“The Americans”: Making problems disappear, vodka optional

Way back, seasons ago, when KGB undercover agents Philip and Elizabeth Jennings began their tasks of befriending-and in Philip’s case, bedding-American targets, their goals seemed apparent.

Martha (Alison Wright) was an underappreciated assistant to an important FBI departmental head while Lisa worked at a joint military-corporate factory that built advanced aircraft. These human cogs proved their value over and over again, as Martha, enamored of and then wed to Philip (Matthew Rhys, who also directed this episode), became a willing ally in providing intelligence about FBI surveillance of American and Russian targets. Lisa, on the other hand, was in it for the money. However, she dealt with twin issues of alcoholism and an abusive husband.

The (KGB) Centre might have thought Martha and Lisa to both be controllable assets. That assessment proved to be wrong in ways this episode of The Americans makes clear.

Philip and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) are pushed to the brink and beyond of their emotional endurance, dealing with long-standing problems in their work and in their relationship with one another.

Let’s start with Martha. This unwitting dupe turned adept spy wakes up in the hours before dawn, lying next to Clark/Philip. The ensuing scenes play out in near silence. She sits at a table where Philip and handler Gabriel (Frank Langella) are eating breakfast. She’s leaving the U.S., her aging parents and her old life behind.

What is she thinking when she picks up the jar of peanut butter? Is there peanut butter in the Soviet Union, she wonders. What is there behind the so-called iron curtain U.S. propaganda has constructed?

All Martha knows is that the husband she came to love will be left behind, and the suffering on his face is all too evident. On an isolated field, a small clandestine plane ready to spirit her away, Martha has made her peace with the situation and has resolved to be strong, at least through this phase.

“Don’t be alone, Clark, don’t be alone. Find someone,” she says.

“You, too,” Philip manages to choke out.

“I’ll just learn Russian, and…you’ll be okay. Me, too,” she says, then, both in tears, they kiss.

Two passengers leave in the plane, one being Martha and the other being a bag containing a jarred dead rat, used in a U.S. bioweapons project. Perhaps Martha will receive a mini-story arc later on in the series, but odds are, given the ongoing threat posed to the Soviet Union by American bioweapons research, Philip and Elizabeth will have to deal with that problem again.

But back home, the mood is cheerful, thanks to their son, Henry, who’s looking forward to an upcoming TV special featuring ’80s magician David Copperfield, who’s promising to make the State of Liberty disappear.

Henry (Keidrich Sellati) is happy to learn his weekend-disappearing father is going to be spending more time around the house. The travel agency his parents run has lost a major client. Sister Paige (Holly Taylor) knows that’s a euphemism for something happening in her parents’ real jobs.

Although Philip will now be spending a little more time at home, he’s emotionally wrecked by all that transpired with Martha. He even pays a visit in disguise to a grave near that of the FBI office worker he had to kill in order to try to protect Martha.

But back home, he’s reading a book on the ’80s self-help, cultish movement called Est, and being uncommunicative with his wife.

Fine, if Philip’s not talking out his problems, she’ll go see Tender Mercies with fun-filled Young-Hee. Young-Hee confesses that she likes spending time with her Mary Kay salesperson friend, but that since the cosmetics company primes its employees to recruit more agents and thus make a percentage of that recruit’s sales, Young-Hee (Ruthie Ann Miles) feels guilty for seemingly taking advantage of her friend.

Elizabeth assures her that Young-Hee’s not exactly making much money off her and their friendship is very safe. That detail worked out, the two sneak into a showing of The Outsiders. Whatever the long game is between Elizabeth and Young-Hee, their friendship appears to be genuine.

Elizabeth is trying to understand what her husband is going through, so she attends an Est seminar, which she correctly sees as an operation designed to spark emotional insight along with ever-frequent extractions of the participant’s money. At least with Mary Kay, there’s cosmetics to go with the exhortations to find more recruits.

While Elizabeth is gathering intel on her husband’s state of mind, he’s receiving a visit from neighbor Stan, who’s underslept and feeling bummed out.

Turns out Stan’s been experiencing “a disaster at work” since an unspecified person turned out to be a double agent, for which there’s not enough beer in the world to make him feel better. Even so, he gifts himself with a six pack of Philip’s beer as he leaves. The news confirms Philip’s hunch that Martha had needed to be extracted, after all.

Alone, the couple discusses Martha, but Elizabeth makes the mistake of describing the woman as being nice and uncomplicated. Simple, in other words. Philip defends her, saying, “Martha was very complicated,” but thankfully Henry comes home before the bickering can reach ballistic levels.

Gabriel then takes a crack at managing Philip’s emotional state by giving him a piece of welcome news: Philip’s son is finally back home in the Soviet Union from serving a tour in Afghanistan.

“He’s okay,” Gabriel says. “Who knows, maybe what you got from Breland [another mission of Philip’s] helped him survive.”

Philip’s son is the product of an adolescent relationship he had with a fellow spy trainee in Moscow, one he knew nothing about until he encountered his ex-lover during a mission.

The news about Philip’s son doesn’t quite do the trick of lifting his mood. He tries to talk Gabriel into letting him contact Martha’s parents to let them know she’s safe, but Gabriel points out this is something the Centre simply won’t allow. The risk of exposure for Philip is too great.

Over at the Soviet embassy, operative Tatiana, who lined up the pilot to take both Martha and the pathogen sample off U.S. soil, can’t rejoice in a job well done.

As she tells fellow agent, Oleg, she’s learned that her brother has been called up to serve in Afghanistan, “He can’t breathe a word but he thinks they’re going to Herat. Oh, but you’re the last person I should be crying to.”

They clasp hands in mutual sympathy, for Oleg has recently lost his brother to the war. Herat saw much action during the war, for it proved to be a major stronghold of the U.S.-backed opposition.

After all the stress Gabriel has endured as of late-narrowly avoiding dying from exposure to a U.S. military pathogen as well as Philip and Elizabeth’s ongoing sturm und drang-Gabriel needs his own kind of counseling by way of a visit with former handler Claudia, played by the estimable Margo Martindale.

“They’re like children,” he says, adding, “They say goodbye to their agent and they think it’s the end of the world.”

Claudia offers cold comfort. “Your officers are listening to you, boo hoo. Whose fault is it-it’s the world. We don’t have the answer. You think there’s someone in the wings. There isn’t.” So much for bucking up the troops, Claudia.

In the next scene, Elizabeth tries again to make headway with her morose husband. Referring to Est, “You’re not getting anything out of it, not really. You’re not sleeping…it happens, Philip. We lose agents. That is what she was.”

“She’s a human being,” he says petulantly.

Her temper flares. “At least you didn’t have to send her out into the street to get mowed down.” She’s referring to her one-time lover, Gregory, an African-American dissident who sacrificed himself in order to protect her identity.”

Philip and Elizabeth exchange torpedoes at close range. Philip fears he’s the man she’s stuck with over the lamented Gregory.

Elizabeth lashes back, “I’m stuck with you because I took you back, after you lied about sleeping with a woman you had a son with, and you lied to my face about it.”

Boom. Elizabeth’s feelings are still at a high-water mark later, when in a one-on-one confrontation with Paige, who’s reluctant to keep pretending an interest in Pastor Tim’s church, Elizabeth lays down the rules. “You may not be able to control what you feel, but you can control what you do.”

Paige is to keep attending the church youth group, services and maintaining contact with Pastor Tim, for “that is all that’s standing between our family and total ruin.”

The last thing Elizabeth needs is to deal with another difficult situation, but that’s what she gets in a visit with the aforementioned Lisa (Karen Pittman), she of the intel about a U.S. military plane and the toxic combo of alcohol and spousal abuse.

Lisa is unstable. Amply displayed when Elizabeth visits the woman’s house. It’s a mess, as is Lisa, who’s on a bender and disturbed by her husband taking their money and leaving for Florida with a mistress. Lisa’s also unhappy about the fact that the money came by way of Jack (Philip), who’s the spy Lisa thinks both she and Elizabeth are working for.

Lisa demands Elizabeth join her in giving themselves up to the police. When Elizabeth tries to talk her out of it, Lisa makes it clear she’ll do it anyway with the implied threat that nothing can stop her from doing so.

When Lisa turns her back, Elizabeth strikes her with a vodka bottle. Lisa is down but not entirely out. We see Elizabeth from beyond the blinds of the living room as she bends down to presumably finish the job.

Coldly speaking, Elizabeth had no choice in her action if she wanted to avoid exposure of the operation, yet Lisa had been a bad choice by the Centre all along.

When Elizabeth arrives at the safe house, it’s abundantly clear to both Gabriel and Philip how devastated she feels. With spare words, she reveals what happens. A fragment of the broken bottle has left a gash on the side of Elizabeth’s neck, to which Philip immediately attends. Despite the harsh words throw back and forth earlier, they still cling to one another for comfort.

Gabriel sympathetically gauges his worn-down charges. “Things have to change. I’m going to talk to the Centre and have them ease up on you. You’ll continue with the two missions you already have, but other than that, you’ll get a break. It’ll be the closest you’ve ever been to a vacation.”

Elizabeth says wanly to her husband, “You know what we should? Take our kids to Epcot.” She’s referring to the trip aborted episodes earlier.

Back home, when they arrive, Henry and Paige are watching David Copperfield’s sleight of video magic to supposedly make the Statue of Liberty disappear then reappear. Martha has disappeared from FBI surveillance and Lisa will no longer pose a threat. And maybe, just maybe, Philip and Elizabeth can catch a break.

Suddenly, the episode jumps ahead seven months and we see Paige playing miniature golf with Pastor Tim and his pregnant wife. All seems well, but when she returns home, where her family is happily wrapping up a round of yard hockey, she gives her usual report once Henry is out of hearing.

Her parents may be taking it easy, job-wise, but Paige is on duty. She rattles off unenthusiastically details of her ongoing mission of keeping Pastor Tim under surveillance and less likely to reveal her parents’ true identity.

Meanwhile, agent Stan visits with the disgraced and ousted Gaad [over Martha’s betrayal]. Gaad tells Stan to continue his interactions with Soviet Oleg.

“You can’t lose sight of who these people are,” Gaad says. Advice useful for all concerned in this series, Soviet and Americans alike.

For more political and familial intrigue, visit The Americans next week.

Due to an oversight PW failed to print three recent reviews of the above named TV program. This is one of those reviews. Fans are now caught up! We apologize for the delay. “The Americans”: How do you solve a Problem like Martha?   “The Americans”: Nowhere to run, someplace to hide?

Photo: Keidrich Sellati as Henry Jennings




Carole Avalon
Carole Avalon

Texan Carole Avalon is a writer and reviewer.