Gritty Period Piece T.V Round Up: Mad Men S6 and The Americans S1 Review(s)

Hope you all didn’t get temporal whip-lash from going back and forth from 1981 to 1968 this T.V season…

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Open either in new tab: Tusk-Fleetwood Mac for 1980’s atmosphere, Judy Collins – Both Sides Now for 1960’s Atmosphere

Earlier this year former CIA operative Joe Weisberg premiered a spy-thriller show on FX based on KGB sleeper cells preforming covert missions in the DC area, cerca 1981. Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) are the couple that spies together, and raise two oblivious kids as well. They sneak, steal, disguise and sleep around with whom ever can give them valuable intelligence. All the while having to remain one step ahead of FBI special agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), who just so happens to move next door to the Jennings. It’s a small world after all.

The cat and mouse game between the KGB spy duo and the FBI’s best is the main focus for the series; however, that is not the only thing in play here. The relationship for the undercover husband and wife, played flawlessly and outstandingly by Rhys and Russell, is always an ongoing mystery for the audience and the couple. As in how much of it is real, if any of it is. For nearly twenty-years the two have played the part of loving spouses while raising two growing kids, something must be there, shouldn’t there be?

The AmericansThe ebb and flow of balancing their espionage and domestic lives push them at times closer together, other times farther apart, oscillating between a healthy partnership and a toxic one. They are essentially a normal married couple, exuding the difficulties of maintaining a relationship with the pressures of the working life. Just most people’s jobs don’t include having sex with complete strangers, who they have to get to divulge vital top secret intelligence.

Elizabeth is a daughter of both the KGB and her motherland, loyal to a fault as it is brutally proven early on in the series. She follows orders to the letter with ruthless efficiency, she doesn’t question why because she cannot possibly stop believing in her country’s cause.  Philip on the other hand, his stauch loyalty may have been slowly eroded in the decades he has spent in a capitalist society. He actually seems to enjoy the spoils of the very society he is supposed to be trying to tear down. However, though he may be questioning patriotism, he is still with the unshakable Elizabeth and has had a life with her for years. Perhaps Elizabeth played her role as the loving and care-giver partner too well.

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However, early in the season in a heated argument over a current mission, Philip exclaims “You lied to me!”, to which Elizabeth replies “What does that even mean?” their social status’, marriage and accents are all based on a rocky foundation of lies and deceit. A “house of cards” to be sure, one that would take a mere nudge to crumble. With the lives of their two innocent unsuspecting children hanging in the balance, the stakes are higher than simple cold war spy vs. spy antics.

The Russians are not the only ones with domestic troubles, Stan Beeman (An always game and relatable Noah Emmerich) has his own trials at home. Coming back from his own deep undercover mission he hasn’t seen his family in years, and is having trouble settling back into family life. When his job trying to find the spy cell in DC becomes a personal vendetta, he turns away from his wife and kids. Falling for a pretty Russian embassy worker turned mole, Nina (Annet Mahendru). Creating his own layer of lies and hidden motivations. He’s more like his supposed targets more than he’ll probably ever know.

All the while there are also several supporting characters on both sides caught in the fray of West Vs. East. There are of course, the Jennings kids, Paige and Henry, that go about their growing pains completely unaware that Mom and Dad are actively trying to bring down the American government and all it stands for. Paige, played completely naturally by Holly Taylor, especially begins to diverge from her mother as she begins to enter a rebellious adolescence. Made all the more difficult as Elizabeth tries ever so slightly to steer her away from the western life style.

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While dealing with an ever distancing daughter, Elizabeth falls back to an old flame in Gregory, an always welcomed Derek Luke, for additional surveillance eyes and much more ‘carnal’ reasons. Meanwhile, Philip “romances” one of Stan’s co-workers, stringing poor Martha Hudson (A heartbreakingly naive Allison Wright) along like a puppet. People committing infidelity, leading double lives and triple lives, and keeping many secrets and lies, sounds a whole lot like the our favorite window into the 60’s, Mad Men. Indeed many themes from The Americans can be transferred to the AMC vice-ridden drama. That of identity (real and falsified), marital problems and sleazy-underhanded work-place politics.

When we last left the world of advertising in the 1960’s, Don may or may not have returned to his old ways, Roger may or may not have had an terrifying realization about his life and pursuits, Peggy may or may not have gone to greater pastures, Pete may or may not have had gained some emotional maturity, Megan may or may not be the partner Don needs going forward, and Joan may or may not have finally gained the respect she deserves… suffice to say a lot was left hanging by last season’s end. This is Mad Men we’re talking about, after all, the only thing cloudier than the future is the cigarette smoke. However, there were certainties: Lane had a bad year, Betty is not taking her role as the ex-wife well (Ok, I’ll be the first to link to it), Sally is having an ‘interesting’ adolescence, and the entire main cast is going through major transitioning.

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Which brings us to the penultimate season of Mad Men, nearly completely centered around an adrift Don Draper, played again to perfection by Jon Hamm. It is apparent; however, that he longer has the spark of creative genius that made him the ad-man of the decade, he longer can make the objet of his desires fall head over heals for him and he just doesn’t command the same respect and power. Seemingly just as the 60’s begin to wane so does the aura and mystique of Don Draper. Perhaps it is all meant to be.

Don tires his best to regain lost glory in many ways: by merging with another agency, maintaining an affair with his one floor down neighbor’s wife and even to the extent of having sex with his ex-wife, Betty. All to no aval, he is “falling” (so the opening credits sequence finally comes to fruition) fast with no parachute. Sliding deeper and deeper into the abyss, he finds no reprieve from the people around him. The object of his extramarital affair Sylvia Rosen (Career best performance from Linda Cardellini) leaves him high and dry, Peggy can’t stand his business political antics with her Boss, Ted Shaw (Played with wide-eyed optimism by Kevin Rahm), Megan leaves him after losing a chance at moving to LA and finally the ultimate separation with his business partners at Sterling Cooper and Partners terminating his job and just perhaps Don Draper all together.

don-and-sylviaAll in all not a great 1968 for him. Making matters worse are the unmistakable signs that the times are against him and his way of life. Coming in the form of high-profile assassinations, riots and protests it is clear that social unrest is boiling over, the times they are a’changing. Additionally, it becomes apparent that the newcomer Bob Benson (a wonderfully mysterious James Wolk) is the Don Draper for the next decade. Moving up in the agency by the same means as Don, although doing it while getting people to appreciate him for his real actions rather than the false persona he exudes.

The two series compliment each other well, in fact they both arrive to similar end games. Both reaching the breaking point in falsehoods and emotional distancing, leaving honesty as the best policy. In the Americans, it was Elizabeth having a near-death experience that makes her fully understand that Philip has been the one constant for her all these years of living a lie. She asks him shedding her cover by saying it in her native Russian to “Come home”, be apart of the family again. In Mad Men, it was after losing everything that he had built up all the years as Draper that makes Dick Whitman embrace honesty for the first time in ages. Coming clean in a sales pitch and to his kids about his actual childhood that he has so carefully hidden for so long.

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The two shows are also both emblematic of the so-called new “Golden Age” of television. With shows like The Americans, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones all offering dynamic complex engaging characters and relationships. Serving as a sort of tribute to the recently departed great James Gandolfini, whose role as Tony Soprano in The Sopranos helped to usher in this new television renaissance. These series and many others (internet based series like House of Cards and Arrested Development are also gaining momentum) are giving mainstream movies serious competition for audience’s wandering eyes. For the Jennings, the 1980’s was the last decade for the Cold War and for Don Draper the 1960’s are quickly coming to an end, each symbolizing that times are always shifting around us and we have to adapt accordingly. Unless more quality is put on the silver screen on a regular basis, major studios will be left in the dust of this rapidly growing Television Golden Era.

5 Best Episodes of ‘The Americans’ S1: Pilot (Tusk!), Gregory (Derek Luke comes to make things complicated), Duty and Honor (Philip’s old flame comes to make things even more so), Safe House (“Nothing better than American fast food”…indeed), The Colonel (As tense as T.V gets in the last 10min) 

Best Moment: ‘The Games Without Frontiers’ Montage that closes out the Season, with Paige NOT finding any evidence.

The Americans Overall: A great set-up for what hopes to be an action series staple, heres hoping they can go all the way to the fall of the Soviet Union, or at least to the rise of Michael Jackson. Can’t wait for Philip and Elizabeth having to sing along to ‘thriller’ in their car, to keep up appearances of course.

5 Best Episodes of ‘Mad Men’ S6: The Doorway (Gets you back into the 1960’s in style), The Flood (MLK’s death looms), For Immediate Release (SC&P is born), The Crash (Just what in the hell…?), In Care Of (Honesty is the best Policy)

Best Moment: Trudy getting rid of the excess baggage in her life (Pete).

Mad Men Overall: Though nearly completely Don-centric, more of Jon Hamm as Don Draper is never a bad thing. On par with last season, hopefully setting the table for memorable send-off to this ground breaking series.

About Jeff Stewart

Film fanatic, movie buff, film enthusiast whatever you want to call it I have it and have dedicated my writing to showing my appreciation of all things movies here on Just My Take...

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