Once upon a time, Carmela Soprano walked into a psychiatrist’s office. Her mobster husband Tony was depressed, angry, unfaithful. Could their marriage be saved? Her therapist’s answer was not one she wanted to hear: To hell with the marriage — it’s her soul she should be worried about. Tony is a monster, and she’s morally responsible for helping him feed. “You’ll never be able to feel good about yourself,” this Dr. Krakower tells her, “never be able to quell the feelings of guilt and shame that you talk about as long as you’re accomplice.” Carmela equivocates, backtracks, rationalizes, wriggles away from the words, but with no more success than a worm on a hook. “What did I just say?” he says, not budging, not allowing her to budge either. “Leave him. Take the children—what’s left of them—and go.” She frets about child support, and he interrupts. “I’m not charging you because I won’t take blood money, and you can’t either.” Then comes his final line, the last one we ever hear from this character, who never appears again and whose advice ultimately goes unheeded. “One thing you can never say: that you haven’t been told.”
On “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?”, tonight’s grim episode of The Americans, Elizabeth Jennings met her Dr. Krakower, and killed her. It didn’t seem that it would work out quite that way, not even after the decision to kill her had been made. The unlikely rapport Elizabeth developed with Betty, the kindly old lady who kept the books at the family-run machine repair shop the Jennings had infiltrated in order to bug the titular robot, carried on even as she forced the woman to take pill after pill, murdering her a few milligrams at a time. No doubt Betty reminded the spy of her own mother — similarly affected by family sacrifices made during World War II, similarly fond of her late husband and grown child. And Betty, right until the end, clung to that connection herself, even going so far as to cast Elizabeth as a messenger from her late husband, sent to spare her the pain of a drawn-out death and reunite them in the world beyond.
Then it goes wrong. “Do you have children?” Betty asks, her voice increasingly shaky. “Yes,” Elizabeth replies, as candid as she has been during their entire conversation. But the revelation engenders only coldness: “And this. Is. What. You. Do,” Betty replies, her disgust driving every word home. When Elizabeth reveals that she and her husband do this together, Betty is baffled. “Why?” “To make the world a better place,” Elizabeth replies, the words wholly inadequate to the scene they soundtrack. “You think doing this to me will make the world a better place?” Betty asks. “I’m sorry but it will,” Elizabeth says. And before Betty dies, she delivers the killing blow: “That’s what evil people tell themselves, when they do evil things.”
Powerful in its own right, the scene is emblematic of The Americans Season Three’s artistic project as a whole. In its early going, the show certainly didn’t skimp on showing us the Jennings’ fundamental brutality, but it did so when we had little context for it beyond “My, how our protagonists suffer for their own misdeeds.” The consequences of their bad acts were viewed through the lens of how those acts affected the perpetrators, not the victims; while that kind of empathy is vital, it can never be allowed to be art’s exclusive focus.
Season three makes good on Season Two’s signs of moral growth in this regard (remember the kidnapped defector, sobbing and screaming “You’re a monster!” at Philip as he was carted back to the Soviet Union?), by bringing the suffering home, as it were—making the recruitment of Paige Jennings its central conflict. How can these people possibly compartmentalize what they do and who they are when they’re about to do it with, or to, their own daughter? They can’t, and neither, as viewers, can we. Every time the Jennings sit on their hands while a woman is choked to death by her lover; every time they brake her bones and stuff her naked corpse in a suitcase; every time they seduce a child to further their goals; every time they stand and watch as a man is lit on fire; every time a teenager is shot in the eye and strangled in an elevator in their name (yes, Betty’s death wasn’t even the only protracted murder this episode); every time they poison an old woman to death; every time they do a hateful thing, the idealistic teenage girl they love is an implicit witness, participant, or victim. They can tell themselves whatever they want about why they’re doing what they’re doing. Their actions tell a different, truer story. And tonight, so did Betty.
Interestingly, Betty and Dr. Krakower came along at near-identical points in their respective series’ development. The Sopranos was easy to see as a black comedy about mobsters, like the first few reels of GoodFellas—until, in its third season, creator David Chase dropped the veil entirely, using the loathsome Ralph Cifaretto to beat the show’s feel-good elements to death in the Bada Bing parking lot in the episode entitled “University.” Carmela’s visit to the good doctor took place in the very next episode, and his message to her rang truer than he knew. The Americans has reached a similar stage. The cloak-and-dagger spy games, the highly sexed honey traps — they end in abuse, torture, and tragedy. In her dying declaration, Betty merely gave voice to what the season’s been saying all along. One thing Elizabeth can never say: that she hasn’t been told.