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The Americans - Pests - Review: "Allegiances"



There’s a comment often made about The Americans, used by those who watch and those who don’t - usually as a reason not to. It concerns the premise of the show, and how it intends to make the viewer like, or even root for, the Soviet spies - the bad guys, as most would perceive it. This isn’t a problem, of course; some of the best television has come from shows with lead characters whom we shouldn’t like: Walter White does some appalling things over the course of Breaking Bad, Tony Soprano gleefully runs someone down in a car within the first ten minutes of The Sopranos’ pilot, etc. It’s simply a characteristic that The Americans has, and one that it embraces.

“Pests” takes that idea and implements it through Stan. He hates the Soviets as much as anyone, and is, of course, constantly working to protect the United States from them. But we’ve seen over the course of the series that he has the occasional soft spot for particular individuals (*) - Nina, primarily, and now Oleg - and, when that happens, he becomes preoccupied with helping them as best he can. With Oleg, Stan feels he’s done his due and deserves to be free to live his life, having provided the FBI with “the tip of the century” and betraying his country not for money but for humanity. And if Oleg risked his life to assist Stan, why should the CIA repay that by getting him killed?

(*) In theory, Philip and Elizabeth could be placed in this bracket, but their true allegiances are obviously hidden, and Stan’s opinion of his neighbours would change drastically if/when he finds out.

It’s the right question to ask, and Stan sure is persistent, pleading first to CIA Agent Stryder, then to the Deputy Attorney General, then expressing his disdain to Aderholt. In the end, we see that the CIA appears to have sent someone to Moscow to trick Oleg using Stan's name, and although it’s far too early to say how things will work out, one thing is for certain: Stan is far too emotionally involved, and that’s a problem for the FBI. But these actions say a lot about Stan and his current mental state, and how his assessment of the Soviets could, in fact, be shifting just slightly.

Regardless, he justifies his concerns by saying: “We have to play by the rules. Burov already paid.”

To which the Deputy Attorney General replies: “The Soviets don't play by the rules, you know that.”

It’s a fascinating discussion, one made even more relevant by the conversation the Jenningses have with Gabriel in the hour’s opening scene. “I thought there were things they wouldn't do,” Philip wonders upon learning of the concerns over contaminated crops, fuelling a chicken and the egg situation. Is the U.S. not playing fair because the Soviets aren’t, or are the Soviets stooping to lower levels because the Americans do something like this? Realistically, it’s more a vicious circle than it is either side starting the problem, and it’s difficult to see that going away at any point. And nor should it, because the ideologies behind each character’s actions is a large part of what makes this show as great as it is. Stan electing to save Oleg because of what he did is a noble act, but one that is essentially treasonous. He’s willing to risk everything to help this one man because he knows the alternative is wrong. So while Stan’s life seems utterly sad and pathetic right now - many dubbed him Poor Stan last week - he is at least doing what he considers morally correct, and that’s incredibly admirable.

Philip and Elizabeth, meanwhile, have a much more focused view of their mission, and the show has no qualms about avoiding any murkiness, instead emphasising support of their side with no resistance. Alexei Morozov hates Russia, for what he believes is a good reason - and maybe it is. Pasha Morozov hates the United States, for what he believes is a good reason - and maybe it is. But in both instances, “Pests” firmly tries to assert - through the Eckerts - that they are simultaneously wrong. The Jenningses, of course, despise Alexei for being so hostile towards their homeland - a place that they love in spite of the hardships found there - while Tuan berates Pasha’s suggestion that he’d rather die in Russia than live in America. Having lost everything when his village was bombed, Tuan can’t fathom the idea that Pasha would have such hatred for a country in which he has everything: family, food, clothes, safety. It’s the same bewilderment his parents have.

But there’s a sense that Philip and especially Elizabeth have different views on the matter. The half-smile she gives as Pasha makes his claim is indicative of her stance, one that has been a point of contention on multiple occasions in seasons gone by. Despite having created a pretty great life in America - two kids, a nice neighbour, a solid job - she still loathes it, and though Philip has said that he likes it, the premiere indicated that he too is Russian, through-and-through, with little regard for this place as his home. Where the two hate Alexei for criticising their home - Philip even revisiting the suggestion of just killing him now - they can appreciate his son’s view echoing their inherent own.

Paige, however, wouldn’t agree. Although her parents are Russian spies and her life has become something of a nightmare - she can’t sleep to have actual nightmares, just to make matters worse - since discovering that, she has everything Tuan names, plus a boyfriend across the street. Take out the Russian spy angle and it’s a pretty great life for a 16/17-year-old to have.

Of course, it’s impossible to ignore that angle, especially when her parents are so controlling over her actions. “I just need to be able to make my own decisions,” she tells Matthew. But, as he tells her, she does do that, and by episode’s end she’s being allowed to do that, with Elizabeth teaching a technique to keep her in control with Matthew, should an uncomfortable situation ever arise. Really, it’s a half-measure, like putting masking tape over a water leak: it might hold for now, but it won’t hold forever, and the house will flood. Knowing this show, eventually, something is going to go wrong, and enabling their daughter’s relationship with the son of their FBI agent close friend will inevitably cause trouble for the Jenningses. But it’s a difficult balance between treating Paige like a child, as Elizabeth calls it, controlling her entirely, and allowing her to live her life trusting that she’ll keep their secret safe. Sure, they could make her break up with Matthew - Paige even facetiously suggests it - but while the mission is important, their daughter is too; it’s one of the few things about this life that’s real. And if what makes her happy is seeing the boy across the street, even if it’s a relationship that could bring everything they’ve worked for crashing to the ground, then they’re going to find a way to make that work, just like they did for church.

But with the relationship growing - when we see them together midway through the hour, they are incredibly touchy-feely, and though she says they hadn’t had sex, it’s clearly heading that way - the situation becomes more and more precarious. Both Stan and Matthew have noticed that Paige isn’t acting like herself, and it’s only a matter of time before one of them figures out why.

Notes:

Elizabeth learns that Alexei is involved with a bug infestation on a greenhouse full of crops, which are presumably the same crops being sent by the United States to Russia. “Half our grain comes from America, and its allies,” Gabriel says. Where the overarching plot of each season has tended to be more about the KGB trying to gain an advantage in the Cold War, this season looks as though it’ll be about simply keeping their countrymen alive.

Stan finally asked out Renee (played by Laurie Holden), the lady from the gym, and it went very well. “She drinks beer. She loves sports. She knows more about sports than you, actually. It was like being out with a female version of you,” he tells Philip. They’re also going out again, potentially to a new restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue with a see-through grand piano.

Also, I’m concerned Stan may be an alcoholic at this point. His main instinct when seeing Philip outside his house is to suggest having a beer; he’s fond of how Renee likes beer. All this FBI work may be taking a toll on him.

Both Elizabeth and Philip seemed surprisingly troubled by Hans’ death. She even remarks about how excited he was for his sister to visit in three weeks.

Keri Russell’s pregnancy last season meant that we’d have never had a shower scene like the one featured here since it’s pretty hard to explain why she’d be holding a laundry basket or be wearing an oversized coat.

“You have a self-destructive streak, Agent Beeman.”

Last week, I noted that the premiere was placed sometime in late July thanks to Elizabeth’s Olympics comment. However, it appears that this was intended to be a reference to the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, which places the beginning of this season in mid-February.

What did everyone think of “Pests”? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated that Stan sent someone to find Oleg. This has been amended.

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