The Americans Recap: Sex for Secrets

Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/FX
The Americans
Episode Title
Editor’s Rating

“Comint” is about trading sex for secrets, and how secrecy is a part of sex and love. It begins with Elizabeth in character as a Department of Defense employee, interviewing a recent widower and double agent, Uchada, who’s been passing information about the Strategic Defense Initiative to the Soviets. The KGB has been in lockdown mode recently, and because Uchada’s regular handler couldn’t visit him, the Russians needed to test his steadfastness in some other way. 

Two of Elizabeth’s questions to Uchada echo throughout the episode. The first of those is, “In the past six months, have you been approached by women, in particular younger women, who have made sexual advances?” This scenario — sex as currency, or sex as truth serum — has been a part of The Americans since its debut, and it plays out here in various scenes and subplots.

Elizabeth has sex with a man whose company is doing “classified work” for a company whose encrypted communications technology has caused problems for the KGB, and gets beaten against her will with a belt. When Phillip sees the welts on his wife’s body, he flies into a vengeful rage and has to be talked down by Elizabeth, who had the situation under control even though she certainly didn’t enjoy it. (The sex scene is intensely unpleasant, and very Klute-like in its comparison of acting, espionage, and prostitution. Elizabeth’s “character” pretends to be satisfied with the guy’s Minuteman stamina and ends his abuse with a fake-terrified shriek instead of leaning on her combat training. The scene ends with a marvelous shot of Elizabeth in the foreground with a sphinx-like half-smile of private victory on her face, and the contact/john in the background, clueless that he just got played.)

In another scene, Phillip, in character as an FBI counterintelligence agent, makes a pass at a woman who works in Stan’s office and who’s serving as an unwitting mole for the Russians. And in the episode’s most poignant subplot, Nina misinterprets signals from her FBI handler, Stan, and commences an affair with her supervisor at the Russian consulate, giving him blow jobs in exchange for secrets that she can pass on to the Americans. “Ninotchka, shortcuts are the root of all evil; didn’t your mother ever tell you?” Nina’s boss tells her.

There are lots of shortcuts in this episode. People just have to live with the evil, or the ambiguity, or the discomfort; call it whatever you like, but it’s damn sure uncomfortable, and the characters can’t survive emotionally unless they can put moral compromise, failure, and trauma in the past, or keep them private.  Every major character on this show is engaged in secret deception or is hiding some horrendous personal experience (often more than one) from the people they care about. We found out about Elizabeth’s rape experience in the pilot, and about her secret affair with an FBI operative in the third episode, “Gregory.” Stan has no idea that his new racquetball partner Phillip isn’t a milquetoast suburban travel agent, but a spy/seducer/enemy of the state. Stan still hasn’t opened up about his traumatic experience undercover with white supremacists in St. Louis, and it’s destroying his marriage and opening him up to the possibility of an affair with Nina, a fresh-faced young woman whom he’s inadvertently corrupting on behalf of the FBI.  

Like many of the greatest cable dramas — but particularly The Sopranos and Mad Men, shows that The Americans increasingly evokes — this series is about compartmentalizing the past from the present, the public from the private, one identity from another, and trying to be all right with it, and have everyone you care about be all right with it, even though the distress is always there right under the surface, sometimes fracturing the façade and permitting the ugly truth to peek through. “So in the past 35 years, not a single question [from your wife]?” Elizabeth asks the wavering double agent in the opening scene, establishing just how trustworthy a turncoat he is. “That’s right,” he replies. He seems quite sincere.

As written by Melissa James Gibson and directed by Holly Dale, “Comint” doesn’t flinch from any of its issues, but it’s never salacious. Many of the more upsetting images are framed or cut in a way that gives humiliated characters a shred of dignity: Notice how the episode cuts to a different shot a split-second before the belt strikes Elizabeth’s back, and how Gibson shoots Nina going down on her boss, by tracking from him sitting at his desk to reveal her legs (with high heeled shoes) sticking out.  It’s as if the show is appalled on our behalf.

 Odds and ends

  • I’m at the point where I need to see Phillip and Elizabeth donning their wigs and other deception accoutrements, just to see if it’s really possible to self-apply disguise elements and have them look so convincing. 
  • Noah Emmerich’s character and performance keep getting richer. I love where Stan’s story seems to be headed, and the mix of paternal protectiveness and aw-shucks flirtatiousness he brings to Stan’s scenes with Nina (Annet Mahendru, also superb). “One day you’ll be living a different life, all right?” he reassures her. “You’ll choose a new name for yourself. I want you to choose carefully, Nina, the name of someone who sleeps very, very well at night.” The scene where Stan rejects his wife (all decked out in a new nightie) so that he can stay up and study Cyrillic some more is mortifying in a very honest way, and that final exchange of close-ups in the park — her stopping and looking back at him, and Stan smiling like a love-struck teenager — is wrenching. You just know that this story is going to end tragically. It has to. By the end of "Comint," both the Russian consulate and the KGB have realized that a mole is compromising their security. Nina's an amateur in this game; she can't avoid detection for long. Fingers crossed for defection/exfiltration.
  • Who knew that The Americans would turn out to be a strong action series as well as a surprising drama? We’re settling into a groove where we expect at least one knockout set piece per episode. Best in show thus far is the abduction of the KGB agent’s wife in episode three, “Gregory,” but this week’s garage sequence — with Phillip providing distraction while Elizabeth made like a swinging-sixties cat burglar and climbed all over the place — came close. It was elegant and funny, just a delight. The Americans is so confident that there are times when it seems to be toying with us Hitchcock-style, seeming to end a scene, then tossing in a complication or reversal. This is old-school filmmaking excellence. There’s quite a bit of it on display on FX these days. (See also: Justified, currently the best-directed series on American television.)
  • I was going to go into some depth about feminist themes on The Americans, and in this episode in particular (Claudia’s monologue to Elizabeth positioned all of “Comint” as a comment on the sexualization of women in all walks of life), but my colleague Alyssa Rosenberg does such a great job in her ThinkProgress column that I’ll direct you there for now. She writes, “Nina is a person with very little to trade, and when Stan told her she was low on time to prove herself, she traded it. Elizabeth believes herself to have more autonomy in trading on her sexuality, and exposing herself not simply to a beating at the hands of a man she’s seducing, but what appears to be a lot of unprotected sex. But The Americans is staging an ongoing debate between Elizabeth’s steely insistence that she’s tough enough to handle sexual violence, and Phillip’s belief that she shouldn’t have to — and in doing so is turning into a running, and exceptionally powerful debate about feminism.”
  • Elizabeth’s shooting of the double agent was staged very plainly, which made the violence all the more shocking. The Americans seems to have settled on seventies American cinema as its go-to mode for representing savagery. As a fan of that era’s film, I wholeheartedly approve. Screen violence after the seventies was more elaborate, sometimes more overtly sadistic or ostentatious, but there’s still something singularly nasty about the way they shed blood and inflicted pain back in the Nixon/Ford/Carter era. It was somehow uglier overall, the stuff of nightmares, and the worst (or the best) of it still stings.
  • I like how, in the final meet-up sequence, the filmmakers use a flock of pigeons in at least three ways: (1) as visceral/aural shock, the fluttering unnerving us post-gunshot, and becoming a sort of avian ballistic report or second echo; (2) as death metaphor, the birds rising up like a soul escaping; (3) as storytelling aid, telling the FBI (from afar) that the operation failed and their guy died.