I recall thinking “It’s not going to be this.”
It had been a while since Ebola was in the news. It was the fall of 2014, 19 years since a major outbreak in Zaire and the publication of The Hot Zone combined to usher the disease into The Big Book of Irrational American Fears. But that October, Ebola cases were being reported outside of West Africa for the first time, and depending on what you read and where you read it, the disease was lying in wait for you—on public transit, at a popular tourist attraction, maybe even at the local bowling alley. But despite having both a general apocalyptic anxiety and an acute hypochondria, I found it hard to get worked up about the scare. Ebola isn’t airborne. Confirmed cases of the disease still numbered in the 1,000s. The World Health Organization had been fighting Ebola for decades.
“It’s not going to be this,” I recall thinking. Ebola was known. If some communicable disease was going to take down the entire human race, it was going to be something we’ve never heard of. Something we haven’t spent years worrying about. Doom slips through the cracks. It’s borne on the backs of rats. It’s something whose name initially prompts scoffs—like “glanders.” It’s something innocuous, like a tobacco tin hidden in Philip Jennings’ breast pocket. It’s something fragile, like Martha’s loyalty, Paige’s sense of identity, or the vial in that tobacco tin, one wrong move away from exposing a garage in Falls Church, Virginia to a disease that is “to meningitis what the bubonic plague is to a runny nose.”
The Americans opens its fourth season with a reminder that even the most powerful surveillance operations can still overlook a deadly threat. Elizabeth and her comrades at the Rezidentura have the resources of a superpower at their fingertips, but they’re wasting their time with the wrong Pastor Tim tapes and the Operation Zephyr transcripts. FBI Special Agent Stan Beeman lives across the street from two Soviet spies, yet when he gets his hand on one of them, he can only (erroneously) accuse Philip of sleeping with his ex-wife. There are eyes everywhere (voyeuristic shots of Philip watching a sleeping Martha, Tori spotting Philip and Sandra from across a patio, or the through-the-grates POV during Anton and Nina’s walk-and-talk) and something under every nose (like that beard Philip’s wearing when they meet the guy with the glanders).
Speaking of open eyes: No one is sleeping at the Jennings’. Elizabeth’s a goddamn pro, so she’s just struggling with jet lag—Philip and Paige, meanwhile, each have something weighing on their conscience. Paige follows up on her phone call to Pastor Tim, but nobody’s going to the authorities. Instead, Holly Taylor spends the episode playing different shades of curious and perplexed, as Paige grapples with her new reality. When she notices Philip isn’t home, she asks after his whereabouts, and gets an honest answer from Elizabeth—one that’s as warmly maternal as an explanation of confidential sources can be. Later, she skips out on the Pledge of Allegiance at school, which could be an extension of her season-three activism, but could also be a sign that she no longer knows if the pledge applies to her.
On a different show, this might feel like a bait-and-switch: Dropping the biggest bomb in the show’s arsenal on Paige during “March 8, 1983,” then giving her relatively the same amount of screentime as Nina or Oleg in “Glanders.” In part, that just feels like a show in its fourth season acting like a show in its fourth season: The Americans has a pretty big ensemble now, and nearly every one of its members in the middle of one story or another. But it’s also the fourth season premiere of The Americans acting like the fourth season premiere of The Americans: There’s no rush to resolve last season’s big cliffhanger. “Glanders” is more interested in the reverberations than the detonation, allowing the confusion and frustration to rattle around in Paige’s head while Arkady stokes suspicions about Tatiana and Martha gets the news of Gene’s death.
Oh Martha. Martha, Martha, Martha. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are still the stars of The Americans, but Alison Wright is the MVP of “Glanders,” from her shocked reaction in the cold open to the tense stand-off at the photocopier with Agent Beeman. Martha and Paige are two sides of the same coin here, finally wise to the Jennings’ ruse and trying to determine their next steps. The tragedy of Martha’s situation is that she has to keep playing the game—she’s just on a different team now. In her scenes with Philip, Martha tries to maintain a distance, but she’s inextricably linked to him now that he cleared her of any responsibility for the bug. “We have to decide things together” she tells Philip—right before he brings up the surveillance reports that will allow him to make his bioweapons contact.
That scene is a gutting negotiation between Philip the spy and Philip the human. He’s showing Martha his true face now—he wears the Clark disguise to her apartment, but ditches the glasses and wig before entering her bedroom—going the extra mile to maintain the emotional connection they’ve fostered. The connection goes both ways, though: When Martha says that Philip has to tell her everything, “even if it’s hard,” he lets her know about the memory that’s been haunting him all episode. Not the “what” of bludgeoning the bully to death—which is visited and revisited throughout “Glanders” (most chillingly in that Shining-style cutaway to the body during the EST meeting)—but the “why.” That’s Philip the human right there, opening up just enough to let Martha know that he’s questioning the things that he does for a living.
The way the scene is filmed sets up a pleasing ambiguity about Philip, though: Check out the way the lamp floats over Matthew Rhys’ head, like a light bulb going off in his head. The Jennings are planners to a fault, but the spontaneous rhythms of Philip and Martha’s conversation and the composition of that shot suggest that Philip’s playing it by ear here. But which Philip? The one who’s realizing that he can tell Martha about this horrible memory in a way he can’t tell Elizabeth or the EST group? Or the Philip who wants to use Martha to complete the mission of the week? Either way, Philip’s inner conflict is more pronounced here than it’s ever been. Like Martha says, “You never really know a person, do you?” And she should know: Judging by the earrings she’s wearing in the copier scene, Martha’s getting into the whole two-faced routine, too.
In the grander scheme of the Cold War, the prospect of biological weapons promises to cast a long shadow over season four. As illustrated in this nifty timeline collaboration between FX and The Washington Post, The Americans is entering a particularly fraught period in U.S.-Soviet relations, a series of events that put the Bulletin Of The Atomic Science’s Doomsday Clock at three minutes to midnight by January 1984. But that’s huge stuff like the Strategic Defense Initiative, the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, and the nuclear false alarm of September 26, 1983. What Philip and Elizabeth are after in “Glanders” is something just as foreboding, but far less obtrusive. According to the U.S.’ ratification of the Geneva Protocol, it’s not even supposed to exist—but it does, because the Department of Defense is farming out its bioweapons operations to laboratories like the one that employs Dylan Baker’s salty Soviet. While the White House and the Kremlin publicly pave the road to nowhere, they’re keeping the truly disturbing stuff off the books, under wraps, and barely detectable.
Fort Detrick, incidentally, is where Ebola was first identified.
What I keep returning to from “Glanders” is that vial. Such a small item, but it makes such a big difference as Stan is roughing Philip up in the garage. There’s always more than one reason to feel on-edge about an interaction between Beeman and the Jennings, but the camera dip that follows Philip’s eyes down to Stan’s hand serves as a reminder of where the real stakes are. It must be terrifying to hold such a powerful weapon between your thumb and index finger. It’s probably a little bit empowering, too.
The vial commands Philip’s attention as “Glanders” fades to black—and he’d do well to pay such close attention to the vial’s human counterparts, too. In Martha and Paige, the Jennings have created two more vulnerable containers of hazardous materials. There are greater, more obvious threats to the Jennings’ safety and mission—Stan, the FBI, a malfunctioning Mail Robot—but if anything is going to take them down, it’s going to be something unassuming. Something that might not have a name yet. Something Philip and Elizabeth feel like they have a grip on, even though its contents could be jostled loose by someone who isn’t even trying.
- The Americans Wig Report: Season Four, Week One: B. Nothing too outrageous about the disguises this week—though I can’t get over how much Philip’s beard makes him look like comedian Rory Scovel.
- Was there any Mail Robot? No, but the FBI copier got a chance to show off its dramatic chops. That’s one machine that knows how to sustain suspense.
- On Twitter, Emma Fraser points out two more lamp/Philip moments from “Glanders”: In the office scene, and after the first failed contact with Dylan Baker’s character.
- I like that The Americans is so sure in its world that Hans can slip in and out of “Glanders,” just as he slips in and out of the Jennings’ mission.
- So: Pastor Tim probably shouldn’t make any long-term plans, should he?
- A nice touch of authenticity: As someone who was once a very sleepy high schooler, I sympathize with the student who yawns during the Pledge of Allegiance.
- “We’re not taking requests.” “Then it’s a demand: I want to see my husband.” Did we know that Nina is married? Follow-up: Dun Dun Duuuuuuun!