Genevieve: From the very first scenes of the very first episode, The Americans has been a show about sex. Oh sure, it’s about a lot of other things, too, but those things are usually never more than a couple of steps removed from a sexual relationship of one sort or another—whether it’s real, manufactured, or somewhere in between the two. For Philip and Elizabeth, sex has always been an important component of their spywork arsenal: Both have served or are serving as honeypots, in addition to their own sexual relationship, which was initially one aspect of a cover story that’s become more and more real over the years. But as season two has progressed, both of the Jennings spouses have wrestled with the implications and emotional fallout of using sex as a tool.
You may have put it perfectly, Todd, in our writeup of “Behind The Red Door,” when you wrote, “Falling in love may turn out to be the worst possible thing that ever could have happened to Philip and Elizabeth.” As the Jennings’ emotional connection has grown stronger, their work-sex dynamic has grown more fraught. We saw it in Elizabeth’s discomfort in seducing Navy recruit Brad Mullen (helpfully referenced in this week’s “previously on”), we saw it in the horrible, scarring Clark/Elizabeth encounter in “Red Door,” and we see it in tonight’s episode, which brings back Gillian Alexy’s Annelise for a story that gets to the heart of the implications and emotional fallout of honeypotting.
Annelise played a small but pivotal part in the season-one episode “The Clock,” but hasn’t been so much as mentioned since her fallout with Philip’s Swedish intelligence officer “Scott Berman” at the end of that episode. Back then, I surmised that we’d be seeing more of her soon, but it turns out I was wrong—until now! As much as I love being proven right, though, Annelise’s re-introduction tonight felt a little out of left field, especially considering how many new minor characters this season has introduced. But Philip bringing Annelise in to do something Elizabeth is both able and more or less willing to do—seduce Yousaf, the No. 2 man in a delegation of Pakistan’s ISI, in order to turn him into an inside contact—is in keeping with his character this season. It’s a rash decision driven by emotion (not unlike, say, storming into a church and threatening a pastor, or buying a conspicuous new muscle car), and an artifact of his increasing inability to reconcile the needs of Directorate S and the Center with his own desires.
Despite Philip’s protestations that Yousaf wouldn’t go for some random lady he meets in a bar (an assertion undermined by the way Yousaf was eyeing Elizabeth in that wiggle skirt), his wife is most likely more than capable of bringing Yousaf into the fold, and certainly more adept at questioning him than the totally green Annelise. She’s done it who-knows-how-many times before. But, as with his newly realized discomfort with killing in the name of his work, Philip isn’t able to compartmentalize the dirtier aspects of espionage the way he used to. Elizabeth, always the more pragmatic of the two, apparently still is, but that doesn’t stop Philip from manipulating the situation to keep her out of a position he no longer wants to see her in.
And yet, he’s totally fine with turning out Annelise, even though she’s been trying to fix her marriage, something Philip tells her he has the utmost respect for. And he does—when it’s his marriage, that is. When Annelise flips out at Philip (as she is wont to do) after her hotel-room encounter with Yousaf, Philip aggressively reassures her, but he’s obviously talking to Elizabeth in that moment: “You don’t think it kills me to watch the woman I love sacrifice herself like that? … It is not something I take lightly, ever.” Philip believes he’s protecting his wife, but he’s victimized someone else in her place.
On the one hand, I suppose it’s nice that Philip feels compelled to protect the woman he loves; on the other, he’s quite the heel this episode. Annelise is clearly a little bit… off, to put it charitably, but it’s hard not to feel for her in that moment when she breaks down after completing the first phase of a mission that seems to have no endpoint. (Satisfied customer Yousaf tells her he’ll be making much more frequent trips to D.C. in the future.) And in the end, Elizabeth has to get her hands dirty anyway: Annelise discovers Yousaf is too isolated from the inner workings of the weapons deals being made between the U.S. and the mujahideen, so the Center tells Philip and Elizabeth they have to kill his superior, Javid, so that Yousaf will ascend to the No. 1 spot. And since Philip has to listen in on Annelise’s tryst with Yousaf, that duty falls to… Elizabeth. While the sequence of Elizabeth inducing a heart attack in Javid via mysterious aerosol spray in the hotel pool was undeniably cool—especially that shot up through the water, with a wavy Elizabeth walking past Javid’s floating corpse—it’s debatable whether it’s a more or less desirable mission than what Annelise was experiencing upstairs with Yousif.
Like Lucia during her brief tenure on this show, Annelise functions as a sort of mirror to Elizabeth this week. (Note that both women indulge in post-mission cigarettes after their respective deeds are done.) As random as Annelise’s reappearance seemed at first, it makes sense in the context of the story, and, more importantly, serves to highlight what’s happening around the fringes of that story. We—and Philip—don’t have the emotional connection to Annelise that we do to Elizabeth, so by more or less substituting the former for the latter, it’s easier to assess the situation objectively… and it looks pretty bad for all involved. In trying to protect Elizabeth—an instinct born of his own desires, not hers—Philip has succeeded in dirtying one more pair of hands instead of one less. It’s hard to cast blame in situations as morally tangled as the ones The Americans traffics in, but on a purely gut-reaction level, Philip comes out looking pretty bad to me this week. (And when I say that, I mean it purely in the character sense; Matthew Rhys’ work is great as usual this week.)
What do you think, Todd, am I being too hard on poor, wounded Philip?
Todd: I tend to think so, but not because what he did this week was somehow justified. The things Philip does—particularly where Annelise is concerned—are awful, but they’re also, crucially, understandable. In his attempts to protect everyone, he ends up protecting no one. If there’s a place where I can fault this episode the teensiest bit, it’s in the fact that Philip seems to have recovered from his moral crisis last week awfully quickly. (Seemingly, it’s just because he made love to Elizabeth, which seems like as good a cure-all as any.) But I can accept this, too. On a show where we’re meant to be sympathizing with Soviet spies as our main characters, moral ambiguity is the storytelling currency, as you’ve noted. This is just more grist for the mill, another example of the season pulling back and back until we can view a character’s actions not through the prism of everything we know about them but through the prism of what they’re objectively doing. Your connection of Annelise being a mirror for Elizabeth is spot-on, I think, and I also think that it’s not accidental that this episode features both Stan and Larrick growing ever closer to sussing out Philip and Elizabeth’s true identities.
What I love about this is that the show has mostly put on the back burner the idea that Philip and Elizabeth could ever be found out. Sure, we all intellectually understand that part of the show’s toolkit is the threat of the characters’ exposure, but if that’s ever going to happen, we most likely assume it will occur somewhere toward the end of the show’s run. The season premiere actually hung a lantern on this, as Gaad told Stan that it might be time to stop pursuing the mysterious couple that had come up in so many of his reports last season. And yet there are those sketches of Philip and Elizabeth in disguise, presented to Jared, Emmett and Leanne’s surviving child and a kid who, let’s not forget, had ample chance to see Philip and Elizabeth that day at the park—and Philip as he passed him in the hall after discovering Emmett and Leanne’s bodies. Can Jared make that connection? It remains to be seen. But this is as close as Stan has gotten since he lurked in the Jennings’ garage way back in the pilot, and it’s fascinating to watch as others close in on our leads, even as they’re going about their business, unaware of what’s coming.
I know you’ll have more to say about Larrick in a bit, but I wanted to point out the construction of his descent into the Soviets’ inner sanctum, just on a story level. We’ve seen that switchboard operator all season long, and yet it never occurred to me until Larrick was putting a bullet in his chest that he was a key weakness in the Soviets’ intelligence operation, the one chink in the armor that could easily be exploited by someone with the ability to figure out how to exploit it. And that somebody is Larrick. It’s striking to me how much scarier a Lee Tergesen who’s trying to be jolly—as he is at the phone company—is than a Lee Tergesen who’s actively trying to be scary, but everything Larrick does this episode is the bomb just off to the side, waiting to go off. Watching him stalk silently through that family’s house on his way to finding the secret Soviet subbasement made him out to be a more formidable foe than Philip and Elizabeth have ever faced before, all of their choices coming home to roost.
Yet even as we’re watching Stan and Larrick slowly circle closer and closer to our protagonists, the show is carefully setting up all of the ways the bottom could drop out from beneath at least the former. For one thing, Arkady and Gaad have struck up an unlikely friendship (that seems likely to pay dividends in future seasons), one that plays off of the rules of mutually assured destruction on a personal level, and it’s easy to imagine (though, I’ll admit, unlikely) this somehow coming back to Arkady finding a way to protect Philip and Elizabeth from an FBI that’s learned of their identities. More problematic for Stan is going to be the way he has a huge blind spot when it comes to Nina, who’s surely just funneling everything he says right back to Oleg. (When she and Oleg talk, it’s much more about their beloved homeland than whatever’s going on at the Rezidentura.) So much of TV is about keeping plates spinning while planting hints of how you’re going to keep them spinning for seasons to come, and The Americans is doing that in ways both obvious—Stan’s devotion to Nina—and less obvious—establishing the switchboard man early on, just so he could be killed.
All of which brings us back to Paige, who quite rightly protests that she’s being punished far more harshly for just wanting to go to church than her brother was for breaking into the neighbors’ house. (I feel you, Paige.) Elizabeth says that it will soon be time for Paige to learn how the world really works, but to some degree, Paige has already figured that out for herself. She’s a product of her environment, as much as her parents might not want her to be, and the fact that Philip and Elizabeth can’t simply be honest with her is what will always drive her further and further away from them, no matter how good their relationship seems to be on the surface. The best thing about Paige’s interest in Christianity is that it’s one thing Philip and Elizabeth don’t really have a rational explanation for when it comes to their anger. Instead, they’re just left yelling about how they know what’s best for their daughter. And maybe they do! But the time when that will be the case is rapidly coming to a close. After all, Paige is old enough to be a counselor in training.
Genevieve, I know you wanted to get back to Larrick. Do you see any ties between him and the other characters in this episode?
Genevieve: Well, no, Larrick isn’t directly tied to anyone this episode, and that’s what makes him so dangerous. Unlike literally every other faction on this show, Larrick is operating alone, of his own volition, with no real dependance on anyone else to achieve his goals. (Okay, except the phone-company lady. But she doesn’t seem to really care.) In his actions, he’s the opposite of Philip this episode—operating as a lone wolf, involving no one in his plan, even his military buddy who asks if he needs help handling the “personal emergency” he’s flown back from Nicaragua to deal with. (“Some things in life you can only handle yourself.”) But his actions are just as emotionally driven as Philip’s, and potentially much, much more destructive.
If I have one minor complaint about Larrick as a character—who on the whole has functioned really well as this season’s major threat—it’s that his motivations are still somewhat vaguely defined at this point. That’s arguably on purpose, to make him seem like more of a wild card; and the clues are definitely there: His reaction to the news of the fallout at the Contra training camp last week could indicate a personal connection to one of Philip or Elizabeth’s victims. (I believe it was one of our commenters that surmised there might be a romantic connection there, which would tie in Larrick’s sexuality. It’s an interesting theory.) But it seems more likely he’s just reacting to the fact that the information he gave the Jenningses resulted in the death of fellow soldiers—not unlike Philip’s reaction to finding out the propeller plans he helped steal resulted in the death of 160 sailors. But unlike Philip, who’s just sort of spewing emotional baggage in every direction, Larrick has a plan to correct his mistake, and get revenge… and extract himself from Philip and Elizabeth’s web in the process. Revenge is as solid a motivator as any, but Larrick is such an interesting character in the broad strokes—and so compellingly performed by Tergesen—I’d love to see a little extra shading in terms of what’s making him tick.
As every other character on this show entangles themselves further in their respective webs of deceit, loyalty, and guilt, Larrick is the solitary man of action. This approach has certainly gotten him closer to his prey than any of Stan’s various machinations, and could prove ruinous to Philip and Elizabeth, as they’re distracted by their own missions and emotions. You point out, Todd, that Larrick has been the ticking time bomb all season, and as we head into the final three episodes, it’s looking more and more like he could be the one to blow everything to smithereens.
Genevieve’s grade: A-
Todd’s grade: A-
- This week’s episode begins and ends with a tender Elizabeth-Philip moment in the kitchen. The Jennings’ kitchen is the new the Jennings’ bedroom. [GK]
- That’s a new, original song by Pete Townshend during the sequence cross-cutting between Annelise and Yousaf’s tryst and Elizabeth murdering Javid in the swimming pool. It did not particularly stand out to me, but FX seems pretty excited about it. [TV]
- Speak for yourself, Todd. My roommate and I were nasally intoning “Everything’s FINE, in the sunSHINE” to each other for a full day after watching that. That’s not a good thing. (I did like the instrumentation quite a bit, though. Very fitting for this show.) [GK]
- I will be honest: The number I’m actually most concerned about Larrick finding is Martha’s, because she would be the easiest character for the show to kill off at this juncture. She would prompt some degree of emotional response, but she’s not incredibly connected to the show’s center and is at least somewhat expendable. Also, if in their investigation of her death, the FBI found out she was married to a “Clark,” it would set another plate a-spinning. So I can see the story sense for her death, but I don’t want her to go. [TV]
- I love, love, love Gaad’s dismissal of Arkady’s attempt to guilt him about Vlad’s death with a photograph. That Amador really was a character, wasn’t he? RIP. [GK]
- First Paige disappears for two episodes, and now Henry sits this one out. What are Philip and Elizabeth doing to their kids by putting them on what appear to be 11-episode contracts?! [TV]
- A nice display of backbone from Kate this week, when she tells Philip she expects a little respect from him. Of course, Philip shuts her down immediately and goes ahead with his Annelise plan anyway. [GK]
- Stan tries to turn Nina into a shoulder to cry on over Sandy’s affair, but she’s not having it, because he’s also having an affair. Stan is really bad at this stuff, everybody. [TV]
- Another, minor mirror between characters this week: Paige’s desire to go to church camp and Nina’s fond memories of being a Young Pioneer. Sure, one involves hiking and swimming and other involves horns and Lenin badges, but there are obvious parallels in the group dynamics and the way, as Paige puts it, “they teach you teamwork and social values.” [GK]
- Poor Mr. Switchboard Operator Guy. I think I’ll miss you most of all! [TV]