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Tag Archives: spies

Best of TV Costuming 2014: The Marriage Disguise on The Americans

4 Dec

Welcome to TV Ate My Wardrobe’s “Best of 2014” costuming series and rather than doing a straightforward countdown we’re going to do a variety of posts that look at which costumes and shows have made a huge impact this year. From items that we want in our own wardrobe to pieces that got everyone talking, we want to look at this year’s TV through the prism of costume.

The Americans returned at the start of the year building on the strengths of its first season and serving up a tighter narrative delivering on both the nerve shredding tension of the spy world and as a story about marriage. The wigs and multiple disguises continue to thrill (I wrote about the best covers of season 2 earlier this year) and instead of focusing on the spy attire as I did last year, I want to take a look at the mask they wear daily and the blurring of who they were/are. This marriage is no longer one of cover convenience and the complex emotional web is evolving as they get deeper in this thing called love. They are performing the roles of wife/mother and husband/father as part of their job, but they are also very much Philip and Elizabeth Jennings at this point even if between making dinner they steal government secrets. I will be discussing season 2 in some detail so there will be spoilers.

The Americans plaid and spotsLike most regular non-spies Elizabeth and Philip have clothes they wear for work and a more relaxed selection for at home. In the office Philip isn’t afraid to pattern clash – yes I am in love with the plaid/polka dot mix – and Elizabeth tends to stick with silk neck tie blouses, long gold chains and variety of smart pants and skirts. Nothing too fancy or showy, but what you might expect small business owners to wear. They want to blend in rather than call any attention to themselves but when you look like Keri Russell and have all that magnificent hair it is difficult to not stand out. Elizabeth is a cool mom, but not a cool mom in her style; she is on trend (particularly with her boots collection) but there is no element of try.

At home sweaters of the turtle/roll neck variety are very popular and come in both his and hers. Cue knitwear parade:

The Americans 2.01 The Americans 2.06 washing up the americans 2.09 spotlight The Americans 2.13 ElizabethCan a spy have it all? Balancing work and family can be hard in any profession and throwing espionage into the mix increases the difficulty and threat levels. Danger came in a whole new form with an unknown assassin who killed their spy co-workers along with their daughter in a motel room. Okay that turned out to be more of a domestic issue, a reveal that didn’t come until the finale and up to that point Philip and Elizabeth couldn’t be sure they weren’t on a hit list somewhere. Normally they have just themselves to worry about, but Paige and Henry became potential targets this season and The Americans expanded its focus this year looking at the wider family dynamic.

The marriage is at the heart of the show and as Philip and Elizabeth embraced the idea of real love – sometimes in a manner that no child should see their parents engage in, which is why you ALWAYS knock – the whole system they have been working in became more precarious. Feelings equal higher stakes and with each mission something seemed to go against them at every stage so Philip’s kill number increased dramatically and spy woes impacted their behavior around the kids.

This applies particularly to Philip and it all came to an explosive head in “Martial Eagle” with yet another operation gone bad and a very awkwardly timed trip to church with Paige. Paige has gone and given away all of the money she has been saving for a Europe trip and fun dad Philip turns into a terrifying Bible ripping version of himself as he berates Paige for “respecting Jesus” and not her parents. It is as if someone has flipped a switch and Philip briefly loses the ability to compartmentalize. We are used to seeing a scary but calm Philip in the field, not in this unbridled way in his own kitchen and I want to stress how incredible Matthew Rhys’ performance is across the entire season. The same can be said for Keri Russell who shows Elizabeth’s more vulnerable side this year along with her usually steely determination. Basically I want all the awards for this show.

Look at how hard it is for the pair who lie for a living to look happy when they meet the pastor at Paige’s church; Elizabeth is at least attempting to smile, whereas Philip is beyond being able to fake the grin and bear it approach. They at least put on their Sunday best for the occasion and look the part as they always manage to do.

The americans 2.09 Philip and ElizabethStacks and stacks of deceit are part of their world with cover on top of cover reaching breaking point and while they might be expert spies the emotional toil isn’t something Philip and Elizabeth excel in. Sex is one way they come back together and in the episode that follows “Martial Eagle” Elizabeth offers comfort to Philip in the form of food and an embrace. This leads to a very intimate exchange (thankfully Paige or Henry didn’t need a drink in the middle of the night) and this shared desire in a moment of despair reveals how in tune they can be in this new stage of their relationship. Earlier in the season this is not always the case and when Elizabeth wants to sleep with the wild animal that is Philip’s Clark persona (which is such a weird sentence to write) it ends up being an incredibly distressing experience which highlights how emotionally stunted they can be as a couple.

The Americans 2.05 E and PThe “Honey, how was your day at work?” conversation exists in an entirely different stratosphere on The Americans and in what is probably my favorite scene of the season Philip returns from a particularly difficult operation to a dozing Elizabeth on the sofa. Elizabeth has been running interference with Philip’s fake real wife Martha and their conversation covers all of these aspects. The noise Philip makes when he lies down is one of pure exhaustion and they get this brief moment before the kids’ alarm clocks go off and the day has begun again. In this spell between work chat and the world of their kids waking up they talk about their Russian past.

Discussing anything of who they were pre Elizabeth/Philip is forbidden and it is something they have mostly adhered to with a few notable exceptions such as Elizabeth revealing her real name in the pilot as a signal that their relationship could become more than a facade or when she asked him to ‘come home’ in Russian in the season finale. This is just a small moment discussing icicles that has been prompted by the Mossad agent niggling him about identity and where home really is. Sexual intimacy is one thing, however this scene from “The Deal” points to a much deeper connection as they cover everything from work, home and their past in a close embrace. Layers on layers on layers and it is surprising they don’t emotionally spiral at rapid intervals no matter how much training they have undertaken.

The Americans 2.13 picnicThe grand lie they have been living could all come crashing down with news that the KGB is interested in training Paige to be a spy who will have the ability as a US born citizen to really infiltrate the system. The threat comes from within and has the potential to fracture what has become a very stable relationship as Philip is on the ‘no fucking way’ end of the spectrum whereas Elizabeth sits at ‘maybe it won’t be so bad.’ It has been increasingly difficult to keep their personal and professional lives separate prior to this even though their personal life is a construction of the professional; now the lines are blurring even further and the family/espionage divide is on a collision course. Loyalty to the flag or loyalty to family?

Last year The Americans was a Top 10 show for me and after season 2 it is easily Top 3, if not the No. 1 (The Good WifeTransparent and Hannibal jostle it out for that spot) as it took the framework from the first season and upped the ante on every level. From a costume point of view this is a very fun show to watch with disguises aplenty, but the detail of their everyday attire should also be commended as Jenny Gering and her team don’t go crazy 80s; enhancing the real world quality of the production. Costume helps inform who these characters are and because we get so many versions of Philip and Elizabeth items such as comfy looking sweaters or Philip’s attempt to look like a cool dad act in conflict with the dark violence we know they are both capable of. There is no one point where their personal life ends and their work begins and no matter how hard they try to keep them separate this notion is an illusion wrapped up waiting to be exposed. Going from fake love to this real connection is just going to make the big Paige decision even harder. Roll on January 28 and season 3.

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Summer Rewind: The Hour

23 Jul

The summer TV schedule isn’t as light as it once was and so it can be harder to squeeze in catch up projects of recent and not so long ago shows you missed. Last year I blasted through Scandal and took a slightly longer route with The Comeback, pairing a current show dominating discussion with one that is often featured on “Canceled Too Soon” lists (The Comeback is making its own comeback much to my delight in November). In a somewhat unplanned decision this has been repeated this year, first with Game of Thrones taking the Scandal position followed by the 2011 BBC 2 series The Hour.

Why I didn’t watch The Hour when it first aired is a bit of a mystery as it has all the elements that I find appealing – great cast, a writer I admire, a 1950s setting, fantastic looking costumes and a spy plot – and it’s even more curious as to why it has taken me so long to get to it. Yesterday I contemplated a Gossip Girl rewatch (I blame Preserve and this incredible Leighton Meester op-ed) and instead decided it was time to start The Hour as the boxset had been sitting on my desk untouched for a week. The length of the show (a total of 12 episodes) as it was pointed out to me on Twitter made the choice a no-brainer. And I’m so glad I did as less than 24 hours later I have finished season 1; it’s love.

Drooling over the costume design and giving out Diane Lockhart broach accessorizing points has occurred throughout these first six episodes and there will be a separate post dedicated to costuming. A more general approach to the first season is how I will be tackling The Hour today and there are some slight spoilers throughout.

The Hour cast shotIt’s 1956 and the world is feeling pretty unstable; the Cold War rages on and there is political unrest across the globe. These larger events are told through a new BBC news program which distills the events of the week into “The Hour.” The Suez Crisis frames much of the first season and just like a current HBO show it uses real events to infuse tension into the story as we see how the characters respond to the big story.

Unlike The Newsroom it doesn’t feel like it is preaching or attempting to teach in a condescending manner. This might have something to do with the time frame as there are only going to be a certain number of viewers who remember the Suez Crisis whereas you can all but guarantee that the BP oil spill or 9/11 are relatively fresh memories for The Newsroom’s audience. One other notable difference is The Hour is created and written by Abi Morgan, whereas Aaron Sorkin is at the helm of The Newsroom; a repeated criticism of Sorkin’s recent project is the treatment of the female characters and while The Hour is set in a time where sexism was far more inherent, it comes across as the more enlightened of the two. Bel still faces comments and assumptions based on her gender, but she’s allowed to make mistakes without looking like an idiot. No they don’t have email in The Hour, but I bet they wouldn’t pull the same stunt as MacKenzie’s “send all” error. Comparison time over.

The HourGetting accurate information when reporting the news is still not an easy task in 2014, even harder in 1956 without the technology that can hinder as much as help in the present day. The phone is one of the most reliable forms they have in The Hour and seeing reels of film getting cut together evokes nostalgic feelings for a form that was in no doubt way more of faff. And yet there is something glorious about seeing the individual frames.

Idealism, cynicism and pragmatism create a constant push/pull between the three leads; while the establishment they work for is dedicated to an impartial position there is still a rigid power system in place that threatens to censor and assert control. Freddie’s tenacity and drive to find the truth has the potential to destroy everything they have all worked towards and there are other sinister operatives at play with a mole in the BBC (*sidenote* thanks to a saturation of moles on 24 I often roll my eyes at this plot point, I did think it was well executed here and fits the cloak and dagger nature of the time period). What drives these characters varies and ambition is far more important to Dominic West’s Hector than the pursuit of truth, for Bel (the fantastic Romola Garai) she wants to keep the job she has worked so hard for and yet she is willing to risk it for the story.

the hour bel and freddieConflict comes in all forms including romantic entanglements such as the affair between the married Hector – Oona Chaplin plays his high society wife Marnie who knows of his affairs and uses the great tool of denial with a broad fake smile to maintain the facade – and Bel. Affairs can be dangerous and this one between producer and presenter has all the trappings of broken hearts and the potential for ruining careers. Enter Freddie as Bel’s best friend, he stands in the shadows pining for the woman he calls Moneypenny (the first James Bond novel Casino Royale was published in 1953 and a copy sits on Freddie’s desk) and he not so subtly infers his love for her on many occasion quoting E.E. Cummings and stirring up all my shipper feelings. There’s an intimacy between these two that can be summed up by unspoken cigarette sharing and how comfortable they are in each other’s company. Tumblr gif sets I will be coming for you later.

Balancing a variety of stories including wars raging on several continents with tensions on the homefront and tying them together through acts of espionage makes the big story personal; Freddie justified his reckless actions for this reason and his passion for the truth is both dangerous and honorable. There is of course the potential for a character like Freddie to become a “troubled genius who is always right” trope and yet he is grounded thanks to such a strong performance from Ben Whishaw, his relationship/chemistry with Bel and because the writing doesn’t quite go ‘there’ with Freddie. There is some sense of self-awareness even as he nears the edge of the precarious path he is on. How long it will stay like this is unclear at this point and the next six episodes are sitting on my desk just crying out to be watched.

The Americans Best Disguises of Season 2

21 May

Tonight is The Americans finale, concluding what has been an incredible second season as Philip and Elizabeth have skated even closer to danger. The disguises are of course a big part of the aesthetic, so I want to take a look at this season’s best looks and how they represent the ever growing dread and tension from the outset. It is 1982 so the frames are big and there’s a drab quality to a lot of the clothes; this isn’t the neon/bold print 80s that will come later. Generally they don’t want to stand out unless the mission calls for it so there’s a whole lot of short wigs for Elizabeth and era appropriate facial hair for Philip; blending in is what they do best. Oh and there might be some artistic license with what I call these disguises when a real fake name has not been mentioned.

The Americans 2.01Philip’s flashiest attire appears in the season opener and a wig malfunction for Cowboy Steve leads to the shooting of an innocent teenage boy and a look at how much glue is used to keep this hairpiece on. Not enough by all accounts and I’m guessing Philip has a good quality shampoo to keep his locks from being a gluey mess the entire time. Before disaster strikes, Philip’s Texas drawl and negotiations are going well as he looks rather menacing, if not out of place in his leather/suede combination jacket and aviators.

The Americans 2.02 PhilipMatthew Rhys has dubbed this disguise ‘Fernando’ but to me it’s Rust Cohle’s older brother. This costume is an Americans staple and he first used this in the pilot when he interpreted barbecue on a whole new level. It’s a multipurpose look and it’s rather unassuming as he uses it whenever he wants to play a blue-collar worker, allowing him access to areas that might otherwise be off limits. It is also how he came to meet Fred when he broke into his house as an electrician and now he has to wear this every time he meets with him.

The Americans 2.11 ElizabethHere is one of several wigs that has me asking “How do they fit Keri Russell’s hair under there?” and a recurring cover. This is Ann Chadwick from the Child Advocacy Center and she looks suitably bland. It’s all beige and big frames; there’s not meant to be anything fancy about someone who holds this position.

The Americans JenniferWe first ‘met’ Clark’s sister Jennifer at the wedding last season and Jennifer is a hoot and self-confessed Betty Buttinsky. It’s just as well, as when Clark is indisposed Jennifer can step up to the Martha wrangling plate, even if it means hearing about how Clark is an “animal in bed.” Not something you want to know when it is about your fake brother who is actually the love of your life. Philip and Elizabeth have been relatively solid all season except for the Clark in bed experimentation that goes horribly awry. Aside from this Jennifer is a fun and dorky look on Elizabeth, it’s just a shame it leads to one of the most heartbreaking/fucked up moments of this season.

The AmericansMore bureaucratic disguises and as CIA Security Elizabeth breaks free of those dowdy short wig/glasses chains for something on the funkier side. The same can’t be said about Philip’s facial add-ons. I can picture Valerie and Bob shooting the shit after work in a dive bar together and they’re definitely having an affair on the side. Yes it’s fun making up names and backstories for their covers.

The Americans 2.10 ElizabethIn “Yousaf” it is “bring your sexy disguise to work” day as both Philip and Elizabeth up the hotness ante. Elizabeth is all shoulder pads and plunging necklines, however Gloria Shoulder Pads is a double threat thanks to an interest in current affairs and she uses this as a ruse to get Yousaf to notice her beyond the heels and blonde hair. This is one of the most quintessential early 80s looks they have done so far – just look at that hair flick – and sadly this is all we get to see of Gloria Shoulder Pads as Philip brings in Annelise for the honey trap plot. Philip is reacting to how hesitant Elizabeth has been with using sex this season to get what they need, not that she has overtly said something and it also raises questions about how detrimental their real love is to their seduction performance.

The Americans 2.10 swimming capIn the same episode Elizabeth plays the unassuming Swimming Sally and pulls an assassination move in the pool. It’s the perfect disguise as the swimming cap and goggles obscure her face. I love the textured look of this swimming cap and how it reads on camera.

The Americans 2.11 Philip and ElizabethFlat caps, beanies and baseball caps are all essential components of ‘light disguise.’ Ditto wearing all black. It’s not as altering as any of the other disguises of course, but not all occasions call for wigs and glasses. Throw in a black turtleneck and this is when they look like classic spies (or maybe a cat burglar).

The Americans 2.11 PhilipVietnam Ted will pay for your meds and listen to your crackpot theories because he knows those theories have weight to them. Ted is Philip’s hairiest look and he also develops a rather gruff speech pattern to add to his disillusioned Vietnam vet demeanor. The brown suede and sheepskin coat looks pretty toasty and considering how much snow has featured this season (thank you Polar Vortex) it’s the ideal outerwear.

Be sure to stop by tomorrow when I will be discussing the season 2 finale “Echo” and for all our coverage on The Americans head here.

Julie Hammerle

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