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The Americans: “Covert War”

Illustration for article titled iThe Americans/i: “Covert War”
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Genevieve: “Relationships are way too much.” So says Elizabeth, in character as a hot-to-trot recently single gal, during her self-appointed revenge mission. It’s ostensibly a put-on to draw in CIA operative and noted poon-hound Richard Patterson, but it’s a good barometer of where Elizabeth’s head is at right now. Following her separation from Philip, the death of her lover Gregory, and now the murder of her apparently close friend and confidante Viktor (more on that in a moment), Elizabeth is floating out in space this episode. Combined with the recent frustrations she’s encountered with her KGB higher-ups, Elizabeth’s become unmoored from all of the grounding forces in her life, and it’s left her in an extremely reckless, paranoid state—the sort of state where she’ll defy Grannie’s orders not to go after Patterson as retribution for Viktor’s death, have an emotional breakdown in the middle of doing so, then come to the (very possibly accurate) conclusion that Grannie was manipulating her the whole time, instigating open hostility between herself and her handler. We’ve talked before here about how the characters in The Americans tend to have much hotter heads and act far more rashly than you’d expect from a bunch of highly trained spies and federal agents, and Elizabeth in particular is on a tear this episode.

Here’s the thing: How much do we buy this dramatic unraveling? At the end of last week’s episode, it was very clear Elizabeth was severely shaken by the death of her first real love. That made sense, given what we’d seen and learned in previous episodes about their relationship and the unwilling dissolution of it. If anything was going to send Elizabeth off the rails, it was that. But this week’s episode kicks off with the murder of Viktor (whose last name I’m not even going to attempt to spell), head of Directorate S, a man we’ve only seen glimpses of in flashback before now. And we see plenty more of him in flashback in this episode, which attempts to retroactively establish a meaningful relationship between him and Elizabeth that justifies her actions this week. On the immediate, episodic level, this somewhat works, as the flashback conversations run parallel to the narrative and themes of the episode; but looking at the season as a whole, it feels like a hasty addition, a way of blowing on a fuse that’s been sizzling away for several episodes now. Something had to instigate Elizabeth’s blowup, but I don’t think anyone expected it to be this, considering how much work the show has done to crank the emotional tension between Elizabeth, Philip, and Gregory (hell, let’s throw Grannie in there, too). Sparking a smoldering situation from the outside is one thing, but “Covert War” places a lot of weight on a relationship we only learn about this week.


The episode’s three flashbacks—to Moscow in 1964, Geneva in 1971, and Rome in 1976—show Viktor acting as a sort of Obi Wan to Elizabeth, counseling her on matters of love, death, trust, and other Big Important Themes. Their final conversation ends with him reminding her, “Not everyone is your enemy,” and advising her to build a life for herself outside of her work. Cut to Elizabeth visiting Philip—who’s downgraded to supporting player this episode—beer and invitation to move back home in hand. But Elizabeth’s presumed reconciliation doesn’t go as she planned, and after finding out that Philip’s gotten himself an apartment, she barrels off to a meeting with Grannie where she accuses her handler of lying and manipulating her into seeking revenge on Patterson so that Elizabeth would be shipped back to Russia, or worse. Scenes between Elizabeth and Grannie tend to be quite heavy-handed, and this one’s no exception, but the way it escalates to the two women openly threatening each other is gripping. Grannie was never exactly an ally for Elizabeth, but their discussion here is pretty much a declaration of war at a time when Elizabeth is mighty unstable.

But Elizabeth’s not the only one burning bridges this episode. Todd, I’ll toss it to you for the Stan-Sandy-Nina side of the episode, but I’d also like to hear your take on how the Viktor thing was handled. But first, answer me this: Are you an Air Supply guy or a Pete Townshend guy?


Todd: When I was editor of my college newspaper, we used to end evenings with a sing-along with “All Out Of Love,” so Pete Townshend, obviously.

The Viktor thing is… mixed. On the one hand, I really loved the little scenes between Elizabeth and her boss for the insight they gave us into Elizabeth and simply the quality of the writing. (Does everybody on this show have a monologue about a dog they’re ready to drop into casual conversation at a moment’s notice?) On the other hand, I agree with you that the show tries too hard to shoehorn this relationship into the proceedings to give some weight to Elizabeth’s later actions. Viktor dying is a good inciting incident, but it would have been more powerful had we seen a bit more from his relationship with Elizabeth throughout the season. As it is, it feels like a hasty retcon, an attempt to take something plot-based—the death of an important KGB player—and also make it character-based—who was a surrogate father figure (and maybe more?) to Elizabeth. It doesn’t quite work.


But here’s the thing: I think it could have worked, and the reason it doesn’t is almost entirely due to acting. I’ve loved Keri Russell’s performance throughout this season, but I think she bungles the moment when Elizabeth has to break down at the safe house, either because she doesn’t wholly believe in it or because Elizabeth’s motivations aren’t entirely clear in that scene. The Americans is generally excellent at keeping the various ties of its characters’ motivations lying beneath the surface, but in this case, a little more elucidation would have helped. I think the show is playing that on a subconscious level, Elizabeth is figuring out what a cog in the machine she is, how Grannie is using her predictability against her, then couching all of that in the fact that Viktor meant so much to her. But because the former isn’t clear until the end and the latter is shoehorned into the episode (and in ways that don’t always make structural sense for maximum character impact), it all comes off as very clumsy. Elizabeth’s breakdown just feels like a plot contrivance, and Russell isn’t able to make it land.

So, yes, this is ultimately an episode that feels a little scattered—notice, for instance, that we haven’t even touched on “Clark” meeting Martha’s parents, a scene that doesn’t yet have much of anything to do with anything yet is still a lot of fun—but it’s definitely one where the scene-by-scene pleasures add up to something more than the sum of their parts. For instance, that fight-that’s-not-really-a-fight between Stan and Sandy, where she seems to be kicking him out of the house but also can’t quite manage to say that she is, is a terrifically acted and written scene between Noah Emmerich (who mostly stands and watches) and Susan Misner (who pulls out every trick in the acting book, but also keeps it calm and cool and collected throughout, like a nuclear explosion somehow kept under a hat). And it plays into what Viktor (and, I should state here, that I’m pretty sure it’s spelled Zhukov) says to Elizabeth: If you take care of something long enough, you will probably start to love it, because that’s how the human heart works. Stan doesn’t want the feisty, independent Sandy he fell in love with. What he wants now is someone to take care of, someone to protect, which fits Nina to a T. He tries to break things off with her, but, well, he sees her in his underwear, and he can’t. The show has done a fantastic job of making Stan kind of a cretin, but he’s such an understandable one that I never once mind. He’s so weak in certain aspects of his life, and I suspect that will prove to be either his undoing or the thing that finally turns him into the automaton who killed Vlad on a more permanent basis.


“Covert War” is, in many ways, an episode designed to move pieces around and get the characters into place for the final two episodes of the season. I don’t know if I quite buy all of the moves, but that’s natural at this point in a season of a serialized drama. I admire the attempt to give Elizabeth her own character showpiece, like the one that Philip got in “Duty And Honor,” or the one that Stan got in “Safe House,” but I’m not sure that it managed the trick of making me understand both her increasingly complicated motivations and who she was in the past. There’s a lot of good stuff in the episode, but it feels like it would have been better if it were seeded throughout the season, rather than given to us all at once. It still doesn’t change how the episode made moments in the relationships we do care about—like that heartbreaking scene where Elizabeth realizes Philip has rented an apartment—landed perfectly. It just suggests the show hasn’t quite figured out the backstory-to-present-day ratio just yet.

But the most important question is this: Clark really seemed to hit it off with Martha’s parents. There might be a future for these crazy kids! Don’t you agree?


Genevieve: I realized this episode that I’ve started to think of Clark as a character unto himself. In another world, Philip-as-Clark and Martha could be the stars of their own wacky sitcom about a spy who winds up stumbling into a real relationship with his love-blind target. I would watch the shit out of that.

But that scene is interesting for how isolated it is from the rest of the action. Usually when Clark shows up at Martha’s, it’s for a reason specifically tied to his and Elizabeth’s current mission. This time, she ambushes him with her parents before he gets around to pumping her for whatever information he came to get (or just plain pumping her, hey-o!), so it turns into this weird little domestic vignette. Interestingly, Philip’s only other scene away from Elizabeth is the exact opposite of domestic, his depressing visit with his kids in his seedy motel room. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch, given the pairing of those two scenes, to assume that Philip’s visit to Martha’s may have had something to do with his decision to get his own apartment. Philip is missing stability, domesticity, and someone needing him for something other than playing a supporting role in a crazed revenge plan. I’m not saying that the Clark-Martha relationship is going to become real, but I think it is starting to have a real effect on Philip. He may not want a lifetime of dinners with Martha and her grinning, Protestant parents, but it’s a hell of a lot closer to what he wants than eating peanut butter and orange juice while watching Mutual Of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.


Stray observations:

  • Things my wife and I compared Elizabeth and Philip’s disguises to in the “kidnapping of Richard Patterson” scene: Catwoman before she gets bit and obtains her powers in Batman Returns; the murderer in a reenactment on Unsolved Mysteries. [TV]
  • Am I seeing things, or does that disguise also include a fake facial scar? I can’t wait until Elizabeth busts out an eyepatch next week! [GK]
  • The lighting and cinematography in that final scene in the car between Grannie and Elizabeth is absolutely gorgeous. Director Nicole Kassell and her team deserve credit for that, as well as the unfussy but riveting fight between Elizabeth and Richard in the bathroom. [TV]
  • I must admit that Elizabeth’s crossword puzzle pick-up method seems like a good one to have in the arsenal. Should I ever find myself single in the ’80s, I’ll make sure to have it at the ready. [TV]
  • Please oh please let Matthew and Paige’s first date involve The Rocky Horror Picture Show. [GK]
  • “Have you ever thought about cheating?” Be a little more obvious, Sandy. [GK]

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