“You want food, you stand in line. Do you see any lines for food here? No.”
This line comes fifteen minutes into the Season 5 premiere of The Americans. Alexei Morozov, a Russian immigrant, now working for the US Department of Agriculture, makes the declaration over dinner with the Jennings (under cover as “the Eckerts” — more on that later). He’s a minor character, and more than likely going to be killed ASAP, but in his brief appearance he announces the metaphor anchoring this entire episode, and it seems, the season ahead: food.
It’s a cunning choice by the writing team, and one I’m sure they sweated over. Perhaps you’ve heard, things are just a little tense between the US and Russia right now. Our countries have never been besties, but when The Americans debuted in 2013, the Cold War era was considered just that — an era we’d left behind. Putin was a problem, but he was mostly treated as a problem “over there.” Here, his shirtless photos got at least as many headlines as his political actions. But four years later, we’re watching a familiar, complicated, utterly confusing story unfold about how, or if, the Russian government may be tangled up in our own. As of now, we have no answers, and the questions being asked are sincerely terrifying. So, how does a television show set in the past continue its story — a fictional one, though inspired by historic fact — without commenting on the present?
Food. That’s how. The first scene opens in a high-school cafeteria, students filling their trays with slices of cake and bright cups of Jell-O while Devo’s “That’s Good,” plays in the background (“you got yours and you got mine”). One boy, evidently Asian-American, carries his tray over to a table where another young man sits alone.
“Hey man. Pawel, right?”
If you’re wondering who the the hell Pasha and Tuan are, that’s fine. We’re all totally lost. Next, Tuan brings his new pal Pasha home to hang out after school, first introducing him to his parents in the kitchen: Elizabeth and Philip! Wha?! Boom: credit sequence. While that’s playing, let’s remember where we left off:
Last season concluded with Jennings’ in immediate danger after a fellow spy, William, was arrested by the FBI (including their neighbor friend, Agent Stan Beeman). They don’t yet know that, upon capture, William infected himself with the biological agent he was transporting and died (horrifically) in a military hospital. Their handler urged them to throw in the towel on this whole under-cover spy thing and just go home to Russia. When their daughter Paige got busted making out with Stan’s son across the street, it seemed like an even better time to bail. Remember, Paige is in on the family secret now, and isn’t super psyched about her parents lying to her for, oh, her entire life. Plus, the KGB is hoping to turn her into a second-generation spy herself, though Elizabeth and Philip can’t agree on whether or not that’s happening. Honestly, it’s a mess over there and it probably would have been easiest for them to just pack up and head back to the motherland.
But, then we wouldn’t have a TV show, so here they are, on a new assignment. Tuan, of course, is a spy himself (or perhaps a spy in training, like Hans), acting the part of their adopted son. They have a house as this faux family, but Tuan’s “parents” aren’t home much because they both work in air travel (Elizabeth’s cover is a flight attendant while Philip is supposed to be a pilot). Tuan’s friendship with Pasha gets them into Pasha’s parents’ house, where they’ve all been invited for dinner. That’s where we meet Pasha’s dad, Alexei, who is clearly the mark of this mission. “I am a consultant with the Department of Agriculture. And I tell them everything broken with system in Soviet Union,” he explains, over a table covered in plates and bowls and American bounty. “Here,” he gushes, “you go to store, they have so much of everything. It’s a beautiful sight. You choose!”
Elizabeth presses her lips together just slightly, in that way that lets the viewer know she’s going to kill this guy extra hard for shit-talking the food lines in the Soviet Union and glorifying the gluttony of this American meal. After dinner, in the kitchen, Mrs. Morozov bashfully apologizes for her loudmouth husband and taciturn son, while she and Elizabeth pile cookies and Rice Krispies treats onto dessert plates. “You just have to be patient. He’ll figure it out. You will too,” Elizabeth says. Then she stares at the Rice Krispie treats for a long moment.
“Sorry you [he] had to wait in line to eat,” she bitches to Philip on the way home. “He’s old enough to remember when there was nothing to wait in line for.” Yet, when they get home (to their real home), the first question she asks Paige is about what she had for dinner. Paige has been hanging out at the Beeman’s almost every night, and while her folks are definitely more concerned about her dating the son of an FBI agent, they’re also pretty irked about what she’s eating — or not eating, rather. (It’s true, Stan is a divorced dad, and his culinary scenes are as telling as the others: Watching him struggle to make alfredo sauce from a bag of powdered mix, I just want to cry.) “He ever give you any vegetables over there?” Elizabeth asks.
This is why food is such a genius mechanism to guide us into this year’s season. It is universal, a basic human need, and your whole life’s direction can be changed by how much or little of it you have. Elizabeth and Philip grew up in a starved country. “After the war my mother always said she wasn’t hungry,” Elizabeth tells Philip after dinner with the Morozovs. “I knew. But I ate everything.” Philip recounts a soup his own mother made with onions and nothing else. “It was really just hot water.”
Throughout the series, these characters have alluded to the unspeakable poverty and horror they faced growing up, all of which led them to this life as soldiers for their country, fighting against what they see only as the corrupt west responsible for their oppression. But, for the American audience watching this show, it’s hard to connect those dots. Certainly, there are millions in this country who grew up — who are still growing up — not knowing if or when their next meal may come. But even they live in a nation that boasts of its plenty (the “Amber Waves” of grain, for which this very episode is titled). There are few ways to truly make a viewer understand how two ordinary people might voluntarily offer up their lives, their identities, perhaps even their children, to this life of secrecy and killing. Hunger is one of them. Hunger explains how Elizabeth can be simultaneously disgusted by the Morozov’s jam-packed dinner table, and also anxious about her own child getting enough to eat. And hunger is perhaps the reason Philip decided they would stay in the US rather than return to Russia.
Because, back there, we learn, food is disappearing. Oleg, once the hot-shot of the US KGB office, has transferred back home at his mother’s request. When he reports to KGB headquarters, his new boss informs him that, “we should be able to feed our people a hundred times over. But we can’t. We can’t because there’s corruption. Bribery, favors, double-dealing, fraud.” This, he says, is the greatest threat to the Soviet Union, and it’s Oleg’s job to help get to the bottom of it. He, of course, doesn’t have to worry about food, coming from such a powerful family. Neither does his boss, for that matter. In every scene, both characters are forever being served plates of cookies and giant, cream-covered pastries. This is the closest the episode comes to really saying something about political hypocrisy and the divide between a struggling nation and its wealthy, well-fed leaders. And while they’re saying it in Russian, it’s not exactly clear who they’re saying it to.
“Amber Waves” concludes not in a grain field but a grave. Elizabeth and Philip are sent, with Hans, to dig up William’s body, buried on the grounds of Fort Detrick (site of the US biological defense program.) This final scene extends for nearly ten full minutes without a single line of dialogue. They just dig and dig and dig, taking occasional breaks to eat and drink, then putting their protective masks and gloves back on and digging more. When at last they hit the metal coffin, a grisly scene unfolds, wherein Philip slices off a section of Williams decaying, infected thigh and hands it to Elizabeth to sticks it in plastic bag (for some reason that I’m sure we’ll find out later. For now, all I know is it’s a gross way to cap an episode where everyone is constantly eating).
Then, the gut punch: Reaching down to take the bag from Elizabeth, Hans slips and falls on top of the coffin, cutting his gloved hand open. He is infected, no question. “It’s okay,” Elizabeth assures him as he stares up at her with the abject fear of a child. “It’s fine,” she soothes. Then, as soon as he turns away, she shoots him in the head. Of course, she must. Killing Hans means saving the lives of millions he would surely infect. And that is the very core of her ethos, the rationale behind everything she does in this life: Thinking only of the greater good, individual lives are nothing.
In a series scattered with bodies, Hans’ death is the only one in this episode. And this scene is the only one that doesn’t evoke that theme of hunger. This hour, it seems, was meant to ease us back into these characters, leaning on their humanity, their parenthood, and their motivations. It treads such a careful line between creating understanding but not quite compassion. For how could we, in good conscience, wholly sympathize with these characters? “Amber Waves” allows us to connect with them, reminding us of all they’ve been through. You’ve never been starved, so who are you to judge? it asks. It brings us right up to the line of sympathy, then, with Hans’ death, cuts us brutally off at the knees. He is not Elizabeth’s child exactly, but he is her protogé, and a young character we’ve come to know. With his quick and unceremonious killing, the show reminds us not to get too comfortable. Yes, the titular Americans are parents and people and survivors of war. But that all comes second. First and foremost, they are weapons.
Read These Stories Next: