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The Americans: Matthew Rhys-licious

I don’t even know where to begin a discussion on FX’s new show about two KGB spies (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) in deep cover, posing as a married couple living in Northern Virginia. When you think about it, one of the most compelling aspects of the show is the centrality of the Soviet spies themselves. Spending virtually all of our time following “Elizabeth Jennings” and “Philip Jennings” (and their kids), means we are supposed to root for them…right? Obviously if they get caught, the premise ends, but it’s more confusing than just that: unlike most of television’s anti-heroes (the Don Drapers, Walter Whites, Tony Sopranos of this world), the Jennings are actively conspiring against the West. It makes for some complex emotions, surely.

If, like me, you are infatuated with Matthew Rhys, then this show is pure GOLD. It’s all you could ever hope for and more. How could you not love him? How could you not see him as your prearranged husband and think “jackpot!!!” Let me count the ways. Sure, he’s a Soviet spy, but he is accustomed to the American way of life: food, air conditioners, the new mall with cowboy boots on sale. He’s in an arranged marriage but in love with his wife nonetheless, a fact made painfully clear when he listens to surveillance of Elizabeth sleeping with a mark to get information. It’s made even more clear when he kills FOR her. What else? He loves his kids. Yet another reason to simply defect and disappear into obscurity. While Elizabeth also loves the kids, she cannot fathom telling them the truth when simply raising them “American” is painful enough.

At the mall, a creep (already with a young companion) makes a pass at Philip’s thirteen year old daughter. He keeps it cool in the moment but dons a disguise and goes after him later, if you didn’t think Matthew Rhys was in full on badassery mode yet. Later, when a certain counterintelligence FBI agent decides to check out the Jennings’ garage for their hostage (long since killed and disposed of), Philip is in silhouette, ready to eliminate the threat if any evidence is found. A gorgeous moment in cinematography. I would like to note that being this crazy about Matthew Rhys is not a fluke. This article from Maureen Ryan does a great job of pointing out some of the flaws of the pilot, but also serves as an example of how smitten one can be with Mr. Rhys: “I mean, this guy is played by Matthew Rhys — maybe it’s me, but I can’t help but think well of him from the first frame.” Preach!!

I don’t want to ignore Keri Russell: I am one of the legion who grew up debating the issue of Ben Covington vs. Noel Crane on Felicity. (I’m a Noel girl, but this might change if/when I revisit the series as an adult…maybe). She’s great, and ageless. One of the greatest testaments to her abilities is how much I dislike her character for the majority of the pilot. I want to like her, but I can’t. She’s a cold fish. And this is also where conflicting feelings about our “protagonists” also come into play: whereas Philip is ready to defect and disappear into Western consumerism, Elizabeth remains committed to her job over her children and whatever she might feel toward Philip. Through an important twist, I couldn’t help but give her some license for her actions. You know, the KGB defector they kidnap at the beginning of the pilot? He raped Elizabeth back when she was just a young teenage cadet because, that was one of the many perks. So while she may be more zealous than Philip, she also has a very real reason to want their hostage dead.

Having this little tidbit of information float to the surface (at a very convenient time, granted) stops Philip from wanting to defect and instead engage his fierce protector mode. Cue the need to dispose of the body cut to “In the Air Tonight.” Elizabeth finally gets intimate with Philip in two ways: physically and emotionally. While sleeping with him might have resulted from the adrenaline rush of disfiguring and dumping a body (I assume?), it may have also been an “atta boy” for killing off her rapist. Later, the reveal of her real name and birthplace (a big no-no) seemed a much more important step, one sure to muddle their quasi-marriage even further from here on out. Executive Producer Joel Fields commented that the marriage is an allegory for international relations. I think I am going to table that notion because it seems a little ridiculous to me that writers would follow this template for a show taking place during the Cold War.

Where does The Americans go from season one? I can see one of two things happening. Either, we get the Dexter/How I Met Your Mother reliance on stall tactics, dragging out any real narrative upheavals to one per season. This seems untenable for The Americans, especially since the show is built on suspense. However, the other way I see it playing out involves the writers taking a few pages from Homeland’s playbook, turning the tables on the characters and viewer expectations for next season (if there is a next season). Having the writers take chances will push them to keep the story fresh and engaging. But until then, I’m invested and ready for more conflicted espionage.


An Opening Ceremony, the Danny Boyle Way

I knew that an Olympic Opening Ceremony where the artistic director was striving for a “personal and cinematic” experience would contain many great pop culture moments. And come on, it’s Danny Boyle, who is responsible for some of the most daring and innovative films of recent memory: Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, A Life Less Ordinary, 28 Days Later…, Slumdog Millionaire, and even Frankenstein at the National Theater. In the end we got a very British presentation, especially with the segment that chronicled history up to the Industrial Revolution. But the overwhelming celebration was that of UK culture: film, music, children’s literature, and social media.

The ceremony began with Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt narrating a panorama of all things UK, making me wonder if someone organizing this just happened to catch Ewan and Emily on a Salmon Fishing in the Yemen press tour. I’m not complaining; Ewan got me pumped for the rest of the show.

If you, like me, thought you spied Kenneth Branagh among the masses, you were pleasantly correct. Although to my eyes he seemed to belong in a Dickensian London, he of course recited Shakespeare’s The Tempest and you cannot go wrong with Branagh and Shakespeare.

The next bit of clashing of classic Britishness and pop culture came in the short film with Daniel Craig as James Bond coming to pick up the Queen from Buckingham Palace, culminating in a helicopter ride that made a joke of the two of them parachuting into the stadium.

Flash forward to JK Rowling reciting from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, introducing a segment that celebrated the NHS and the contributions of British children’s literature. A hospital setting turns into the children going to sleep where we encounter the stuff of their nightmares: the Queen of Hearts, Captain Hook, Voldemort, and Cruella de Vil. And who saves the children from these beasties? The best nanny in the world (or in this case 100’s of duplicates of) Mary Poppins! At the end of the segment, the hospital beds turn into one giant baby (Trainspotting, anyone?) and Matt Lauer hit upon my thoughts: “I’m not sure whether that baby is cute, or creepy.” It was creepy.

Our next pop culture reference comes with a London Symphony Orchestra rendition of the Chariots of Fire theme. And who do we get playing the most boring background note? Rowan Atkinson, a very inspired choice, to play up the boringness of that note.

And finally we move into the most cinematic of all the segments, a dual love letter to both the internet and UK popular music through the decades. We have two central actors who depict meeting and falling in love amongst the chaos of dancers and the main “house” that uses screens to show clips from TV shows, films and concerts. At one point during Bohemian Rhapsody, I swear I heard a TARDIS sound, which was random but welcome. And as soon as the beginning of Underworld’s Born Slippy was played we got a Trainspotting scene. Throughout the rest of this segment, as well as during the Parade of Nations, we got a lot of great music and luckily a playlist has already been provided! (I was planning on compiling a playlist of my own, but this is much easier. I’ve included it below.) Finishing off, we got a great cover of Come Together by the Arctic Monkeys and Hey Jude performed by Paul McCartney, a perfect sing along song for the multitudes at the stadium. Powerful stuff.

To conclude, I just want to give a special shout out to Gabby Douglas, the “flying squirrel” gymnast for the US. She is from my hometown community and I will be keeping a close eye on her. I also *actually* know a girl swimming for the Czech Republic so I can’t wait to see some video of her competing.

Standouts for me: New Order, Underworld, and Franz Ferdinand.

Popular Culture Can Tackle Injustice, Even in Dark Times

I am content to sit and write about my favorite sitcom quotes from this week, what Ewan McGregor movie I have seen 500 times, and even what show decided to annoy me for the last time. But in real life, I am very interested in the role that pop culture can play in changing perceptions and informing the general public. The use of popular culture in this way is not surprising and two news items from this week help illustrate my point (and after I get sad about the world, I attempt to identify some positive utilities): North Carolina and Maurice Sendak’s Brundibár. And I shoehorn The Whistleblower in at the end.

The majority of North Carolinian voters have agreed on an amendment to their constitution that bans same-sex marriage. Sigh. I only heard about this amendment a few days leading up to it (when various tweeters got to work to motivate voters) but I wish it had been more nationally newsworthy months ago. North Carolina needed help, clearly. But no, I am not surprised about the results, which in itself speaks to one of the many problems with U.S. regional politics. Winner for most frustrating remark, Tami Fitzgerald, chairwoman for a pro-amendment group: “…you don’t rewrite the nature of God’s design for marriage based on the demands of a group of adults.”

One thing that is bothering me is the rampant disparaging remarks against “North Carolina” as if it is monolithic. It may be in part due to the fact I grew up in geographical proximity to the state, but obviously not everyone voted “Yes” to the amendment. Just think how horrible it is to love your state and yet, see that you are surrounded by people that disagree with your views on such a fundamental level. I am Virginian, I know a thing or two about this feeling.

Pop culture bright spot #1: Twitter really is a social media monster; it allows for loud, instantaneous reaction to any bit of news. Naturally, my feed was engulfed by outrage and disappointment over the results in North Carolina. Hopefully many apathetic individuals are slowly coming around to formulating their own opinions, based on outcry.

Pop culture bright spot #2: On the same day the New York Times discussed the North Carolina issue, it was also analyzing how vastly the entertainment industry has changed, in a mere decade, over portraying LGBT characters and storylines. Edward Schiappa, a professor at the University of Minnesota believes that “TV and movie representation matters.” He has found that gay characters on TV have decreased prejudice among viewers.

Pop culture bright spot #3: People like Jack Antonoff and his band fun. get to utilize success as a platform to discuss LGBT issues and highlight the optimistic romanticism of their lyrics. Seriously, seeing them live was a celebration of equal rights and diversity. They have deservingly won many fans not only in the LGBT community but from all walks of life. If their fans (and particularly the high schooler set) truly believe in the lyrics that they scream back to Nate Ruess, then we can chalk up another positive influence to kids these days.

UPDATED Overall life bright spot: President Obama has gone on record promoting marriage equality. I am impressed. It is almost Newtonian (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction…) when viewing it with North Carolina’s vote. Never would I have dreamed this would come up before the election. So glad Obama got to finally back something he has likely been in favor of for decades. Politics.

In the wake of so many tributes to Maurice Sendak, his work with Tony Kushner on Brundibár (as a book and opera) has been mentioned a few times. Brundibár is a children’s opera originally conceived by Hans Krása at the onset of World War II. The show had begun initial performances at an orphanage in Prague before the Nazis came knocking. Being a Czech Jew, Krása was sent to the Theresienstadt (Czech: Terezín) concentration camp in1943 along with many of the children who had rehearsed for the opera. Brundibár was performed 55 times at Theresienstadt before Krása and most of the children were deported to Auschwitz; upon arrival, most of these prisoners were immediately killed.

I toured Terezín in summer 2009. It is a powerful, transformative place and it remains hard to pin down my emotions on the visit. I got to see what it meant to be a “model” concentration camp, if you pretend not to see the execution wall. The model was meant for the Red Cross, sent into the camp to investigate the treatment of the prisoners. There they found pristine looking bathrooms, a swimming pool and a cinema (with the pool and cinema being for German officers). An oasis in Central Europe during the height of World War II? Of course not, these things were for show. In fact, the bathroom was so pristine because it was never used. To avoid the look of overcrowding, many Jews were deported to Auschwitz before the tour. The Red Cross was also treated to a performance of Brundibár. In the ghetto I took a peek into the schoolhouse where the children spent their time and saw their drawings. The adults in the ghetto were dedicated to the children’s continued education despite their conditions.  That night, I was a little more reckless, and embraced carpe diem as an escape. It is really difficult to wrestle with the terrors of a mere 60 years ago.

Pop culture bright spot: The opera contains many anti-Nazi sentiments and the Brundibár in the play is a stand-in for Hitler. While the opera was a vital tool in giving the Terezín children something to preoccupy their time, it also gave the adults a platform to remain resistant to their circumstances. Performances of Brundibár increasingly provide an opportunity to remember what happened at Terezín and to celebrate the lives that were lost.

A brief discussion on The Whistleblower:

This is one of the most depressing films I have seen this year. I only want to quickly mention it because I struggled with finding the bright spot here. The film is informative about human trafficking and the fallibility of organizations we put our trust in to defend universal human rights. A scant pop culture bright spot could simply be that this film exists; it is a gateway to discussion and enlightenment about injustice. But seriously, it wasn’t marketed to be a major film. It has been propelled via word of mouth, the Rachel Weisz fandom and possibly, the discount I got on renting it from Amazon Instant Video.  I hope it makes the rounds because it is especially disturbing if you are committed to peacebuilding. Mismanagement and misconduct in missions is a problem facilitated by the “aid chain” and no one is close to finding a solution.

Benedict exists in this scene and an even shorter scene before this one, in case you were curious. He is pointless…

And just to lighten the mood, no, I will not neglect to mention that Benedict Cumberbatch is also in the film (the whole cast is basically Brits playing Americans, hello Liam Cunningham!). Benedict is literally in two scenes and effectively plays a douche. I got the feeling he was involved in the cover-up but the film provides no reason as to why he even exists. Maybe there are scenes on the cutting room floor? This is another issue – I have to applaud a first time female director, but the film needed polishing.

Playwright. Dissident. President. Inspiration.

Our country, if that is what we want, can now permanently radiate love, understanding, the power of the spirit and of ideas. It is precisely this glow that we can offer as our specific contribution to international politics.

Let us teach ourselves and others that politics should be an expression of a desire to contribute to the happiness of the community rather than of a need to cheat or rape the community.

Hungary, Hungary Oh Noes

Suddenly, not feeling the least bit regretful about not following through with the plan to be at Central European University in Budapest this year; From Paul Krugman:

One of Hungary’s major parties, Jobbik, is a nightmare out of the 1930s: it’s anti-Roma (Gypsy), it’s anti-Semitic, and it even had a paramilitary arm. But the immediate threat comes from Fidesz, the governing center-right party.

A proposed election law creates gerrymandered districts designed to make it almost impossible for other parties to form a government; judicial independence has been compromised, and the courts packed with party loyalists; state-run media have been converted into party organs, and there’s a crackdown on independent media; and a proposed constitutional addendum would effectively criminalize the leading leftist party.

Taken together, all this amounts to the re-establishment of authoritarian rule, under a paper-thin veneer of democracy, in the heart of Europe. And it’s a sample of what may happen much more widely if this depression continues.

It’s not clear what can be done about Hungary’s authoritarian slide. The U.S. State Department, to its credit, has been very much on the case, but this is essentially a European matter. The European Union missed the chance to head off the power grab at the start — in part because the new Constitution was rammed through while Hungary held the Union’s rotating presidency. It will be much harder to reverse the slide now. Yet Europe’s leaders had better try, or risk losing everything they stand for.

Oh no, Euro

It may not be all that surprising or irregular to follow the global financial situation. But the glee with which I follow Eurozone developments each day must be something of an oddity. Not to say I am hoping for the utter collapse of Europe’s market (especially since it does not spell good news for the US, but I tend to ignore that bit) but just the fact that the realist in me predicted it with so much force in my Politics of European Cooperation class makes me giddy at the thought I was correct (I didn’t want to be, did I?). Neither was I the only one to raise my hand high at the idea that certainly Greece would have to exit the Eurozone, if not other or all members. But I digress: I just wish I could take a follow up to that class and my professor could show me all of the French, British, Dutch, and German cartoons he has collected on this mess (he is something of an enthusiast when it comes to political cartoons, especially displaying them in their original language, which he must then translate for the class).

Then, on November 28th, the Polish Foreign Minister delivered an epic speech entitled “Poland and the future of the European Union” in Germany as the Poles began to wrap up their EU Presidency.  Radek Sikorski, will you marry me? I poured over this speech the entire day: I read and reread it with rapt attention. I mean, he mentions Yugoslavia and Alexander Hamilton in the same speech and employs a sly cattiness towards Britain and Germany; he is trying to win my heart. Then I read an equally enlightening article by Paul Krugman who basically reinforced the idea that the sinking of the Eurozone ship will inevitably drag down the US as well. And the crazy IR person that lives in my brain, just went ah! Blog post. That Politics of European Cooperation class left a more lasting impression than I expected (although the need to look up the proper titles of integration theories did not speak well for my retention of the finer details).

Some PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain). The bane of the eurozone

The first argument that both Sikorski and Krugman discuss is the effects of EU enlargement.

Sikorski: The total volume of trade between EU15 and EU10 amounted to €222 bln last year, up from €51 bln in 1995. A tidy sum. I guess it sustains a job or two in Old Europe. So, enlargement – far from causing the crisis, has arguably delayed the economic turmoil. Thanks to the advantages of trading in an enlarged market, West European welfare states have been forced to face reality only now.

Krugman: In the years leading up to the 2008 crisis, Europe, like America, had a runaway banking system and a rapid buildup of debt. In Europe’s case, however, much of the lending was across borders, as funds from Germany flowed into southern Europe. This lending was perceived as low risk. Hey, the recipients were all on the euro, so what could go wrong?…During the years of easy money, wages and prices in southern Europe rose substantially faster than in northern Europe. This divergence now needs to be reversed, either through falling prices in the south or through rising prices in the north. And it matters which: If southern Europe is forced to deflate its way to competitiveness, it will both pay a heavy price in employment and worsen its debt problems. The chances of success would be much greater if the gap were closed via rising prices in the north.

Next, both Sikorski label the issue at hand as a lack of confidence.

Sikorski: The inevitable conclusion is that this crisis is not only about debt, but primarily about confidence and, more precisely, credibility. About investor perception where their funds are safe.

Krugman quotes how the ECB argued its decision on how to tackle the issue, with: “confidence-inspiring policies will foster and not hamper economic recovery.”

Krugman: But the confidence fairy was a no-show.

Super burn on the ECB!! And it just kept getting better…Sikorski:

Let us be honest with ourselves and admit that markets have every right to doubt the credibility of the Euro zone. After all, the Stability and Growth Pack has been broken 60 times! And not just by smaller countries in difficulty, but by its founders in the very core of the Euro zone.

Burn on Germany in particular!! Then Sikorski decides to criticize the EU as a whole, surprising me with a euroskepticism that I didn’t know existed in Poland at the moment:

 Before I say what they are, let me say that Euro zone’s failings are not the exception but, rather, are typical of the way we have constructed the EU. We have a Europe with a dominant currency but no single Treasury to enforce it. We have joint borders without a common migration policy. We are supposed to have a common foreign policy, but it is divorced from real instruments of power and often weakened by member states cutting their own deals. I could go on.

Most of our institutions and procedures depend on the goodwill and sense of propriety of member states. It works tolerably well when the going is good. But then a wave of migrants shows up on the EU’s border, or a civil war blows up in our neighborhood, or markets panic. And then, what do we habitually do? We run for cover in the familiar framework of the nation state.

The break up would be a crisis of apocalyptic proportions beyond our financial system. Once the logic of ‘each man for himself’ takes hold, can we really trust everyone to act communitarian and resist the temptation to settle scores in other areas, such as trade?

Would you really bet the house on the proposition that if the Euro zone breaks up, the single market, the cornerstone of the European Union, will definitely survive? After all, messy divorces are more frequent than amicable ones. I have heard of a case in California in which a couple spent $100,000 disputing custody of the family cat.

Take that, EU! Wait…This is an epic speech for those fans out there of intergovernmentalism! Aka the realists of European integration theory.Founding Fathers FTW:

Americans passed the point of no return in creating the United States when the federal government assumed responsibility for debts that states incurred in the War of Independence. Solvent Virginia bargained with more indebted Massachusetts, which is why the capital was fixed on the banks of the Potomac. Alexander Hamilton fathered a compromise under which everybody’s debts were jointly guaranteed and a revenue stream created to service them.

Directed to Britain:

We would prefer you in, but if you can’t join, please allow us to forge ahead. And please start explaining to your people that European decisions are not Brussels’ diktats but results of agreements in which you freely participate.

And if you were wondering about a plan, oh boy, he has a plan. He laid out what he wanted from Germany.

Germany’s trade with Poland is bigger than with the Russian Federation, although you would not always know it from the German political discourse.

We ask, first of all, that Germany admits that she is the biggest beneficiary of the current arrangements and therefore that she has the biggest obligation to make them sustainable.

Second, as you know best, you are not an innocent victim of others’ profligacy. You, who should have known better, have also broken the Growth and Stability Pact and your banks also recklessly bought risky bonds.

Third, because investors have been selling the bonds of exposed countries and flying to safety, your borrowing costs have been lower than they would have been in normal times, so you may be benefitting in the short term, but…

Fourth, that if your neighbours’ economies stall or implode, you will suffer greatly, too. Sixth, that because of your size and your history you have a special responsibility to preserve peace and democracy on the continent. (And isn’t this much better than calling out the need for reparations from WWII, Greece?)

What, as Poland’s foreign minister, do I regard as the biggest threat to the security and prosperity of Poland today, on 28th November 2011? It’s not terrorism, it’s not the Taliban, and it’s certainly not German tanks. It’s not even Russian missiles which President Medvedev has just threatened to deploy on the EU’s border. The biggest threat to the security and prosperity of Poland would be the collapse of the Euro zone.

And I demand of Germany that, for your own sake and for ours, you help it survive and prosper. You know full well that nobody else can do it. I will probably be first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.

Both Sikorski and Krugman end with fairly fire and brimstone-esque predictions:

Sikorski: But we are standing on the edge of a precipice. This is the scariest moment of my ministerial life but therefore also the most sublime. Future generations will judge us by what we do, or fail to do. Whether we lay the foundations for decades of greatness, or shirk our responsibility and acquiesce in decline.

Krugman: I hope, for our sake as well as theirs, that the Europeans will change course before it’s too late. But, to be honest, I don’t believe they will. In fact, what’s much more likely is that we will follow them down the path to ruin.

Seems like Sarkozy and Merkel are banding together (that ol’ dream team). Stay tuned…

When Countries Collide: Denmark vs. Peru

The Treaty

That. Was. It. Two of my favorite things, Parks and Recreation and International Relations, thrown together for 25 minutes of hilarity. Since I participated in a number of simulations this summer, it also reminded of how personalities usually trump the real world in these situations. Dominant personalities with an agenda will rise to the occasion (like Peru or Denmark) where in the real UN this would obviously not happen, even in a less extreme form. We got a real dose of what is in the spectrum of reality (Russia and China coming up with their own treaty), impressing me even further with the depiction on the show. Regardless of the silliness of Denmark declaring war on Peru, “BREAKING NEWS” type situations that derail all of the progress you have made so far on a treaty typically do occur in simulations. There was so much to love about this episode.

The first thing you should learn: if you are France, you say no to everything.

Oh you know, I didn't really do Model United Nations in high school, so...OH WAIT. I SUPER did.

No resisting this: Mic Drop.

That’s the one place Ben Wyatt can have legit street cred.