“I believed I was acting in the service of a higher purpose. But I was just scared.”
One of the greatest things about television as a medium is its particular ability to personalize the political for viewers. Some would argue the opposite — and it’s true, those “very special episodes” wherein the war veteran shows up to teach us all about PTSD, can often turn out clunky, taking complex issues and painfully simplifying them. Sometimes it’s best, therefore, for a show to just stay out of it. The Americans doesn’t really have that option.
When the season began, it seemed they’d found the perfect plotline through which to steer the show. Focusing on something so fundamental as food and hunger allowed them to connect with audiences on a bipartisan level, show without telling, and gracefully slip past the political icebergs in these dark, uncertain waters. Or so it seemed. In the last few weeks, though, it’s become ever more clear that the grain plotline was a great, big gotcha, not just for the characters but the viewers as well. By the end of tonight’s episode, the cracks are evident, the water seeping in.
We begin just where we left off last week, with the Jennings’ introducing Paige to Gabriel for the first time. “Are you a spy?” she asks; one part of her is a thrilled kid and the other part rightfully suspicious and sick of being lied to. Gabriel’s answer is similarly mixed: A flat-voiced, “Yes,” but with a twinkle in his eye. He is kind with Paige, calling her parents heroes who have saved many lives. At this, Elizabeth and Philip exchange sober glances, an acknowledgment of all the lives they’ve ended too.
Paige is on board, at last, thanks to Marx — and perhaps the fact that her parents are finally interested in her. (Henry, still, not so much. Guess he was in his new advanced math class for this entire episode.) So, now the Jennings’ are stuck in a bind. Now that she has some of the truth, they can’t tell her the rest. They can’t tell her the whole story about Topeka, Stobert and Deidre, and certainly not the dead lab tech.
“I knew America did terrible things but I never...I mean, people’s food,” Paige says. Now that she’s come to see the US as a villain and the USSR as its victim, they can’t risk telling her, Well, yeah, but not this time. They themselves were sold on a simplified version of the truth, of course. They’ve given their lives up for it. The deeper we get, the more we realize that misinformation is not only the Jennings’ business but at the very core of their beliefs. Philip had no idea who his parents were. Elizabeth relies upon her blinders to survive the relationships she’s forced to make and break, over and over again. “It’s okay to care,” Philip reminds her. “No, it isn’t, Philip. Not for me,” she corrects.
This, they discuss while digging up a section of Stobert’s “super-wheat” in Mississippi. The plan is to send it back with Gabriel when he returns to Russia, so the Soviets can use it to bolster their own food supply (which again, was the whole point in making the super-wheat. All this effort of stealing and smuggling is simply so they can avoid buying it openly from the West). “I feel like one of those guys in the posters,” says Philip, harkening back to the season’s first episode, filled with propaganda-esque shots of the US’ amber waves of grain. Those golden, images of bounty (harvested by everyone and shared by all) are the very reason Elizabeth and Philip are here. His comment is not a cynical one. Amid all their growing disillusionment, this is a moment of real, earnest hope. And it’s based on a myth — an old one, at that.
They know about propaganda, surely, but it’s becoming more and more evident that they are not as savvy as we assume — certainly not as savvy as we are. Just as they must tell Paige only a specific segment of the truth, the KGB must keep them in the dark as well. Even Gabriel admits he knows there things he might not know. When Philip asks him outright if Stan’s girlfriend is a spy, Gabriel tells him no, and, “you’re losing it, Philip.” But, he does throw in the caveat that if she were, the Center might keep it from Gabriel in order to keep it from Philip. Compartmentalized information and tactical deception are what keep this organization running.
The whole truth and nothing but scares people off — as Stan learns when dealing with the new target, Kovalenko. He and Aderholt meet her in the park, ostensibly to seal the deal with promises of great financial support. “I could get asylum?” she asks, to which Stan replies that they can’t guarantee that, and by the way, helping the FBI would be super risky for her and she could wind up dead or in a Soviet prison for the rest of her life. Soooo, you in? She bails, naturally. Aderholt scolds him for saying too much, though Stan argues that if they’re honest with Kovalenko, she’ll know she can trust them. So far, doesn’t seem that way.
And that’s the queasy theme which, with this episode, seems to be approaching a crescendo: The truth with set you free, but not protected. All these multilayered lies, misinformation, propaganda, secrecy, and fear — fear, above all — allow a people to be manipulated en masse. Not much is said about the group from which this episode takes its title, The Committee On Human Rights. But it refers to a group which investigated and exposed the psychiatric abuse and terror committed by the Soviet government on its people. Before the group’s members were eventually arrested, they revealed a number of ways in which the USSR used (misused, rather) psychiatric methods to suppress dissent, using such tactics as pharmaceutical abuse and false diagnoses like “sluggish schizophrenia.” The latter was an entirely fabricated mental illness “diagnosed” in political dissenters. It was most likely conceived of by the KGB.
But Elizabeth and Philip don’t know any of this. Elizabeth doesn’t even ask (when has she ever questioned an assignment?). Philip casually inquires, and Gabriel shrugs. “She got us some information on people who were part of a well organized opposition to the party at home.” Same old, same old. Philip nods, asks no follow-ups — and who knows if Gabriel would even have more information than that? None of them have the viewer’s benefits of hindsight, the decades of political analysis, or even the basic facts we now learn in high-school history class.
On the flip side, through this story (fictionalized though it may be), we’re also forced to confront the fact that we don’t have the whole story either. Those high-school history textbooks were written by Americans for Americans, after all. This show is all about challenging your allegiances and beliefs. These characters have spent five seasons poking at our biases about the Soviet Union, and now they’re being made to do the same. The US has done something good in developing the super-wheat. They got it wrong, at least once. What else might they have gotten wrong? How many lives have they taken, believing themselves righteous soldiers of a worthy cause, the only worthy cause? How many lies have they swallowed whole? Was any of it real, or was it all just the guys in the posters?
Only Gabriel, having been in this game longer than anyone, seems to have a real sense of perspective — and that’s why he’s retiring. “It adds up. Some of it’s okay. Some of it isn’t. But it adds up.” Gabriel may never have the whole truth, but thanks to the curse and benefit of longevity, he has more of it than most. He knows the truth about himself, at least, and that alone is a crushing revelation.
“You said you did terrible things. What things?” asks Philip, during their final conversation. In response, Gabriel gives few actual answers but paints a clear picture, nonetheless. “People were shot, worked to death in the camps. Some were counter-revolutionaries, but some...some hadn’t done anything. Just people. I did it to.”
What he did individually, we don’t know. But what he did individually doesn’t matter as much as what they all did, as a group. He became a cog in one of the most lethal and oppressive machines in human history. In his fear, he became both perpetrator and victim, weaponized by his own country. Like so many people before him — and after — Gabriel yearned for the utopian vision his leaders had promised. Only when you’re standing ankle-deep in water, do you realize you’ve been sinking for hours, and now it’s too late.
“I believed I was acting in the service of a higher purpose. But I was just scared.”
That’s how it works. It’s that simple.
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