“The Americans”: Who thrives, survives

Season 4/Episode 13: Persona Non Grata

Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), Soviet spy extraordinaire, doesn’t like the mission he’s currently on.  He’s been a disgruntled and disaffected soldier for the cause of protecting his country, which is why he’s the unwilling would-be recipient of a sample of a U.S. military bioweapon.

Still, there he is, in disguise at a Washington, D.C. park, expecting his fellow long-time undercover operative, William, to show up with the ramped-up Lassa fever sample.

William (Dylan Baker) hates the mission even more than Philip. He knows how terrible a toll Lassa fever wreaks upon its hapless subject. He’s a scientist who’s been so long away from mother Russia he can scarcely recall the reason for his presence at the U.S. military bioweapons lab.

Yet because of the (KGB) Centre’s focus on outfoxing the U.S. military, William is the crucial element in the handover. Elizabeth (Keri Russell), who is Philip’s wife, went through the throes of a broken friendship and a faux honey pot trap in order to help gain William access codes to the U.S. bioweapons lab.

Much is on the line and so William carefully cossets the Lassa fever sample in a tobacco tin, knowing from previous experience how badly accidental exposure can go for all involved.

Problem is, the FBI knows William is a fake American. Soviet embassy analyst Oleg, in the throes of grief and confusion, told FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) about the presence of a Soviet agent at a U.S bioweapons lab.

Oleg (Costa Ronin) only wanted to keep his undersupplied countrymen from accidentally releasing bioweapons. This being the 1980s, he likely doesn’t know about American failures in weapon containment. He believes the omnipresent myth about U.S. competence in all things scientific.

Oleg means well; the FBI not so much.

As he enters the park, William realizes that he’s been made. He makes a dash for it, temporarily finding shelter behind a statue. William can’t let the FBI forcibly extract intel from him about fellow agents. Meanwhile, Philip is waiting, unaware, on a park bench.

Philip has a family in the U.S., unlike William, so for the latter, the decision is clear. He chooses certain death. He breaks open the vial of Lassa fever and gashes it into his palm.

William has served his country faithfully, if acerbically, for many years. He won’t betray it even now, and thus the operative infects himself with the sample.

He steps around the statue and finds himself surrounded by FBI agents. “Stay back,” they yell.

“I suggest you stay back. You need to take me to a biocontainment treatment facility right now.” His hands outstretched, they can see the gashed hand and the deadly threat it poses.

“You heard him, stay back,” an agent shouts.

Elsewhere in the park, with William nowhere in sight, Philip checks his watch, gets up and walks off at a deliberately careful pace.

Back home, Philip and Elizabeth’s daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), is in bed studying her Spanish homework, a book about nuclear weapons close by.

She recently learned of her parents’ true occupation and has displayed an aptitude for the trade. Elizabeth comes up the stairs with a basket of clothes. She deposits the clothes, and gets in bed with Paige for a mother-daughter moment of solidarity.

Paige leans on her. “If we’re in danger, if things can happen, maybe I need to learn how to defend myself.”

“I can teach you a few things,” Elizabeth says. Paige seems comforted, as well she should. Given the amount of violence then and now against women, Paige is lucky to have a mother so well versed in lethal self-protection.

Her daughter comforted, Elizabeth is back in her own bed when Philip gets home. He tells her that William didn’t show. She has a small bit of intel in that their neighbor, Stan, “didn’t come home again tonight.”

Being pros in the business, they think William might show up for the alternate meetup the next day.

Meanwhile in a Russian insane asylum, “powerful friends” have obtained the release of Misha, a young soldier who spoke out against the grinding war in Afghanistan.

He’s told to shut up about the war and go back home. Misha happens to be the out-of-wedlock son of Philip, a by-blow during Philip’s adolescent training in all things KGB.

When he returns to his maternal grandfather’s crowded apartment, he’s presented with a previously hidden packet of foreign currency and passports. It’s the legacy from his late mother. Misha learns that his father is a travel agent in the U.S.

Next season will likely feature this living reminder of Philip’s past life in the Soviet Union, but for the moment, our show’s focus is on what’s going on in the present circa early 1984.

The moment is irredeemably bleak for William, who has achieved his goal of infection and thus removal of himself as a truth-leaking threat to the Soviet Union.

It’s an awful way to go. Agents Beeman and Dennis Aderholt (Brandon Dirden) watch William from a sealed windowed room above. They identify themselves via loudspeaker to the stricken man.

“Is there anything we can do to make you more comfortable?” asks Beeman.

“Comfortable,” William snorts. “Nothing you or anyone can do to make comfortable. In a few days anything inside me that matters will ooze out through my orifices. I’m a dead man…it’s an unusual feeling.”

Aderholt ineffectually offers the man a Coke. William laughs, of course. Such an American response, to offer a commercial product to ease insupportable pain.

While William dies in double-step time, his countryman, Arkady (Lev Gorn), who is the KGB Rezident at the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C., receives unwelcome news. Oleg has turned in his request for a transfer back to Moscow.

Oleg’s mother is distraught over the combat death of Oleg’s younger brother in the Afghanistan war.

Arkady understands the situation. He sighs and shakes Oleg’s hands. “You’re a good son.”

Yes, a good son, but perhaps not the wisest of ones, given what’s going on across town with the imminently dying William, dying because Oleg leaked important intel to Beeman.

But at the moment Elizabeth doesn’t know what’s going on with the mission. She returns home with a load of dry cleaning, greeted by the ever-studious Paige at the dining room table.

Paige tells her that the problematic Alice, wife of Pastor Tim, has given birth to a baby girl. It’s Paige’s fault that the pastoral couple knows about her parents’ true occupation. The two families are stuck to one another, as a result.

The scene unfolds in a crucial fashion, for daughter instructs mother on the best means of visiting the new family. Paige is probably right. A slow roll-out rather than the Jennings family en masse to the churchy couple. That said, the fact that Elizabeth is allowing Paige to run this particular part of a mission means we should expect more Paige spy-girl action next season.

As for Philip, while he doesn’t yet know about William’s predicament, he’s well aware of his own, and in the careful confines of the cultish Est self-help group, he reveals how he came to choose working as a travel agent [spy] as a young person. “You choose a job before you really like it. Pick something because it fits what you like, but life changes things. You change. One day you wake up [and] you don’t want to go to the office. You don’t want to do it. Every morning I wake up with this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.”

When the leader/trainer comes back at Philip with the salvo that he could quit his job, Philip responds, “I can’t. I made commitments, made promises to people I love.”

“Do you think your family would no longer love you if you quit?” the molder of minds asks. This is the type of food for thought liable to give one indigestion.

Philip and Elizabeth meet up with their handler, Gabriel, who delivers the unwelcome news that William has been detained by the FBI.

Says Gabriel, “I’m not saying he walked it toward them, but he’s in a position they can entice him with stuff.”

The decision is obvious: they must vacate their previously safe house.

Further up the domestic chain of command, the Rezident, Arkady, sits across the table from Wolfe, the FBI counter-intelligence head, who’s apoplectic about not only William’s arrest but also other transgressions, including the, as it so happens, accidental death of former head Gaad in an earlier episode.

“You’re being expelled from this country,” Wolfe says flatly. “You have forty-eight hours to get out.”

So much for Tatiana’s promotion to the first female Rezident in Kenya. She’ll have to stay and fill in for a time until a replacement can be found for Arkady.

Back at the embassy, he’s taking the news about as well as can be expected. Tatiana (Vera Cherny) is in a tight spot, though. She’d offered a secondary spot in Kenya to her lover, Oleg, but now, not only is that possibility off the table, he must tell her of his plans to return home to care for his bereaved mother.

“You’re a good son,” she tells him, echoing what Arkady had said earlier.

Talk about a dutiful son. His work mentor, Arkady, is being kicked out of the country because of Oleg’s ill-conceived revelation about the bioweapons mission. And now, he’s leaving town?

Something tells me Oleg might not be spending much time back in Moscow, after all.

Across town in a biocontainment room, William’s condition is rapidly growing worse. Agent Aderholt offers via loudspeaker, “Is there someone we can contact for you?”

“After so many years in your country as your unwelcome guest, there is no one.”

“Did you like what you did?” Aderholt asks.

William, feverish and knowing he will die soon, responds, “It was exciting at first. I was committed to something. I was invisible…It made me feel special, then over time the thing that made me special, my secret power became a curse. I was alone, isolated.”

Up in the sealed observation booth, Agent Beeman looks devastated. He has a troubled past rarely revisited on this show, but it’s one in which he worked undercover for a white supremacist organization in St. Louis. He, too, felt invisible, and then isolated and vulnerable.

Now he sees below him a man in the process of giving his life for his country. Beeman sees William as representing his past and possibly his future.

Philip and Elizabeth’s present is fraught with peril, for as Gabriel tells them, the longer William is in custody, the more potentially dangerous their situation becomes. It’s time to strongly consider returning home to the Soviet Union.

“The Centre wants to welcome you with honors the moment you say you are ready. With William under arrest you’re under immediate danger,” he tells them.

Philip and Elizabeth are aghast. Gabriel is in the unenviable position of trying to alert them and yet keep their emotions from escalating into panic.

“I know, I know you’ve always been in danger,” he says. “That can dull your senses. I think it’s time. I want you to go home and get your kids and get yourself to a safe house. But of course it’s your decision.”

Afterward, Philip and Elizabeth sit in their car, shocked and trying to make sense of the advice. How could their kids-particularly unclued-in son, Henry-adjust to a sudden life in the Soviet Union?

During their years in the U.S., they’ve built a family, so a decision to flee can’t just be solely about what’s best for the parents.

William almost had the beginnings of a family, but as he remembers in his feverish state, “They wanted me married. We were fighting…she went back. I wish I could have been with her all these years, like them. A couple of kids, living the American dream…Never suspect them. She’s pretty; he’s lucky.”

Listening from above, do Beeman and Aderholt recognize these vital clues William has revealed? Philip and Elizabeth, described in their essence.

It’s been a busy, snowy day for Philip and Elizabeth, so they can be forgiven for being somewhat distracted upon their arrival home. Henry is watching the tail end of coverage of the Super Bowl, one that the Washington football team lost in a thorough thwacking.

Up in the couple’s bedroom, Elizabeth looks through the window at Beeman’s car, just arrived next door. Not accompanied by a phalanx of police cars, so they’re not under arrest yet.

Time for Philip to go across the street to retrieve daughter Paige. Beeman, who’s been up all night watching William in his death bed, behaves with a feverish, unshaven vitality. Not infected, but clearly a bit unhinged by the experience of watching a man not unlike him die.

Beeman takes Philip aside and whispers with a weird joviality that he found Paige and his son, Matthew, in the act of necking.

“You’re the father of the bride. You can use the back yard if you want,” Beeman jokes, but as for Philip, it’s all he can do to contain his emotions as he retrieves Paige.

As soon as father and daughter are safely outside, Philip delivers his words with maximum bluntness. “I don’t want you to see him.”

“Dad-“

“Don’t do this. You have no idea, no idea.”

Across the street, from a second floor bedroom window, Elizabeth watches this waking nightmare, as at any moment they may have to flee, and their neighbor may become the engineer of their downfall.

Will their next season involve a sudden trip to Moscow? What toxic aspect of U.S. foreign policy will the show creators next focus on?

Many of our questions to be answered next year and many new ones to be posed.

Photo: “The Americans” Facebook page


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