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The Americans: “Mutually Assured Destruction”

Illustration for article titled iThe Americans/i: “Mutually Assured Destruction”
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Todd: After a really great string of episodes, “Mutually Assured Destruction” takes a bit of a step back to set up some storylines that will surely be important in the season to come. Though not a bad episode, it definitely has a sense of marking time for the first time this season. Or, put another way, it opens with a really nifty goal for Phillip and Elizabeth: Find and stop an assassin assigned by the KGB to kill the 14 scientists working on the missile-defense system. The KGB now regrets giving these orders but lacks a way to call off the dogs, outside of sending the Jennings two into the field to figure out what’s going on. Bigger problem: Nobody knows what this dude looks like—or, I guess, if he’s even a dude. (Spoilers: He is.) This is a great conundrum for a spy series, not least of which is because it puts both Phillip and Elizabeth and Stan and Chris on roughly the same path, while also contriving a way to up the stakes for the FBI.

The biggest problem with this episode, then, is that I simply didn’t buy the urgency of what Phillip and Elizabeth were doing. The episode started out extremely well, but it then turned into another discussion of the Jennings marriage, and while that’s what I love about the show, it works best when it’s better integrated into the spy stuff than it is here. Instead, what happened here was that for the first time, I really felt like the marriage stuff was being forced to get the characters to a certain point. I buy that Claudia (whom the FX press materials are still calling “Grannie,” which I’ve always preferred anyway) would tell Elizabeth about Phillip’s night with Irina. What I’m not entirely sure on is just why this show seems unable to let anything fester.


Look at it this way: The series is great at building suspense in a traditional sense. Hell, its whole premise involves a bunch of figurative time bombs that could go off at any time. But it’s had more trouble working suspense into the marriage subplot. It felt like it was finally getting its feet under itself in that regard in the last few weeks, and the best example of this was having Phillip actively cheat on Elizabeth, then lie about it. Finally, the shoe was on the other foot after Elizabeth’s many years with Gregory, and the episode set up a situation that could blow at any time, a situation that could fester away and explode at the least convenient possible moment.

And then… the show blew that bomb up within the first 10 minutes of this episode.

Now, granted, there are some thematic parallels here, particularly when we consider the way that our assassin is a huge fan of explosive devices (and is eventually done in by one of the same). But even if I can strain to point out why Claudia tells Elizabeth all of this—and Elizabeth does some of the heavy lifting there—it feels transparent that the show is doing this just to get the Jenningses to the point they’re at by the episode’s end: Phillip has told Elizabeth that if she no longer wants to be married to him, he doubts the Center will care.

That’s a potent, juicy idea to build the rest of the season around, no doubt, but it’s also one that feels arrived at because everybody needs the characters to be doing certain things. This is a common thing on serialized dramas, especially, but it’s one of those things I’ll just never get used to. It’s inherently clumsy, and even if it’s sometimes necessary, that doesn’t mean we have to like it. At its best, The Americans provides a kind of emotional daringness and depth that few other shows on the air can match, but in “Mutually Assured Destruction,” pretty much everybody is just saying what they’re feeling all of the time, outside of a dazzling scene where Phillip goes over to Martha’s place and can’t do his job—i.e. having sex with her—because she’s wearing the necklace he got from his wife to give to her. It’s a great little scene, and the moment when the necklace is removed is one of my favorites so far. It’s just too bad that everything around it feels a little simplistic.


All of this might be okay if the assassin felt like a worthy adversary in any way, but he just doesn’t. He drops in so rarely that his actions can seem almost random, and outside of the way he goes out—blown to shreds in a hotel bathroom—I’m already forgetting about him. Which is a problem, since his murder of three FBI agents (and one of those scientists) is both what gets Stan and Chris so worked up (and apparently pings Chris’ radar about Martha) and what puts the Jenningses in deep shit with their higher-ups. Ultimately, the episode seems to consist of a lot of half-formed parts that don’t hang together as well as they should, even if some of those parts are pretty cool. But, hey, this is the sort of thing that often happens at this point in a serialized drama’s season.

So, Genevieve, I’ll ask the most basic question there is: Am I being too hard on this one? Or is it a bit messy to you too?


Genevieve: I admit I also felt a little disappointed at the seemingly premature revelation about Phillip lying to Elizabeth, but I think overall I liked “Mutually Assured Destruction” a little more than you. Part of this could be that I sort of hated seeing Phillip and Elizabeth act all shmoopy together at the episode’s beginning, and I think Keri Russell did great work portraying the way Elizabeth comes to the realization that what they’re doing is “wrong,” and slowly backs off while Phillip is still in full-on flirt mode. (The scene where he asks her if she’s “drinking him in” while he’s lying on the couch: oof.) Plus, I think the idea of a separation, which Phillip broaches (perhaps glibly) at the episode’s end, could take this series in an exciting direction, if it chooses to stick with it for more than a week. Phillip and Elizabeth getting a separation—which, knowing this show, would certainly be a temporary one—could have interesting ramifications both across the street, over in the Beeman home, as well as in their own home, with Paige and Henry. I’m really starting to enjoy the Jennings kids, but I’m waiting for the show to do something with them that relates directly to their parents, something that challenges the family as a unit. A separation could provide that.

Actually, now that I think about it, I like “Mutually Assured Destruction” much more for what it foreshadows than what actually happens in the episode (which, again, I mostly like). I do think the mystery-assassin plot is pretty neat for the “mission of the week”—albeit a little too isolated from the show’s emotional center, as you mention—because it shows off a bunch of the tools in Phillip and Elizabeth’s spy toolkit: code-breaking, gathering intel, disarming shotgun-toting children, casually walking away from massive explosions. Plus, the fact that they fail even when they succeed is a nice interpretation of what constitutes a “success” in times of war, cold or otherwise. But what I really like about the episode is how it begins to move around some of the other pieces on this chessboard. Martha has pretty much played the role of pawn up until now, and while Nina has certainly seen her share of action, she’s basically been an extension of Stan. Both of them are now in positions of greater power, and much greater danger. I admit, I was fooled by the scene of Arkady grilling Nina, which I assumed was the beginning of her end. And it still very well might be—keep your enemies close and all that—but her surprise promotion adds a nice bit of juice to a storyline that was starting to get consumed by her affair with Stan.


But even more exciting to me was the revelation of Chris trailing Martha (which admittedly was heightened somewhat by the use of The Cure’s “Siamese Twins,” the best use of music on this show since “Tusk”). Chris has pretty much been what passes for comic relief on this show until now, but him following Martha, combined with Martha’s progressing relationship with “Clark,” puts his story on an interesting path. It’s unclear if Chris follows Martha home because she rejected his attempt at reconciling after he dumped her—he seems like he could be creepy enough to do something like that—or because of her suspicious behavior at the filing cabinet, or both. But regardless, it puts him that much closer to Phillip, which is exciting indeed.

I understand that it’s frustrating having Elizabeth essentially revert back to her initial position on their marriage after pushing the Jennings’ relationship in a new direction last week. I do want these two crazy kids to make it work somehow! But, it’s also important to fully establish the complexity of their situation, to make this something more than a typical (well, okay, not that typical) “us against the world” love story. In taking a step back, “Mutually Assured Destruction” reveals a little more about why Elizabeth has seemed so much more cold and hesitant toward her marriage—sorry, “arrangement”—than Phillip. While both characters are too complex and damaged to slot easily into “good guy” and “bad guy” roles, Elizabeth is much more often put in the position of being “the mean one” to Phillip’s “nice guy.” I like when The Americans toys around with this—as in “Comint,” when Phillip tried to go all white-knight against Elizabeth’s wishes—and this episode sharpens the focus of what their arrangement is supposed to be. They’re not supposed to have a real marriage, that’s not what their bosses want. It undermines the mission for them to be in love. And one thing we know for sure about Elizabeth—just in case we’re not, Granny reminds us in her conversation with Elizabeth—is that she is loyal to her cause, even when she doesn’t like the actions her higher-ups take in the name of that cause. She’s a soldier first and foremost, and her feelings toward Phillip are threatening to that perception she has of herself. I like that The Americans continues to reinforce that in new ways, because it’s the core of what makes their relationship so interesting.


Did it have to happen like this, so quickly? Eh, probably not; I definitely could have done with an episode or two of Elizabeth buying into her marriage fully before having the rug ripped out from under her. It would have been nice to see how them operating in “happy couple” mode could put a mission at risk, rather then Elizabeth just saying that it would. (That whole “my head was somewhere else during the mission!” spiel she gives Phillip doesn’t cut it, especially considering they basically succeeded.) Then again, them being a happy couple would mean more awkward attempts and them flirting, which I admit I’m kind of pleased we don’t have to endure. I’m starting to realize I like Phillip and Elizabeth a lot more when they’re tormented. What about you, Todd? I suspect you tend to root for them as a successful couple a little more than I do—perhaps because you’re married and I’m not? Is that a factor here?

Todd: It’s entirely possible! I tend to think that marriage has enough conflict inherent in it that you don’t need the constant back-and-forth tug-of-war of who’s in love with whom at any given moment to come up with good stories. But, honestly, I would just like the string of constant reversals to end. It felt like we’d reached a point of stasis that we’d stay at for a few weeks at the end of “Duty And Honor,” and then, we were right back into the thick of things changing and shifting. Now, having a story that follows odd rhythms can be a treat—and is a treat in a lot of other circumstances—but we’re at the point in the season when I want something to hold onto for a little while, even if that’s a trial separation or something of the sort. The show’s done an admirable job of shuffling a handful of the same pieces around the same part of the board, but this was the first week I felt somewhat irritated by that.


On the other hand, I do have to agree with you that the way this episode wraps up sets up all sorts of interesting things for the future. (And I’m going to agree with you that that Cure song closing out the episode was one of the stronger musical cues the series has come up with.) Seeing Chris parked outside of Martha’s house gave me the visceral sense that we’re moving toward something, that all of the pieces are starting to come together. And the episode was filled with enough little Americans patented touches—that little girl with that gun!—that I still more than enjoyed myself. I’m just looking for a piece of stable ground to stand on, and the show seems intent on denying me that. That may be part of its plan, and it’s something that can work. I just felt like it got in the way of this week’s episode.

Todd: B
Genevieve: B+

Stray observations

  • Wait, so why did Stan’s boss give him that safehouse? Is it really safer for Stan and Nina to meet in the same place all the time? Or was that a veiled “If you’re gonna fuck her, at least do it where you’re not gonna get caught”? He definitely insinuated that he knew what was going on last week. [GK]
  • Paige and Matthew ‘shippers of the world, your hour is at hand! Awkward fumbling around the dinner table! Nervous titters! [TV]
  • Stan’s confusion over the idea that Phillip might even help out with the cooking was another nice way to underline the differences between the two men. And notice how quick Elizabeth is to jump in with an answer. Always there with the save. [TV]
  • I also am glad to see the show referring to Claudia as “Granny” again; Phillip also calls her that when Elizabeth comes back from their meeting, which I take as permission to call her that from now on. [GK]
  • Wig Watch: I never watched Felicity, but I was vaguely aware of the furor when Keri Russell cut her hair; after seeing her in that short wig this week, I understand. Also, Phillip brought back his “creepy dude” wig and facial hair from the pilot! [GK]
  • I really don’t want to see the flashback to Chris and Martha’s relationship that is almost certainly coming at some point. Or maybe I do. I don’t even know anymore! [TV]
  • That prostitute and FBI agent really gave it their all in the sex-noise department. Guess they wanted to make sure they drowned out the assassin creeping around their hotel room. [GK]
  • One thing that made me wonder if it was going to come back: the camera in the house of the explosives guy. I suspect not at this point, since I don’t entirely know how the FBI would get a hold of it at this point, but there’s a potential smoking gun if ever I’ve seen one. [TV]
  • Chris, her name’s not Baby, it’s Martha. Ms. Hanson if you’re nasty. [GK]

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