You know who should direct more episodes of The Americans? Noah Emmerich.
As stated in one of the handful of interviews the actor performed leading up to his directorial debut, the man otherwise known as Stan Beeman explains that he wound up with ”Walter Taffet” by luck of the draw. Or maybe it’s more baptism by fire: Stepping behind the camera for the very first time, Emmerich was put in charge of some extremely gripping suspense scenes for co-star Alison Wright. Not only that, but he also had to play traffic cop for a complex action sequence involving hand-to-hand combat, a pair of abductions, an execution-style shooting, and a wig that makes Matthew Rhys look like he just got off a shift at Hot Topic. He acquits himself marvelously, probably because he’s working off such a strong template.
It also helps that Emmerich was handed season three’s second firecracker of an episode. “Walter Taffet” is a two-gasp installment of The Americans: First when Gaad unscrews that lousy pen, and second when Elizabeth emotionlessly eliminates the only witness to the Jennings’ misconduct in front of the diner. This is The Americans playing its long games and short games like John McVie plays that bass solo in “The Chain”: Purposefully, masterfully, and with a heavy dose of menace.
Removed from the immediate concerns of the Kimmy operation, and with the Paige situation serving as emotional ammunition (rather than fuel for the plot), “Walter Taffet” opens up room to address concerns in the Clark-and-Martha department. In this space a few weeks ago, I was wondering about certain specifics of their arrangement; tonight’s episode proves I shouldn’t have worried. The Americans knows we’re curious about how Philip has managed to keep this ruse up for three-and-a-half seasons, because the show shares a philosophy with its characters: “You always play against the odds in this line of work.” As such, Philip is prepared for the unlikely situation in which Martha gets curious about Clark’s living arrangements. By all appearances, he doesn’t take her to some gussied-up safe house, or a studio apartment that’s been hastily thrown together after Philip put up a distress signal. These are actual living quarters, with a photo of the happy couple on the dresser and a bottle of wine set aside for their anniversary. The Americans doesn’t have to show us this, but it’s there for when an episode’s sense of suspense depends on one character’s creeping suspicions.
It’s been said before, and I have a feeling it’ll be said again after this, but poor Martha. She’s been placed in a real pickle here, and Alison Wright does such an excellent job conveying her character’s distress, all facial scrunches and nervous hands and absolute silence. Oh, the silence in that ladies’ room is excruciating, in all the right ways: We know Martha’s in trouble, but in the absence of dialogue, our minds get to race right along with hers. Who might suspect that she planted the bug? Can she tell Clark that the bug has been discovered? Is bugging a federal agent’s office, even under the instruction of another federal agent, a treasonous offense? (You know what they do to traitors, right?) And how does she even know that Clark is a federal agent?
This form of narrative suspense relies so much on audience sympathies, and even those of us who haven’t placed a recording device in the office of the director of FBI counterintelligence can relate to Martha’s motivation here: She did it out of love. Like Lisa’s buddy Michelle giving sensitive information to sushi-loving head of hair Jack (or, in an example that’s only somewhat less manipulative, Stan cluelessly inviting Sandra to the memorial for the plane-crash victims) love has caused these characters to cross all manner of moral and ethical boundaries. This is why young Mischa went through an exhaustive training regimen at the Secret Soviet Bureau of Bangin’ It Out: Emotion affects decision-making abilities. Nearly two years ago, The Americans depicted an FBI secretary head over heels for a charming internal investigator. He asked her for a favor; she obliged. Now that favor is coming to bear in ways we couldn’t have imagined—though Philip and Elizabeth probably have a backup plan in place for this precise development.
They just can’t put it into action yet, because they don’t know they need to. In a classic example of sham marriage imitating the real thing (that started out as a sham), Martha is keeping the discovery of the bug from Clark like Elizabeth keeping Paige’s visit to Kenilworth from Philip. Secrets are currency in The Americans’ workplace settings, but these kinds of secrets can jeopardize a partnership—or worse. Parallels between spy work and domestic life aren’t The Americans subtlest shades, but they can be its smartest, and “Walter Taffet” nails these issues of trust and honesty. And it must, because the Jennings have to be on the same page if they’re going to neutralize two South African threats in one fell swoop. The chain, as the old song goes, keeps us together.
The nabbing of Todd (introduced last week) and Eugene Venter (introduced this week) occurs quickly—for The Americans. But this is the sort of short term development that helps a long-term thread snap into focus: This is what Hans is here for. His relationship with Elizabeth and his role in the Jennings’ work originate in vague, established-offscreen form, but he’s doing the same kind of work that Gregory did in the ’60s. Sympathetic to the Communist cause, he can act as eyes and ears (and a hand on a car horn, if necessary) within other radical factions. He can identify potential allies—and put crosshairs on potential troublemakers.
And, really, the swiftness with which this kidnapping plays out is part and parcel with the satisfying surprise of “Walter Taffet.” Six episodes of season three remain after tonight, and there are plenty of unresolved, season-long threads out there: Paige and the KGB, Lisa and Northrop, Aderholt’s one man war against Mail Robot. And who’s to say these need to be resolved by the end of season three? The bug in Gaad’s office has been in the background forever, and “Walter Taffet”’s titular character looks poised to stick around for a while, the target of his investigation staring right over her shoulder at him in the elevator.
Also, the quick developments in the South African plot give this episode such a spectacular coda. I’m going to be thinking about this sequence for a long time: The long stretches of inactivity, the silhouette of Mary Stuart Elizabeth Jennings Masterson in the van window, Philip’s wig again, Fleetwood Mac, Fleetwood Mac, Fleetwood Fucking Mac. Not to go off on a theorizing tangent, but I think “Walter Taffet” is trying to tell us something: If you’re hearing the voices of Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, or Christine McVie, the Jennings are about to throw some poor, unsuspecting mope into the trunk of a motor vehicle. The sequence really is the perfect coda, a “play against the odds” job for a “play against the odds” episode.
And even if “Walter Taffet” came to be Noah Emmerich’s episode out of pure happenstance, its final five minutes are a big, showy feather the newly minted director can stick in his hat. The editing gives him a big assist, as does the music supervision (it’s an easy move, yet it’s so satisfying that Philip nabs Venter just as the “The Chain”’s guitar solo kicks in), but Emmerich was calling the shots during a very tricky succession of shots and setups could’ve overwhelmed even a seasoned director. And yet, it comes off cleanly and thrillingly, leaving me, at least, feeling like Hans looks in the closing moments: Startled yet amazed at what I’ve just witnessed—and in need of a sharp intake of breath.
- The Americans Wig Report: Season Three, Episode Seven: A. Starts great with the preppy Ted McGinley wave on Jack, gets better with Elizabeth and Philip Jennings sporting those ’dos for every season, The Your First Art-Class Crush.
- The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season Three, Episode Seven: A. “The Chain” is one of the greatest pop songs ever recorded. Every note in the right place, every section flows effortlessly out of the previous section and beautifully into the next. And it’s such a good match for the kidnapping scene, it’s like Philip has been wrestling with that would-be assassin since the day Rumours hit record store shelves.
- Was there any Mail Robot? Sadly, no. But given its electronic nature, I assume Mail Robot would prefer to appear in an episode that features a track from the Mac’s synth-heavy 1987 LP, Tango In The Night.
- Did anyone mention Mail Robot? Not unless the chain in “The Chain” is referring to a chain letter. In which case you’ll be cursed with seven years of bad luck if you don’t forward this review to 30 people.