Todd: It seems like I say this every week, but “Trust Me” strikes me as the most confident, sure-handed episode of The Americans yet, with a great central scenario that initially struck me as too predictable until it yanked the rug out from under my feet. There are rich character moments for both of our main characters and for Stan, and there’s… okay, there’s a pretty weird story with the kids that seems to exist mostly just to give them something to do. But in the face of all of the greatness everywhere else, I’m willing to let it slide.
The center of the story features Phillip and Elizabeth being snatched, respectively, from a payphone where Phillip is making a call to Martha and from the Jennings’ home (where Elizabeth is going about her daily business, knife always right there in case she needs it). Fairly early on, it becomes evident that this is all happening because the KGB needs to make sure neither of them is the mole and is willing to go to rather extreme measures to determine so. So the whole episode hinges on what reaction Phillip and Elizabeth have to the KGB betraying them like this. And those reactions are fascinating character stuff. Phillip doesn’t crack or betray the motherland, not even when he’s pretty sure the FBI has found him out. Elizabeth, of course, isn’t as great a concern in those terms, but she does lash out when she finds out her side was behind all of this. She hits Claudia repeatedly (in the face!), then nearly drowns her, then screams that Claudia better let Moscow see her face if they want to know how Elizabeth feels about all of this.
I talked to Matthew Rhys this week about the season so far, and in the process of that interview, he said that the casting of Keri Russell is very consciously playing off of her image from a bygone era as “America’s sweetheart.” We still carry those subconscious feelings for her around with us (or, at least, those of us who dug Felicity and the late-’90s WB do), and that leads to impressive surprise and shock when she unleashes a stream of terrifying violence. This might seem a little obvious—dark cable dramas have been casting against type for maximum impact for a while now—but it wasn’t until this episode (which I watched before the interview) that I felt the full impact of that decision. The Americans cannily uses whatever feelings we have about Russell against us, and while she plays someone who could be Felicity all grown up in the “normal” scenes, she’s a titanic cauldron of rage who’s been threatening to boil over everywhere else. She finally cracks nearly completely here, and because it’s this woman, playing this part, it feels even more cathartic and devastating. If this were most TV shows, Elizabeth would now begin to question her home country, but this is decidedly not most TV shows at this point.
But the moment the episode hinges on comes later, after the two have escaped the KGB’s clutches and are staggering down the sidewalk. Phillip starts to put two and two together. Elizabeth wasn’t worked over. And she must not have been worked over because she told the KGB at some point that Phillip was going soft. It’s a devastating moment, a deep betrayal of who these characters are, and yet it doesn’t make Elizabeth feel like a villain, as it could. Instead, it plays up the fact that Phillip’s always been the one who fits in. He wears his American self like a second skin, and at some point, that’s started to become who he actually is. (Shades of the many stories bouncing around on Justified this season.) Elizabeth can’t do that. She’s alienated, alone, trapped away from the country she’s ostensibly a citizen of, and when she hisses angrily at him, there’s a hint of envy there. With the KGB having nabbed her like this, Elizabeth has become a woman whose every tether to reality is fraying. Yet she doesn’t have the easy leap into American citizenship she believes her husband would have. She has nowhere to turn.
But that’s enough about the central storyline. Genevieve, were you suitably thrilled by Stan’s plot to set up Vasili? And can you defend the kids’ subplot?
Genevieve: I don’t think I can, or want to, defend the subplot with Paige and Henry, but I can sort of understand the point of its place in this episode. Throughout the series, their kids have been the one thing that consistently causes Phillip and Elizabeth fear, the fear that they’ll come to harm or be taken away due to the actions of their parents. And that’s pretty much what (almost) happens here, albeit in a way that neither Phillip nor Elizabeth could have ever predicted. They’ve spent so much energy thinking about the danger to their kids that’s inherent in their very unusual circumstances; but what of the more “everyday” dangers that all parents—specifically American parents—worry about, the danger of their kids being abducted from outside the mall by a creep who looks like Peeta from The Hunger Games’ older brother? It’s a very local-news-abetted, suburban-parent kind of fear, and it’s an interesting contrast with the heightened, clandestine, and exceptional nature of Phillip and Elizabeth’s usual concerns about their kids. (Not saying they don’t have these other concerns; we just haven’t really seen them expressed in the context of the show yet.)
The storyline also serves to establish a stronger bond between Henry and Paige, which I suspect is going to become more important as the series continues to grow in scope. We’ve never really seen them interacting on their own, without their parents in the picture, so it’s nice to see that (both actors continue to be quite capable, if not quite extraordinary, in their roles); but more importantly, they have a secret now—just like their parents! It’s kind of neat to see the kids working together to get out of a predicament, just as Phillip and Elizabeth are being driven apart by their abductors. It’s like a smaller-scale, after-school-special version of the show’s core material, and even though it was fairly inelegant, it provided an interesting counterpoint.
So hey, maybe I can defend the kids’ subplot, even though I think it was the weakest part of an episode that could have very easily gone of the rails but didn’t, for the reasons you explain, Todd.
Stan’s plan to protect Nina by framing Vasili as the KGB mole, however, needs no defense, as it was the highlight of the episode for me. Nina is fast becoming one of my favorite characters, in large part because of the effect she has on Stan—and Stan’s marriage—so it’s nice to see she’s not getting a bullet to the head in the immediate future. But aside from that, Stan’s plot fulfilled the old-school caper part of the Americans formula, and while the stakes and fallout are dire, it’s still thrilling to watch it play out. (This show’s skewed sense of “good guys” and “bad guys” makes these smaller-scale spy escapades more ethically loaded than they’d be in a less ambiguous atmosphere, but they’re still gripping in their execution.) I mean, there were smuggled jewels, post-coital confessions, a hidden camera, and someone shouting “I’ve been set up!”; that’s some high theatrics right there, but it’s pulled off brilliantly, thanks in large part to Noah Emmerich and Annet Mahendru, who are both really adept at conveying that delicate balance of determination and abject terror. And then the coda, of Stan telling-but-not-telling his information-starved wife about his day, how it was scary but turned out okay, was a nice little button on the whole affair. There’s more that he’s not telling her—and maybe not even telling himself—regarding his relationship with one of the people he has to “worry about,” but for tonight, both Stan and Sandra can rest easy.
Going back to that ambiguity I mentioned: How bad do we feel for Vasili here? While I guess he’s technically one of the “bad guys,” at least from the assumed historical American perspective, he’s mostly been a pawn on the show, subject to the orders of his KGB boss—whom we learn tonight is named Arkady—and Nina’s big brown eyes. And he gets majorly shafted here, sent back to Russia and his execution under false accusations so that Nina can continue working against the KGB. Elizabeth’s fury at discovering who was behind their abduction is similarly messy; who’s really the victim in this situation? Is it Phillip, who was betrayed by his wife? Elizabeth, who was betrayed by her bosses? Claudia, who was just doing what needed to be done to cover their asses? Or none of them, because they’re all a part of The Red Menace, and are therefore undeserving of sympathy, even if we care about them as characters? I love that The Americans subtly asks its audience to engage with this ambiguity every week, while being unfailingly entertaining and quite often surprising in the process.
One of this week’s surprises: the return of Gregory. Todd, are you as happy to have Elizabeth’s former lover back in the mix as I am? And do you think poor Martha is ever going to get to do something other than be pathetic?
Todd: Now you’re almost making me wish I liked the kids’ storyline more than I did, because I like all of the ideas you’re giving me, in theory, and I kind of liked the weird vibe of the whole thing, where you were pretty sure this dude’s a creep, but there’s also this weird offhand chance that he’s just a nice guy, with a religious bent, who really likes ducks. And how many of those do you meet in a day? It’s unclear just how much of this is being colored by the perceptions the kids bring to… nah. He’s a creep.
I’m also with you on the Stan-Sandra-Nina triangle. The writers and Susan Misner have taken a character who could have felt like the shrewish harpy standing in the way of Stan and Nina’s true love and made her so much more fun than that. It’s easy to see why Stan fell for this woman in the first place, but it’s also easy to see why his jumpy, paranoid self can’t be with her right now. She’s got a real, grounded quality to her, and I’m coming to like that about her quite a bit. I guess I’m on team Stan/Nina, but I’m also assuming Nina’s not long for this world.
In similar romantic odd coupling, I was happy to see Gregory back, because he struck me as yet another of the show’s vivid batch of supporting characters. This series is doing such a great job of coming up with all of these great little bit parts, then filling them with just the right actor, and Derek Luke (who hasn’t taken off in Hollywood like he should have) more than fits that description. The moment when he reaches out and puts one of his fingers atop one of Elizabeth’s fingers is delicate and soulful, and her reaction is appropriately gutting. Again, I don’t particularly care about this pairing, but the show is doing such a good job of keeping track of its many swirling emotions. I fear we will get no more shades to Martha, however.
Since this is one of the episodes in the season’s midsection—when the serialization noose is drawing tighter but hasn’t yet completely closed—it’s time for a little needless speculation down in comments. If you don’t enjoy this sort of speculation, you may as well skip to the stray observations right about now. As I said, I’m guessing Nina’s not getting out of this season alive. I’m also betting she dies at either Phillip or Elizabeth’s hand (because that would increase Stan’s angst when he inevitably finds out about his neighbors in season five). At the same time, I’m starting to wonder if this season doesn’t end with our two leads backed into a corner where they’re forced to admit the truth sooner, rather than later. Maybe even in the first-season finale? That feels soon, of course, but this show is feeling rather jumpy, and it would be a bold (if possibly self-destructive) move. Time will tell.
- The scene between Stan and Nina talking in front of the film installation was quite lovely, visually and performance-wise. [GK]
- Note to self: Pick up some diamonds to use as currency on my way home. [TV]
- Vasili’s tea snobbery comes back to bite him in the ass. See what happens when you’re rude to your salespeople? [GK]
- So, does creepy abductor guy just keep bread in his car on the off-chance he comes across some underage hitchhikers? Or is he just one of those duck-loving, Dutch-beer-drinking pedophiles? [GK]
- I sort of enjoyed how the lead interrogator beating the shit out of Phillip looked so much like John Elway. Seriously! Go back and look again! [TV]
- The Americans still manages to squeeze in a few groaningly obvious lines per episode; this one’s standout has to be, “You’re lucky you ran into me, and not some lunatic.” [GK]
- A great little moment after Phillip and Elizabeth have that fight: They drive home, then Phillip looks over to his wife, who seems indifferent. He draws the seatbelt across himself… and purposefully crashes the car into a tree. I love this wordless sequence. [TV]
- Hey, I wonder what Stan’s son is up to! Remember that guy? [GK]
- Clearly, Genevieve, you aren’t as excited by Paige’s love life, as you’d remember we just saw him naught but two weeks ago, pitching woo to young Ms. Jennings. [TV]