A man and a woman share a booth at a diner. They chat like old friends, but there are hints that there’s something more to the relationship: They banter about the depth of the menu offerings, their hands touch and set off the briefest of electrical charges. Their body language signals comfort. Signs of advanced age—his thinning hair, the bags under the eyes—suggest the relationship is a long one, but the familiarity in their conversation confirms it. That, and multiple mentions of covert Soviet operations on American soil.
Margo Martindale’s return to The Americans is the headline-grabber for “I Am Abassin Zadran,” the title of which, sadly, does not refer to Claudia pulling a reverse Tootsie and infiltrating the Mujahideen. (And after the final scene of “I Am Abassin Zadran,” The American’s Tootsie parallels really snap into place. No wonder that’s the movie Stan and the FBI took Zinaida to see.) Instead, she brings words of encouragement from The Centre, tempered by the news that Jared’s season-two breakdown nearly resulted in the complete shut down of Directorate S. Withholding information is crucial to the characters of The Americans, but the show itself doesn’t have to play so safe. Gabriel and Claudia’s greasy-spoon rendezvous pushes season three toward its climax with a strategic confession, one previously unknown to the troops on the ground as well as those watching at home. By letting its secrets out, The Americans continues to top itself.
It’s an era of increased transparency in the Jennings household, but it’s not like Philip and Elizabeth are blabbing about their real job without first turning on a nearby clock radio. For these characters, safeguarding the family and telling the truth used to be mutually exclusive, and “I Am Abassin Zadran” finds them struggling to do both. Experiencing something of a crisis, they fall back on their training: To make sure Paige didn’t say anything to Pastor Tim, a routine lecture jackknifes into an interrogation. After Stan visits Martha’s apartment before Clark can, Philip arranges for Hans to pick up Martha and deliver her to a secure meeting spot. Domestic life has always threatened to intrude on the Jennings’ work life, but this week’s episode gets its kicks by reversing that dynamic, then escalating it.
Because Paige is more than Philip and Elizabeth’s daughter now—knowing what she knows, she’s become a KGB asset. And in a development that might bode well for her future in espionage, she’s asking a lot of questions, pulling at loose threads like “Aunt Helen” and a supposed cousin who accompanied the Jennings to Sea World. The search for this sort of truth is a recognizably adolescent impulse, one that dovetails elegantly with The Americans’ intentions for Paige. Exposed to the tiniest inkling of How Things Really Work, teenagers launch into all sorts of fact-finding missions. (Paige started with nuclear disarmament, I had post-9/11 surveillance programs like Total Information Awareness. Clearly, one of us was on to something.) But this is identity-rocking stuff, and The Americans treats it as such—thrillingly so, in a way that’s kept Paige’s storylines this season as interesting as anything Philip and Elizabeth are going through.
That’s just one of the momentum-boosting bonuses of keeping fewer onscreen players in the dark. Dramatic irony is a nice source of tension, but the deterioration of the Clark-Martha façade is a nicer source of tension. Like Paige, season three has nudged Martha closer to the truth, and it’s honored the character by giving her the time and space to react to Clark/Philip’s disclosures.
Though the Jennings make the big-impact decisions this week—inviting Paige to meet Elizabeth’s mother, pitting the Mujahideen commanders against one another—“I Am Abassin Zadran” is Martha’s episode. It’s about time she put her foot down: The bug she placed in Gaad’s office is a one-way ticket to treason charges, and all the confidence tricks in the world can’t get her to look past that now. With Agent Beeman making house calls (though he’s also under suspicion) and a strange “friend” offering her a ride, the reality of what she’s done has grown heavy. It’s even weighing the camera down, the frame slowly sinking to match her slumped posture while she’s on the phone with her parents. (There’s a companion to this tableau in an earlier shot of Henry, another figure the Jennings leave to fend for himself. At least he has Tandy Championship Football and that TV ad for the M*A*S*H finale to keep him company…)
Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys receive the lion’s share of The Americans’ praise, but after “Stingers” and “I Am Abassin Zadran,” the season-three-MVP honors are Alison Wright’s or Holly Taylor’s to lose. As the walls tumble around them, each actress has found the proper measure of emotion, Wright’s arriving in the teary disbelief that wells up as Philip reveals his true self to her. (Honestly, with all my talk about the show’s wigs, you’d think I’d make that Tootsie connection earlier than I did.) It’s raw and it’s stirring, and at certain points it looks like Philip is going to pull his entire face off, so anything short of trembling would ring false. But there’s also a deft command of tone there, with Christopher Misiano conducting the entire sequence in a properly awed hush.
It’s fitting for an episode in which whispers do a lot of the work. Elizabeth and Philip get Abassin Zadran (George Georgiou) to flip on his Mujahideen counterparts through the mere suggestion that the other men will prevent Zadran from receiving American weaponry. Later on, Operation Zephyr is saved by the barest of innuendo. Out of the haystack of idle workplace chit-chat, Oleg and Tatiana pull a needle: Some possibly adulterous flirtation. The whiff of infidelity and The King Of Comedy save the expensive, labor-intensive project. Oleg, Tatiana, and Arkady Ivanovich’s good standing is preserved as well—for the time being.
Because, in this world, massive undertakings go kablooey if the right person wants them to go kablooey—just ask that couple at the diner. With so much out in the open as season three heads toward its final installment, control is one of the show’s last great illusions. (That and what Beeman knows about his neighbors. But that truth will be revealed in time—unless Stan gets hung up on his dealings with Oleg. Gosh there’s a lot to keep track of with this show.) There are people above Gabriel (and people above Claudia, even) who still believe that Paige is the face of Directorate S’ second generation. Next week’s finale should have some say in whether or not that’s a face Paige will end up adopting.
- You can give Stan this much: He’s properly guessed that the woman he shot in “The Colonel” a) survived and b) later attacked Aderholt and Gaad. (All the while, he draws a linear connection from the end of season three to the beginning of season three and the end of season one! Nice piece of writing there.) He’s off on the specifics of Amador’s killer and the source of the bug, though: It hasn’t occurred to him that the illegals might be working as a team—perhaps, even, as a couple?
- The Americans Wig Report: Season Three, Week 12: A for “Ah, so the wigs are held in place with an intricate system of pins and nets.” (And if getting Philip out of one wig is so much work, just imagine the labor involved in moving the Jennings in and out of the multiple identities they assume in “I Am Abassin Zadran.”)
- The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season Three, Week 12: B+ for the Ultravox cut, “Vienna,” though that’s less for the way the song sounds on the show and more for the way it’s used. Elizabeth drowning out the sound of her invitation to Paige is an ingenious meshing of spy craft and parenting, and it links the episode’s two biggest moves: “Vienna” is also the song playing on Hans’ car radio as he monitors Martha’s apartment.
- Was there any Mail Robot? With the Rezidentura doubting Mail Robot’s efficacy as a field agent, it proves its worth by taunting Aderholt. Never before has the Mail Robot’s beep sounded more like the “Meep meep” of The Roadrunner.
- Did anyone mention Mail Robot? Oleg and Tatiana show their allegiance to Mail Robot by arguing for the value of its Jerry Lewis-based intelligence. All around good week for Mail Robot.