Television

Sound and Silence in FX's 'The Americans'

Quiet on the set! Nathan Barr's Emmy-nominated theme song -- and his at times chilling soundtrack for this tale of Russian spies in America during the Cold War -- is now available on CD.

The Americans: Music from the TV Series
Nathan Barr

20th Century Fox TV Records

23 Mar 2018

When you think about the sound of FX's The Americans, what do you hear? Do you hear Nathan Barr's Emmy-nominated opening theme song, or his mood-setting compositions? Do you hear an '80s pop song, perfectly employed over a scene? Or do you hear nothing at all?

Barr's music, crucial for so many of the show's moments of suspense and action, is now out as an album, The Americans: Music from the TV Series (available on Amazon, Apple, and elsewhere). I love the opening sequence, for which Barr received an Emmy nomination in 2013, though truthfully, I'm as captivated by the sequence's visual montage as its music. Sounding simultaneously like a spy song and a traditional Russian tune, the main theme checks the two important boxes and works well whenever else it emerges within the show. "Stealthy Pursuit" is a good example of Barr reconstituting pieces of that signature theme into a jumpy, musically-rich track that, listened to on its own, evokes wonderful memories of dead drops and ridiculous wigs from seasons gone by.

The Americans' use of contemporary '80s music often overshadows Barr's work, though Barr has had a hand in a couple noteworthy vocal tracks. He traveled to the motherland to work with a Russian choir on an arrangement of "America the Beautiful" that memorably opened season five. And he somehow managed to get Pete Townshend to collaborate on an original track, "It Must Be Done," back in season two. Both tracks are on the newly released album.

While the show's music has propped up many memorable scenes, The Americans is ultimately a quiet show. The two main characters, Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) are stealthy, well-prepared, and extremely good at their work as spies, and thus even during the show's most exciting moments, the pair often say nothing at all. INdeed, Russell and Rhys are also superb in their roles, often using their faces and bodies in wordless scenes throughout the series. Compositions like "Stealthy Pursuit" are crucial for many moments of tension and action, but so much of the show's overall excellence rests on shadows, stillness, and silence.

Show runners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields use Barr's music with restraint, leaving plenty of room for acting. The Russian-speaking performers, particularly Costa Ronin as Oleg Burov, have been so good in his portrayal of a spy in double-jeopardy that sometimes I don't even need to read the subtitles. When the show is about Russian spy games in America, Barr's music has a crucial place. But when the show is about marriage in America, the music subsides. After all, when it comes to marriage, silence can convey a lot of meaning.

Take the opening scene of "The Summit", the eighth episode in the show's ten-episode, sixth and final season. A backing track plays beneath the "scenes from last episode" montage, with the music swelling into the last clip: Philip sitting in the Jennings's dark living room. The episode picks things up there, but Philip now sits in silence.

Elizabeth returns home and misreads Philip's brooding. She thinks that he's still upset because, in the prior episode, he had to hack the head and hands off one of their fellow spies to cover their tracks after a mission went poorly. In fact, Philip is finally gathering the courage to tell her that he has been reporting on her actions through an alternate channel, Burov.

"I tried to tell you," Philip insists, and we, the audience, sympathize with him, because we did see him try. He tried to tell Elizabeth after his initial contact with Burov, but Elizabeth, exhausted, kept cutting him off. Still, he should have tried harder. We have never seen Elizabeth so disgusted with him. Every marriage has its own set of rules; in this marriage, sleeping with contacts is not adultery, but reporting on your partner is.

Keeping his mission secret for a few months, as Philip now admits having done, is the deepest betrayal. At various points, we have seen both Philip and Elizabeth address a covert conflict in their marriage by ending a period of mutual silence, bringing their problems into the open as any healthy marriage must do from time to time. Meanwhile, Elizabeth's stressful espionage work may be pulling her too far from her husband. As the timeline of the show heads into the late '80s, it's no surprise that things have turned for the worst. The fate of their marriage, however, remains the biggest mystery for the show's endgame.

In a marriage, silence can mean many things. Silence can mean familiarity, like a married couple of spies working a difficult mission and knowing exactly what the other will do without speaking. Silence can also signify a chasm, like a husband undermining his wife's work and ideology by secretly reporting her actions. Geopolitically, Philip is moving ever closer to the right side of history. Relationally, Philip's silence puts him in the wrong.

At the end of the opening scene to "The Summit" episode, Philip urges Elizabeth to consider that, while they may report to a higher, worthier power, the consequences of their actions fall on them. Elizabeth listens to Philip's "It's on us" speech, but turns and leaves without saying a word. Philip sighs, and the show cuts back to the opening sequence. Barr's theme breaks the silence.

In quiet scenes like this, The Americans can feel more like a serious, sometimes slow independent film than a traditional television show. This is not unique to television these days, as the distinction between television and film continues to blur. Still, that slowness is a likely explanation for the show's consistently low ratings despite the consistently strong praise from critics. Those critics aside, TV viewers will always be more prone to distraction than moviegoers. Sometimes their ears need a musical signal to remind their eyes to focus on their screen instead of their phone, their fridge, or their dirty dishes. The Americans often refrains from supplying these reminders. Barr's work on the show is thus similar to the work of its supporting cast members; it's excellent when called upon, but when The Americans is at its most wonderful, it's often when Russell and Rhys are working together in silence.

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