On the Air Tonight: Music in FX’s The Americans

Music is the first thing one experiences in the pilot episode of The Americans. Quarterflash’s 1981 hit, “Harden My Heart,” plays as we get the show’s setting: Washington D.C. No year is announced, but the song, with it’s era-specific “sexy” saxophone, tells us we are in the ‘80s. We aren’t sure that the music isn’t diegetic as we see Keri Russell sitting at a bar leaning into the conversation she is having with a middle-aged man who has deluded himself into believing that a woman that beautiful is incredibly interested in him.

https://open.spotify.com/track/3CSLUIrI2KPMulHR5bh17O

The song serves a dual purpose working also as a prompt for us to question the sincerity of the attraction between the couple. We hear the music louder than before with the line “gonna harden my heart” playing over a close-up of Keri Russell. Why, if she is truly interested in being with this guy, does she need to harden her heart, as the song suggests? We find out after their love scene that it is because Russell’s character is not your average hot blonde…she’s not even blonde at all. She’s a Soviet spy using sex to procure vital intel from a man who works at the Department of Justice.

The next piece of music we hear is only a couple minutes later—a drum beat sound bridge taking us from Russell removing her wig in her car to a dark street three days later where two men talk quietly in the shadows. The music is the beginning of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk,” a special extended version according to Darryl Frank, one of the show’s executive producers (personal communication, October 13, 2017). The song’s instrumental sections joined with the drum solo in the middle of the song to form a great backdrop for suspense. The song drops out when the chased man stops, choosing instead to fight the man chasing him (Matthew Rhys). This is particularly effective as it exactly matches when the chaser, surprised by his prey’s turn, realizes he will have to fight the man who was earlier referred to as an extremely skilled fighter, dramatizing the moment. During the fight sequence, we hear a typical fight score: flourishes to denote danger when someone is knocked down or a blade gets too close. The song resumes when there is a cut to a car careening down the street toward the two men: the chaser’s partner, Keri Russell, has arrived.

The song is stretched out an impressive 8 minutes (the original version is 3:35 minutes) from 1:57 to 10:05, the entire length of the scene. The only song lyrics we hear are “why don’t you tell me what’s going on/ why don’t you tell me who’s on the phone” and “tusk!” until an interesting turn of events that shows the main characters’ mettle. Russell and Rhys have dropped off their other team member, a young man who just got stabbed in the chest, near a hospital where he (probably mortally wounded) is expected to walk himself in and maintain anonymity before passing out…the two quickly drive away to complete the mission as we fittingly hear “don’t say that you love me.” This job leaves no room for indulgent emotion, a recurring theme in the show as we see the characters’ fake cover marriage buckle as it becomes a real one. The last lyrics we hear are the faint “real savage like” as Russell’s Elizabeth Jennings seethes over their having literally missed the boat to complete their mission because they stopped at the hospital to drop off the wounded young man.

The next and final song comes 50 minutes into the episode, Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” This non-diegetic music plays as the scene opens on a low angle shot of the hood of an Oldsmobile in motion. The camera tilts up to show Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Rhys) driving in uncomfortable silence after a jarring encounter with a defected KGB agent. Killing him was significant not only because it was the culmination of the decision of whether to flee or stay and risk their cover being blown, but also as revenge for Elizabeth. This same KGB agent raped her when she was his trainee. Now a seasoned fighter, she takes him on, but it is Philip who kills him, thereby regaining Elizabeth’s trust and loyalty.

The scene has an interesting intertextual meaning, as it is very similar to a scene featuring the same song from the Emmy-winningMiami Vice pilot, “Brother’s Keeper” (1984, produced by UW-Madison alumnus Michael Mann).

https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/6HmuFuRPv6o?rel=0&start=5

In both a crucial decision has just been made that forever bonds the two main characters as they drive. The Americans pilot uses the song in almost the exact same way as the Vice pilot—over the main characters driving to an unfortunate but necessary task after a watershed revelation.

A pair of close up reverses between Elizabeth and Philip oscillates to show the characters’ different internal states as Collin’s instrumental beginning sets a tone of unsettling anticipation. The camera first focuses on Elizabeth: her expression conveying surprised gratitude for a partner whose love has just been revealed to be quite earnest. Philip’s countenance displays a sad appreciation for what his wife has gone through. We see Elizabeth looking at Philip and Philip seeing Elizabeth truly see him for the first time.

A close-up of Elizabeth appearing to realize the worth of her ostensibly fake marriage is shown as Collins sings, “I can feel it coming in the air tonight. Oh, lord. The camera racks, and as it focuses on Philip, Collins’ voice continues with, “And I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life. Oh, lord.”—the lyrics seemingly stating each character’s inner thoughts. In both the Miami Vice scene and its counterpart in The Americans, we are shown the birth of a new understanding and intimacy between partners: one in law enforcement, the other in crime (the Jennings are what the FBI calls “illegals”). The scene closes with the death of the Jennings’ fake marriage signified by the disposing of the defector’s body. Then, with another pair of reverses in the car paralleling those from earlier, their new union is consummated as they make love, not just sex, for the first time. Collins’ sings “I can feel it coming in the air tonight,” signaling a real marriage on the horizon.

I’ve seen your face before, my friend.

But I don’t know if you know who I am.

An intertextual televisual chiasmus is created when we recall that the companion scene in Miami Vice is preceded by the opposite of the unity that we witnessed immediately before The Americans’ “In the Air Tonight” drive. In Vice, one of our protagonists, Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson), has just been deeply betrayed by his close colleague, forever severing their once robust friendship. It’s an “inside baseball” nod to a show that prioritized the use of music—Miami Vice spent an average of $10,000 an episode on music as the first narrative TV show to regularly use current pop music (Zoglin, 1985; Wikipedia, n.d.). This allusion signals to the audience that this series will similarly innovate and enchant sonically. Darryl Frank said that they set aside a healthy portion of The American’s budget for music, and sometimes the writers even indicate the use of specific songs in episode scripts (personal communication, October 13, 2017).

While some episodes utilize multiple songs to punctuate a variety of scenes with different meanings, other episodes focus on a single song to deliver a message, a message that is often more powerful because of its stand-alone nature. In “Mutually Assured Destruction,” the eighth episode of the first season, the only non-diegetic music featured other than the score is a song from the iconic, English rock band the Cure, titled “Siamese Twins.”

This episode serves as a pivotal, turning point in the season, where relationships are challenged and important narrative events are foreshadowed for the latter part of the season. Essentially, this episode is the transition from Act II to Act III in the overall narrative arc of the season. “Siamese Twins” is used to establish many intricacies that will unfold in the five episodes that follow “Mutually Assured Destruction.”  

After a failed mission to stop one of The Center’s own assassins, Elizabeth and Philip are dealing with the fallout of their folly.  Elizabeth points to a distracted mind for her failure on the mission; she notes that their marriage, and if it is real or not, is starting to take an emotional toll on her. Philip agrees that his issues are within the same realm. In the last part of their heated discussion Philip says: 

When we first came here all those years ago, we had to be married for this, to fit in for our cover. But things are different now. It’s a very modern country. People get separated all the time. You don’t want to be married to me? I don’t think The Center would even care.  

The silent tension of heartbreak and confusion is soon filled by the sound of a percussive drum beat and moody guitar riffs that fill the void. “Siamese Twins” is quintessentially the Curei—with its angst-ridden vocals and dark lyricism it matches The Americans perfectly. During this scene, pain and bleak realization start to bubble to the surface for many characters epitomized by the lyrics “is it always like this” and ‘it all falls apart.” This simplicity of these lines doesn’t take away from their power. Things are changing at this point in the season, and the shift is affecting everyone.

“Siamese Twins” is paired with a montage that shows a variety of different and very important plot points.  One scene shows Philip calmly reading a newspaper, trying to seem unaffected by the realization that the romance with Elizabeth might be over only as its really just begun. In the same scene, Elizabeth tucks their kids into bed, highlighting that she still cares about her family even if it is an arrangement. The two are modeling the behavior that is more characteristic of the other. Like touching a mirror and seeing oneself in reverse, they are metaphorical “Siamese twins” connected at the heart and mind. Conjoined by their mission, their heritage, and their children Elizabeth and Philip are unable to separate even if they’d be healthier apart. The montage also shows FBI agent Chris stalking a former-lover, Martha, to see what she is up to, presenting the first elements of Chris’s suspicion that Martha is up to something. This develops as the season progresses and culminates with Chris’s death at Philip’s hands due to a complex combination of love triangle and intrigue. The scene gives viewers the first taste that Chris may be getting in way over his head, again showing how even ex-lovers are always connected—in this case fatally so.

Another element of tension between love and trust occurs between FBI director, Stan Beeman, and KGB double agent, Nina. The scene depicts Nina and Stan continuing their love affair even as they begin to suspect the other is lying about their true intentions. Trust issues blossom as the tug of war between love for each other and love for country plays out when neither can let go of either. They are tied to each other for better or worse, twin pawns in the proxy war.  

The ending of this episode presents the crumbling dualities of relationships that will become devastating in the last third of the season, making it no coincidence that the song highlighting this important plot point is called “Siamese Twins.” In many cases of conjoined twins, if one twin gets sick or dies the other will usually suffer the same fate. This song by the Cure hints at the destructiveness of relationships with lyrics like “voodoo smile” and “I scream, ‘You’re nothing!'” foreshadowing the dark road that our characters will tumble down for the rest of the season. The dark road that is loving another—being connected to another—is perilous and paralyzing.


By Cristina Henriquez with Hunter Reed

References

Brother’s Keeper. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved October 20, 2017, from

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brother%27s_Keeper_(Miami_Vice)

Zoglin, R. (Monday, Sept. 16, 1985). Cool Cops, Hot Show. Time Magazine. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,959822,00.html

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