You have to watch the faces.

Because it’s a show that’s fixated on observation, The Americans wants you to look closely at its actors’ facial expressions. It’s where a lot of the show’s best acting occurs, and there are two shots specifically in “Dimebag” where, if you’re not as keyed in on Matthew Rhys and Annet Mahendru as the camera is, you just might miss something important. “Show them your face—show it to them!” Elizabeth cried at Claudia in the most intense scene of season one, and it feels like that’s instructive of the way every character on The Americans has been framed ever since.

Advertisement

We know what’s cycling through Philip and Nina’s mind in these moments, but it’s being kept from the people they’re seated next to. And the pain that’s registered there, the uncertainty and the doubt, is indicative of where season three is heading. “Dimebag” is a table-setter, not as breathlessly sequenced as “Open House” or emotionally resonant as “EST Men.” But it does have these little moments that damn the counterintelligence game with more force than the show has previously mustered. In those moments, two characters who’ve compromised personal beliefs to achieve their professional goals are saying everything without saying anything.

“We’ve never used someone this young before” are some of the first words out of Philip’s mouth in “Dimebag,” but for once, he’s not referring to his daughter. He’s talking about the girl he’s snuggling close to at the end of the episode: Kimberly (friends call her “Kimmy”), the daughter of a CIA man and babysitter for a CIA family who has a taste for good synthpop, bad weed, and older men. She’s the new sticking point between Philip and Elizabeth, the embodiment of the latter’s “the CIA is a hard target” mentality and the former’s memories of shoving Anneliese’s corpse into a suitcase. There’s a potential pitfall in these first four episodes of the show wanting us to take one side in the Jennings fissure over the other, but as with most domestic squabbles, you shouldn’t take sides. The business of rotting the United States from within requires some odious behavior from both parties, and the look Matthew Rhys gives at the end of “Dimebag” summarizes that point pretty well.

Advertisement

It’s a look of betrayal: Of his wife, of his concerns for his daughter’s wellbeing, and of the time he shoved a barbecue tool into the hand of an older man who made similar advances on Paige. There’s irony in what Nina does in “Dimebag,” too: Promised a more lenient sentence for her acts of treason, she cozies up to her cellmate with talk of treachery. But what she’s doing in that very moment is treacherous, the acknowledgment of which is left ambiguous by editing. A show that’s more interested in holding its viewers’ hands would linger on Annet Mahendru and Katja Herbers long enough to catch a smile working its way across Nina’s lips. But “Dimebag” gives us just the slightest lift of the eyebrows. Is Nina pleased with the way her “nightmare” played out? Is there even a reason to place quotes around “nightmare”? We’re kept guessing, even if we’re pretty sure Nina is working toward betraying the very person who’s cradling her in her time of need.

“Dimebag” sets off a line of questions for the viewer, but it instills genuine paranoia in its characters. Elizabeth is convinced that now’s the time to tell Paige about her KGB heritage, because she’s also convinced that Paige arranged her whole birthday dinner with Pastor Tim and wife as a ploy to get baptized. (And, if so, maybe Elizabeth’s right to think that Paige would be a boon to Directorate S.) Located in a deeper, more secluded sector of Tin Foil Hat Country are Stan’s theories about Zinaida, which lead him on a wild goose chase that would be humiliating even if it didn’t end with him collapsing to the floor of a women’s restroom. This (and not doubts about how the U.S. is using her, as I’d thought) explains his behavior on the set of Charles’ talk show last week. It would appear that EST really is having an effect on Agent Beeman, at least as far as honesty goes. He’s upfront with Gaad about his Zinaida theories (even if they’re based on nothing more substantial than an un-purchased Milky Way), and then he comes clean about his affair to Sandra.

Advertisement

With little action to follow, and new arcs involving Kimberly, Evi, and Karen Pittman’s Lisa (the character from “Martial Eagle” who knows Elizabeth as a recovering alcoholic named “Michele”) begin to spool outward, the pleasures of “Dimebag” are found in the small details like the subtle performance notes and parallel framing referenced above. Thomas Schlamme is back in the director’s chair this week, and though the close-ups aren’t as extreme as the tooth-pulling scene from “Open House,” he’s still getting tremendous expressiveness from his actors. (And matching the mixed emotions of that expressiveness to the “What the hell am I doing here?” look of the model in the Love’s Baby Soft ad Philip catches at the start of the episode.) The episode’s filmmaking peak is in Stan’s confession to Sandra, though: The whole sequence plays exquisitely with shadow and silhouette, but Stan standing on the front lawn, watching the outlines of his (estranged, not legally ex-) wife and her boyfriend, provides a gutting prologue. The situation is underlined by Arthur’s greeting to Agent Beeman: “Stan. This isn’t your night.”

It’s no one’s night, unless they’re a member of the Americans cast or one of the two members of Yazoo (or “Yaz” as we call them in the States). The ongoing missions of season three are isolating the characters from one another—if you want to squeeze it into the analogy of parents and children, everyone’s following Paige’s lead and retreating to their own bedroom. “Dimebag” is an ideal time for The Americans to get back into moody synths and hopelessly romantic lyrics. It’s deeply invested in drama this week, and it’s written all over its face.

Stray observations:

  • The Americans Wig Report: Season Three, Week Four: B. Elizabeth is in the running to play Jackie Jormp-Jormp judging by the getup she’s sporting at the top of “Dimebag.” The episode receives a passing grade, however, thanks to Philip’s feathered look, which only a knuckle-headed teenager would mistake for the hairdo of a lawyer or a lobbyist.
  • The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season Three, Week Four: A. I’d like to retroactively bust last week’s report down to a C+, because that’s how Air Supply stacks up against the first two tracks from both sides of Yazoo’s Upstairs At Eric’s. Combine that with an Adam Ant cameo (“Goody Two Shoes,” riffing on the fact that Kimberly and friends do drink, do smoke), this episode, not “Open House,” is the best The Americans has sounded since season one.

  • Was there any Mail Robot? No, but the only scene at FBI HQ takes place in the conference room, and I don’t think Mail Robot’s track goes in there.
  • Did anyone mention Mail Robot? No, but if Stan could blame his separation from Sandra on Mail Robot, he probably would.

Advertisement