Here’s a weird thought I had while watching this episode: My younger brother is nearly 26 years old, and for all I know, he might still believe in Santa Claus. I don’t know because I’ve never asked him: When our mom gave me the straight answer about St. Nick, she swore me to secrecy. It was a fragile truth I was duty-bound to protect, just as Paige Jennings has been made custodian of her parents’ careers in espionage and ties to the Soviet Union. Mom and Dad wouldn’t be tried for treason if I informed my brother of the whole Santa racket, but it could’ve eroded layers of faith and trust within our household. If he asked about it, I told a white lie, but beyond those small bursts of curiosity, we never talked about it. In that way, I can almost see Paige and Henry growing up without ever discussing the truth about where Philip and Elizabeth disappear to nearly every single night. There’s so much more than a rotten Christmas morning at stake here.
In this, the “parenting” season of The Americans, core themes of trust, control, and manipulation have yielded unexpected fruits. “One Day In The Life Of Anton Baklanov” harvests those fruits. Hot on the heels of the series’ most explosive revelation—Elizabeth and Philip coming clean to Paige—“One Day In The Life” doesn’t hit the gas, accelerating wildly toward the conclusion of season three’s major arcs. Instead, in true Americans fashion, the episode steps back to contemplate a) what it means to trust, b) how control can be taken and given freely, and c) how the show’s characters use trust and control in order to manipulate others—and manipulate their own perception. Slotting “One Day In The Life Of Anton Baklanov” along with the rest of season three, Stephen Schiff and Tracey Scott Wilson’s script filters all of this through the experiences of being someone’s caretaker and being taken care of.
Consider the episode’s most important scene: Clark teaching Martha to lie without detection. “His job is to make you feel as if he knows,” Clark says of Walter Taffet, marking the agent as a master of manipulation. But there are methods for manipulating the manipulator, which Clark introduces by way of his own mental trick: Martha has the information Taffet wants, but that doesn’t mean she has to give it up. She has all the control in the situation, and that’s what gives her the confidence to lie her face off during the interrogation. The “look at his nose” trick just puts her mind at ease; it also provides director Andrew Bernstein the chance to make neat POV inserts that place the camera’s focus on Jefferson Mays’ nose. (Though I also found my eyes drifting to Clark’s nose earlier in the episode.) It just takes a little coaching and a little pep talk to get her there.
Martha has control while talking to Taffet; Elizabeth loses and then regains her control in her rendezvous with Neal the hotel manager. Then she exercises that control by bedding down with her husband, in a sequence that’s blocked in a similar fashion—with Elizabeth disappearing out of frame this time—as that sex scene earlier in the episode. Lack of control has proven to be a major motif in season three, the sort of thing we associate with parenthood and childhood, and therefore can make closer connections to spies who are parents or spies who are being made to feel like children.
It’s the best you can ask for from TV table-setting, in the type of mid-to-late-season episode tasked with maintaining a show’s velocity while accounting for previous events and preparing for momentous occasions to come. In that way, “One Day In The Life Of Anton Baklanov” is the guardian for all that The Americans has built in its spectacular third season. It honors the shock of “Stingers,” portraying Paige’s shattered world through Holly Taylor’s furious line readings and a general air of mystery. What’s Elizabeth really after with Neal? What was in the Mail Robot transcripts that Arkady says he already read? Are we ignoring the fact that Zinaida dissed Tootsie last week and made a drop in the cineplex bathroom?
“One Day In The Life Of Anton Baklanov” also nourishes stories, characters, and relationships we haven’t seen in a few episodes, advancing Elizabeth’s dealings with Lisa (and a suddenly game Maurice) and giving Yousaf a spycraft heart-to-heart with Philip. This week’s episode is full of scenes like that one, in which everyday occurrences—a mother-daughter chat, a moment of bonding between coworkers, a wife and husband decompressing after work—take on tremendous weight because of The Americans’ subject matter. It’s a of a winking ode to “One Day In The Life Of Anton Baklanov”’s literary namesake: Like the character at the center of One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, one day in the lives of these people is no ordinary 24 hours. There may be meaning in those 532 Mail Robot beeps yet!
The more explicit connection to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s grueling depiction of life in the gulag comes from Anton and Nina’s “One Day In The Life” storyline, in which empathy and fellowship once more prove to be a spy’s deadliest foes. There’s a growing understanding between these two characters, both treated like pawns in the games of a totalitarian regime. And yet only Nina has a chance to make it back to the board, the dramatic irony of Stan and Oleg’s scheme intensified by her discovery of Anton’s un-mailed correspondence. She has another chance of getting out; she might not have to turn these letters to Jacob into another weapon in the Soviets’ psychological war against Anton. But that’s not a form of control she’s aware of, and so she tells him to keep writing, her own understanding of the man’s situation trumped by self-preservation instincts.
Wherever her story goes next, she’s having an easier time earning someone’s trust than Elizabeth and Philip are. I don’t ask for (or expect) the dictionary definition of “realism” from The Americans, but I’m wowed by the way Paige’s struggle with the big “Stingers” revelation mimics reality. Let’s take realism out of the conversation and call it “emotional honesty”: There’s a bracing whiff of truth to the way Paige came unmoored last week, and it’s still there in her angry incredulity this week. No Americans viewer may ever go through the experience of learning that they’re the offspring of two covert government operatives living under assumed identities in a foreign country. But if they did, the gurgling bouillabaisse of emotion that the show is currently cooking up for Paige—thanks in large part to the conviction of Holly Taylor’s performance—would probably represent their feelings on the matter.
It’s another wise tweak to the expected course of The Americans’ third season. We’re now two episodes away from the end, and we’ve only just broached the topic of Paige’s true lineage—following that lineage to a future with the KGB now properly feels like a journey that, done properly, would take multiple seasons. Placing greater distance between Paige and her parents, “One Day In The Life Of Anton Baklanov” reiterates the difficulty of that task, simultaneously demonstrating the types of twists and turns that can actually take place in the space of 13 episodes. The bugging of Agent Gaad’s office and the restoration of tension between Elizabeth and Philip are the season’s true white-knuckle rides, unflashy storylines that still manage plenty of wind-up and release in “One Day In The Life,” through subtle manipulations that will mean more to the series than the episode that deployed them. This is one of those weeks where it matters less that you know the truth about Santa Claus—what you do with that information is where the consequences lie.
- Big thanks to Libby for covering for me last week. She’s right: If it means I’m going to miss another Americans like “Stingers,” I’m never going on vacation again.
- Paige may be a long way from accepting the truth about her parents, and an even longer way from joining them in the KGB, but she’s shutting Henry down at the kitchen table as if she’s Elizabeth or Philip: “What’s wrong with you?” “Nothing. Eat your breakfast.” (Side note: I’d love for The Americans to spawn a “Walt Jr. Loves Breakfast”-style meme along these lines. “Henry Loves Being Told To Eat Breakfast” just doesn’t have the same ring to it, though.)
- After introducing his Mr. Robinson impression last week, Henry’s Eddie Murphy-based reign of terror continues this week. Trading Places is only a few months away in the show’s timeline, so at least he has some fresh material on the way.
- The Americans Wig Report: Season Three, Week 11: B-. The hairpins are really earning their keep in that scene in the hotel room, though.
- The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season Three, Week 11: N/A. But here’s the source of this week’s thematically appropriate subhed: Billboard’s No. 26 single for 1983, “Back On The Chain Gang” by The Pretenders.
- Was there any Mail Robot? No physical sightings of Mail Robot this week, only the mournful, transcribed electronic wailing of a Mail Robot unwillingly conscripted into KGB service.
- Did anyone mention Mail Robot? Who’s that recording device “moving freely through the halls without detection?” What postal-designated artificial intelligence is now a featured player in Operation ZEPHYR? Who’s having every last beep catalogued by overzealous Soviet analysts? It’s Mail Robot, naturally!