For 37 minutes, “Born Again” feels like The Americans stubbornly eating its vegetables. For most of season three, the show’s been wolfing down the good stuff like Nina at the interrogation-room dinner table: the emotional tug-of-war between Philip and Elizabeth, Paige’s coming of age and Gabriel’s stirring debut, the sugary rush of the Yaz episode. But for its first 37 minutes, “Born Again” has to contend with essential vitamins and information, pushing a pile of peas, carrots, and exposition around its plate while staring off into space (like Stan in his living room and Philip in the dark room).
And then Nina rolls off her back to face Kevin Dowling’s camera, staring not into space but looking the viewer right in the eye. The composition of the shot recalls the symmetrical setup of the cold open at Paige’s church. “Pay attention,” Nina’s gaze tells us, and the stomach churning rumble on the soundtrack follows up. “Here comes dessert.”
I can see “Born Again” being a line in the sand for some Americans viewers, because the episode is a supreme test of patience. It’s all about points of no return, two of which the script passes, two of which it edges up against. If you haven’t enjoyed the waiting games the season has played so far, you might find yourself giving up on “Born Again.” That’s too bad, because the lightning strikes that follow that rumbling in Nina’s cell are some of the most affective moments in all three seasons of The Americans.
Appropriate to the sequence of events, the happenings in Nina’s cell are the ones that linger longest. She’s done her work, she’s sold out the only person who’s shown her any compassion since her deportation—and her feelings about what she’s done are left ambiguous. In one of the episode’s many info dumps, we learn that Evi is as guilty as the Soviets suspect: She left a package for her boyfriend, she was supposed to meet him in Brussels. She says she did it out of love, a selfless emotion that this inhumane environment has yet to squeeze out of her—but she’s snared herself on someone else’s selfish trap. At the end of Evi’s confession, there’s a quick cut to a painterly tableau of a traitor, the condemned, and their sole window to the outside world. Only the traitor will see what’s on the other side.
The scenes of two compatriots confiding in one another are incredibly warm; the sight of a screaming Evi being dragged away by prison guards is its chilling opposite. Nina has to look away, but the clockwork efficiency of the guards and Katja Herbers’ high-pitched pleas (“Nina, what did you do?”—heartbreaking) demand our attention. It’s a miniature horror movie playing out within a few seconds of “Born Again,” and the startlingly quick fashion in which it’s carried out aligns it with season three’s other big shocks: The disposal of Annelise’s body and the murder of the Northrop employee last week. Say what you will about the deliberate pacing of these new episodes, but when season three decides to drop the hammer, there’s no hesitation.
Except when there should be. Let’s not beat around the bush: No one is rooting for Philip to sleep with a high-schooler. The show is treating the Kimberly storyline like a big game of chicken because it’s designed that way. For all its repulsive implications, it’s an excellent vehicle for suspense, because the show isn’t necessarily inclined to make these two objects collide and it’s yet to run out of ways to cause a near-miss. This week’s Philip-on-his-toes moment runs parallel to what Nina pulled with Evi: With his eldest child born anew in the Christian church and his actual eldest child suddenly back in the picture, Philip uses both developments to wriggle out of a pair of sticky situations with Kimberly. The line between truth and deceit is always very thin on The Americans, and this is an ingenious way of utilizing that aspect of the show. It makes for bright flashes of intrigue amid the South African spies and FBI plane crashes (based on this FBI plane crash, perhaps?) that accumulate around “Born Again.”
Given what happens in the final 10 minutes of the episode, I’m probably being unduly harsh on “Born Again.” The Americans is conservative when it comes to plot, and this week’s episode serves a utilitarian purpose within the show’s grand, serialized scheme: It has to maintain momentum (or the illusion thereof) while the writers catch their breath and prepare for stories that will take The Americans through the end of its third season and beyond. (The show has a long memory: Remember, Mischa Jr. was introduced 25 episodes ago.) To wander deeper into mixed-metaphor territory, “Born Again” is a vessel designed for aerial refueling, bulky and kind of unwieldy, but necessary for keeping The Americans fleet of characters and stories in the air. But as the crew of the Satellite Of Love can attest, aerial refueling isn’t the most dynamic motion-picture subject.
That’s where Elizabeth taking Paige to Gregory’s old neighborhood comes in. It gets a little lumpy in the middle, but “Born Again” is bookended by crucial sequences of Paige being initiated into… something. Pastor Tim’s baptismal message strikes a chord within Elizabeth, words about Paige’s bravery and radicalism that must go unchallenged, because Philip and Elizabeth are in Tim’s house. But away from the sanctuary, the cul-de-sac, or the travel agency, in a place where she could be her truest self, Elizabeth offers a rejoinder. Speaking of the work she did during the Civil Rights Movement (memories undoubtedly jarred by Hans’ discovery of the Big Spy on Campus) Elizabeth is more honest with her daughter than she’s ever been.
Keri Russell’s line delivery is a neat little negotiation: She’s starting to say things we’ve been waiting to hear Elizabeth say, but they’re couched in a sort of “You know, your mom used to be pretty cool in her day” speech. The atmosphere is charged and the message is direct, but the language is all dorked-up. Sitting on a park bench, Russell and Holly Taylor are blocked like Annet Mahendru and Katja Herbers on Evi’s bunk, needing to turn to one another in order to speak. It’s not the most natural way to conduct a conversation, and that enhances the discomfort that already abounds: Elizabeth’s discomfort in being both motherly and frank, Paige’s discomfort with unfamiliar surroundings. (This is a major power move on Elizabeth’s part: If Paige is going to walk the walk of Christianity or communism, she needs to get over her suburban white girl prejudices.) Being this open with Paige is a new experience for Elizabeth: Just days before, she was still hiding the occasional cigarette from her daughter.
Again, I can sympathize with people who feel unsatisfied at the end of “Born Again.” It looks like Elizabeth is going to spill her guts to Paige; it looks like she’s going to tell her all about Gregory and the centre and stealth and the mother country and the time she took down Margo Martindale. It’s arguably unfair for the show to take us to this point and then leave us hanging. When the Jennings women get out of their car, “I brought you here because I wanted you to know that I’m more like you than you think” is not the note we’re expecting the episode to leave on.
But let’s think more critically here: Sometimes this show does everything at once, but this item is more fragile. Also, the conversation comes at the end of an episode that strongly reiterates The Americans’ “slow and steady wins the race” philosophy. This is different from Nina losing a cellmate or an anonymous grease monkey losing his life. It’s closer to the situation Philip is in with Kimberly: Even if he can’t pull any intelligence out of her father’s briefcase, simply breaking up with the girl would be too risky. These are “let them down gently” scenarios, and the memory of Jared should be enough to remind Elizabeth of that. This is one of those cases, like “Born Again” as a whole, where waiting is the best option—even if the outcome leaves you hungry for just a little bit more.
- The Americans Wig Report: Season Three, Week Six: C. Lots of information being introduced this week, and with everything that’s new, all of the wigs must be old.
- The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season Three Week Six: B+. This is a positive grade for the show doing what it could with what it was given: Licensing a Pink Floyd song is a huge expense, so the tape James puts in Kimberly’s Walkman is for her ears only. Hearing the song would’ve been preferable, but we all know what Pink Floyd sounds like. (Any guesses on what song he picked? I’m betting he was trying to freak her out with the clock sounds at the beginning of “Time.”) Here’s to using a pricey band without using a pricey band.
- Was there any Mail Robot? Yes! Though in what was surely a blow to its self-esteem (if artificial intelligences have self-esteem), Mail Robot is no longer trusted with confidential documents.
- Did anyone mention Mail Robot?: Not by name, but its recent “upgrade” prompted another flirtation between Agent Aderholt and Martha.
- Who is in greater peril: Hans or Kimberly? I’d guess Hans is likely to run afoul of this South African agent, but the way Kimberly acts when she thinks she’s getting dumped, I’m worried she’s going to do something drastic and wind up hurting herself.
- Another neat visual callback: Paige’s baptism recalls Elizabeth in the bathtub at the beginning of season three.
- More sequences of the Jennings unwinding, please. Like Elizabeth’s hangout with Lisa in “Salang Pass,” there’s an all-too-infrequent joy to the part in “Born Again” where Elizabeth and Philip get high together.