So I’m feeling that empty feeling one has after Christmas or New Year’s Day or after the last episode of this season’s ‘The Americans.’ Like, wow, that was great and exciting and emotional and now…I’m so down without it. But I have started to realize that I find it bittersweet for another reason: the actor who plays Stan Beeman reminds me so much of my late brother. So much. So I like watching him because it’s a bit like having Alan around, but then it’s so tragic when he’s gone.
I am grateful that ‘The Americans’ does not appear to be going the way of Homeland, the most recent season of which seemed, as my Significant Other put it, to have been written by Barack Obama. For those of you who didn’t watch Homeland this season: first of all, congratulations; second of all, it revolved around a terror attack on New York City apparently committed by an Islamist but actually committed by rogue CIA agents who – naturally – got some help along the way from Mossad.
I am well aware that the left has won the culture wars and that the viewpoints espoused in movies, television and media are going to reflect this fact. But one grows weary. Heck, even my beloved Hawaii Five-0, a show I have long enjoyed because it generally avoids politics and simply shows great-looking cops shooting bad people, had an episode this season where an impending terror attack apparently planned by an Islamist was actually planned by right-wing extremists (somehow affiliated with the government and military, of course).
But ‘The Americans,’ thankfully, has resisted the urge to make communism seem benign and misunderstood. It’s too intelligent for any such nonsense. Oh, it contains its fair share of moral equivalencies, and its share of “no context given” comments: for example, when Elizabeth (as the show’s resident true believer, she is responsible for many silly and baseless assertions) points out that the US can’t be trusted because they are the only country to have used a nuclear weapon. Er, yes, but, you know, some context would be useful here. It wasn’t as though Harry Truman got up one morning and said, “Oh heck, I’d like to nuke someone peaceful and kind today.”
In fact, Elizabeth, with her endless yammering about “justice” and constantly using her interpretation of that word to justify terrible acts, reminds me a lot of the social justice bullies of today. You can draw a line, I believe, from her 1980s-Soviet-totalitarian-bromides to today’s fascism of the left (and make no mistake, it is fascism). And I mean, you can draw that line in real life. I refer here to those lefties who are – and who have long been — pathologically anti-Western.
Enough about such clowns – let’s get to this season of ‘The Americans.’ It has had as its theme, food – the want of the USSR, the excesses of the US. Philip, who way back in the first season was talking about defecting, makes a comment about how the endless fields of wheat in Kansas (where he and Elizabeth are on a mission) remind him of home. “Why,” he asks, “can’t we feed our own people?”
This is an excellent question. The series’ writers have constructed storylines around corruption in the USSR as the main reason for the food shortages. On a micro-scale, yes, that may have been the case. But, of course, the macro-picture, the main reason the USSR could not feed its own people, was that it did not have a free market. So far, this has not been clearly articulated in the show, but at least the writers of ‘The Americans’ have moved away from the absurd notion – hinted at early on in the season — that the United States was planning to try and starve the Soviets (or any other people). One of the best moments this season was when the Jennings realized the US was not only not trying to starve everyone, but rather, was trying to feed everyone. Anyone who knows America and American idealism would not be surprised by that. As my Significant Other said, as we watched that episode, “Twenty years in America and Philip and Elizabeth don’t know America at all.”
They really don’t. (Not to mention that it was their own government that had deliberately starved people in the past.) They will be in for quite a surprise when/if they return home. Gabriel, I think, is beginning to understand one thing about America – it has already won the Cold War. That is how I interpreted the scene where Gabriel visits the Lincoln Memorial before announcing that he has decided to leave. He knows the Soviet jig is up-ski.
Oleg has already returned home, and is getting his own share of surprises: seeing how messed up the food situation is; seeing the embedded corruption; hearing colleagues say matter-of-factly that they have to send someone to prison for ‘treason’ even though all that person did was tell the truth about something or voice a political opinion. But his biggest surprise is learning that his mother had been in a gulag after the war.
Philip has his own revelation about the gulags this season, when he discovers — from Gabriel — that his father had been a guard in one. It causes Philip to view his childhood memories differently: those boots his father brought home one night, for example, were they stolen from a prisoner?
So I tip my hat to the show’s writers and creators…but one cannot stop celebrities from being morons, can one? Alison Wright, who so magnificently gave us the tragedy of Martha, revealed herself in an interview to be not so magnificent when it comes to political/historical analysis. In this interview, she claims – referring to the execution of Nina Sergeevna Krilova on the show – that the Soviets were more ‘humane’ than we (i.e., the United States) about such things because they just snuck up beyond you and shot you in the head. Whereas, you know, we put you on death row and make you wait.
Well, yeah, but we also give you a lawyer, an appeal system that is not a joke and that doesn’t amount to a kangaroo court, and plus, we have the added bonus of actually having to prove our charges against you! Fairly certain that makes us more humane.
Gosh, maybe Martha belongs in the Soviet Union after all.
If you’re not watching The Americans you are a fool, and not just because it is the best show on TV. It is also a show that uses music magnificently. Last night’s episode featured Mark Bernes’ song, Cranes. Absolutely haunting. (Note: It says ‘with English subtitles,’ and yet, I see no subtitles in any language. That said, I know the song is about World War II Soviet soldiers being reincarnated into cranes.)
Binge-watching ‘The Crown,‘ and I must say that it is simply impossible to overstate how truly superior a series it is. I thought people were exaggerating about it – but they were not. Everything about it is perfect. It took me a while to figure out why the actress who played Elizabeth was so familiar to me — and then I realized she is the same woman who played Anne Boleyn in ‘Wolf Hall.’ Give her all the awards, and throw a few in the direction of John Lithgow, as Sir Winston.
Extraordinary. To be watched and re-watched and re-watched.
A friend of ours brought us a bottle of Dubonnet and it brought to mind a jingle from the ’70s. I went on a quest to find it and was unsuccessful but YouTube did give me another gift: a Dubonnet commercial from 1972 with pre-fame Farrah Fawcett and pre-fame Tom Selleck. What is not to love here?
I am prone to insomnia, and last night I was up in the wee small hours watching old episodes of “Rhoda” on the internets. By hazard, I watched an episode in which Rhoda is looking for a job (as a window-dresser) and facing a lot of rejection. It made me think of my post below (scroll down) about aiming for the best.
I got a good laugh when Rhoda said to her sister, Brenda, “I don’t mind being rejected by Tiffany’s, but Tie City?” That’s how I feel as a writer. I don’t mind being rejected by The Paris Review, but [insert name of publication which you hold in contempt]?
One of many memorable scenes from Wolf Hall. What a great insult. Why are you such a person? It’s not as if you can afford to be. Still not bored with this series, no matter how often I have watched it (which is oftener than thou).
I wrote about my brother yesterday and said I would write more today. I think of him every day, of course, but when the anniversary of his death — Hallowe’en — approaches, I think of him more intensely. This week, I got my usual “grief migraine”, for example, and I also found myself thinking of a conversation he and I once had about a show we both loved, Mad Men.
He and I were both Mad Men addicts and had long conversations after each new episode. One episode by which we were both particularly touched was The Gypsy and the Hobo. It takes place over Hallowe’en, and as Don and Betty navigate an upheaval in their marriage, Sally and Bobby are unhappy that they can’t have store-bought costumes.
Don reminds them that the store-bought costumes are cheap. Betty makes them beautiful costumes — a gypsy and a hobo — which they wear but do not appreciate. As a kid, I was very jealous of my friends who had tacky store-bought costumes. My mom made me a beautiful Red Riding Hood outfit, which I wore but did not appreciate.
I shared that memory with Alan, who was very touched by it, as he and I both were by the episode’s ending: Don and Betty, standing behind their trick-or-treating gypsy and hobo; Betty holding their baby, Gene; the adults shaken by Betty’s earlier uncovering of Don’s secrets, trying to put on a happy front for the neighbours, for the children, for themselves.
Or Thomas Cromwell versus Thomas More.
After having read — and enjoyed — the Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall books, I became insanely addicted to the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of the same. It was almost a retro historical drama, like something one would have seen in the 1970s, which I think was very much its strength. A stranger-than-fiction plot, brilliantly staged, written and acted.
It’s a measure of the genius of Mark Rylance, the extraordinary actor (how have I never heard of or seen him before?) who brings self-serving machinator and yet strangely-likable lawyer/fixer/son-of-a-blacksmith Thomas Cromwell to full life, that by the end of the six hours I had a teeny crush on him. What a (not handsome) face! He can convey more with a slight smile/smirk, than one ever cares to know – as good as acting gets. His Cromwell is self-serving, yes, but also sympathetic, intelligent and possessed of some moral boundaries (though he pushes at those a bit).
And it’s a measure of Claire Foy’s talent that, after watching her turn as the mean-spirited Anne Boleyn for six weeks, your heart aches for her as she quiveringly prepares to be parted from her head.
And Damian Lewis as Henry VIII? He comes very close to usurping my previous favorite screen Henry VIII, Robert Shaw. I say “close” because his Henry is far more cruel than Shaw’s interpretation, so it’s hard to feel affection for him (as I did for Shaw’s Henry). Of course, the script played a part in that.
Which brings us to A Man for all Seasons. I have always loved this movie. But it’s interesting because in Wolf Hall, Thomas More is a preening, morally superior hypocrite, a man who tortures “heretics” (apparently enjoying it) and acts all snooty toward the Cromwells of the world, the sons of blacksmiths. It is hard to believe that the More of Wolf Hall believes that the devil deserves benefit of law, though at the end, when he is beheaded, one admires (as in A Man for all Seasons) his powerful faith and his unwillingness to deny it in order to save his earthly life.
And where Wolf Hall makes you care about Cromwell, the Leo McKern Cromwell of A Man for all Seasons is not someone for whom you develop any feeling. The character is not given the depth he is in Wolf Hall, which focusses on Cromwell’s private life (including much loss) and makes his ability to survive (up to a point) at a merciless royal court the centre of the tale.
So what can we learn from this?
That we should learn history from books, many books, and just enjoy movies and TV for what they are — movies and TV (nothing wrong with that, either). Speaking of, off to read this now.
David Letterman said a farewell after over three decades on TV. I first started watching him when I was in high school and he had a morning show. For me, he was at his best in the mid-to-late-1990s: the following video is an example of the ridiculously hilarious humour of which he was capable. Just joyful and silly. (Unfortunately, he became truly bitter — and not in the good sense — over time, and I stopped watching him. Good analysis at the link.)