Searching for light with ‘The Americans’

“It’s light and dark. That’s all,” the dying artist said. “Draw the dark parts. Don’t draw the light parts.”

As with art, so often in the world portrayed throughout this season’s second episode, “Tchaikovsky.”

Elizabeth (Keri Russell) is working undercover as a home nurse, tasked with caring for Erica, the cancer-ridden wife of Glen, a U.S. nuclear arms negotiator.

Elizabeth clicks shots of Glen’s work papers when possible, for quality intelligence is vital if the Soviet Union is to bargain with the U.S. at anywhere near equal terms.

As set up in the season opener, a U.S.-U.S.S.R. summit is scheduled in a few weeks where negotiators will continue to thrash out details of a nuclear arms deal.

Erica, played by the fiercely magnetic Miriam Shor, is often racked by pain so excruciating she begs Glen to help put an end to her life.

Speaking away from Erica’s presence, Glen turns down Elizabeth’s oblique offer to fill Erica’s request, but it’s unclear whether she’s aiming to prevent a botched suicide, or just trying to keep Erica alive until the husband’s role in the negotiations is complete.

Regardless, Erica and Elizabeth, two unbending women, have made an emotional connection, to the point that Erica makes Elizabeth attempt a sketching exercise of a two-tone mug.

Does Elizabeth possess a redeeming spark of artistry? Answer unknown.

Her commitment to being a mother has been an enduring point in her favor, although she may not be doing daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) a favor in soft-pedaling the sex worker challenges in intelligence. Slow rolling Paige into the trade by using her on stakeout doesn’t quite work out as planned by the end of this episode.

But first, a visit with Philip (Matthew Rhys, drawing double-duty as a director this episode). In comparison to his wife, Philip’s load is light, but he’s not taking it that way. He’s sweating over receipts from the travel agency and unhappy that a longtime customer he sluffed off on an employee has chosen a budget-rate competitor.

We know that travel agencies are but one of many retail and service industries destroyed by global consolidation of capitalism, ratcheted up since the 1980s. Philip’s embrace of the business life isn’t likely to end well, regardless of how he and his wife’s stay in the U.S. ends.

Philip’s neighbor across the street, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), has been working a less strenuous load at the FBI, rounding up the usual non-spy suspects, but former partner Dennis Aderholt (Brandon Dirden), who’s moved up the ranks in counter-intelligence, needs Stan’s help with a problematic Soviet couple.

Yes, it’s luxury-loving Sofia and her secrets-passing courier husband, Gennadi (Yuri Kolokolnikov, Darya Ekamasova), whose marriage is on the rocks.

In individual meet-ups, Stan is unwillingly bro-hugged by a distraught Gennadi and gets nowhere with Sofia, who could well spill FBI secrets with her intended next Soviet beau.

Not the best Russian spy couple on this show, it goes almost without saying, even if Philip isn’t in the game at the moment.

Almost as problematic is Dennis’s revelation that Stan’s greatest bromance, the one with now-former KGB agent, Oleg Burov, may be sparked anew, since Oleg is reported back in town. Oleg has been recruited by ex-boss, Arkady, to snoop out what Soviet agents—such as Elizabeth—are doing in the lead-up to the superpower summit.

Oleg asked Philip to draw Elizabeth out on her current missions, but in Philip’s one conversation this episode with his wife, she inhaled cigarettes and sent metaphorical smoke-rings in his direction. They’re in a rough patch, perhaps headed to rupture, and neither is communicating with the other.

Over at the comfortable home of handler Claudia, Elizabeth is more frank. Her cleverly devised escape from a State Department tour allowed her to meet her bragging source, McCleesh, in the department cafeteria.

He thinks she’s a peer, and her beauty spurs him to share confidences about the hardliners in Reagan’s cabinet, and the upcoming summit. He says offhandedly, “This summit could end up winning us the entire cold war.”

He turns serious when discussing deeply troubling signs—revealed much later to the public—of the President’s developing Alzheimer’s Disease.

Elizabeth manages to slick her way out of the cafeteria before security guards see her, but the close call, and the brutal schedule has her thinking about what might happen if she’s caught.

Last week, a Soviet general in Mexico City gave her a cyanide capsule to take in case she’s captured. As with Chekhov’s maxim about a gun being displayed in a drama’s first act, it takes no imagination to see that this is a capsule destined to be deployed by the final act of this series. But, by whom?

Elizabeth tells Claudia that if something happens to her, Claudia will do a good job finishing Paige’s training. Paige doesn’t know Elizabeth is thinking in such grave terms. She’s eager to discuss a book she’s reading about espionage, asking her mother whether agents use sex to get information. Answering as a mother, a startled Elizabeth says no.

A little more composed, Elizabeth follows up with an “it’s complicated” explanation, which Paige doesn’t seem to accept.

In the episode’s brutal ending sequence, Elizabeth’s episode-long handling of a one-time Pentagon source General Lyle Rennhull comes a cropper. She’s pushing him to provide her with a lithium-based radiation sensor, but he balks, murderously.

Rennhull, played by Victor Slezak, is stiffly middle-aged, which might explain why Elizabeth, faced with his gun, is able to finesse the situation so that when she falls, cringing, to her knees, she’s able to lunge forward, tackle his legs and end up on top.

No artistry is displayed in the struggle, for Elizabeth can only throttle him and hope for a forgiving angle to his gunshots. The gun discharges under his jaw, and blows off the top of his head. Elizabeth’s face is soaked with blood and brains.

Paige, who’s on duty in a nearby car, breaks protocol to check on her mother. Elizabeth orders Paige to leave, to follow the plan. Paige defaults to training and runs away. The right decision, but a scene likely to feature in upcoming nightmares.

Parents, otherwise seen as good role models, may send their child off to serve in the military, despite the possibility of that child being wounded or killed.

An undercover soldier, Elizabeth has embraced her daughter’s entry into the ranks of spydom. Their service does not come without risk.

Both Elizabeth and Paige are being reminded of the possible consequences of that decision.

Elizabeth is drawing the dark, with no sign of light to come.

‘The Americans’ airs Wednesdays on FX.


Carole Avalon
Carole Avalon

Texan Carole Avalon is a writer and reviewer.