth’s husband “isn’t working now.” Aside from a brief interlude that shows Philip attempting to inspire his Dupont Circle travel-agency employees, the bulk of the sequence unfolds with a close-up on Elizabeth’s face as she takes in the details, and the implications, of what Kovtun is saying. The building drumbeat following by the repeated chanting of “We do what we’re told” reinforces the escalating thought process that, thanks to Keri Russell’s ability to actively listen as an actor, is clearly playing out in Elizabeth’s mind: I have to do this. I am not sure I want to do this. But I have been trained to do this for my country, and I must.

Right after Kovtun slides the box containing the necklace and the pill across the table toward Elizabeth, Gabriel’s plaintive voice breaks in: “One doubt, one voice, one war, one truth, one dream.” Those words, and the scratchy, melancholy quality of Gabriel’s vocals, projects a sense of apprehension. But as Elizabeth flies home and slips into the airplane restroom, we can see her certainty solidifying. She slides the necklace over her head at precisely the moment that the music soars and Gabriel sings, “One dream.” Even the repeated use of the word “one” highlights how alone Elizabeth is in this decision and this secret.

In terms of mood, tapping into the themes of the moment and the series overall, and telling the emotional story of a major turning point in Elizabeth’s narrative, this is one of the most effective uses of music in The Americans’ history. And that’s saying a lot considering how skillfully this show uses music.

This particular choice is even more meaningful when you consider that the song is inspired by the experiments conducted by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram to explore, as this summary puts it, “the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience.” During those experiments, which took place in the 1960s, the same decade that brought Elizabeth and Philip Jennings to the States, participants were asked by an administrator to issue increasingly higher shocks on a “learner” who kept making mistakes. The shocks weren’t real, but appeared to be, and yet a large percentage of people in the study continued to induce pain because an authoritative figure told them they had to do it. Milgram summarized his findings in The Perils of Obedience, which could easily serve as the alternate title of The Americans. (Interestingly, all of the participants in the study were male. As always, Elizabeth Jennings is proving that she has as much capacity to “man up” as any human being in possession of a Y chromosome.)

Like so much in this episode — the reappearance of Fleetwood Mac, the sight of Philip dancing in cowboy boots —there is already a sense that this last season of The Americans is bringing things full circle. That applies to the use of Peter Gabriel as well — even the artist’s last name evokes the memory of Frank Langella as the Jenningses’ most influential fatherly mentor. (It’s worth noting that “We Do What We’re Told” was once used in an episode of Miami Vice, as was “In the Air Tonight,” a percussive explosion recorded by that other Genesis lead singer, Phil Collins, which played a memorable role in The Americans pilot.)

“We Do What We’re Told” marks the fourth appearance in the FX drama of a Gabriel song. Every time one has been used before, it has coincided with a moment involving the relationship between parent and child and a choice between loyalty or betrayal.

The first Gabriel cameo was “Games Without Frontiers,” an ominous pop tune from 1980 that haunts the audio in the season-one finale as a suspicious Paige enters the family laundry room that secretly doubles as Philip and Elizabeth’s spy lair. She wanders around the space, wondering what her parents are really up to in there, as the words “jeux san frontières” are repeated. This is a song about the way war often turns into child’s play being used to define the moment when a child begins to consider whether her parents are involved in something more dangerous than she can imagine.

The second Gabriel song, the original version of “Here Comes the Flood” that appears on Gabriel’s first solo album, marks the end of the season-two episode “The Walk In” and plays as Elizabeth sets fire to a letter from her friend and now deceased colleague, Leanne. Years earlier, Elizabeth had promised to give that letter, which explains that Leanne and her husband are Russian spies, to Leanne’s son, Jared. But after seeing Jared struggling with grief, she can’t do it. Elizabeth’s conscience wins out, and she sets the piece of paper on the ground in an upright position, watching it burn out like a memorial candle while Gabriel sings, “Drink up, dreamers, you’re running dry.”

“Lay Your Hands on Me,” a song about healing and reconciliation, shows up in last season’s “Crossbreed,” an episode in which Philip learns from Gabriel — the Frank Langella version, not the musical artist — that his father was a guard in a Russian prison camp who likely had to do unpleasant things at his country’s command. (Milgram’s experiment, yet again.)

“My own parents,” Philip says to Elizabeth as the track begins to play. “I didn’t know anything about them at all.”

As the song continues, we see Oleg, in a moment that echoes the previous one at the end of “The Walk In,” setting fire to a letter and a cassette tape that would prove he betrayed his country by acting as an informant for Stan. By doing so, he is protecting his own reputation but also the reputation of his father and mother. Then we see Philip and Elizabeth introducing Paige to Gabriel for the first time. In both instances, self-preservation and loyalty to both family and country are intertwined.

If we consider the use of all these Peter Gabriel songs as an arc of sorts, then what Elizabeth does during “We Do What We’re Told” may serve as the conclusion of it. On that airplane, in that restroom, she is as alone as she was when she chose to break her promise and burn that letter from Leanne. But this time, she opts to honor her commitment to a mother — her Mother Land.

While I’ve seen the first three episodes of this season, and saw a few scenes from the seventh episode during a recent set visit, I have no idea how the Jenningses’ story will ultimately conclude. But based on this moment and Elizabeth’s apparent decision to keep the Dead Hand secret, I can’t help but believe that Elizabeth will ultimately sacrifice herself for her country before the season is over. Part of what makes me believe that is the fact that all of this was telegraphed with an assist from a Peter Gabriel song. The Americans has used his music so often, and in such heightened moments, that the sound of his voice functions like an alarm the show is sounding to make sure we pay attention.

And apart from what it tells us about how The Americans will end, it is thrilling as a Peter Gabriel fan to see his music being used so carefully and with such purpose, especially because his songs have often been stripped of meaning due to overuse. “Solsbury Hill,” an otherwise wonderfully buoyant tune, has signaled uplift in so many movie trailers and commercials that I practically can’t hear it without imagining a person or a forgetful fish embarking on a significant spiritual journey. I knew and loved “In Your Eyes” before it was used in Say Anything… and have appreciated it in different contexts since then. Still, every time I touch the light, the heat, at least a few of my brain cells still think, “Cusack” and “boom box.”

But television has given new life to Gabriel’s body of work by digging out deep cuts — I don’t recall ever hearing “Lay Your Hands on Me” in a TV show before The Americans — and casting even the most familiar songs in a light that makes them sound new again. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to accept “Solsbury Hill” on a soundtrack, for example, but the last season of Halt and Catch Fire, at least temporarily, proved me wrong.

That show, which also put the heartbreaking “Mercy Street” to lovely use, certainly did right by Peter Gabriel. But no other show has done this artist as much justice as The Americans. His best songs match the tones and characters of this terrific series perfectly; they are intense, melancholy, rife with conflict, emotional yet understated, and about politics between people as well as countries. The Americans, probably wisely, has never dared to use the ubiquitous “Solsbury Hill.” But on more than one occasion, the sound of Peter Gabriel, this show’s musical soul mate, is what has made the heart of The Americans go boom, boom, boom.

The Importance of Peter Gabriel to The Americans