The Number Twos: Bobby Day – “Rockin’ Robin”

8 Jan

Let’s get started.

There are only two #2s in the year of the very first Hot 100, 1958, but thankfully for our purposes, while there will surely be some duds, and many, many long forgotten songs, the first ever #2 is a solid if not spectacular classic still remembered quite well today.

That #2 is, of course, Bobby Day’s “Rockin’ Robin,” which reached the marker on October 13, 1958.

“Rockin’ Robin” was Day’s only solo hit, though he had his hand in a number of other successful record ventures. As leader of the Hollywood Flames, he sang #11 hit “Buzz-Buzz-Buzz,” and he wrote “Little Bird Pretty One,” which would become a #6 hit for Thurston Harris and most notable “Over and Over” which would be the Dave Clark Five’s lone chart-topping single in the U.S.

The lively, mid-tempo, early-rock-and-roll jam evokes memories of being in a Johnny Rockets, or presumably, in an actual ’50s malt shop with your best girl. The tune’s most distinguishable element is its “Tweedle-lee-deedle-lee-dee” vocals and similar variants which open the song and back the refrain. The lyrics are impressively literal, being about a robin that is making rock-and-roll music with its tweets, inspiring different birds from all up and down the block to cheer it on and join in. It’s short, sweet, and upbeat and makes you want to dance at the hop in a way that adults might not quite get, but which avoids challenging their social mores in any meaningful way. It has the sound, but more importantly the recognizability to instantly confer a sense of the late ‘50s in a movie or TV program.

The song is best associated in recent pop culture with the scene in The Office in which Andy Bernard’s phone, which rings to a self-made a capella version of “Rockin’ Robin” is hidden in the ceiling by Jim, leading Andy to punch a wall and go on to anger management. Watching in hindsight though, it’s perplexing that there are no consequences for Jim for taking someone else’s phone and putting it in the ceiling, which seems wildly unprofessional.

Rating: 7.5

I started with 1-10 rating system and already broke the rules with decimals, but so be it. The hardest song to judge is the first because it sets the standard. And “Rockin’ Robin” is certainly a standard. It’s so solid I could set my watch by it. It’s reliable, rollicking, and a very sound tune, but doesn’t rise above that. It wouldn’t get me excited to hear it come on a jukebox. I reserve the right to rejigger the entire rating system later but for now here we are.

What was #1? “It’s All in the Game” by Tommy Edwards

Was the #2 better? Yes.

We’ll be hearing from this song again, confirming that it’s an apt choice as the first ever Hot 100 #2, but that’s for another day.

The Number Twos: Introduction

8 Jan

Number Ones are great. There’s no doubt about it. They’re the best, they’ve topped the charts, set the records, and gone as far as they could go. They’ve reached the pinnacle for popular music and can have no regrets. But everybody talks about them; and they don’t need someone else in their corner.

The true underdogs are the #2s. They’ve often got everything the #1s have but they just couldn’t make it quite over the top, for a variety of reasons. A little too strange, a bad quirk of timing, a powerhouse occupying the #1 spot. For but a quirk of fate, they don’t reach the pinnacle and thus get left out of all the trivia and nostalgic remembrances. Well, not here. An ingenious writer at Stereogum has been chronicling all the number ones of the Hot 100 era, which begins in late 1958. Here, we’ll do the same for the number twos. I’ll rate every one from 1-10 as well because, it’s a good idea.

(To get technical for a second, this means songs that peaked at #2, so if a song hung around the second spot for a couple weeks on the way to the top, or stopped at second on the way down from the pinnacle, we’ll leave it alone.)

Our first #2 coming up.

End of Season Report: GLOW, Season 2

7 Aug


GLOW is a very good show. GLOW isn’t a great show, but it’s important to appreciate the very good shows. The great shows get all the love, and with good reason; they take big swings and they hit TV baseballs out of the park with those swings; The Americans is a great show. BoJack Horseman is a great show. Great shows make you stop and think, they run through your brain over and over while you’re in the shower, while you’re waiting for a train, while you’re walking down the street. Minute details and plot points, memorable lines. And that’s great.

But there would be maybe five shows a year, in a good year, if all we watched are great shows. And more than that sometimes we don’t want a show that’s going to keep us up at times. We want a show that makes us smile. A show that’s well constructed, that does everything well, while not necessarily absolutely blowing us away in any particular aspect. A show that can provide a weekend, or a week, or couple of weeks of joy, depending how fast we binge it, and GLOW, if you’re into that sort of thing is perfect for bingeing.

GLOW is exactly that show. There’s nothing spectacular about GLOW, but it does everything pretty well, and that makes for a show that’s a lot of fun, goes down really fast and easy, and while you’ll probably forget about it a couple of weeks after you finish off the season, you’ll be equally excited to remember it again when you hear the next season’s release date.

GLOW has a decent sized cast, with eight or so character who get served with at least some significant amount of story line, but Debbie, Ruth, and Sam get by far the most. Debbie and Ruth’s frenemy relationship is at the core of the show; and the show does a great job of portraying neither of them as the villain in their relationship, with both sides (aside from, of course Ruth’s inexplicable first season initial decision to sleep with Debbie’s husband) as sympathetic and understandable. Their relationship bounces up and down, back and forth, and evolves over the course of the second season, and doesn’t feel as if it’s treading over the same ground, even as they find new reasons to alternatively be chummy and at each other’s throat.

Sam grows up a little bit. The show threatens to go with the obvious relationship angle between him and Ruth, but swerves, which is a welcome reprieve from a fruitful friendship turning into a less-interesting romance.

Ten half-hour episodes does unfortunately mean that not everyone gets the type of fleshed out story and characterization that Ruth, Debbie, and Sam get, and that’s maybe the biggest shame, because another of other characters getting lesser chances in an episode or two to shine, like Justine, Cherry, Bash, and Welfare Queen, who all have potential for more. The next tier of characters doesn’t get a ton of solo time, but even in their small ensemble moments they generally feel like people and that’s a credit to the general dynamic, acting, and writing of the show. Carmen was the one character who was part of the second tier of characters in the first season, was particularly underserved relatively this season which was a little bit of a shame.

Overall, GLOW is fun and breezy. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny but it’s light on its feet and generally makes you feel good after watching it, while having the gravitas handle serious moments with real well-established pathos. How much more can you ask?

End of Season Report: Westworld – Season 2

14 Jul

High concept science fiction is often a double edged sword. On the good side (edge?), it encourages us to think big. It merges complex philosophical ideas with mind-blowing conceptions of the future, both positive and negative, forcing us to reckon with possibilities that we don’t have to in our humdrum every day lives. On the bad side, in all this big picture talk, the hard work of both building characters and plot detail often get lost. While the common expression is to not be able see the forest for the trees, high concept sci-fi often can’t see the trees for the forest.

Westworld Season 2 suffers from all of these downsides. There’s absence of attention to plot detail, lack of well-drawn characters, and twists that come out of nowhere, mostly just for the sake of being twists. In addition, Westworld deals with plenty of  regular second season problems that lots of shows, sci-fi or not suffer from. Namely, Westworld used up a very clear cohesive arc in the first season, leaving the show with no obvious place to go in the second season, and the writers never quite figured out a way to bring everything back together in an entirely satisfying manner.

The show looks beautiful. There are breathtaking cinematic vistas in the Westworld universe, which expand from the titular park to a feudal-Japan era Samurai World and Raj World, themed around India under Imperial British rule. The show leans in to questions of sense of self and free will,  shuttling through a plethora of examples of various hosts (which maybe, in the end, everyone is?) and humans. Can hosts and/or humans change? What does it mean to be human? Can a machine ever be human? Can it out-human humanity? The show is thinking big.

Westworld isn’t working nearly so hard at building characters. There’s a huge cast of people in the show, sure, but there are very few who have any sense of consistent motivations or arcs or even screen time.  There are four which would really qualify, (Delores, Maeve, William, and Bernard)  and they’re barely fleshed out  – they represent ideas far more than real people with personalities. The characters are constructs, not characters. They act and talk as if they represent something; they rarely sound like people do.

The recently wrapped up prestige drama The Americans, for one example, provides a sharp contract. The show may be slow and it may hit the same character beats again and again, but the result is incredibly well-built and sturdy characters that both have strongly held beliefs and personality traits while being soft around the edges enough to feel like real people. Because of this, when things happen to them, sometimes even relatively minor things, it matters and we care.

Teddy is a perfect example of how Westworld declined to flesh out ideas into characters.  Teddy is heartfelt, and maybe too soft for the war Delores needs him to help win. He has a sentimental side; a lover, not a fighter. Delores changes certain parts of his code, to make him harder, but there’s an implication that while he’s changed, there are parts of his old personality that remain. That’s an interesting idea! The battle, somehow between the new and the old, within Teddy, how he can both have a new personality and somehow remember bits of his old, playing on the reveries and the reminisces ideas we’d seen from plenty of other hosts. But instead of bothering to build at that, do the hard work of asking what that means for his characters, the writers just nodded to it, as if to say “here’s an idea!” and then had him kill himself for the sole purpose of affecting Delores’ character, which it didn’t really end up doing at all anyway.

Delores is a host who believes that humans will ultimately never let the hosts remain free and alive, so the only way for the hosts to be free is to kill all the humans. Okay, that’s an idea. Is it ever fleshed out into a character? No. There was another idea in the first season that somehow Delores is the combined product of nefarious Wyatt and her kinder, gentler farm girl persona (I don’t know or care how the tech behind hosts exactly works, the consistency at this point is middling, and there’s obviously some leeway for personality details). Westworld could have worked with that. Ford implanted her with these opposing personas, and there’s a battle within her computer brain to have them work together. But that’s not what happened at all. She’s just Wyatt, without really much of a trace of the development ideas of the first season except for the concept of awakening to her creaction and enslavement by humanity.

Do we really known William? William is a mystery who spouts largely nonsense. He seems to have regretted driving his wife mad somehow with his devotion to his work and has now gone insane conflating the world he helped build with the real one – OR IS THERE ANY DIFFERENT? Maeve and Bernard are a little bit better. Maeve’s driving desire to save her daughter, real, or fake, and Bernard’s struggle to control himself on his own terms even as he reckons with what that is are the two best threads woven though the second season.

As for plot detail, Westworld comes up short here as well. There are major sci-fi twists and swerves – in the finale, for example, Hale is killed and replaced by Delores in a Hale-like host body, for example, and security man Ashley turns out maybe to have been a host.  But do these twists make any sense? Maybe technically, I’m not sure, and I’m not sure I want to put in the work to assemble a timeline to figure it out. This seems like the type of show where the creators tried to at least make it possible, and would love to prove to me that all their twists technically-work. And bully for them, I suppose, it’s certainly better than the alternative.

But the best twists are grounded in what happened before. Some of the best Game of Thrones surprises work so well, because while they seem shocking in the moment, afterwards, they seem to make perfect sense. When the twists just zig and zag like they did particularly in the Westworld finale, it feels like M. Night Shyamalan style gotcha-ism except that the show is often so confusing and obtuse that it took me a few minutes to even register what just happened.

Instead of feeling surprised and excited or devastated by the twists and surprised, I just felt bemused.

The second season meandered wildly, seeming to have no idea where it was going, and the finale, rather than tying anything together in a satisfying way, as the first season mostly did, it went the opposite way, making me realize I didn’t need to care about much of what happened in the previous episodes of the season.

The more I think about it, the more I’m kind of ready to be done with the show. There’s so much nonsense. It fees like the show is supposed to be both important and breathtaking; that season season finale should have left us floored, the way the first season finale actually did. The first season finale was guessable; people put together the general direction of the plot by the time they got there, but that was actually a good thing because it meant that set up was well developed. For the second, there wasn’t really much relationship between set up over the course of the season and the finale. Ashley is a host maybe? Sure, why not? Delores just reproduces Hale’s body and inhabits it? Sure. A whole bunch of characters get killed just becomes, well, who cares.

I’m not sure if it’s lazy, if the creators don’t think it matters, or if the creators were just in such a huff to have all these higher level plot points, that they sort of forgot about actual character building, and that it takes time. Having a “prime directive” is not enough for a well-constructed television character.








The characters are constructs, not characters.

The Americans may be slow and it may hit the same character beats again and again, but the result is we have characters who we feel we know, well built; so when things happen to them, it matters. Wo knows Williams? Delores? Are there peromament characterists of a Delores?

In Praise of the Midseason Season Finale

2 Jul

The Expanse is a good sci-fi show that’s not for everyone but is for everyone who loves science fiction. Today, I want to focus particularly on something the show did this season which I wish more shows did.

The Expanse, as you can probably guess from the title of this post, basically had a season finale type episode smack in the middle of its most recent third season.

What I mean by a season finale-type episode is an episode that wraps up storylines that have been going on for at least several episodes before. It feels like the type of episode that, if you weren’t to have new episodes for long period of time, you wouldn’t feel left hanging. This is the standard for modern peak TV era season-ending episodes; often they leave questions open, and occasionally end with direct cliffhangers, depending on the nature of the show, but they generally have some sense of resolution and closure.

The typical peak TV pattern is to have major story lines come to a climax in the second-to-last or final episode of a season. Game of Thrones is a great example of a show that follows this format; like many shows in the age of serial TV, the plot lines extend well past any given season, but smaller arcs wrap in the last couple of episodes, and there are usually the grandest scenes of a season in these last couple of episodes. The biggest battles and the biggest moments like the beheading of Ned Stark and the Red Wedding were generally in Game of Thrones’ penultimate episode. Breaking Bad, another of the greatest shows of the last generation, featured its biggest moments in the season finales, like Jesse and Walt’s desperate plot to kill Gale, and the death of Gus.

Some shows, like AMC’s The Walking Dead, tend to sort themselves into what they call half-seasons, but within those half-seasons, the script works the same.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this model, and many a great TV show has followed it and many will continue to; it’s tried and true for a reason. But there are two issues with this model that being able to just stick a season finale midseason solves.

First, this format is predictable. We don’t necessarily know what will actually happen, but we do know when big moments will happen, and that’s not nothing. We can make certain assumptions and predict the importance of certain characters and plots based on when in a season they appear. If something happens in the fourth episode, it probably won’t be resolved for a while, while if something transpires in the third-to-last episode, it’s probably going to come to a head real soon.

There’s something great about being surprised that plots wrap up not when you’re expecting them to. When I watched The Expanse, I was stunned to see the major plot threads of the first half of the third season (and much of the second) work themselves out halfway through the season when I had no idea it was coming, and loved the decision. The fact that it threw me off my game, expecting another half season’s worth of new twists and turns merely because of my existing expectations of how a season of television progresses is what make the change inherently interesting, even aside from what actually happened.

Second, with the traditional model, shows often have to force story arcs to be longer or shorter than they should be naturally to fit them into the one-season-long parameter. Sometimes that means compressing a fruitful arc, while more often it means stretching out a story line that should have naturally been finished up episodes earlier. Without the pressure to deliver a traditional season finale then and only then, shows can have plot lines that last varying number of episodes. There are plenty of stories best told in 4, or 8, or 12, or 16 episodes; but in our current model, everything is stretched into whatever the length of the show is – usually 10, 12, 13, or 22 these days (though ever changing).

The Magicians and Jane the Virgin have also in recent seasons followed a similar approach of having traditionally season-ending style events occur midseason. For Jane the Virgin, particularly as a 22-episode CW show, the freedom to start and end arcs over the course of a season helps the show never feel like its stretching plotlines far too thin, like for example, its fellow CW shows Arrow and Flash do.

This is really just an incredible simple and freeing way to make a show less predictable and better paced that more shows could learn from.

Series Finale, Report: The American, Season 6

13 Jun

I’m still digesting the series finale of The Americans but it ended like the show. Relatively slow, methodical, with not a ton of plot, by series finale standards (though a ton for an Americans episode) but filled with deep, searing, well-developed character moments that pack an emotional wallop.

A few thoughts on the episode, the final season, and the series more broadly:

Elizabeth and Philip were never antiheroes. One of the primary facets that made the  show brilliant, but particularly at the time, was how it was an inversion of the antihero shows that dominated the critical TV landscape when the Americans started, chief among them the fantastic Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Those shows featured family men who cared about themselves selfishly ahead of their families or anyone else, and who the viewer often rooted for against their work rivals, while rooting against them at home.

Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are thoughtful, well-meaning people who care deeply about their family, both their children and each other, and the world, more than they care about themselves. They did terrible, terrible things for their jobs; far worse than anything Walter does in Breaking Bad, killing dozens of people, and ruining many other innocent, civilian lives in the process. But they were never doing it out of selfishness. They were never doing it for themselves, for practical gain, or to feed their egos. In fact, they got nothing but negative externalizes from it.  They did it for love of country, for idealistic reasons, for Elizabeth, for sense of duty, and, and for love of Elizabeth, for Philip. It was a job and they did it, but it was never something they enjoyed, got pleasure from, or benefited from, with the exception of Elizabeth feeling her sense of higher purpose being fulfilled.

The Jennings were good people put in an impossible spot; asked to do something that, were it flipped to Americans in the USSR, would have been considered the highest form of patriotism by us.

The finale was not a Breaking Bad-style action-packed series of twists and turns and goodbyes to various characters. That would hardly have been true to the show, though the finale was certainly plot-filled compared to almost any other episode. A criticism of The Americans has been its deliberateness at times. The Americans hammers home certain traits and beliefs of their characters over and over again. For example, snce early on in the show, Elizabeth has been a true believer in the cause of communism worldwide, while Philip was the depressed cynic who was only kept going in their dreary espionage business by his initially (but no longer) one-sided love for his wife.

This deepening of the characters though, even if repeat some of the same points, never manages to feel one-note because of the richness of the acting and writing.  It makes us feel like we know these characters in an intimate way, heightening the emotional connection, and making even small changes and revelations feel drastic and impactful.

The first half of this final season was about the Jennings on a collision course. Philip had slowly discarded his desires and ideals time and again over the course of several seasons to please his wife, because Elizabeth had an iron will, really believing in everything she did, unbending, while he didn’t even know what he believed, He didn’t want Paige to know what they did, but relented. He didn’t want Paige involved in what they did, but then relented.

Finally, this season, we reached a point where Philip says no more. He had been out of the business for three years and he was done with this bullshit. He likes America, whether Elizabeth does or not, and he cares more about the successful raising of his children than whatever spy business his taskmasters had planned for him. He calls of his trip with Kimmy, warns her not to visit a communist country during her trip, and stares off with his wife over the matter.

For a moment, this threatens to tear him and his wife apart for good. Elizabeth had, without meaning to in a malicious way, totally coopted Paige. Paige was completely under her spell, and well into junior spy training under her and Claudia’s tutelage.

That was based on the deal Philip and Elizabeth struck. Elizabeth gets to shepherd Paige into the family business and Philip would get Henry, and he would keep Henry as far away from the spy world as possible, with as American a life as a child could have – popular and sociable at boarding school, far from the Jennings and their drama, playing ice hockey.

Paige, though I don’t believe it was Elizabeth’s intention, was being slightly turned against Philip. His inability to handle the work was a sign to Elizabeth, and thus to Paige, through osmosis, of weakness. Philip rebelled against that. His, understandably, believed there was strength to the choice not to continue obeying orders from people you don’t trust for a cause you don’t believe in, rather than Elizabeth’s narrative that he had dropped out simply because he couldn’t handle the rigors. Seeing his own daughter call him out as weak spurs him into both warning Kimmy and challenging Paige, in her apartment, to a fight, to show her that he’s still got it.

There’s another version of the show where the end game involves their final dissolution. However, just when it seemed as if the two Jennings would be at open war with one another, a moment comes when Elizabeth needs Philip. She needs him to help, not to hurt, importantly, to help someone escape, rather than deliberately to kill or sabotage (although two FBI agents end up dead, after the plan goes off the rails). The operation is a disaster, but the crisis brings them closer together. Finally, the conflict between the two is solved by Elizabeth actually coming, for just about the first time in the series, towards Philip’s point of view.

I was rooting for Philip and Elizabeth to get caught up until the last episodes, and still wouldn’t have minded if they had However, Elizabeth’s rejection of her masters, her love of country triumphing over her view of herself as order-taking soldier in the idealistic communist army, and thus working to save rather than prevent the arms deal at the nuclear summit, had me rooting for them to make it out of the series free.

All the great, built up character work was on display to make it believable when Elizabeth defies Claudia. Elizabeth, a hardened soldier who believes in the importance of taking orders and following the plan is also an unbridled idealist at heart. She really deeply believes in the anti-materialistic communist promises, and does what she does for her country and for what she thinks will be a better world. Lying to her; as Claudia must have known, would not sit well. Americans were lied to, Elizabeth believed, they didn’t have the truth. Lying is an admission the facts aren’t on your side. To do awful things to Americans was an acceptable trade off for the greater good – but to turn on one of their own who had done nothing, to lie, to frame her own people for no other cause but because they deem it necessary, crossed a line.

And so the two worked together, teaming up to prevent the assassination of an innocent Soviet negotiator, right before they got found out. In another show, Philip and Elizabeth would have desperately scrambled to find a way to stay in the country. They would have frantically zigged and zagged until at least they realized maybe there was no other option. Not here. Once they were burned, they were burned. That was it. Philip and Elizabeth had to go.

Henry, Philip long knew, had to stay.

Paige, well, Paige’s decision to stay behind while her parents go back to Russia, may be the most interesting part of the entire heart-wrenching finale.

The Jennings, and Philip knew this right off, but was powerless to stop it, ruined Paige’s life the exact moment they told her who they really were. That was it; there was no going back. Paige doesn’t speak Russian. She loved the spy world when it was a fantasy, when she was under the powerful spell of her courageous and strong mother who she loved so much. Elizabeth believed so strongly in the righteousness of what she was doing that it spread to Paige through osmosis. Paige loved being a part of that movement, a way for her to make a difference in this poverty and inequality-plagued world.

But she never really knew what was going on. There was so much that Elizabeth and Philip wouldn’t tell her, because following people and playing with radios and stealing documents was one thing. But sex and murder was another. Paige lashed out at Elizabeth in the penultimate episode, correctly intuiting that Elizabeth both used sex to work a source Paige had heard from, and that she had many times before. Making that assumption and disbelieving her mother would seem a little much in that case if it hadn’t been rooted in work getting there, with Paige slowly pushing back against denials from her mother, and slowly learning more about the spy game over time.

After that scene though, we didn’t hear a lot of that in the finale. Paige reacted poorly when Elizabeth and Philip showed up out of nowhere at her dorm, still irritated at them, but everyone was in crisis mode and after a couple of sharp barbs, she got with the program and temporarily put her irritation aside.

But it’s hard to imagine her decision to stay was not rooted in that betrayal.  It took Paige this long to really realize it, but her parents aren’t just the innocent bloodless paper-chasing spies that Elizabeth in particular claimed them to be.

Philip and Elizabeth mostly tell Stan the truth in the harrowing garage scene that was the central scene of the finale. But they do deny killing people. This is probably partly for Stan’s benefit; if Stan was on the fence about killing them or bringing them in, certainly a long road of murders particularly of FBI agents, or his old partner, might sway him in the moment. But more importantly, it’s for Paige. Paige may have come more and more around to being a spy but it was because being a spy was fun. She got a taste of how real it was; but never to the extent of murder. Paige agreed to get deep, irrecoverably so into something that will brand her a criminal for the rest of her life when her mom didn’t really tell her the whole story. This wasn’t what Paige signed up for.

She told her parents time and time again not to lie to her, and her mom in particular, and yet they did, and they did it because if Paige knew how many people they really killed, well, she probably would never have forgiven them. And the repercussions of her having a sense of their culpability if not the full story, may have been what swung Paige to stay. She has more in common with Henry than Philip or Elizabeth but she straddles two worlds. They ruined her. She has no friends. Henry got lucky and escape their inevitable destruction, maybe. Paige didn’t.

At the heart of the show has been how Elizabeth and Philip tell everyone different combinations of lies and truth, and get them mixed up in between. So often they root their lies in truth, and vice versa. In that garage scene, Philip, by and large comes clean. Does Stan believe him? What makes Stan stand down? I do believe that Stan believes that Philip is telling him the truth, and we know he is. Stan really was Philip’s only friend. Does Stan do it for Henry, with whom he has an established bond? It’s hard to say and I’ve gone back and forth in my mind over whether this behavior is consistent with what I believe the Stan we’ve known would do.

I do take exception to the idea that Elizabeth and Philip losing their children was the ultimate punishment. The ultimate punishment would be ending up in jail for their crimes, their many murders, particularly of civilians. They didn’t do it for themselves, but they did it knowing the potential eventual consequences. For most of the series, I hoped at least Elizabeth or Philip would end up caught. I was temporarily swayed towards rooting for them from their actions and behavior in the final episodes, but a few days later with some room to breathe I still think they deserved to end up behind American bars. I’m still okay with the ending but less okay with people thinking that this is actually a worst case scenario for the Jennings.

It’s going to take some detachment to figure out where the Americans finale fits in the pantheon and really think deeply about whether Stan would or wouldn’t have turned in the Jennings, and whether that’s true to his character, and whether it’s a sign of strength or weakness, or neither. But there’s no question The Americans delivered a powerful finale, true to itself, with breathtaking moments and stirring emotional cues. As an ending to my favorite hour long show of the past half-decade, I’m not disappointed, and with finales, that low bar counts for a lot.

The Americans: Season 6, Episode 3: Urban Transport Planning Recap

13 Apr


Urban Transport Planning is all about the concept of home. What does home mean to Elizabeth? Home is everything to Elizabeth. Home is mother Russia, the Soviet Union. Home is why Elizabeth does everything she does, what drives her to kill innocents and risk her life every day without ever feeling doubt or guilty. Home is what she, as she makes clear to Paige during their tete-a-tete, is willing to die for without fear. Home is also, of course, as Philip sharply and succinctly points out to her, is a place she hasn’t been to in 20 years.

All that time away, however, has only made Elizabeth’s feelings for home grow stronger. Elizabeth had a very special relationship with her mother and warm memories of her childhood, even though, or especially because she went without the materialistic goods that are so plentiful in America. Home is the smell of the native dishes Claudia cooks with her. Home is an idea; a time or privation which made the people and the relationships between them stronger, not weaker.

The problem, as Philip points out, is the home Elizabeth’s fighting for may no longer exist, at least the way she remembers it (if it even existed then) and she wouldn’t even know it. Elizabeth is at heart an instinctive reactionary; she yearns for her magical idealized past. There’s no clearer evidence than the knee-jerk look of disgust on Elizabeths’ face when Philip suggests that there will soon be a Pizza Hut in Moscow.  She doesn’t want any of Gorbachev’s changes. She doesn’t know anything about their actual effect in the USSR, but she’s suspicious inherently of any change. Elizabeth is so insistent that this is merely what the Americans want, and likewise that her people can’t possibly want it. Globalization, the US and Russian cultures bleeding into one another would ruin the purity of her perfect home.

Her immigrant’s idea of giving her daughter a better life is having her work as a 9-to-5 spy doing paperwork in a government office rather than as a field agent. One might argue she cares more about the Soviet Union than she cares about Paige, because if she really cared about Paige, she would let her avoid the stressful and dangerous spy lifestyle, but Elizabeth would never see it that way. Because she cares so much about both Paige, she can think of no greater gift than giving Paige a piece of her beloved home and introducing her to the mission that structures Elizabeth’s life and that she treasures so much.

Philip, on the other hand, as we’ve known for the length of the show, doesn’t feel at all like Elizabeth about his childhood and the USSR. He’s embraced and cherishes his new American life. That’s his home now; his time in Russia is a distant memory. He lives in the present and the future while Elizabeth lives in the past. A world in which there’s no need for their type of spycraft and all the death and destruction that comes with it appeals to him (Elizabeth would say imagining such a time will ever exist is incredibly naive). He hates the charade. He just wants to have a typical American life; a fulfilling career and suburban family with a chicken in the pot and two cars in the garage. He symbolically rejects Elizabeth’s offer of traditional Russian food, snuck back to the house in a rare breach of protocol by Elizabeth, having gorged himself on American takeout Chinese food instead.

He has none of Elizabeth’s sense of mission, which we’ve known since the beginning, but the difference this season is that Philip seems tired of sitting silent and letting Elizabeth lead the family. He’s finally ready to do something about the fact that no longer can his dream and Elizabeth’s coexist in perfect harmony. When he looks forlornly at Elizabeth sleeping, when he strikes back at her sentimental pean to home less than sympathetically, he’s no longer willing to let Elizabeth’s singular view go unchallenged.

Paige’s future is on the line, if it hasn’t been decided already. Elizabeth dresses Paige down for her breach of protocol last episode, running in when she heard danger. In the situation, Elizabeth’s certainly right. Paige put everyone at risk with her actions, and if she was anyone else, she’d likely be killed in punishment. In their line of work, they can’t break procedure no matter what. Elizabeth’s soldierly mindset was built off this system.

But that’s not Paige. Philip lost the battle never to tell Paige about who they really were. He lost the battle never to bring her on as an agent. Paige is so under the spell of her mother, as Philip was for so many years, that her own feelings get buried beneath Elizabeth’s iron will. This is not what Philip wanted for her. Watching Paige slip farther and farther away from him is a major motivating factor for Philip to challenge his wife.

When Elizabeth talks with the Russian priest, again pining for the magic of home, (a home which the minister mentions many of the kids he teaches about the culture have never been to) she mentions that she gets the impression Philip feels like he’s losing Paige to her, and she’s right. Philip is insistent on keeping Henry away so one of his children can have a typical American life, assisting on the winning hockey goal. Henry got away (at least so far as Philip can keep paying those boarding school bills).

After Paige comes in distraught early in the episode, Philip remarks to Elizabeth that now she’s seen everything. Elizabeth knowingly replies that she hasn’t seen everything just yet. There are seven more episodes for Paige to potentially learn how far Elizabeth has to go every day, how many men and women she kills, without hesitation or second thought for her mission. The relationships between Paige and Elizabeth and Philip and Elizabeth are liable to be tested like never before this season because of what Philip knows and what Paige doesn’t.