The Americans: It’s good. Sure, FX’s hit series, currently in its fifth season, has recently featured a lot of talk of crop yields and invasive pests (not a metaphor; they’re talkin’ about midges). But the spies and intrigue and shadowy Washington underworld and spangled ’80s fashion and fully actualized Matthew Rhys–Keri Russell shipping? It’s all a lot of fun.
I’d like to ruin it for you.
The Americans, you see, goes to great lengths to build the rich soundscapes that give the show its distinct, smoky feel. Lead mixer and co-supervising sound editor Ken Hahn has spoken about layering audio so that episodes sound representative of the Cold War era, and of using equipment so advanced that it allows the show’s editing team to remove the clicking of Russell-as-Elizabeth’s high heels from the vocal track. It stands to reason, then, that the sounds that make the cut are left in deliberately. This approach has produced a clap that reverberates so intimately that you, like a captured KGB paper-pusher, may jump in your seat. It has made possible this season’s 10-minute-long, nearly entirely wordless hole-digging sequence.
It has also facilitated … mouth noises. Gross ones. Loud ones.
We’re talking lip smacks, gulps, and slurps galore; gargles, throat clearings, and indeterminate suction. In The Americans, it’s not enough just to know that Elizabeth is licking her lips as she prepares to smoke ganja with her husband, Philip (Rhys); we’re going to bear aural witness to her deploying the eight muscles in her tongue to gather up saliva and rub it around. She is going to put way too much spit on the thing. We will know this.
At times these noises are incredibly distracting. Here’s a scene in which Elizabeth and Philip discuss their plans for the evening, and what they’re going to do about Martha (Alison Wright), the poor, lonely FBI secretary whom Philip conned into fake-marrying him. Martha has just been informed that she, in fact, has long been unwittingly assisting Mother Russia and will be shipped off to the motherland — a country where she knows nobody — for her own safety. Philip, meanwhile, has realized that he’s developed feelings for Martha, and is sorry for her in a way that a murderous Soviet spy classically should not be. Elizabeth, sensing this, tells Philip to spend a final, tender night with Martha. It’s tragic! You could forgive the guy for having a little dry mouth. Or maybe more than a little. This, after all, is what happens midway through his conversation with Elizabeth:
You see, Philip has a lot to gulp about. Like affairs:
And affairs again:
And ugh, seriously, this thing with Martha:
But sometimes Philip and Elizabeth get along just fine — so much so that they smooch at length, like teenagers.
Speaking of teenagers — you know what really makes you want to purse and then defiantly smack your lips? You guessed it: negotiating with teens.
When it comes to The Americans, these abrasive sound effects come by design. In what I can only assume was the result of a dare among the show’s sound designers, Season 3 showcased a dental mishap that was handled at home, culminating in three uninterrupted minutes of gasps, whimpers, plier-in-mouth noises, and the muffled words “oh, God” — in whom, we are frequently reminded, Elizabeth does not believe. Come scream with me. Really get your throat into it. Waggle your tongue. Oh, God.
“I needed tones that drive people nuts,” sound effects re-recording mixer James Redding told Mix Online of using “pitch-shifted sounds of screaming monkeys” (?!?!) to amplify that scene’s tension. “We also had Foley do extra scrapes on pliers, for the feeling of more tearing and scraping on teeth.”
In the end, we’re left with a luxuriously upholstered spy thriller that happens to double as a menagerie of mouthly horrors. If it makes you feel squeamish, you’re not alone — it makes FBI agents gulp too.