MARCH 24, 2016
This week on Dear Television:
Good Spy, Bad Spy
By Lili Loofbourow
March 24, 2016
YOU CAN DIE from being too good an employee. “It’s my job,” the security guard says to Philip, determined to question the Russian pilot (and reluctant glanders courier) on the airport shuttle in the name of public safety. Philip might have said the same as he strangled him with his bare hands. That scene crystallizes many of the show’s concerns, most pressingly, perhaps: what are the ethical limits of a vocation? When does “it’s my job” becoming a calling, or split from it? How do you pray?
Dear TV, let’s talk about how “Tainted Love” worked in the bus scene. I’m intrigued by how the song shifted your allegiance, Phil. Instead of feeling anxious on Philip’s behalf (as I did), you wanted the oblivious passengers to turn around: “Pay attention, turn the music off.” The song felt extraneous, intrusive. I felt it differently. The juxtaposition between the Soft Cell lyrics and the action struck me as brutal, obviously — this show is always connecting love and murder — but it seemed less distracting to me than eerily apropos. What could be more horrifically pointed than shooting the guard’s agonized, inquisitive face in close-up as Philip’s hands squeeze his throat and Soft Cell sings “to make things right you need someone to hold you tight”? It’s a filthy semantic redistribution, practically a caption. And “you’ll think love is to pray, but I’m sorry I don’t pray that way” becomes a demonic anthem as we zoom in on Philip’s red contorted face.
If anything, “Tainted Love” spilled out of its diegetic moment and diagnosed the season. Elizabeth’s mother’s death has precipitated a crisis of faith. She’s lost her light. She can’t sleep at night. Philip feels like he’s got to run away.
That’s a minor nit, however, and it amplifies Phil’s larger point. You’re right, Phil: the music has never worked as an “escape hatch” on The Americans. The music doesn’t mask the ugliness so much as annotate it, and if “Tusk” functioned as a mission statement for the first season, it did that in exactly the way “Tainted Love” articulates the tensions of this one.
But more than the mission statement has changed. There’s another evolution worth marking when we consider the journey from that ten-minute “Tusk” sequence to this episode’s Walkman. The fact is, the music has gotten more and more diegetic — that is, nosy. Pop songs are getting more connected to the work of eavesdropping. We weren’t complicit in that form of spywork during the pilot, when we heard “Tusk” playing over an action sequence. But hearing becomes overhearing on this show, and we’ve gotten used to hearing music through other people’s ears. Last season’s Yaz was coming out of Paige’s room; by the end of the season we were listening to Pink Floyd through Kimmy’s headphones. That’s invasive. We’ve moved from soundtrack to ambient sound to the noise literally inside people’s heads. This isn’t just about interiority, or the urges of the confessee and the unbearable burden that puts on the confessor we discussed last week; it’s about the acrobatics of omniscience, of overhearing and being forced to pretend you know less.
Overhearing, on The Americans, frees up social relations that get knotted up by too much honesty. The lyric from “Tusk” that gestured at the distance between Philip and Elizabeth in season one — “why don’t you tell me who’s on the phone?” — is obsolete these days. They’re spying on their daughter. They know who’s on the phone, and they want badly — badly — for her NOT to tell them. It’s crucial that she not know what they know.
That’s a variation on the theme of parallel construction in this episode; of saving relationships by changing the channel through which intelligence travels. Agent Gaad saves Stan from having to blackmail Oleg by using CIA intelligence to prove Zinaida’s perfidy. Nina saves Anton by putting the message to his family in her own handwriting.
(A corollary to this principle is that it’s kind to tell people you’re spying on them! Nina told Anton she’d invaded his privacy by dropping his son’s name. When Stan tells Oleg he’s sorry about his brother, he’s admitting to a degree of knowledge they both know the other has, and Oleg’s “so we are friends now?” is far from declarative: his walk away from the car reminded me of when Stan walked away from Oleg, daring him to shoot him in the back. Even Vasili seems genuinely torn up when he informs Nina of the case they have against her. “Why did you do this?” he says.)
How does parallel construction help us understand the Jenningses? Phil, you said last week that The Americans spends so much more time with Philip’s interiority and moral growth that Elizabeth seems deceptively firm and anti-sentimental in comparison. It’s true, and the journey from “Tusk” as an uncomplicated soundtrack to hearing “Tainted Love” through a pair of headphones signals a transition, I think: into people’s heads generally, and into Elizabeth’s much less accessible perspective in particular. That perspective isn’t quite clear yet — her dream cuts several ways. It’s possible, for instance, that she considers Pastor Tim Paige’s Timoshev — a superior indoctrinating her with an eye toward preying on her later. But the more likely reading is just that killing Pastor Tim — a course of action Elizabeth advocates — will mean starting Paige down the same horrific road she traveled. Elizabeth is hitting the limits of her calling. She’s in real danger of becoming a bad employee.
That’s exciting, because the false dichotomy you described last week, Phil, by which Elizabeth appears to coldly efficient while Philip luxuriates in “all the feelz,” also conceals the fact that Elizabeth’s muffled affect is a function of his outbursts. She was forced to be his enforcer and handler. His freedom to throw tantrums was contingent on her policing him out of it. The effect of that dynamic is that she has no one to whom she can complain. If she assents to Philip’s outlook for a second, he’ll say, “let’s go,” and the whole thing comes crashing down.
But she’s on the point of assenting. “We’re in trouble,” she says at the end of this episode, and the trouble isn’t just Pastor Tim. Elizabeth’s resolve is crumbling in the wake of her mother’s death. Elizabeth’s sustaining ideology, the thing to which she prayed, turned out to be less the motherland than her mother, in whose presence she became small again. (I keep coming back to that amazing scene between Elizabeth, Paige, and the materfamilias in the hotel room.) We learned in season three that Elizabeth’s dedication to her work is largely based on her mother’s toughness — in particular, the fact that she didn’t hesitate when a teenaged Elizabeth told her she was being recruited. Elizabeth admires all that, but she’s having trouble passing that hardness on: the very first thing she said to Paige in Russian was “I love you.” And her inability to summon that hardness, as a mother, is making her question her backstory every bit as much as Paige is questioning hers. When Gabriel tells Elizabeth her mother died, he says she asked them to tell Elizabeth that she loved her. “Did she?” Elizabeth says, in a moment so arresting I got chills. (She explains she’s asking whether her mother really sent that message — a clarification that indexes her dwindling faith in Gabriel and the Center — but I think the first meaning is the intended one.)
Phil, it pleases me enormously that Pastor Tim, that unwitting scourge of Directorate S, is now essentially unkillable precisely because of the confessional impulse that seemed so dangerous last week. It pleases me more that William, who might be the grumpiest employee Directorate S has ever had, is helping the Jenningses think harder about the possible upside to being a bad employee.
Anything you can do to not succeed would be greatly appreciated,
Don’t Say That You Love Me
By Phillip Maciak
March 24, 2016
THREE CULTURAL events happened this month that we should have seen coming. First, Zack Snyder announced that he was working on an adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Second, Disney announced it was making a fifth Indiana Jones movie. And, finally, finally, finally, The Americans used Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” to soundtrack a scene in which Philip strangles somebody to death. All three felt shocking in the moment and then felt totally inevitable and predictable immediately after.
But while a Snyder-fied libertarian epic and a multi-million dollar effort to reanimate and destroy the corpse of my beloved childhood film franchise are unwelcome, the “Tainted Love” scene was not. It was, as Americans murder scenes often are, nearly unbearable to watch. The camera kept returning to the surprised, bitterly disappointed, terrified face of the security guard innocently — even virtuously — doing his job as Philip choked him out. And, even after Philip did away with him and stowed his body beneath the seat, his open eyes remained visible, staring, asking why. This show has always made us feel the weight of murder, even when it comes at Jason Bourne levels of speed and satisfaction, but, following Philip’s dawning self-awareness (conscience?) about it this season and last, the length of this affair seems pointed. Philip’s frustration after the whole hand-off is botched serves to put an exclamation point at the end. This was a bad one.
And then there’s “Tainted Love” itself. Over the past five decades, the use of pop music in violent film and TV has become a reliable cliche. To take a recent example, the orgy of blood that ends Kingsman: The Secret Service, for instance, is soundtracked to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.” It’s a joke, inasmuch as the song’s famous excessive length helps remind us that the sequence we’re watching is, itself, excessively, cartoonishly long. And its status as the most requested song — Free Bird! Free Bird! Free Bird! — lets the film adopt a winking “you asked for it” tone. But it’s also an exciting song, a satisfying song, a song perfectly built to race listeners to its climax. It makes the aforementioned orgy of violence all the more like an actual orgy. As bloody as it all is, it feels great.
Kingsman is obviously not the only film to use pop music in this way. Sometimes a film uses a sound cue to undercut the action or to play up its emotion, but the idea is that it’s almost always about some kind of counter-programming. The music is meant to work as a juxtaposition, to produce an electric conflict between the unglamorous action we behold and the seductive rhythms of the song we hear. But how often do we emerge from such a sequence feeling the weight of the action and not remembering the satisfaction of the song? How often does a pop song employed as a soundtrack to violent deeds serve as an escape hatch for us? How often does “Free Bird” absolve us?
There’s a lot to be written — and a lot that has been written — on this phenomenon more broadly, and I don’t want to make unsustainable generalizations. Since Scorpio Rising and Easy Rider, it’s been virtually impossible to avoid this kind of soundtracking, and its uses are many and varied. But The Americans has always struck me as a particularly thoughtful show, musically. It really considers this tool, uses it for maximum resonance. On the surface, there’s been a veneer of irony. Fleetwood Mac, Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Yaz. Don’t @ me, Fleetwood Mac-heads, but this is not the hippest list of eighties music references. In the abstract, it would be easy to imagine that the soundtrack of this show functions as nostalgia at best, kitsch at worst. It could be part of an aesthetic that invites viewers to heartily chuckle with 20/20 hindsight. Can you believe people ever wore shoulder pads like that? Can you believe these people are risking their lives in the last years of the Cold War? Can you believe anybody ever really actually liked the music of Peter Gabriel? What a bunch of cheesy communists!
But The Americans is mournful, not self-congratulatory. I love Mad Men, and I think The People v. OJ Simpson is one of the only shows on TV right now that can contest The Americans’ greatness, but those shows wield musical cues with a degree of presentist whimsy that The Americans would never dream of. Don Draper stopping “Tomorrow Never Knows” to end an episode in silence only for the song to pick back up in the credits is one of the funniest, most affecting sound cues I can remember. And I don’t think I can accurately describe to you how wide my eyes opened when Ryan Murphy cut the Bronco chase in OJ to the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.” These were cultural references, sure, big ticket drops, but they were also moments meant to kind of scandalize the viewer, to provoke a reaction that’s, at least in part, related to the song and its appropriation. The song and the moment, in other words, are continuous.
The Americans has done this too, though with less irony. I don’t know that anybody ever has taken Fleetwood Mac as seriously as The Americans. “Don’t say that you love me,” Lindsey Buckingham whisper-screams in the chorus of Fleetwood Mac’s 1981 aggro marching band anthem, “Tusk,” which served as the soundtrack to the ten-minute opening sequence of the show’s pilot in 2013. “Just tell me that you want me.” Affection vs. desire, a love letter vs. a makeout session, telling vs. showing — these are, apparently, ways of describing the ex-Mr. Stevie Nicks’s particular sexual frustrations in the early eighties, but they’re also a great way of describing how The Americans works.
Those lyrics have come to serve as something of a mission statement for The Americans. Nobody on The Americans plays an instrument, nobody’s involved in the music business, and Elizabeth and Philip use their suburban garage as an HQ for their espionage operation rather than a sick studio for dad-rock jam sessions, but every time a pop song cues up on the soundtrack, every time a character contemplatively listens to their Walkman, every time this show dives deep on the seductions of American popular culture through its music, we feel it. The Americans, over the course of three seasons, has quietly explored exactly what, and how, music can make us feel. We may not afford Fleetwood Mac or the lyricist of “Sussudio” with great seriousness, but that doesn’t mean “Tusk” and “In the Air Tonight” don’t feel powerful, don’t feel meaningful, in context. The Americans never ever wants us to laugh at its characters. It never wants us to feel superior to the people we meet. As Lili has pointed out, Martha, perhaps the show’s most ridiculous character on the surface, is also its most tragic and soulful. And if anybody thought the scene last season when Philip and Kimmy sit outside in the dark listening to Yaz was funny, I think you’re doing it wrong. Melancholy, guilt, memory — The Americans teaches us things we didn’t know about pop music because, fundamentally, it takes pop culture seriously. If American pop culture is worth going to war over, it’s also worth understanding its appeal, feeling it out.
But that’s what makes “Tainted Love” work here. It isn’t continuous with the action. It isn’t ironizing it. It isn’t absolving us or shocking us or absorbing us. It’s not even working us up in the manner of “Tusk.” If anything, it’s distracting. In the scene, it is literally so, inasmuch as it distracts the young New Waver on the bus from witnessing the murder happening behind her. But it is also trying, unsuccessfully, to distract us from what Philip is doing. We see the cassette, we see the close-up on Philip from the guard’s POV, we see the close-up on the guard from Philip’s POV, and we see the pilot’s horrified reaction. The sequence cuts between these views, and it leaves little room for anything other than what’s communicated between them. “Tainted Love” is enabling the scene for Philip, and it’s high in the mix for us, but I watched the whole thing feeling that all I wanted to do was turn it off. Something is happening here, turn the music off. Pay attention, turn the music off. Look behind you, turn the music off. Another show would have used this cue to play it cool, to give Philip a drop the mic moment. But nobody’s dropping any mic’s here.
Sure, there’s a lyrical match here — just try listing all the “tainted” loves on this television program — and it adds period frisson, and it stylizes the moment, but this cue feels different to me. This one doesn’t sweep us up in the action, it makes us notice the extent to which the music isn’t helping us stomach what we’re seeing, isn’t wrapping us in the comfort of style. After the murder, the New Waver’s walkman kicks its batteries. There’s no more music on this bus ride. Maybe that’s a heavy-handed reading, but I think the silence after the act is significant. Nobody walks out of this scene to Soft Cell. They walk out alone, they walk out in silence, they walk out burdened with something that not even pop can distract them from or fix. Or they don’t walk out at all.