05/05/2015: Apologies to subscribers, post uploaded in error, now deleted.
The Empire Strikes Out
An airport farewell offered the briefest of pre-credit sequences; E squeezed in a wry mother-in-law reference and Paige broke our hearts in a small way – she lied to Henry. Damn. Soon, the Jennings girl’s waved goodbye and off we all sped along the 47-minute season three runway. Fasten your senses.
We Are Family
Storytelling convention might have allowed scenes building to the big moment, we might ourselves have subconsciously anticipated the same, but this show willingly subverts norms and it did so here; there was no narrative lead-in: in the early morning E responds to a quiet knock, wordlessly an elderly woman is wheeled in. At least E is clued in because you, me and Paige are just a little unsure …
E kneels, they fold into each other. “Mummy …” “Oh my little one …”. I’d planned for this moment – deciding to face it unblinkingly like E undergoing ad hoc home dentistry – but when the moment came I dissolved hopelessly.
Of course they cry – quite what about is difficult to know, for us and perhaps for them. It was simple, unadorned by emotional manipulation or even sentiment – some might argue a statement of artistic confidence close to imposing on the narrative.
They know the truth but they lie “I had to let you go. Everything was at stake” … mmm, not really, Grandma. From earlier scenes, we know you gave Nadz to the state at 16 because you felt the family owed a huge debt of gratitude and honour (after her husband deserted the army and the family). Nadz has been repaying that debt for 25 years.
As Paige is drawn into the reunion we step back. Later, when P asks how it went, E pauses before saying matter-of-factly she is glad she went. She thanks her husband. That was a little cold.
But hey, on the bright side, given the last person who exited any room on wheels was Annalise, it went well with Granny.
The trip was also the right time for Mom and daughter to talk through the whole fake family/fake life thing: We are nowhere near a recruitment moment – at this point the issue was whether and how Paige can accept that most of her life has been a monumental lie.
Somewhere between arriving in West Germany and leaving, Elizabeth lost her daughter. Some key moments:
“I don’t get how she could let you leave like that. Basically forever?”
“I’m praying for your mother” (not ‘my grandmother’).
Back at the airport: “I don’t know if I can do this Mom. Go home and lie to Henry? About everything. All my friends. To lie for the rest of my life; that’s not who I am”
That looks to be where E got it catastrophically wrong. We know Paige is a newly baptised, bible class attending, mid teen suburban Christian. That’s her identity and her world. Answering her with “Everyone lies, Paige” seems insensitive and even dismissive.
Going back to Paige praying in the bathroom, E sat on the floor and looked at her daughter with kindness but they were worlds apart. Maybe religion is E’s blind spot.
After the taxi ride home, Paige will have to start constructing a whole new life: ‘Hi Henry. No, it was kind of boring’ ‘Thanks Mr Beeman, we had a nice time’. This is someone for whom verses like ‘thou shall not bare false witness’ are part of her identity.
Back home in leafy suburbia, Paige heads for her bedroom to sob, and to avoid Henry. Phil asks about Paige “She did good, really good. I think it was good for her”.
From overhead, we all see the prominent bedside phone. As Martha did last week, Paige reaches out – but to her Christian family. Alice answers, Pastor Tim takes over:
“Please, please help. They’re liars. They’re not who they say they are. They’re not Americans. I’m not supposed to tell anyone. You can’t tell anyone. They’re Russians”
Hey Pastor, ya still want that booking to Kenya?
As well as being asked to live a lie, Paige can’t contextualise this: Russians? Where are they on a scale with drug dealers and liars? Maybe she’s also still grieving for a family she thought was hers but never existed.
Next door, E reminds us she is still sharp and focused. P talks about dealing with “the Martha thing”. E instantly picks up the flaw in his plan of letting Martha find out from work (about the suicide of Gene). It’s the wrong approach. He concurs.
The stark contrast in E’s handling of Paige and her immediate grasp of Martha’s likely reaction seems to expose a particularly shapely Achilles heel.
Fwiw, I’ve added my own sentimental tosh about this in a flash forward (below)
It’s a busy couple of days for Phil while the girls are away; two guy talks (Yousef and Gabriel), two EST meetings, he kills someone who is Henry +12, and he fends off the emotionally unsettled Sandra Beeman. He does get around.
Visiting Gabriel, Phil starts strong “I told you I was going to take care of my wife and my family” ”I’m just getting done what I need to get done”. “Grow up”. No Scrabble today.
Later, at EST, we meet the delightful – and delighted – Jennifer who runs us past her last couple of days (“Just let me go down on you”). Philip and Sandra Beeman exchange awkward glances, and pleasantries after. But something he hears resonates:
“When you separate sex from intimacy it always goes wrong”.
“Trust your gut, listen to what your gut is saying, it’s more important.”
Is Phil remembering his earlier observation to Yousef that he “felt like shit all the time”?
After the second EST meeting – while the background overhead projection announces ‘Communicating About Sex is Communicating About You’ – Sandra wants to know why Phil is here; it’s a bit soon for that, lady.
But she gives it one more shot – this time an offer of emotional intimacy – but Phil’s gut is still telling him to work through whatever this is with his wife.
Back in their bedroom, the debrief continues. P talks about killing Gene the computer geek but soon stumbles and flounders through what is his first EST moment:
“It was hard Elizabeth, really hard”
“I almost feel like – when I do this stuff – if I don’t … I just feel like, from now on, I need to feel able to know what I’m doing better so I ….”
As he pauses for a deep chest and shoulder breath, E is distracted by Ronald Reagan. The moment is gone.
In Espionage Corner
Ollie meets Stan to update him on their latest fine mess. The Center is aware someone is running an operation on WILLOW and has shut down all the assassination fun. Stan tapes Ollie saying WILLOW is a Soviet asset. Bingo!
Ollie gets to sit on the naughty step with Maurice from the Northrop gig.
Stan knows that in presenting the evidence tape to Frank Gaad every item in his laundry bag will get waved around – he may as well admit the sexual relationship with Nina now, and does. And yep, I was running an operation with Ollie on Zinaida. Now put my socks down, please.
After asking again if he planted the bug, Gaad blusters to Stan his career is over before flouncing off to the Attorney General’s Office.
The AG and his Deputy read it differently and cast the Federal Bureau of Investigation as … bureaucrats (in the next season they may even be cast as Federal). Perhaps, in this administration, people like Stan are almost John Wayne figures, cutting through the red tape that’s holding America back!
Frank Gaad – now cast as unimaginative bureaucrat – read this as wrongly as Elizabeth read Paige.
Stan’s private life may feature playing board games with a kid but, professionally, he’s bagged an important spy and the opportunity to turn the son of the Minister for Railways. He’s done some shocking things but this is Stan’s best day since convicting the Arkansas supremacists. He doesn’t, though, get Nina.
Maurice and Ollie shuffle across to make room for Frank Gaad on the naughty step.
Martha and Gene
We met Gene the computer guy a few times around the FBI office, most recently talking to Martha about Walter Taffet (Gene was impressed with Taffet’s grasp of computer science).
Before Gene arrives home from work, a disguised P idly ponders, playing with Gene’s toys in his leather gloves. Again, we think back to P’s admission to Yousef in the first scene, and perhaps beyond that to Annalise. Add Kimmie to that list, also what’s happening with Paige … and now a harmless big kid who loves computers.
P leaves a suicide note for Gene on his Commodore 64. If he had to go, you feel he’d have liked that.
Later, we have, arguably, Martha’s biggest scene of the season – and she wasn’t there!
In their bedroom, when E is unpacking after the trip and they talk about Phil taking care of the Martha thing: “I think she should hear it from you first. A woman like that, with this on her conscience? I don’t think you’re seeing things clearly”. P responds that Martha is “absorbing everything”.
The implication is Martha and Clark have together identified someone at Martha’s work and Clark has explained that Gene will be framed in order to take the heat off her, though Clark probably didn’t go so far as to explain the swinging from his ceiling part. E says Martha needs to hear about that from him (before hearing about the suicide at work).
Putting that together, it means Martha is now an actively engaged asset. It also upgrades sweet Martha to a joint enterprise murderer.
Final thought on Martha: after all this time with Clark, is life getting better and better, or worse and worse …
Tea Trays and Tantrums
Nina is working her way through a range of ever tighter sweaters – and tea trays- in order to accumulate enough evidence to throw Anton down a salt mine. Anton knows her role is to offer comfort, he doesn’t necessarily know she is also a classic honey trap. Their two scenes are ambiguous. This is what we have:
First scene: Anton “They only have my body, you understand”
Second scene: Nina offers sex, Anton declines and shares his method for resisting control. We hear only “Firstly, you don’t have to do it their way …”. Nina uses those plate-sized eyes to make sure he gets to secondly and thirdly – after all, she’s there to find out if he’s working hard for the cause.
We leave them perched on Anton’s unraveling mattress and really hope he doesn’t say too much more.
My reading; Nina may have enough information to throw him down the aforementioned salt mine but must surely report back that Anton is working himself to the bone for the motherland: In doing that, I recognise she’s also played me. I don’t even care.
More widely, there seems scope to draw parallels over ‘body ownership’ between Nina, Anton, Philip and to some extent Elizabeth.
Okay, bigger picture: Sandra was parachuted into the season finale – a place where every scene really matters – at the cost of relegating Martha’s conclusion to E12. Going forward into S4 this storyline must matter. How so?
Presumably, as the wall between Phil’s two worlds crumbles, Sandra is going to provide a little on going Glasnost.
At its core this is a show about an arranged marriage. Having spent three seasons observing that relationship through one-way glass – the stresses and strains, the ebb and flow of affections, occasional moments of heart rendering intimacy, anger, loyalty, honesty, empathy we again leave the Jennings’s.
We see the husband losing faith – circled by another woman. Both kids have developed substitute families or parental figures and the wife might be developing traits not unfamiliar to her own cold, hard, uncompromising mother.
We’re at the end. In quick-cut succession we see individual family members overlaid with the closing passage of the speech: on the beat of “evil empire” Elizabeth is open-mouthed and turns to Philip, who isn’t listening. Cut to Paige: “They’re … Russians”. To Reagan: “They are the focus of evil in the modern world”. Nadezhda stares at Reagan; as fierce and defiant as ever.
And close season.
How come Elizabeth lost Paige? It could be that religion is her blind spot and that when Paige came looking for answers, E had nothing to offer.
Did the meeting with her mother have an effect; is E re-evaluating as we all do when a parent dies? It may not yet be happening on a conscious level but perhaps Elizabeth has looked hard at her daughters strengths and weakness, looked at her own life – perhaps in particular the sacrifices – and conceded another path lay ahead for Paige. After all, the family has long-since paid its debt.
When she comes to consider this on a conscious level, maybe E will see she and P have already achieved what they hoped for with their daughter, that Paige has already formed into the person they wanted her to be in the pilot episode. Their child wants a nuclear free world, she cares about justice and equality. Maybe she will, as Elizabeth suggested, work as a trade unionist.
What if this Paige Jennings went to college in late 1985 and graduated in 89 just months before the Berlin Wall came down. Maybe she majored in Russian and travelled the former Soviet Union at the time of Perestroika and Glasnost. A person with that skill set could contribute enormously in a rapidly changing world. She will be about 25 when Bill Clinton becomes President and just short of her mother’s current age when Obama does.
Perhaps she followed another path. When you stand back and look at the values already instilled in her, the way she cares for her brother, works, organises, thinks, understands, her determination to get the truth, maybe one day Philip and Elizabeth will come to be proud of the person Paige already was.
See you in 2016.
We should be used now to stories or characters appearing, concluding or veering off unexpectedly – challenging narrative conventions has quietly become a trademark of the show. Those who had worked that out already certainly weren’t disappointed here.
The showrunners now seem comfortable with their audience vising stories and characters at key moments and allowing other development to occur off screen – so not only is the narrative structure sometimes challenging but the audience is also being asked to work harder to fill in gaps. I guess if you don’t trust your audience by end of S3 …
So who’s got a number for the hilarious Jennifer from EST?
1980s Levis: even Mrs Beeman can’t make them look good
No idea who Anton Lazarevich is perhaps it’s a pet name Nina has for Anton?
Across the road, two guys needing substitute family figures play the non-electronic game i.e. Stan’s game not Henry’s
Montages: some will cite ‘Task’ as their favourite montage, others ‘Games Without Frontiers’. In this finale we had something pretty different: intercut with family members we started with some Twilight Zone meets Philip Glass electronica. Then, as the quick cuts continued, in came excerpts from the ‘evil empire’ speech. Felt powerful to me. Reaction quote: not as easy to dance to but maybe after a few EST meetings …
Incidentally, for these final 5 seconds of the season the director uses the famous Dolly Shot (or ‘Jaws shot’) technique.