The Americans still knows how to pull off a surprise. For example, I never would’ve pegged Stan Beeman as the first of the show’s main spies to threaten his bosses with going rogue. That always seemed like a Philip move, of the sort Joe Weisman and Joel Fields might keep in the chamber until the last possible moment, when the chips are down and the Jennings are cornered and there’s no way out. But here we are in “What’s The Matter With Kansas?”, and a little bit of bureau small talk pushes Stan right over the edge. As Aderholt compares the situation with Oleg to one with a former contact in San Francisco, Stan listens, but only responds in platitudes. When Aderholt finishes the story with “We blackmailed the shit out of him, and everybody wound up happy,” you can actually pinpoint the second Stan’s heart rips in half.
The characters on The Americans do what they do for the love of country and for the belief in something bigger than themselves, but those loves and those beliefs have their limits. Along with that, there’s always been a hint that Stan and Elizabeth, at least, really like their jobs. Last week, we got an indication that Oleg is very good at his job. But in the grand tradition of “Baggage,” “What’s The Matter With Kansas?” is an Americans episode about the shitty side of this supposedly sexy occupation. And we see Philip and Elizabeth struggle with all of that this week, as the genuine feelings they’ve developed for one another and toward their eldest child threaten to jeopardize the midges mission and the Pastor Tim surveillance. Meeting Gabriel in the safe house during the cold open, the Jennings show all the plates they’re currently spinning, a maddening balancing act that also includes the Morozovs, Stan, Paige and Henry going over to Stan’s, etc. “It’s a lot,” Elizabeth says, following her husband’s lead as they attempt to wriggle out of the Topeka honey trap.
That’s the script reminding us of all the Jennings have going on at the moment, but it’s also setup for the breather (of sorts) that “What’s The Matter With Kansas?” takes. There’s no Tuan, there’s very little Alexei, the Mischa scenes are tense but brief—the episode advances the season-five plot while temporarily stepping back from some of its busier components. “What’s The Matter With Kansas?” is a movingly and plainly stated hour of The Americans. The motivations are bigger than any individual, but they’re smaller than geopolitical powers. It’s about the families: The one Philip and Elizabeth have; the one Stan could have.
There’s so much dialogue between Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys this week that actually pertains to Elizabeth and Philip’s kids and their marriage. They’ve got this thing going on with Henry’s math teacher, and Paige is playing amateur spy, snooping around Tim and Alice’s and leafing through Tim’s diary. It occurs to them that there’s potential leverage to be gleaned from the diary, but that’s not the point—the point is raising a daughter who’s not a liability; the point is training an asset who bears their DNA.
Russell and Rhys do fabulous work together and separately this week, their body language and their attentiveness to one another demonstrating how much Philip sees Elizabeth as his strength in these trying times, and vice versa. Their conversation in front of the TV is so real, and so natural; if I were ranking scenes from “What’s The Matter With Kansas?”, the only thing that can beat it is Elizabeth’s conversation with Paige about taking on the identity of women’s wear salesperson Brenda.
With the water running and the kitchen island nearby, that conversation happens in the place where mother and daughter can talk most frankly. It’s the scene of their confrontation in “The Magic Of David Copperfield V,” without the counter standing between them—but there’s still plenty of tension. Paige seems to be getting at the true nature of her parents’ separate trips to Topeka; Elizabeth is understandably worried about Paige betraying Tim and Alice’s trust. The curiosity that pulled Paige toward the diary is the same that prompts questions about her mother’s Kansas alias—the flow of this conversation, in its writing and its delivery, is fascinating.
As is this, from Elizabeth’s explanation of committing to character (and a meta comment on Keri Russell’s performance): “A lot of it is confidence.” Confidence is a currency on this show, flaunted in scenes like Brenda’s carob-coated meet-cute with Gorp Guy (he has a name, but c’mon: Let’s just agree to refer to him as Gorp Guy) and constantly passed back and forth between the Jennings. Confidence in their partner allows Philip and Elizabeth the spies to get things done in the field, while confidence in their partner’s fidelity allows Philip and Elizabeth the spouses to keep things calm at home. The intersections of these transactions bring the big sparks to “What’s The Matter With Kansas?”: Philip “Uh”s and “Ah”s his way through Gus’ phone call to Deirdre, and then he interprets Elizabeth not wanting to talk about Gorp Guy for Elizabeth being attracted to Gorp Guy. If only he were a midge on the wall back in Topeka, where he would’ve seen Brenda’s own expression of uncertainty, which could be about Philip, or it could be about the note of disgust that ends the episode: “I have to sit there with him while he makes his jokes. The guy’s laughing while he tries to starve an entire country.” Or it could be about both.
Something else that might be on her mind: The pressure of juggling so many identities. You can hear Elizabeth’s “It’s a lot” echoing throughout later scenes in “What’s The Matter With Kansas?”, when Philip-as-Gus flirts with Deirdre at the gym, when Elizabeth-as-Brenda spills the carob, when Philip-as-Brad grabs a beer with Alexei. They look so relaxed and at ease when they’re at home on the couch, or at dinner with Stan and Renee. Those chances to just be themselves are rare within “What’s The Matter With Kansas?”—and even then, you must remember that they’re not 100 percent themselves in those moments, either.
- The Americans Wig Report: Season 5, Week 4: B+. It’s The Bob versus The Wave as we’re introduced to Brenda and Gus, whose hairstyles seem to spring right from Elizabeth’s and Philip’s thoughts about the Kansas mission. Both have a certain allure to them, while also suggesting the wearer means business—though The Wave is a little more apprehensive about the details of that business.
- The Americans Soundtrack Report: N/A. After the Roxy Music double dip in “Midges,” the soundtrack must also take a breather.
- But was there any Mail Robot? Also taking a breather: Mail Robot.
- Tonight’s episode takes its title from the 2005 book by recent A.V. Club Live guest Thomas Frank
- Appropriate for a honey trap episode: Elizabeth comes home to find Philip watching a documentary about bees.
- Look, it’s entirely possible that Renee is a perfectly decent gal with no intentions of snaring Stan into some sort of treasonous blackmail plot. But until she’s proven innocent, the fact that Gus tries to pick Deirdre up at the gym—which is where Stan and Renee met—I’ve got my eyes on Renee.
- Great Tiny Gestures In A Massively Great Television Performance: Keri Russell’s raised eyebrows punctuating “Who knows what goes on with the good pastor?”