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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

It’s kill (or be killed), coerce (or be coerced), or run (or get run over) on The Americans

Illustration for article titled It’s kill (or be killed), coerce (or be coerced), or run (or get run over) on The Americans
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Philip Jennings took his first life when he was 10 years old. He didn’t mean to: It was a retaliation against the bully who figuratively swiped food from his family’s table. Twice in two episodes of The Americans’ fourth season, he’s confessed to the crime. Only once, in “Pastor Tim,” has he told the version that ends with a dead body.

The people formerly known as Mischa and Nadezhda have a lot of stories that end in dead bodies. Usually, but not always, there’s a justification for the act: They took a life in the name of country, or self-preservation. These killings are the collateral damage in their stealth war against the west, against capitalism, against the United States. But to the people now known as the Jennings, the body count is starting feel less collateral. The most recent addition to that tally didn’t even get the glanders out of the house.


In “Pastor Tim”’s chilling “Tainted Love” sequence, murder is the last resort. With the airport security officer on the verge of uncovering a weaponized strain of Burkholderia mallei, the episode quickly cuts to Philip’s POV: He registers the sleeping man in the front of the bus, the new waver grooving to Soft Cell, and the bus driver on break. It’s a split-second decision: Jump the security guard, choke the life out of him, and stuff the body beneath the seat. Threat neutralized, in less time than it takes for Marc Almond to [Clap clap.] run away.

Earlier in the episode, Elizabeth tells Philip that they “don’t have a choice” of what to do about Pastor Tim. But that’s not entirely true: Philip doesn’t have a choice when confronted by the security guard; in the matter of Pastor Tim, the man and the episode named for him, there are several options. There’s murder, there’s coercion, and there’s escape (Everybody sing: “Once I ran to you / Now I’ll run from you”) and the characters of The Americans are all pursuing one or the others this week.

The “Pastor Tim” script, by showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, blends these impulses together in interesting fashion. The Pastor Tim predicament initially presents itself as no-brainer for Elizabeth: He knows, he dies. But Paige knowing adds a new wrinkle to the usual procedure, so extra precautions have to be taken: A casing of Tim’s writing digs, for example, where the murder could be staged to look like an accident. A lot of Keri Russell’s scenes this week involve showing Elizabeth’s thought process: Widening eyes and hastening breath when she hears Paige on the Pastor Tim tapes, the grim recognition of the space heater, the relief that Paige’s visit to the cabin was only a dream. And finally: The silent shock of grief upon learning that her mother is dead. There’s a quick snap of the head in Frank Langella’s direction, before Russell channels the stoicism and skepticism that was ground into Elizabeth back in Russia. Gabriel turns toward Elizabeth, but Elizabeth does not reciprocate, and director Chris Long boxes Russell and Langella in, making the most of the tension between Elizabeth’s heart and Elizabeth’s head.

Illustration for article titled It’s kill (or be killed), coerce (or be coerced), or run (or get run over) on The Americans

The heart eventually wins out, making the Jennings sink deeper into the quicksand. It’s difficult to know what to make of Elizabeth telling Paige that her mother has died: At first, the visual presentation of the scene (Paige crosses the threshold separating her from Elizabeth) and Paige’s eventual confession made me read the scene as mother working daughter, using the death of a family member to turn Paige against Pastor Tim and seal the preacher’s doom. But now I think it’s more complicated than that. Now I think it’s the type of thing Gabriel was warning against: Elizabeth lost her “bearings,” and in doing so, sacrificed any claim to innocence when something bad (inevitably) befalls Pastor Tim. Paige knows her parents know Tim knows. “We’re in trouble,” Elizabeth says to Philip. “I know,” he replies.

The final scene in the car is the opposite of Gabriel and Elizabeth’s conversation on the park bench. In the relative security of the garage, with her husband at her side, she stares straight ahead while delivering the news of her mother’s death. Philip does the head snap thing, but actually holds it, while Elizabeth rests her head on his shoulder. It’s a tender moment between the characters, an echo of when she turns toward his side of the bed after her nightmare. They’re aligned in this moment: In trouble, in betrayal of their training, in the inability to escape. And even then I couldn’t shake the thought that someone was being duped: Maybe Philip was being nudged toward another murder he doesn’t want to commit, or maybe Gabriel wasn’t telling Elizabeth the truth about her mother.


Two episodes in and season four is playing some monumental head games. For example: That “Pastor Tim” shot through the Jennings’ back window is a match for the one of Stan and Oleg meeting in a car during the episode’s “Previously on” sequence, and the relationship between those characters isn’t exactly a picture of commitment and trust. After botching the Zinaida operation, Stan hasn’t cut bait—he’s still working Oleg, even though Agent Gaad doesn’t believe Oleg is susceptible to blackmail. Their meeting in the car is like Philip’s in the back of the bus: A transaction where nothing actually changes hands. Oleg and the pilot both known an exit when they see one, and they leave the spies holding the package.

Escape once presented itself to Nina Krilova, but as she tells Vasili, she doesn’t recognize the person it’s making her become. There’s a haunting resignation to Annet Mahendru’s final scene in “Pastor Tim,” as if Nina has finally tired of being the pawn of two different intelligence agencies and has accepted that she will die in the gulag. There’s the slightest turn toward triumph in the instrumental score as she ponders her response to the former Rezident, the outcome of a note to Anton’s son that never left the country. If Nina dies this season, she will die for her principles.


She makes this decision at a time when the Jennings are more unsure about their principles than ever before. They put themselves and their children at risk of death and disease, threaten to alienate their daughter, and for what? A motherland that’s otherwise busy sacrificing its sons to an unwinnable war in the Middle East? For a loyalty to a country that’s completely foreign to them now? For a government that says, “Thanks for handling that tiny jar full of biohazard: Have a computer”?

“This is the kind of thing that comes up at EST,” Philip says to Elizabeth in “Pastor Tim,” after telling her the story of the bully. “They help you deal with it, but you have to think about it.” And the more Philip thinks about it, the more it’s clear that he’s still that 10-year-old boy holding that rock, not sure why he keeps on swinging it—and he’d really like to escape from that.


Stray observations

  • The Americans Wig Report: Season Four, Week Two: C. The only wig we get a good look at is the blonde one Philip nearly shakes off his own head during the bus strangulation. Otherwise, the wigs are buried under a hat or worn under the cover of night. Don’t hide your wig light under a bushel, The Americans! Let it shine!
  • The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season Four, Week Two: B+. The season’s first needle drop is an iconic ’80s single, its underlying menace laid bare. I only wish we could’ve gotten a little bit of the “Where Did Our Love Go” interlude during the aftermath—but there wasn’t enough room on the mixtape for the 12-inch mix.
  • Was there any Mail Robot? Baby, baby / Baby, don’t leave me / Ooh, please don’t leave me / All by myself.
  • Elizabeth’s nightmare caught me off guard—and it was certainly the first time I’ve thought about the similarity between Pastor Tim and Nikolai Timoshev’s names.
  • On the historical margins this week: The Jennings’ new computer and the Atari ad on the bus nod toward the looming “console crash” of 1983.
  • Look, there’s Henry! He’s enjoying a snack of Kraft Mac & Cheese with Stan, asking difficult questions about age-inappropriate crushes, and stinking up the whole neighborhood with his Ralph Lauren cologne.
  • Gabriel, personal computer salesman: “It’s a life skill these days, for any young person.”
  • Dylan Baker’s William really adds some levity to these proceedings, doesn’t he? “Feeling safe, are we? I liked you better as a blonde.”
  • Tips of the trade from Chef Stan Beeman: “Usually I’m in a hurry, so I cook it less time than it says on the box.”

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