The Way to Slovenia
by HEATHER MCROBIE
creator Joe Weisberg
Digging a hole and getting stuck in it isn’t a subtle metaphor. The last season of The Americans saw our favourite spies contemplating their escape – being offered the chance to return to Russia – but here we meet them, stuck in repetition compulsion, still in America and still trying to dig up. Between the end of the show's fourth season and this week's premiere, increasing evidence has piled up of Russian involvement in the presidential election, and allegations of wiretapping fill our 2017 headlines, so our fictional Soviet spies are not the only ones trying to dig themselves out of a mess.
Elizabeth and Philip, aka Nadezhda and Mischa, are excavating the body of a colleague who was caught, infected with the disease he’d been tasked with taking back to the USSR, and died in the hands of the CIA. So there is unfinished work here, and when their colleague cuts himself as they try to retrieve a tissue sample from the corpse’s body, Elizabeth tells him in reassuring tones that it’s okay, don’t worry – and then shoots him.
There is new work too, as Elizabeth and Philip play at happy families under new identities with their new Vietnamese ‘adopted son’, Tuan. Elizabeth and Philip work for an airline under this identity, presumably because the show refused to finish without having a character wear a quasi-nautical Duran Duran-style double-breasted suit.
Tuan makes awkward conversation at school with the new kid who has just arrived from the Soviet Union. The details of the school cafeteria makes us think for a moment that we are watching another 80s coming-of-age drama. Then we are back in Moscow, where Oleg, just returned from his posting in America, has given the new assignment of sniffing out corruption amongst the nomenklatura, the Soviet elite in which he was raised. It might make for awkward conversations with his family, but his boss tells good jokes.
In a hint, finally, to all the therapy that teenage daughter Paige will one day require, she tells her mother she has been having nightmares since she saw her mother kill a mugger at the end of the last season. Her mother takes her down to the garage and starts pushing her around to teach her self-defence. Meanwhile, the blossoming romance between Paige and Matthew, the teenage son of the friendly neighbourhood FBI agent, is concerning her parents. But who knows, maybe they would be concerned anyway – it’s always hard to map over what would be problems in some parallel universe in which they are a normal family.
Playing at being another normal family, with their son Tuan and under their new guise as airline employees, Elizabeth/Nadezhda and Philip/ Mischa have dinner with the family of Russians who have defected to the west. The father of Tuan’s awkward new Soviet classmate speaks like a stock character out of the Robin Williams’ 1994 film Moscow on the Hudson, of how full the supermarkets are in America. He isn’t wrong, of course, but his wife looks embarrassed, and he doesn’t seem to notice or care that his wife looks embarrassed.
In the kitchen, where the knives are kept, Elizabeth/ Nadezhda and the wife of the family of defectors make small talk about learning English and recipes, and Nadezhda, as Elizabeth, gives advice to the other woman about how to make a home here. But we hate to meet those who have come to a place for the opposite reasons to the reasons that brought us there, and in the car home afterwards Elizabeth/ Nadezhda expresses her frustration at their new ‘friends’ and their seduction by the west.
The sexiest new cast member of The Americans this season is 80s Yugoslavia, the kind of edgy new high-school kid of twentieth century ideology shown here as Mischa’s son – released from a psychiatric institution at the end of last season – makes his way to Slovenia. Yugoslavia, having split from the Soviets some thirty years earlier, is reminder of the ambiguities and alternatives that exist to the show’s usual Washington DC versus Moscow binary.
A decade later and the hills you can see in the Yugoslav bus ride would be covered in soldiers, as Tito’s state ripped to pieces. For now, Mischa’s son is in this liminal place, slowly making his way west, away from home but towards his father.
Heather McRobie is the senior contributor to This Recording. She last wrote in these pages about the Mecca Mall.