I admire The Americans’ ability to make espionage look like a horrible job that’s also the sexiest career in the world. Glamorizing spycraft is no difficult task: Just listen to the James Bond scores of John Barry, which imply secret rendezvous, incredible gadgets, and clandestine hanky-panky even when they’re divorced from actual images of those scenarios. But Americans episodes like “Baggage” put the lie to the always exciting lives of 007, Emma Peel, and other fictional Cold War operatives. Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are trained killers with killer looks, but The Americans wants us to understand the people behind the spies. Sometimes that means showing Elizabeth—in practically the same hand-to-ear pose as last week, framed almost identically to the way she’s framed in “EST Men,” suggesting that she’s been doing this a lot—listening to a recording of her dying mother. Other times, it involves depictions of the Jennings acting as their own cleaning crew.
As a title, “Baggage” is as literal as The Americans gets. We’re talking about the psychological tonnage carried by our favorite married spies, but we’re also talking about the suitcase that Elizabeth apparently rescued from the American Tourister gorilla cage in order to transport Annelise’s corpse out of that hotel room. This is not the alluring excess that decades of martini-swilling, bed-hopping secret agents have promised us. This is ugly, evil, trail-covering necessity, treated with some of the most punishing sound design I’ve ever encountered on TV. “Baggage” makes us feel the pain that Annelise can no longer feel in every stomach-churning crunch. You want proof of the great performances that are being delivered on this show? Just remember that there probably weren’t any broken-bone sound effects on set.
Though it falls short of the heights reached by the season premiere, this week’s episode still offers plenty to chew on—especially with regard to The Americans’ anti-mythmaking. As Zinaida Preobrazhenskaya (Svetlana Efremova) is removed from a shipping crate and presented to the D.C. press, my thoughts turned to her counterparts in Soviet defection who came to North America to play professional hockey in 1989. Taking place during the dying days of the Soviet Union, under the glasnost policies of Mikhail Gorbachev’s government, these defections had lower stakes than Zinaida’s, but the pageantry was almost the same. (See also: The classic Sergei Federov “From Russia With Love” poster, the faux-Bond stylishness of which belies the fact that Federov defected by ditching Team Russia during the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle.) The de-personification of her arrival is line with players who were “sold” (via contract) from their teams in the motherland to National Hockey League organizations: Zinaida arrives in the States as cargo, and no one at the FBI can be bothered to pronounce her name until “Baggage” is practically finished. Driving that point home—a little too hard, perhaps, but that’s his way—Gaad at one point says to Stan, “Don’t let [Pause.] what’s-her-name get killed.”
But that’s just part of the job: Within the confines of what they do for a living, Stan, Elizabeth, Philip, and Oleg aren’t people—they’re assets. And as with that term’s financial connotation, those assets can be leveraged for personal, professional, or political gain, as Stan did to Nina at the end of season two. That gives Philip’s reluctance about Paige’s KGB future a mighty powerful impetus. As “Baggage” depicts Nina’s life in the labor camp and unfolds the sagas of Yousaf and Zinaida, it backgrounds the Paige storyline. But the notion remains in play: It’s the source of the Philip-Elizabeth fight that snakes its way through the episode, a wound to their marriage whose treatment they can’t agree upon. Symbolically, it’s that tooth that got busted during Elizabeth’s scuffle with the FBI. He wants it yanked out; she knows that’s unrealistic, because someone’s bound to notice if they do something that drastic.
Philip’s vision of his children’s future is an impossible American Dream for Paige and Henry that’s threatened from every angle. And the kids are one of their own greatest threats: She notices things, like the fact that her dad works odd hours, despite the relatively 9-to-5 nature of running a travel agency. (In “Baggage,” she suspects Philip is having an affair. Elizabeth tells Paige he’s not, marking one more in a long series of half-truths told between mother and daughter.) The Americans treats Paige like a being who’s capable of thought, curiosity, and awareness, and that gives her storylines a certain drive and purpose that’s missing from, say, The Misadventures of Dana Brody. The Americans derives tremendous power from kids striving to know their parents; on the flip side, it gets a lot of mileage from the horror of being a parent who’s watching their child turn into a real person. There’s only so much control you can exert in that situation, but there are some proven methods. Take it away, Tatiana Evgenyevna:
Propaganda is exactly what The Americans cuts through with an episode like “Baggage.” There’s probably no house, car, or 2.5 kids awaiting Paige and Henry because those things aren’t awaiting anyone in this world. (And if they are, it’s all fake: It’s the Americans Dream, in which mom’s a spy who knocked out an FBI boss, dad’s a spy preying on the emotional vulnerabilities and criminal activities of another spy, the cars are all borrowed from KGB contacts, and the house is full of secret cabinets.) And “Baggage” slices both ways, too: With his counterintelligence rival in his crosshairs, Oleg detonates the ideal of brave and noble FBI agent Stan Beeman. That version of Stan wouldn’t have killed Vlad in cold blood, and this version of Stan isn’t going to parachute into a Soviet labor camp, slay a bunch of commie bastards, and escape with Nina. In “Baggage,” the action hero won’t free the prisoner, but a bureaucrat might just finish the job.
This is the world that Philip Jennings would shield Paige and Henry from, the one he describes in details as graphic as “Baggage”’s Foley work: “I don’t want her putting people into a suitcase and I don’t want her ending up in a suitcase.” Unfortunately for him, a belief in the rightness of that type of work still has its hooks in his wife, who remembers her mother sharing the truth about her father (he was a traitor) and encouraging her to join Directorate S. “She didn’t blink—she told me to go and serve my country,” Elizabeth tells Philip at the end of “Baggage.” But what country would Paige even be serving? Not one she knows—and not even the country Elizabeth and Philip knew when they were sent to the United States. An episode that’s firmly on the unglamorous side of The Americans’ game of Spy Vs. Spy—no wonder Elizabeth’s so willing to jump into action when Yousaf meets with the CIA—“Baggage” finds the Jennings treating their oldest child like a bargaining chip, another person rendered into an object by her parents’ horrible, no good, very bad job.
- The Americans Wig Report: Season Three, Week Two: B+. “Baggage”’s most notable week-over-week improvement comes from the hair department, which treats Matthew Rhys to some Magnum, P.I. cosplay and puts Keri Russell in a bob that can only be described as “kicky.” To quote Stan Beeman, “They are good with the disguises.”
- The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season Three, Week Two: N/A. No period-appropriate pop songs to be heard. To compensate, here’s the Magnum P.I. theme.
- Erik’s speculation corner: I don’t know about you, but it sure sounded to me like Yousaf, who’s now under Philip’s thumb, has a whole batch of CIA agents under his own thumb.