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

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Keri Russell in The Americans

Elizabeth has always been more efficient at moral bookkeeping than Philip, but cares enough about her husband to try and alleviate some of the recent pressure facing him. When Gabriel initially suggests bugging Mailbot, Philip voices his concern for Martha, and Elizabeth tries to back him up. “You should trust the organization,” Gabriel doesn’t so much suggest as demand. When the scene ends, the three leave frame in file, Gabriel, then Philip, then Elizabeth.  The relationship between leaders and followers has always been of interest to The Americans, but “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?” simplifies the equation: one uses the other as the tool, and one uses the other as an excuse.

Elizabeth and Philip defy this dynamic by being partners, in marriage and crime. Distinguishing the two sides is getting harder by the day, though, which is why so much of their on-the-job dialogue could be out of a typical household argument (“How much longer do you have?” “I’m trying, Elizabeth,” Philip says, like he’s fixing a VCR instead of bugging a piece of F.B.I. equipment). “It’s only natural that you developed feelings for Martha. I understand,” Elizabeth says, in an earnest attempt to empathize with Philip. “Thanks for your permission,” he says, with plenty of sarcastic mustard on that response.

But permission really is the best gift Philip and Elizabeth can give each other in this line of work: a second voice to, if not encourage, at least rationalize every horrible act they have to commit. The more Betty ends up talking, the harder it becomes for Elizabeth to do the deed she committed to when she turned around that office corner. She has to go back to Philip, tell him what she just heard (just in her cold, detached voice, instead of a sweet old lady’s), and get his sign-off on what needs to be done. “She picked a bad time.” Simple as that.

The overlaps between Betty as a character, and the rest of The Americans are abundant, but they’re here for the viewer to find on their own. They enhance, rather than drive Elizabeth’s conflicted feelings about what she has to do. Betty’s husband was a serviceman who lost his faith; Elizabeth’s father served, and is herself an avowed atheist. Gil was shared between two wives, just as Philip is right now. Betty herself is a sickly office worker, and Elizabeth’s mother is a sick former-office worker.

Even if Betty weren’t so specifically relatable, her death would still cost Elizabeth dearly. She could have easily disposed of the woman in a more efficient, heartless manner, but she’s choosing to create a casualty instead of remove an obstacle. She can’t appreciate what Philip has been going through unless she puts herself as close to a target as he is. Williams stages the series of scenes like a three act tragedy plus prologue, a chamber piece about two people realizing, then accepting what one is about to do to the other.

“This is not how I expected it to end…the story,” Betty says, moments after her fate is sealed by Elizabeth speaking her real (American) name. It’s painful to watch how every out Betty offers Elizabeth’s conscience just makes the deed all the more taxing. She’s an old, sick woman. She’s lived a full life, and doesn’t fear death. There are worse ways to go. But these are just excuses, same as the “greater good” excuse Elizabeth falls back on the way Hans did. “That’s what evil people tell themselves when they do evil things,” Betty says, after mistaking Elizabeth for a messenger from Gil, and just prior to her death rattle.

Perhaps it’s the fatalism about “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?” that threw me the first time. It’s an hour where The Americans embraces a terrible inevitability, instead of trying desperately to escape it. We often side with Philip because he tries to find alternatives to violence, but an hour about Elizabeth trying to shoulder her husband’s burden just makes us more aware of her own. She’s never had any illusions about redemption, because she accepts what she is: an angel of death. The only time she’ll get close to you is when it’s time to collect.

  • Stray Thoughts

-How, how, HOW freakin’ great is Lois Smith as Betty? More than anything, what keeps the character from just being a device is the performance, which is tender, and sorrowful, and warm, and alive. The moment in which she tries to find the silver lining in her impending death wrecked me, and might be my favourite individual piece of acting from the show all season. Bravo.

-Meanwhile, in Stan-Land: A risky ploy to out Zinaida doesn’t quite go as planned. At least we get Stan and Oleg bro-ing out a bit over cracked beers and cracked skulls. It’s a good side story to breakup the morose A-plot, the two still linked by Stan popping tiny candies and aspirin.

-Love the opening shot to the second big Elizabeth/Betty scene, each with a hand on one half of Betty’s eventual murder weapon.

-Fresh pasta and red wine for dinner? No foster kids to stress about? Looks like Clarke hit the “My wife just found out I’m living a lie” jackpot. We’ll see how long it lasts (not long, if I had to guess).

-“I trusted you. I trusted you. And your job was to look out for me, it was. And now my job is look out for my family…because no one else will.” It’s really Elizabeth’s hour, but boy does Philip’s seething anger at Gabriel end the hour on a high note.

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