Before his death in 1966, Walt Disney, inspired by the Garden City movement and the futuristic utopianism of the World’s Fair, drew up plans for an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT) in the swamplands of north-central Florida. That his desire to reshape the urban landscape should founder is, in some sense, the subtext of the latest installment of The Americans: The Epcot Center that opened in 1982 was not the working city of Disney’s dreams, but another “attraction” for the Magic Kingdom’s visitors to tour, a strange amalgam of blind faith in technological progress and bland internationalism.
With “Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow,” The Americans examines the transformation of such high ideals into imperfect realities. “Peace workers” become deadly spies; the pastor’s obligation to the truth leads him to betray his congregant’s confidence; even the promise of inclusion is embedded in a sales pitch. “I tell my friends they don’t have to look like Martians,” Mary Kay promoter Young Hee (Ruthie Ann Miles) jokes, as the camera turns, tellingly, to Elizabeth (Keri Russell). “We’re all Americans now.”
There’s a difference, of course, between shilling makeup and shuttling biological weapons around Washington D.C., and on the strength of Miles’s charming performance, “Experimental Prototype” resists the ease of false equivalences. Though Elizabeth’s end game is the acquisition of access codes to biocontainment level four at Fort Detrick, where William (Dylan Baker) is installed as a Soviet mole, what she discovers in befriending Young Hee is a vision of America that tests her hardline opposition to capitalism. “It was fun,” she tells Philip (Matthew Rhys), with an air of surprise, after spending the day undercover as a Mary Kay saleswoman, and dinner at Young Hee’s the next evening witnesses Elizabeth momentarily shed her composure to dance off a spicy pepper.
Indeed, though Elizabeth may disapprove of the craze for Cabbage Patch Kids (“That’s America for you”), I suspect her affection for this gregarious immigrant family, “little bit Korean, little bit not,” is more than a put-on for the sake of the mission. Whereas her Camaro-driving husband has long since become comfortable with the trappings of American-style success, Elizabeth has struggled to develop a sense of belonging in the States; Young Hee, respecting her heritage without being bound by it, offers a third way.
It’s notable, in this context, that Elizabeth frames the conversation with Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin) in similar terms, to the point that even Philip throws her a slightly skeptical look when she plays the EPCOT-esque “we’re not so different from you” card. After she attempts to explain away their work for an enemy government by bringing up nuclear nonproliferation and racial equality, Tim counters with the repression of Jewish dissidents in the USSR and Catholics in communist Poland. Her response is an admission that no participant in the Cold War commands the moral high ground: “Our country isn’t perfect,” she says. “Neither is this one.”
Even more striking, perhaps, is the line of reasoning she uses to support Gabriel (Frank Langella) when he reveals the Centre’s plan to assassinate Tim and his wife, Alice—a plan Philip rejects because Paige (Holly Taylor) is sure to deduce her parents’ involvement. “They’ve given us a way out of this that lets us keep our lives,” Elizabeth argues, reluctant to destroy what she and Philip have built in their adoptive home. In other words: We’re all Americans now.
If the episode can be said to have a central thrust, it’s this interest in bruising the characters’ convictions through a series of unexpected developments. Paige’s faith in Pastor Tim is shaken by the news that he shared her confession with Alice; Stan (Noah Emmerich), following Martha (Alison Wright) to Clark’s apartment, loses confidence in the secretary’s loyalty to the F.B.I.; Gabriel urges Claudia (Margo Martindale) to allow the Jenningses to return to Russia.
In an episode named after EPCOT, with its vision of the social contract perfected through planning, The Americans, as unflinching as ever, offers only the faintest hope for the future. “First there are no choices, then there are no good choices,” Claudia says bleakly. “I’d say we’re making progress.” Instead of old saws and aphorisms, the series prefers to get down in the muck of lived experience; it’s no surprise that the episode’s finest scene, which might otherwise be a throwaway, is the messy, naturalistic exchange between Philip and Sandra (Susan Misner) on the challenges of raising teenagers.
From the high-angle shot of Pastor Tim’s office to the low-angle image of Philip and Elizabeth standing over Gabriel half-consciousness on his kitchen floor, the writers depict the slippage between idea and action that occurs when the chaos of life intrudes on one’s design for living. William’s severe allergies and sterile apartment may provoke a macabre chuckle (“I’ve got no sense of smell, and my skin has no natural lubricants,” for instance), but the prospect of a glanders outbreak is no laughing matter. It’s fitting, really, that Philip and Elizabeth’s potential exposure to the pathogen means that their planned trip to EPCOT never materializes: The gleaming City of Tomorrow can only become an object of desire if you’re sure to survive past today.
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