Todd: Obviously, there’s no way for me to know how you felt, Genevieve, but “The Deal” was, to me, some crazy great television, where a season of The Americans that has been terrific already steps up even more by sending a bunch of plates spinning and leaving the audience dizzy. We’ve been talking a bit this season about how the show boils everything in its universe down to questions of loyalty and fidelity, but “The Deal” took things a step further, to my mind. Now we’re dealing not just with loyalty—to a partner or a country or a creed—but the idea of having a home, or even a homeland. That idea is already deeply buried in the creation of the nation of Israel, but we also see how Philip long for the Soviet Union from time to time, or how Anton has made the United States unambiguously his home. Remove these characters from their familiar trappings, and they become unmoored.
What’s interesting about this is that the dialectic set up in the show’s pilot—Elizabeth is the hardcore Soviet operative, while Philip is the one being seduced by the American way of life—is increasingly being subverted the longer the show goes along. In this episode, the Mossad agent that Philip keeps tied up in a safe house until the deal to make the exchange of agent for Anton can be worked out laughs with disbelief when he realizes our man misses his homeland (and its attendant icicles) so. But he does! One of the things I’ve always liked about Philip is that he’s the more vulnerable and traditionally emotional of the two Jenningses. He’s the kind of guy you could imagine being swayed by that earnest plea from Anton that he doesn’t want to leave behind his wife and child, even though he ultimately isn’t. No, the ties that Philip feels aren’t so much strategic or philosophical ties as emotional ones. They’re memories tied to snowy days and the place he knew so well as a child. And those ties that pull us to things we’re genuinely nostalgic for are the toughest to break.
That’s one reason I so appreciated the final scene of this episode, which puts the cap on the tragedy of the final moments by putting Philip and Elizabeth together on the couch to talk about the icicles of their youths. It would be a lovely scene in and of itself, but it’s interrupted by the sound of one of the kids’ alarms blaring, waking them up for another day. By subtly shifting at least some of the focus to Philip and Elizabeth as parents this season, this episode is able to make its payoff much more about how Henry and Paige are forming those sorts of nostalgic ties not to the homeland of their parents, but to the country they were born into. For as much as Elizabeth and Philip might hope that, deep down, their children would be loyal to them, a homeland is difficult to ignore.
The Americans is at its best when it remembers that the people who were caught up in these cycles of battle between nations were just that—people. That’s a cliché notion, to be sure, and the show has thankfully kept the “Soviets are just like us!” moments to a bare minimum. Why I think it works is because the series digs more deeply to see the ways that these people might identify strongly with these conflicts, but not because they perfectly understand what’s happening so much as they don’t, and just want something bigger than themselves to cling to. And yet the older we get, the more we might find that something bigger not in ideology, but in others.
All of this brings me back to Elizabeth, who’s once again seemingly thrown by her newfound connection to her husband when Martha starts talking about what an animal Clark is in bed, and Stan, who’s put in a position where he might question his loyalty to his country in order to keep Nina safe. Whether Oleg will be able to flip Stan is very much an open question at episode’s end (and I suspect that Stan will remain steadfast because he’s just that kind of guy), but season two keeps drilling into the characters’ heads that the larger games they play on a geopolitical scale are just extrapolations of the relationships they live within on an interpersonal scale. “The Deal” features one of those moments when the series pulls in a bit of real-world history and recontextualizes it within this universe when it ends with the USSR relaxing its stringent treatment of the Refuseniks. We’re meant to believe it’s part of the deal cut to get Anton back on Soviet soil. On the one hand, it’s a clever bit of secret history; on the other, it’s just the ultimate example of the show taking tiny relationship stories and blowing them out to a grander scale.
But I’ve barely touched on many of the things that happen in this episode. Genevieve: What did you think of Philip’s long time spent with the Mossad agent and/or the couple’s new handler? And just how the hell does Elizabeth have the time to do everything she does in this episode?
Genevieve: If I have one minor complaint about “The Deal,” it’s the fact that Elizabeth spends so much of it on the fringes of the story, tying up the last episode’s loose ends—the Martha and Brad Mullen situations—so that Philip can remain cooped up in the safehouse with the Mossad agent. In general, I’ve liked this season of The Americans better when Elizabeth and Philip are together than when they’re apart (as opposed to last season, when I think they usually worked better separately), and their separation in this episode makes it feel a little unbalanced, even though they probably have an equal amount of screentime. However, their separation also facilitates that fantastic closing scene you mention, and makes it much more resonant than if the two of them had faced the Mossad agent together.
See, Todd, I don’t know if I entirely agree with your interpretation of Philip’s nostalgia for his homeland. I read the Mossad agent’s mockery of Philip, and Philip’s reaction to that mockery, as further strain on a connection that grows fainter for Philip with each passing year. Coupled with Anton’s open-hearted groveling to not be sent back to his homeland, which Philip seems to just barely endure without breaking, it seems to me that Philip is having a harder and harder time maintaining his connection to the Russia he knew as a younger man. He’s grasping at icicles, as it were, and those things are mighty slippery, and not built to last. In the end, he has to turn to Elizabeth for reassurance that there were icicles when they left Russia—a memory of their old home that’s much less real and weighty than the actual home they’ve made for themselves in America, the one populated by living, breathing children and their buzzing alarm clocks. I think Philip is realizing those memories aren’t enough to inspire in him the sort of fervid devotion Anton has to America and his family there. This has been Philip’s conundrum from the start, as you mention Todd, and to me, “The Deal” only served to underscore that.
Philip’s emotional battle is the throughline uniting an episode that packs in a lot of stuff, providing a grounding force for an episode that, while great, is fairly scattered. In addition to Elizabeth’s many adventures in and away from the Jennings household, new handler Kate is unceremoniously introduced in a couple of short, mostly uninformative scenes; Oleg reveals himself to Stan as a “budding student of capitalism” and counter-surveillance expert, and continues to be a potentially dangerous thorn in Arkady’s side; and Gaad returns to help Stan highlight phone records and pump the DOD for info, to the obvious displeasure of Hollowell. Hell, even Sandra shows up, drawing to find the parts of herself she lost. I’m surprised Henry didn’t have his own minor subplot as well. The Americans is juggling a lot of balls at the moment, and it’s sometimes difficult to determine which we should be looking at—is Hollowell someone we’re supposed to care about now?—especially when the stuff with Philip in the safehouse feels so much more important in the moment.
That said, something about Kate’s introduction feels… off, particularly following the reappearance of Claudia last week. Claudia was so memorably introduced in season one, grandmotherly lurking over Philip and Paige’s lunch at that diner, that it seems a little weird to just drop this new character on us with little more than a brief, “Oh yeah, I’m your new handler now guys!” The fact that Philip just accepts this, without asking for a password or credentials or anything, feels even more suspect. (Come on, guy, you’re a super-spy! Act like it!) Then we learn that this is Kate’s first assignment, that the Center has essentially given Philip and Elizabeth someone they can walk all over—to “keep them happy,” to use her words. She’s young, inexperienced, and not exhibiting a whole lot in the way of guile or a forceful personality, which makes me think she won’t be in the Jennings’ service long. On the other hand, she could reveal herself to be an Oleg-like climber, with this unassuming introduction being her foothold.
Speaking of Oleg: He’s turning into a major problem, isn’t he? For Stan, yes, but he seems to represent something more than another wrinkle in the Nina-Stan triple-cross. When Nina tells Stan that Oleg and Arkady are fighting, Stan wonders, “Is Arkady running the Rezidentura or isn’t he?” Thus far this season, the Americans writers have taken great pains to set Oleg up as a foil to Arkady and his old, bureaucratic way of doing things, and the younger agent certainly seems to be climbing quickly. Todd, are you getting as concerned for Arkady as I am?
Todd: I definitely am, and I think that’s because another theme that’s being woven deftly throughout this season is that of generational divide. Arkady probably has more direct connections to the Russian Revolution than Oleg does. (He’s
likely in his 50s or 60s probably in his 40s somewhere, so it’s not unlikely to think Arkady’s parents were directly involved in said Revolution.) Thus, Oleg is more likely to be influenced by “capitalist” ways of thought, sure, but that might not be a wholly terrible thing, insofar as his superiors are concerned. The older you get, the more entrenched in your ways you become, and the harder it is to see simple solutions that have been staring you in the face all along. Though I continue to think Stan will hold firm, Oleg might be the only person capable of flipping him, because he presents it not as a gradual seduction—which I think Stan would eventually see through—but as a direct threat to something Stan considers “his.” There’s probably something to be said here about Communist versus capitalist ideas of property (and how they extend to other human beings, like Nina), but I’ll wait to see if the show does anything with it in the weeks to come.
But the idea of another generation coming up to replace us extends to every character in the show this season—except for Paige and Henry (and, please, let’s not introduce any evil babies with one eyebrow to threaten them). You mention, Genevieve, that you think I’m slightly off in my read of Philip’s memories of his homeland, and that’s entirely possible. But I think it’s the things we remember from our childhood—even if we remember them inaccurately!—that become those which we cling to all the more as we get older. That can blind us to other approaches and keep us from seeing the ways our own children are inventing the future right under our noses. That is, we’re blinded until they pull out something we don’t expect at all—and we’re pushed aside, because that’s just how it goes.
Todd’s grade: A
Genevieve’s grade: A-
- It is sort of wild to me to contemplate that Paige and Henry aren’t that much older than me, both within 15 years of my age. I’m still younger than them, but it’s not, like, a Sally Draper thing. All of which is to say I am getting old. [TV]
- Elizabeth-as-Jennifer’s response to Martha offering up information about Clark’s wildman tendencies in the sack: “What does he do?” Elizabeth! No sister wants those details about her brother. [GK]
- So apparently Martha’s phone is being tapped by someone from the Center. This makes sense, but I think this is the first time we’ve seen evidence of it, yes? [GK]
- “Is President Reagan personally scaling our walls wearing his cowboy hat?” “We are better at vodka; they are better at cigarettes.” Arkady gets some good lines in this week, which makes me all the more worried for him. [GK]
- Drunken Kenny Rogers lyrics are a vital part of training at the Mossad Academy. [TV]
- Paige’s response to Elizabeth asking what she’s reading: “Don’t worry, it’s not the Bible.” Such a perfectly teenager-y passive-aggressive response. [GK]
- Paige’s attempt to explain to her mother why she’s dabbling in Christianity in this time of trouble is also perfect. It’s just because of her crazy life, you know? Then her voice trails off, and she pretty much runs away. [TV]