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In a Gruesome Season of ‘The Americans,’ a Bloodless Death Is the Most Disturbing of All

In a Gruesome Season of 'The Americans,' a Bloodless Death Is the Most Disturbing of All

For a show about sexy spies doing sexy things, “The Americans” can be awfully tough to recommend. As Emily Nussbaum wrote in the New Yorker, “Dread is its specialty and also its curse; it’s what makes ‘The Americans’ at once a must-watch and a hard-sell.” In its third season, the show’s lingering sense of doom — we know that Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, Soviet sleeper agents working in the U.S., will eventually fail, and that everything they believe in will cease to exist — has taken often gruesome corporeal form. In the season’s second episode, the Jennings cracked a dead woman’s bones and stuffed her into a suitcase; in the third, Philip yanked out Elizabeth’s broken tooth with a pair of household pliers. Last week, a South African agent working to destabilize the anti-apartheid movement was burned alive; this week, the dead man’s accomplice was shot in the eye and then strangled to death.

Over the course of two and a half seasons, we’ve come to accept that killing comes with the territory; Russians and Americans alike have murdered in cold blood. But the most disturbing murder in last night’s episode, and perhaps in the series’ entire run, was bloodless and methodical, almost merciful. While bugging the FBI’s broken mail robot, whose mindless, mechanical function served as a subtle counterpoint to the Jennings’ devotion to the cause, Elizabeth discovered Betty (Lois Smith), the elderly wife of the repair shop’s founder, doing some late-night bookkeeping in the office. We know from past experience that anyone who stumbles on the Jennings’ as they go about their business is a goner, but Elizabeth flinched once before in season 2’s “The Walk In,” letting a worker at a submarine plant off with a not especially veiled threat to his family’s safety. Smith’s instantly empathetic portrayal makes us hope she might do it again.

READ MORE: On ‘The Americans,’ Sex Is a Double-Edged Sword

Unfortunately, Betty is not so lucky. Once Elizabeth tells Betty her “real” name, we know there’s no hope, and when Betty tells Elizabeth, “Your English is very good,” we know Betty knows it, too. The delicate back and forth between Smith and Keri Russell, written by Joshua Brand and directed by Stephen Williams, compresses the season’s themes into a single heartbreaking exchange, a prolonged moment of both understanding and final, damning judgement. Betty recalls how her husband, who helped liberate concentration camps during World War II, came back a changed and broken man, discarding his Christian Scientist faith because “he had no use for those stories.” He’d seen things he couldn’t unsee, just as Elizabeth and Philip — and, this season, “The Americans'” audience — have had their retinas and their consciences seared by the spectacle of death. Elizabeth, the most loyal of soldiers, has grown inured to the sight of blood — when she commented that the South African spy’s immolation was “a horrible way to die,” it was more of a clinical than a moral judgement — but Betty’s plight gets to her, in no small part because the frail old woman reminds her of her own sick mother.

“Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?” — the title riffs on the “Blade Runner”-inspiring Philip K. Dick story about the porous boundary between humans and machines — brings the Betty/Elizabeth conversation to a close with a devastating reversal. It seems for a while as if the show will go the sentimental route, letting Elizabeth ease the woman she’s forced to overdose on her own heart medication into the next world, proffering comforting lies to Betty’s fading consciousness about how her husband is waiting for her beyond the veil. But Betty regains her clarity in the minutes before death, and hits Elizabeth at her most vulnerable spot. Do you have children? she asks, and, after Elizabeth says yes, cooly counters, “And this is what you do.” Elizabeth explains, with the rote ease of the unquestioning believer, that she’s making the world a better place, and that even an innocent old woman’s murder is a small price to pay. “That’s what evil people tell themselves,” Betty responds, “when they do evil things.”

At root, “The Americans” is a show about systems of belief, and the things they allow people to do. Whether it’s devotion to Mother Russia or the American way, to the Christian god or the sanctity of family, its characters are both guided and blinded by what they believe. When that’s kicked out from under them — when Elizabeth is forced to consider that she may be a villain and not a hero; when Stan Beeman accepts that his estranged not-quite-ex-wife is never coming back; when the faithful-to-a-fault Martha learns that her marriage to Philip’s “Clark” is based on a enormous lie — they spin off into space, with nothing and no one to grab onto. That’s when they become most vulnerable, and most dangerous.

Reviews of “The Americans,” Season 3, Episode 9: “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?”

Anthony Breznican, Entertainment Weekly

The old woman who utters these words (played by a charming and riveting Lois Smith) punctures a hole in Elizabeth’s otherwise impenetrable devotion to her grim life’s work for the KGB. Until now, Elizabeth has seen herself as a spy, a saboteur, a soldier—but overall an agent of equality. In this moment, forcing an innocent elderly woman to commit suicide for the crime of catching up on warehouse paperwork when she and Philip break in to bug the FBI’s mail robot, opens her eyes to a different reality: Maybe she’s just a murderer, a thug, an oppressor. Maybe she is the enemy.

Erik Adams, A.V. Club

Without toppling over into saccharine territory, Elizabeth’s brief time with Betty accounts for some of The Americans’ most potent emotional material. It’s made all the more remarkable by the way those scenes play out, forming a one-woman show about the peaks and valleys of a life that’s about to end. Because this is “The Americans,” marriage accounts for most of what we hear from Betty: a husband overseas during World War II, a divorce and a reconciliation, a death that put the machine shop in their son’s hands and left Betty seeking moments of connection in the silence of wee-small-hours bookkeeping. It’s all so efficiently and effectively told, with a modicum of exposition and a shorthand that makes it feel like Elizabeth isn’t the first person to hear all of these stories. If Smith’s performances feels stagey at times, it’s only because she’s an award-winning veteran of the stage, doing TV work in a role and an environment of theatrical simplicity. The actress has to carry a huge portion of “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?,” and she does so in haunting fashion.

Cicely K. Dyson, Wall Street Journal

We lull ourselves into rooting for Philip and Elizabeth as a couple that it becomes easy to forget how they’ve hurt innocent people. The janitor last season who just walked in on Philip in the computer room. Betty who was just working late at the office. Elizabeth can recite the dogma word for word because she actually believes it. For Philip, it’s not so easy. Russia and the Centre’s ends aren’t always justifying the means they’ll take to get there.

Philip is even starting to see through the Centre’s proxy, Gabriel, and his fatherly shtick. Gabriel’s soft-spoken nature has been unnerving for a while. He is firm in his stance but acts as though he really cares about Philip and Elizabeth. Of all the people we’ve seen trained by the Centre, Gabriel is the one who seems most like a snake readying to strike.

Matt Brennan, Slant

“When I’m sitting here in the dark,” as Betty explains her penchant for late-night bookkeeping, “is when I feel most in tune.” “In tune? What does that mean?” Elizabeth asks, with unexpected sincerity. The moment, significantly, comes as the camera frames Elizabeth alongside a Freemason’s certificate, drawing the viewer’s attention to the ritual and symbolism that define even secular systems of belief…. The blow to Elizabeth’s ideological assurance thus arrives as she comes face to face with the fact that “the Americans” she’s spent her entire life fighting are not, as individuals at least, so very different from herself. They’re religious skeptics and anti-fascists, mothers and wives, workers from hardscrabble backgrounds; even the key distinction between capitalism and communism quickly fades away in the messy realm of the concrete.

Alan Sepinwall, HitFix

This is a show that routinely presents its characters committing acts that are horrifying on physical, emotional and/or political levels, and it shows them doing it because they believe dearly in a cause, whether it’s communism for Elizabeth, family for Philip, or the end of apartheid for Reuben. Weisberg, Fields and company aren’t expecting us to agree with their motivations much of the time, just to understand them. The emotional weight of this battle for Paige’s soul has been tilted heavily in Philip’s direction because we know all the evils of the Soviet Union that Elizabeth is blind to, and we can relate to a parent’s desire to protect their child from danger. But it’s also reminded us often of how deeply Elizabeth believes in the cause, and how despicable she finds the American lifestyle her husband wants so badly for their kids.

Casey Cipriani, Indiewire

It’s interesting to note that the episode’s title is a play on words of the science fiction novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Phillip K. Dick, which was in turn the basis for the 1982 film “Blade Runner.” In the book, humanity has come to abhor killing because of a collective empathic experience known as The Empathy Box. Has Elizabeth had a sudden empathic jolt of empathy when it came to Betty? Elizabeth has been challenged before, by Phillip, by Claudia or others, but this line from Betty seemed to truly affect her. The next questions is: do spies have nightmares?

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