This season of The Americans kicked off last night, and it was full of all the good spy stuff we’ve been missing: Murder! Secrets! Wigs! Even a new face wig for Philip!
But because this is The Americans, it also let us back into its characters lives and minds as deeply and immediately as ever. Paige, Martha, and Nina were front and center with their inner turmoil, but so was Philip, with the seedlings of a self-exploration that has the potential to upend— not to sound hyperbolic— everything.
At the start of this season, Philip has returned to EST, the feel-good factory he started attending to get close (or maybe really just to be an honest buddy) to Stan last season. And while Philip may have mostly stayed at the fringes of the group, it seems hasty to deny any possible connection between the openness he was exposed to at those meetings and the new levels of intimacy he and Elizabeth found during the same time frame.
Now Philip is back in the meetings, exploring his residual anger and guilt from his past, specifically from a violent incident with a boy in his childhood. And while we all may be rooting for Philip to have breakthroughs, let go of his anger, love himself, and develop a deeply honest and loving relationship with Elizabeth. But we also then have to acknowledge that this development of Philip’s *true self* would be absolute POISON to his life as it is. One of the longest (longer than the show’s run by far) sources of conflict between him and Elizabeth is how soft she sees him as being, how he “likes it here too much.” If he starts to talk about being true to his authentic self and putting his hopes and feelings at the forefront of his life, Elizabeth is going to f*cking eat him alive.
The very idea of Philip becoming attached to something as utterly American as a touchy-feely, sex-positive acronym of a group therapy session is so fascinating that I finally took the time to look up the question I kept ignoring all of last season: what the hell is EST? Was it, like Don Draper’s ultimate nirvana source, a real group? And what can we glean for Philip’s future by looking into it?
—First of all, yes, EST (sometimes stylized as est) was a real thing. It stands for Erhard Seminars Training, named after its founder, Werner Erhard. Est also means “it is” in Latin because no new age feelings movement is complete without a double meaning.
—The group started in 1971 in San Francisco. The goal of the “large group awareness training program” seemed to be to teach people to “get it,” or maybe more specifically, “to transform one’s ability to experience living so that the situations one had been trying to change or had been putting up with, clear up just in the process of life itself.” So… not really any clearer than the ideas Stan struggled with last season.
—EST sessions would be 60 hours long, over two weekends, with one meal break and tightly scheduled bathroom breaks. “Participants agreed to follow the ground rules which included not wearing watches, not talking until called upon, not eating at or leaving their seats to go to the bathroom except during breaks separated by many hours.” From the sound of it, the idea was that by giving yourself over to the crazy strict rules, you have more freedom to find yourself. Or whatever.
— As far as I can tell, it has no direct ties to Esalen, the retreat where Don Draper found his bliss (or at least his pitch), except that they both came out of the same general New Religion Movement era of the early 1970s.
—Ernhard was largely influenced by L. Ron Hubbard, and has long been accused by Scientologists of stealing their ideas, although the end product of EST doesn’t really seem to look all that much like Scientology. Let’s be glad for that, because I don’t think ANY of us want to see Philip follow down that path. Rather,
est is a hodgepodge of philosophical bits and pieces seemingly culled from the carcasses of existential philosophy, motivational psychology, Maxwell Maltz’s Psycho-cybernetics, Zen Buddhism, Alan Watts, Freud, Abraham Maslow, L. Ron Hubbard, Hinduism, Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, P. T. Barnum, and apparently anything else that Erhard’s intuition told him would work in the burgeoning human potential market.
— From the first meeting in ‘71 to the last in 1984, hundreds of thousands of thousands of people attended trainings worldwide, including a whole bunch of super famous people. Just to name a few: Jeff Bridges, Cher, John Denver, Peter Gabriel, Valerie Harper (The Mary Tyler Moore Show), Arianna Huffington, Raul Julia, Cloris Leachman, Joe Namath, Chuck Palahniuk, Yoko Ono, Diana Ross, Joel Schumacher, Jerry Stiller, and Patrick Swayze have all attended EST meetings.
—In 1983, an attendee collapsed during a part of the meeting called “The Danger Process” and died at the hospital. An investigation concluded EST wasn’t responsible, but maybe let’s all just not participate in processes labeled DANGER.