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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Americans: “Safe House”

Illustration for article titled iThe Americans/i: “Safe House”
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Genevieve: I’d like to preface this week’s Americans review with a public-service announcement: People, please, if you’re going to microwave a potato, poke holes in it first. Otherwise, it could explode, burning your hand, therefore preventing you from going on your daily jog (wait, what?), resulting in all sorts of mistaken-identity tragedy.

The narrative of “Safe House” hinges on coincidence, crossed wires, and everyone acting a little dumber and rasher than they should. Plot-wise, this episode has more holes than a properly prepped microwave baked potato; but execution can forgive many sins, and “Safe House” is a very well executed hour of television, full of tension, high stakes, and serious consequences. It’s a nice rebound from last episode’s slight wheel-spinning, which bothered me less than it did Todd, but becomes even more apparent when compared to this week’s episode. When the unexpectedly decisive continuation of the last episode’s “cliffhanger”—Philip and Elizabeth deciding to get a separation—becomes the least significant element of this week’s episode, it’s evident The Americans has stepped up its game.


Though, actually, Philip and Elizabeth deciding to take a break isn’t the only thread that gets picked up from “Mutually Assured Destruction.” The accidental assassination of three FBI agents that happened at the end of that episode lit the fuse that burns throughout this episode, resulting in two deaths that have the potential to turn this cold war hot very fast. This is where The Americans’ historical milieu becomes a real liability—we know things can only escalate so far—but the repercussions of Agent Amador’s death this week will most likely play out on a smaller level—namely, within the increasingly tortured mind of Stan Beeman.

There’s a lot happening in “Safe House,” but it is most definitely Noah Emmerich’s episode. Not only does he get a couple of meaty monologues to chew on and a couple of flashbacks to soulfully gaze into, but Stan’s the lynchpin between Philip and Elizabeth’s story—dealing with an injured Amador, who gets gut-stabbed in an (I think) unrelated altercation with “Clark” outside Martha’s—and the FBI/KGB side of things. Stan lets his concern over the missing Amador influence his actions in the FBI/CIA’s retaliation plan—a mission he originally intended to stay out of—grabbing Arkady’s underling, Vlad, in the place of the injured intended target. Thus, things go from bad to worse, and “Clark’s” night of ecstatic coupling with Motormouth Martha has two casualties.


In theory, Vlad didn’t need to get got to make this story go. If Stan hadn’t made that split-second decision to grab him, Amador would be just as dead, Arkady would be just as alive, and the state of Nina’s cover at the embassy would be just as in question. But Stan shooting Vlad is a huge character moment; the identity of his target is really as arbitrary as that of the bird in Stan’s hunting allegory—sorry, Vlad—but this is Stan’s “break bad” moment, as it were. Like pretty much every cop on television ever, Stan’s Achilles’ heel is his partner, and Amador’s abduction and death is what takes Stan from being the straight-arrow who declines to participate in Agent Gaad’s off-books mission to swerving that mission wildly off course to shooting a probably innocent man in the head in the span of a few hours. (He was quite rough with Nina too; very un-Stan-like.) It’s almost as if he’s channeling one Chris “The Whole Enchilada” Amador.

Todd, how do you feel about this show’s first major casualty? And does Philip and Elizabeth’s quick separation assuage any of the misgivings you had following the previous episode? But before we get to that, answer me this: What can’t we have fried chicken for dinner every night?


Todd: We can’t have fried chicken for dinner every night because I bought this wok, and I thought I could make some Chinese food. What? You don’t like that? How about spaghetti with meat sauce? God, Genevieve. You’re impossible to please.

I did, indeed, like this episode quite a bit more than the last one, and what I liked best about it is something I touch on in more detail in a column running next week: In this episode, everybody misinterprets the information they have in believable ways, but the way they misinterpret it leads to everybody getting everything wrong. Now, Philip’s instinct to take a step back and say, “Wait a second” when Elizabeth was convinced the U.S. government had fallen to a coup seems almost a compare-contrast with where we are now. A suspicious (and jealous?) Amador shows up outside his girlfriend’s apartment. Philip, working out some sort of tension, comes to blows with him, then turns Amador’s own knife against him. And the sickening series of events is set, and everything plunges down the rabbit hole.


You say you found this episode filled with plot holes, Genevieve, but I didn’t really feel that way. Sure, it was possible to see places where a character might have performed better with a cooler head, but even Arkady’s potato mishap struck me as the kind of dark humor this show goes in for. The characters on The Americans often aren’t making decisions with their heads or even their groins. Instead, they’re following their own misplaced emotions into darker and darker corners. Stan decides to stick with the plan to nab someone, even though Arkady isn’t there, because he needs to feel like he’s doing something, and this is the best he’s got. Philip and Amador get into that fight because they’re both feeling weird, impotent rage at their ex-partners. (Well, ex- for now in Philip’s case.) Gaad feels like the country isn’t responding swiftly or well enough to the deaths of three FBI agents, so he escalates the Cold War all on his own.

One thing I really like about The Americans that seems to drive some people a little nuts is the way that big political movements aren’t really defined by the ideals they espouse but by the people who are contained within those movements. Gaad has no official orders to do what he does, but his actions could very well be interpreted as a retaliation by the United States government (because in one sense, they are, just at a very minor, limited level). I like the way this show boils everything political down to something as personal as wanting to feel loved or wanting to get revenge for a dead friend (or group of friends). And where I was quite certain that Stan’s “turn” would come from the death of Nina, it instead comes from the death of Amador, which I wouldn’t have predicted, since this show is so light on the ground in terms of major characters already (even if it’s built up a healthy guest star roster). If I have a quibble about this episode, it’s that the friendship between Stan and Amador seems retrofitted into the show—see also, flashbacks—rather than something that developed organically over the eight episodes prior to this. I bought that they were buddies and good working partners. But I never bought Stan would do this, even if Noah Emmerich sold the hell out of it.


That said, this is another beautifully written, beautifully directed episode of a show that’s turning out to be one of the most consistent on TV in this regard. There have been some complaints in comments on these articles and elsewhere that the show is too humorless, but I don’t really see that. The “jokes,” such as they are, slide in around the edges of the scenes, whether as historical ironies or as characters confronting the essential futility of everything they’re up against. The show’s humor isn’t traditionally setup-punchline, so much as it is like something out of Samuel Beckett, an existential chuckle in the face of oncoming death. And, yeah, that makes the show sound even more humorless, but I get some good laughs out of it every week. This week, those came from the flashbacks between Amador and Stan, which had a loose rhythm to them that really did suggest these guys became fast friends. In particular, that second scene where the two laugh about the idea of “pussy” being a metaphor struck me as at once funny and very, very sad. I’ve seen conversations like this on shows all of the time, and they usually are treated as very profound. Joshua Brand’s script, instead, understands that this would all be seen as a little silly. Pussy as metaphor? What? The two guys laughing is at once a natural response and a sad prelude to Stan’s final actions. Grantland’s Andy Greenwald wrote a great review of the last episode in which he said that this show captures what it was like to live through the ’80s better than most shows set in the time period, and though I have a more limited exposure to the period (having been a very young kid), I more or less agree. It wasn’t all day-glo colors and leg warmers. My primary memories of the decade are of “grey,” and the show captures that nicely.

More and more, this show reminds me of The Sopranos. And more and more, I’m reminded how much of that show was taken up with Carmela thinking about leaving Tony, then not actually doing it, then thinking about it some more, then finally making the break, only to be lured back in. Yeah, the marriage plotting on this show has felt a little too sped up at times, a little too hasty, and I wish everybody had taken their time. (That Sopranos arc, after all, spread out over six seasons.) But at the same time, I’m impressed that the show has apparently decided to try this separation out for a while, even as I know we’re headed to a reunion, most likely in the season finale. The show seems to argue that we’re almost always stronger as units than we are separately, and I suspect that’s why everything devolves into chaos once the Jennings two separate.


But, Genevieve, I’ve rattled on enough. What are your thoughts on the show’s perceived humorlessness? And can we talk about how terrifying Philip’s sex faces are in this episode? He is not a happy man.

Genevieve: I think you mean Clark’s sex faces, Todd. And I’d say they’re a level of terrifying on par with Martha’s pillow talk.


As for the humorlessness: Look, I’m not going to pretend I laugh a lot at The Americans. I can’t remember ever reacting beyond a slight chuckle to whatever passes for humor on this show. But I think that’s because, as you say, the humor on this show—and I agree that there is some humor—is not really joke-based. There’s the occasional purposely comic line, but it’s usually tucked away inside a situation that’s far from funny: Stan telling his captive, “Nothing beats American fast food,” for example, or the aforementioned pussy-metaphor conversation. But really, the moments that come closest to being laugh-out-loud funny for me—aside from the new wig reveals—are the ones that play on the contrast between the extraordinarily high stakes of espionage with the extreme mundanity of everyday life and relationships. Paige and Henry are usually the main sources of this, which is why they so often get quoted in these recaps, though sweet, sad Martha and her dreams of a happily ever after with Clark provide some moments as well. Of course, there’s the rub: Even if those moments are funny, there’s an underlying sadness to them, a foundation of deceit and impending tragedy that keeps even something like Paige swooning over fried chicken from being entirely lighthearted.

Until now, Amador was the closest thing The Americans had to a purely comic figure. His cocksureness strayed too close to grating too often for me to call him the comic relief, but the speech he gives Stan in flashback about having no attachments is reflective of a certain lightness that’s refreshing in the heavy, heavy world of The Americans. Other secondary characters, like Nina and Martha, are defined by their proximity to certain tragedy; Amador seemed immune, content to joke from the margins, which is probably why neither of us expected him to be the first to bite it. The fact that he was bodes well for The Americans’ ability to keep delivering surprising yet (mostly) plausible developments as we move into the season’s final stretch.


Stray observations

  • To clarify, Todd, what I talk about plot holes in this episode, I'm really talking about characters being too forthcoming and hasty, to an unbelievable degree: Gaad talking about secret missions in the middle of a party, Martha giving up Gaad with no hesitation, etc. Amador’s the only one who can keep his mouth shut, it seems. [GK]
  • I’m sorry, I still don’t understand how a burned hand keeps one from going jogging. [GK]
  • Well, if your hand really hurts, who wants to think about anything else?! Better to just sit and nurse it in some tepid water for a while. [TV]
  • I’m surprised Amador vaguely recognizing the bewigged Elizabeth wasn’t played out to its presumed conclusion. The script made such a point of showing him noticing her at Stan’s party, I was sure it would turn into a more significant moment. [GK]
  • That's one of the reasons I keep bringing up Sopranos comparisons. That was the sort of thing you would often see on that earlier show: a potential plot thread dangled, then snatched away because real life rarely works in carefully laid out plot threads. [TV]
  • It is worth pointing out that Noah Emmerich is absolutely terrifying in this episode. That speech about the bird and the soft mouth would be his Emmy clip in a just world. [TV]
  • I was wondering how the Revolutionary War ended; thanks, Henry! [GK]

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