Mad Men, The Americans, and Brushes with Everyday Terror

madmen2

“The Crash” and The Americans’ “Trust Me”

May 21st, 2013

Of the shows I fell behind on earlier this year, The Americans is what I’ve considered my first priority to catch up on, although even that has been a slow process; I just finished “Trust Me,” the sixth episode of the FX series’ acclaimed first season, last night.

However, sometimes timing is fortuitous, as I watched it after having watched—and podcast with the folks at the Mad World Podcast—about Mad Men‘s “The Crash,” and I was struck by a shared interest in how the normal manifests within the sensational. Obviously, “Trust Me” isn’t a trippy drug trip, but it nonetheless juxtaposes a form of psychological struggle or torture with scenes of danger that at first manifest as part of the game but eventually appear to be simply a coincidental brush with everyday terror.

We can talk about the drug trip elements of Mad Men all day, and I certainly won’t turn down a good GIF when I see one, but the scenes that struck me most were the ones in which Sally and Bobby confront an intruder who claims to be their grandmother. Like many others, I’m sure, I thought for a second it was an extension of the drug trip, although that wouldn’t make any sense given that none of those characters are involved. As a result, it’s an effective way to relocate the drug trip within the audience and blur the line between those moments where we’re decidedly inside Don’s mind or when we’re at a remove—as we are following the only drunk Peggy—but nonetheless still “under the influence” psychologically as we watch the episode. For that reason alone, Sally’s brush with Grandma Ida helps function as a different sort of head trip, one which makes us reflect on how much our perspectives have been dislocated by the speed running through the officers at…what’s the name of the firm at this point?

However, it also serves two thematic purposes that speak to both the episode as a whole and Sally as a character specifically. On the latter point, the sequences reinforce the degree to which Sally is still a child, and how her perspective on the world is devalued. She knows Ida is up to something, but when she calls the police they are immediately skeptical about her call. That it’s so quickly read as a prank, and that Ida is capable of smoothing things over without any further suspicion from the person on then other end of the line, both halts Sally’s quick march to adulthood precipitated by Megan’s deputizing Sally as a babysitter and also—to a larger point—reinforces that the real world is just as terrifying as a drug trip can be. Sometimes an African American woman breaks into a series of apartments and steals a collection of valuables, in the process taking advantage of—and effectively taking hostage—young children who are caught between the truth they know and the lie they’re being violated by.

In watching “Trust Me,” I was struck by how it follows a similar principle whereby the show’s primary characters are undergoing one experience that starts to bleed into the experience of their children. As Phillip and Elizabeth are held hostage by the Russians out of suspicion for their potential involvement in the leak at the Residency—a reveal that I’m hoping the episode didn’t think was a surprise—we know that their family could be in jeopardy, which is why there’s an added layer of terror as Paige and Henry try to hitchhike their way home from the mall. Similar to Sally and Bobby’s experience, the Jennings kids have no reason to be concerned in the way we are, isolated from both the specific tension of this episode and the more general tension of the series (given that they’re unaware their parents are spies). While the prospect of hitchhiking brings with it a basic set of warning signs, there’s a difference between “Is this dude planning on hurting us because he’s a creepy?” and “Is this dude planning on holding us hostage as our leverage over our parents?”

To this point in its run, The Americans really hasn’t known what to do with the kids, largely using them as Phllip and Elizabeth’s connections to “normal” life that must be mediated in light of their secret one. That’s the basic impulse of this story, which not unlike Sally and Bobby’s incident is precipitated by parents whose other lives—their jobs, their careers—leave them alone and potentially in peril. However, whereas Mad Men largely lets Sally and Bobby’s experience be a lesson for Don about balancing responsibilities (leading him to drop out of the Chevy account), The Americans lets this be a lesson for Paige and Henry. It seems like the driver was just a troubled kid who was going through some things and needed someone to talk to and potentially threaten, and not a Russian spy sent to kidnap them, but the point is that they get out of the situation themselves. Whereas Sally’s maturity if stunted by her discovery, Henry’s maturity is accelerated through his courage, to the point where he wets himself out of fear of the situation he’s found himself in. It’s a spy mission in miniature, right down to cleaning up the evidence (the laundering equivalent of the car crash used to cover up their torture wounds) and the secret they can now keep from their parents.

And yet while we can see both scenes are specific character developments for younger characters in shows dominated by older ones, I’d argue they’re more important for how they force us to reevaluate our experiences “in the moment” when watching the episodes. In writing about something after it airs, we’re often trying to solve its meaning and comfortably place it in a specific box, but the fact is that these scenes are perhaps more important for how they inflect our experience with the episode as a whole than they are as contained statements. That’s perhaps more clear in the case of Mad Men where the episode as a whole seems to be about experience, but we can see the same thing in the Americans subplot which more clearly registers as a traditional C-story for parts of the cast that viewers may not find as instantly compelling. While I wouldn’t argue that the scene is transformative for the show, I would argue that it nonetheless plays a dynamic part in telling the story of “Trust Me” and forcing the viewer to question how far the kidnapping plot could extend. It’s a reminder that at the heart of red herrings is not an excuse to waste time, but rather the visceral experience of uncertainty which can—regardless of the end reveal, which one could argue the episode leaves vague—be in and of itself productive.

Cultural Observations

  • I’ve been treading carefully regarding spoilers for The Americans all Spring, so please know I have yet to watch past “Trust Me” and therefore if I stepped into any sort of other themes/events I’d appreciate us not talking about them. I realize I’m well past the point of safe passage regarding spoilers, but I’m trying my darndest to stay pure on this one.
  • So do you think the military bumper sticker on the driver’s car was intended as a way to try to throw us off the scene that it was the KGB who were holding Phillip and Elizabeth hostage? Or just part of the dude’s profile to help explain his depressive state? And do you have no idea what I’m talking about since this episode aired two and a half months ago? Probably the last one, eh?
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