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In “The Americans'” Devastating “Echo,” Secrets Run Deep

In "The Americans'" Devastating "Echo," Secrets Run Deep

This article discusses the plot of “The Americans,” Season 2, Episode 13, “Echo”

I’ve found this season of “The Americans” to be fitfully great, establishing a strong and deeply resonant theme in its first few episodes and then sometimes meandering on the way to tonight’s second-season finale. Fortunately, “Echo” is not only a great episode in itself, but so successfully pulls together the threads of the season that it elevates in retrospect everything that came before. And like this week’s immensely satisfying “Good Wife,” it leaves me wishing the next season could start tomorrow.

“Echo” takes its title from the computer software portion of the Stealth program that has occupied much of the season’s back half: It’s the means of testing whether the modifications you’ve made to an aircraft or a submarine actually render it undetectable; it lets you know if you’re invisible, or if you just think you are. But it also evokes the idea that actions have consequences, that whether the delay is long or short, any sound you make will return in kind, perhaps even louder than before.

Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) are, of course, the human equivalent of a stealth submarine, running silent and deep in the heart of American culture. But not everyone is so lucky, like the hundreds of their countrymen who perished when the propeller plans they stole from an American plant turned out to be malicious decoys, designed to shatter and rip apart the submarine’s thin skin and expose the sailors within to the crushing pressure of the sea. And even their disguise is not perfect: as she wades into the waters of adolescence, their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor) has become convinced that her mom and dad are hiding something from her. For all the worldly posturing with which she lectures her apparently apolitical parents, she has no idea of the truth, but she knows that something just doesn’t add up.

It’s axiomatic that children always understand more than their parents think they do, even if the children can’t put that understanding into words — an axiom driven horrifically home by the revelation that the bloody murders of Elizabeth and Phillip’s comrades Emmet and Leanne and their teenage daughter were committed by their son, Jared (Owen Campbell). The staging of his confession, choked out as he bled to death from a neck wound, struck me (sorry) as a little bit hokey, but its aftermath was shattering, especially once Claudia (Margo Martindale) revealed that what set him off was the KGB’s attempt to recruit him. There are, she tells Elizabeth and Phillip, some background checks that even their carefully manufactured cover could not pass, but an American-born second-generation spy could pass all the way into the ranks of the CIA itself. Claudia’s late replacement, Kate, obvious did a less than bang-up job preparing Jared for the mental fracture occasioned by learning that his parents’ life, and therefore his, had been founded on a deliberate deception, but that doesn’t put a stop to the Center’s plan. They’ve already chosen their next recruit: Paige.

The Jennings rebut this idea forcefully enough that it seems to be put to rest, but it certainly leaves the door open for the issue to be explored in “The Americans'” third season (which, thankfully, has already been ordered despite the show’s indifferent ratings). But there’s a sense in which the war has already been lost. By living a lie, Philip and Elizabeth have forfeited the ability to pass on their most deeply held beliefs to their children, resulting in the repugnant (to them) spectacle of Paige seeking meaning in the church. They’re appalled by the values of the country they live in, and yet they can’t help raising children who belong to it. Much as they’d like to pass on Karl Marx’s view of organized religion, their family’s safety requires they keep quiet.

“The Americans'” first season brought Elizabeth and Phillip to the point where their marriage, an arranged convenience ordered by their Soviet superiors, was starting to become real. But there are limits on how honest they can be with each other, let alone their children, and the second season found them pushing up against those boundaries. It’s not just them, of course: their neighbor Stan Beeman (Noam Emmerich), who’s engaged in a different, more prosaic form of deception by cheating on his wife, has watched his own marriage crumble over the course of this season, and was finally brought to the point where he was forced to choose between betraying his own country and letting his Russian lover (Annet Mahendru) face trial and likely execution in her own. He chose the latter, and though I’ll miss having Nina Sergeevna around, that last shot of her looking through the rear windshield of a departing car was deeply tragic. Stan made the right choice, for once, and it cost him almost everything. (Update: Co-showrunner Joel Fields says Nina will definitely be back in Season 3.)

“The Americans” is a show about political actors, and yet it takes place on an apolitical level where the actions of characters on either side of the U.S./Soviet divide are functionally equivalent. They’re all corrupted by the work they have do, trying to live normal lives as if they believe there’s such a thing. The moral rot is inescapable: As Phillip said of the microscopic material a man gave his life to retrieve from a Stealth plant, “You won’t see it but it’s everywhere.” “The Americans'” characters hide from no one so well as they hide from themselves.

More reviews of “The Americans'” “Echo”

Sarah Miller, New York Times

Elizabeth and Philip have been undyingly loyal to the Soviet Union, to “the cause.” But what happens when that cause, which promises freedom, tries to enslave them or their children? Do they see the paradox when Paige announced that she was inspired by Jesus, who sacrificed himself for the greater good? Just as Jared declared that the Soviet spies work for something greater than themselves? 

Andy Greenwald, Grantland

The cost of total exposure can seem too high. It’s what makes stealth technology sound so attractive, even today. What these two excellent seasons of television have made very plain is that nearly anything can be faked — identities, love, facial hair — but not family. Family sees us in the ways we’d rather not be seen, touches us in places we thought couldn’t be reached. For good or ill, family is the only door that can’t be locked.

Todd VanDerWerff, A.V. Club

What makes “The Americans'” second season so remarkable, so unlikely to be topped by anything else on my year-end top 10 list, is the way it makes all of these people into people, the way that it lets you see the boulder coming to squash them from four or five seasons away, then refuses to have them listen to your shouts of warning.

James Poniewozik, Time

Paige talked about the inspiration of Jesus Christ, who sacrificed himself for the good of humanity, but little does she know that, behind the scenes, this is not the story of Jesus. It’s God telling Abraham to lay his child on the altar.

Alyssa Rosenberg, Washington Post

“The Americans” tends to favor realism over the flashier directing that has come to be in vogue on some prestige series. But more than any other show presently airing on television, it manages to express its themes in a strikingly clear way in every story it is handling in a given episode. In “Echo,” “The Americans” allows itself the pleasure of showing off, a little bit.

Allison Keene, Collider

The Jennings’ relationship with the Center is now in question, and Philip reaching out to lightly threaten Arkady was an interesting collision. Death is never far from the Jennings, and that’s the life they chose to live, the line they choose to walk. It’s just not what they want for their children. They want a better life for them than they had. What an American idea.

Alan Sepinwall, HitFix

The premiere introduced Emmett and Leanne as mirror images of our leads, and their murder was designed to fill Philip and Elizabeth with dread over what the job could do to them, and to Paige and Henry. But never could they have consciously imagined the spy game fracturing the psyche of one of their children so utterly that they would do something like this — nor that the Centre would ever try to bring their children into the family business. 

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