“The Americans”: Hostility between two world powers in new episode

Last episode, Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) was unwillingly tasked with receiving and then handing off a U.S. bioweapon-it’s the handing off that proves problematic in “Pastor Tim.”

The hostility between superpowers manifests in ways large and small. Some are both. Circa 1983 in the show’s narrative, the U.S. is making bioweapons designed to kill vast numbers of human targets; the Soviets need to know what they’re dealing with. Philip carries a heavy workload, but this small vial of deadly serum, hidden in a tobacco tin, may be the most burdensome of all.

No wonder he’s eager to hand the tin off to a Czech pilot, who is supposed to be the next link in a chain leading back to the Soviet Union. The pilot, however, when they meet in the back of an airport transport bus, is freaked over the situation.

An airport security guard, trained to keep an eye on antsy pilots, boards the bus, which only heightens the pilot’s agitation. The guard is suspicious, the bus driver is off on break, and the only other relevant passenger is a new wave girl listening to her Walkman play “Tainted Love.”

“Sometimes I feel I’ve got to get away,” the song by Soft Cell goes. But Philip, a travel agent who rarely gets to choose his destination, can’t escape his dilemma.

Wearing a nondescript wig and with a prominent birthmark on his cheek, he’s thoroughly in undercover mode, and thus ready to kill. The guard’s subsequent strangling plays out to the strains of a song warning of dangerous attachments.

After all that, when Philip pokes his head up on the next all-clear, he sees that damned tobacco tin on the adjoining seat, and the Czech pilot long gone. The guard died for nothing, and now Philip must take the deadly tin back home and hide it away in his garage.

Too bad that the couple’s spy handler, the courtly Gabriel (Frank Langella) seems to think that the next step will be Philip having to transport the vial out of country. Not Philip’s idea of a great vacation getaway, to put it mildly.

As for the dissident scientist who provided the vial, Gabriel describes the man as an antisocial type whose attitude accounts for his not having a high security clearance.

The higher the clearance, the better access to quality intel-yet can Elizabeth and Philip somehow effect a personality transplant for the Grinch? Surely a back of the burner item for now.

Oh, and by the way, here’s a brand new computer for the kids. A present via Gabriel, and a reminder of the state of computers back then. Your smart phone is a veritable genius next to it, but Henry, the couple’s suddenly adolescent son, will surely get a kick out of ’80s cutting edge technology.

Speaking of Henry, he’s spending some evenings with the Jennings’ FBI neighbor, Stan Beeman, the same man who had a jealous fit last episode when he falsely accused Philip of philandering with Stan’s ex. Henry seeks advice from Stan about the opposite sex, specifically a hot teacher with a zipper dress.

This is of course the same Stan Beeman who once carried on a quasi-affair with (and actual sexual exploitation of) Nina, a Soviet embassy employee pushed into doing Stan’s bidding.

This is why Stan’s not the best adult male you’d want to counsel your child, or offer to provide him a bottle of cologne. Also, since Elizabeth and Phil commented last week on Henry’s cologne-and overpowering scent thereof-this strikes me as being an olfactory Chehkov gun.

Basically, it’s an Anton Chekhov playwriting rule that if you see a gun in the early goings of a play, it’d better go off by the end. Since the scent Henry’s wearing is the same as Stan’s absent son, I’m thinking that Henry, who’s done some neighborhood prowling in the past, has been rooting around in Stan’s house.

Paige may not be the best spy prospect of the Jennings kids. Paige, however, does have a knack for intel, for she did suss out the peculiarities in her parents’ lives even before she learned of their true occupation-and nationality.

Elizabeth, already suspicious of Paige’s relationship with Pastor Tim, goes ballistic when her wiretap reveals that the minister now knows about her and Philip being Russians. What to do now? Wouldn’t Paige suspect her parents if Pastor Tim were to die suddenly?

However, the couple does due diligence by checking out the pastor’s getaway cabin, which Elizabeth notes has the kind of gas heater that can be easily jimmied to cause asphyxiation. Although Philip is more dubious than Elizabeth about Paige’s spy prospects, he agrees the pastor represents a clear danger.

The couple may have acute points of difference, but they are on the whole honest and supportive of one another. Elizabeth has no problem accepting Philip’s explanation that Stan mistook Philip’s interaction with Stan’s ex-wife.  And what about EST, the self-help program Philip is attending? “You learn how to deal with things, life, I guess, everything,” Philip stumblingly explains.

“I knew you were going through something,” she says, and, primed by her concern, Philip shares his memory of killing at age 10 a thieving bully. It’s the first killing that on the surface troubles him, but perhaps it serves as a stand-in for all the others. 

Elizabeth, who learns from Gabriel that her mother died back home in Russia, isn’t quite the usual rock in the family anymore. “Is this [est] something I could go to?” she asks her husband, who is receptive.

Philip is an undercover soldier who has stayed in the field too long-yet his work in a hostile land continues, as with an American soldier in Iraq.

Or in Afghanistan around 1983, for that matter, which is the predicament for Soviet soldiers in that country. Due to U.S. training and financial support of the oft religiously motivated mujahideen, that conflict drags on. The latest casualty is Soviet intelligence expert Oleg’s brother, a soldier who cared so much for his troops he stayed on beyond his period of enlistment.

His brother dead, a mournful Oleg is in no mood for a gabfest with Stan, but talk they do about the one topic on which they agree: the safety and future freedom of their mutual beloved, Nina. Stan bears no good news, as his side remains unwilling to make a trade of prisoners.

Stan says he’s sorry to hear about Oleg’s brother. “So we’re friends now?” Oleg says and slams the car door as he leaves.

Our chain of emotional connections continues with the ever-pensive Nina, who is still working at a Soviet research facility and doing penance for her stateside espionage by befriending an unwillingly extracted Russian defector named Anton.

We see the depths of her commitment to Anton, for she strategically engineers a visit by her husband, Boris, whom she hasn’t seen in years. “My world was too small for you,” he recalls, but, seeing her current surroundings, perhaps her old world wasn’t such a bad perch after all.

Nina has a plan. Back in the day, she and Boris used an intermediary to fence the illegal goods she traded for in the U.S. Now she wants to use that fence to give Anton’s family in the U.S. a note saying he is well and being held unwillingly.

The ploy doesn’t work. The facility head, a man who earned his current downscale from a U.S. post because of his lack of discretion around Nina, isn’t about to forgive her trying to pass a note past the guards.

What if the note, after all, had contained sensitive data about Soviet research instead of homier details? Knowing Nina’s history, it makes sense that she might betray her country again.

 “You were almost free,” he says. “How could you do this?”

“I’m not who I was,” Nina replies defiantly. True in one sense, in that she cared more about Anton’s situation than her own-but not altogether accurate, for Nina continues to be a nation of one who acts without regard to larger considerations.

It is those larger considerations and smaller links that we return to in the core relationships of this drama, between Philip and Elizabeth, and their loving, yet emotionally torn daughter.

At one point during the episode, Elizabeth is startled by a dream that conflates the images of Paige’s pastor with Timushev, the man who raped Elizabeth when she was a young spy trainee. Traumas linger long in one’s life, and Elizabeth realizes that whatever they decide to do about the pastor could impact her daughter for life.

Elizabeth has shared with Paige the news of her mother’s death, which perhaps precipitates Paige’s revelation of what Elizabeth already knows via wiretap-Pastor Tim knows that her parents are spies.

Perhaps a bit stagily, Elizabeth fires away. “This is the one thing we said you couldn’t do.” Quite a bit more of a problem than, say, overstaying a curfew, but Elizabeth gives it the full treatment.  At the end, though, she’s a bit more consoling.

“We’ll figure this out,” she says and then utters the classic “wait until your father gets home.”

And so husband and wife sit in their car in the basement, a few feet away from a hidden pathogen. Deadly bioweapons and worrisome children aside, what’s first on her mind and on her lips is the death of her mother.

Philip gently embraces her. “We’re in trouble,” she says.

“I know,” Philip replies.

Of all the links explored in this episode, theirs is the strongest.

Tune in next Wednesday for another episode of spycraft and drama at its finest.

Photo: The Americans Facebook page


Carole Avalon
Carole Avalon

Texan Carole Avalon is a writer and reviewer.