The Americans: Season 6, Episode 1: Dead Hand Recap

5 Apr

I had always hoped the Americans would get to Mikhail Gorbachev’s reign as head of the USSR, because of the implications his reforms might have on Elizabeth and Philip’s work. I was concerned, as the show, starting in 1981, had moved relatively slowly, with the fifth and penultimate season ending in 1984.  Dead Hand, the first episode of the final season, however, picks up in 1987, and with Gorbachev in charge, change is on the horizon.

Gorbechev was from a generation after the previous three rulers  Leonid Brezhenv, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko. With his unlikely rise, he carried to prominence new ideas in a nation that had gone stale, and a new hope that many higher-ups in the older generation were surprised and less than thrilled to hear about. The Soviet regime during the Brezhnev era relied on stagnation. When Elizabeth spoke and believed in the, if not quite utopian, at least honest, equal, united and relatively modern state of her country, much of her belief was based on what she heard about a country she hadn’t been to in decades.

The ultimate skeptic about US propaganda, Elizabeth was quick to believe propaganda about her homeland. She surely didn’t believe deep down that the USSR was a socialist paradise but she was unquestionably hard-wired to believe what her people said about her home country far less skeptically than  she would her adopted country.

The new ideas Gorbachev brought to the highest levels of Soviet government might have actually matched some of the propaganda that Elizabeth had been told about her country for years. He was also a threat to the current order, and security and espionage groups, like the KGB, and Directorate S, which employed Elizabeth, are generally reactionary. 

Elizabeth has always seen her country through an idealistic lens; the USSR was the right side, and the US was wrong, and not just because it’s where she grew up but because the USSR is a social paradise run through moral principles, while the US is a materialistic wasteland where people don’t really care about each other. U

Ultimately, however Elizabeth is a soldier. She believes in following orders, no matter what, trusting that those giving the orders know what they’re doing. She also believes in peace only through strength. And thus when a rogue Soviet defense official arrives in Mexico and gives her a mission that could lead to deposing the head of the USSR if he wilts on defense policy, she agrees without flinching. Gorbachev, the official tells her, might be considering trading a top-secret fail-safe program to destroy America even if the USSR is destroyed in a first strike. If he is getting close to making that trade, she needs to send a signal so the military can depose Gorbachev immediately, 

Philip is right though when he confronts Elizabeth late in the episode; this is all starting to wear on Elizabeth, whether she likes it or not. The grind, the extra hours we see she’s putting in ahead of the big summit, without the help of her partner and husband, the weight of these monumental task hers alone. She’s fraying at the edges but unlike Philip, she views it, despite the obvious strain, as an inevitable part of the job. She can’t even conceive of shedding any extra responsibility if that’s what’s needed because her drive and focus on her work is so strong. Unlike Philip, Elizabeth never questions the motives of those sending her out on missions, and never questions that whatever they think she needs to be doing to help their ends is effective or right.

Elizabeth will kill over and over and over again, innocent person after innocent person, without the kind of conflicted feelings and remorse that tortures Philip, because she believes so strongly in her mission.

And that brings us to our old pal, Arkady Ivanovich. He’s back in the USSR and on Gorbachev’s side. We’ve always known USSR wasn’t a monolith, and through Arkady and Oleg, our friends at the Rezidentura, and through Stan (who appears only momentarily in the final season premier) at the FBI, we know there are voices on both sides that believe in a higher moral authority in their fight to protect their country. Both sides are split into factions with differing opinions.

Arkady and Oleg are on Gorbachev’s side, but Arkady explains to Oleg that those hardliners are coming for Gorbachev. They know about Elizabeth’s meeting, and the damage Elizabeth could do to the service of peace and reform. They have enough Directorate S background to know Philip is out of the game and that he’s temperamentally different than Elizabeth, and they correctly surmise he’d be on the opposite team in the fight for the Soviet Union. Their best plan for the moment is to call Phillip back into service to shadow Elizabeth, keep them one step ahead, and ultimately stop her if he has to.

And so this season looks like it will test the mettle of Phillip in a way he’s never been tested before.  Phillip is out of the game, for a while now, and he looks the happiest and most at peace he’s every been. Civilian life suits Philip. Phillip would have been out years before without Elizabeth, and though he obviously once upon a time felt guilty not staying to support her, there appears to become no question he made the right choice. He’s at Henry’s hockey game being a real parent! He’s giving an inspirational speech to his employees!

He gave in on so many things that he wanted. He wanted, most of all, to keep Paige out of the family business. But he gave in to Elizabeth on that call. He gave into Elizabeth on everything. She was the stubborn  one. She cared with single-minded purpose, while he philosophized and debated, and because of that she won the arguments.

Philip doesn’t initially appear incredibly receptive to Oleg’s argument. He gets it, and sure he’s sympathetic, Philip’s beliefs are generally in line with Oleg’s. He realizes they’re right, and the chance at peace is an important one. But Philip worked so hard to get out of that life, to be a normal husband and dad. He doesn’t really want to go back, and equally importantly, he doesn’t want to be at cross purposes with his own wife.

At the climax of this episode, Philip confronts Elizabeth. He seems as if he is about to inform her what he learned from Oleg, believing in honesty, believing in trust, and believing in his wife. But she doesn’t want to hear it. She tries to hide it, but it’s clear she resents Philip, even if she doesn’t want to, for his perceived weakness, for his abandonment of the mission for a materialistic American life.

Still, he tries to sympathize with her, but also convince, calmly but strongly that he has something to say he thinks can’t wait. She doesn’t want to hear it though, patronizes him, and then attacks him and he never gets the chance to tell her. And that may be what leads Philip back in to the spygame, in our endgame, and for the very first time in his life, to actually dare take on Elizabeth with whatever consequences that brings about.

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