The Americans Recap: The Heart Has Many Rooms

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

The Americans continues to impress. Its second episode was tighter and sharper than its pilot, and its third episode, “Gregory,” was a marvel: expertly paced, with a marvelous control of tone, strong performances, and a number of unexpectedly piercing scenes. Most of the latter revolved around the title character (Derek Luke of Antwone Fisher), an African-American KGB recruit who, unbeknownst to Phillip, was Elizabeth’s first great love and has apparently continued to see her occasionally over the years and still carries a bonfire-size torch for her.

The revelation of Elizabeth and Gregory’s relationship further complicates our impression of the Jenningses marriage, a relationship that seems to have more secret antechambers, trapdoors, and spike pits than a fairy-tale castle. This third episode — which was written by Joel Fields and directed by veteran Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing and a zillion other series) — confirms my suspicion that The Americans isn’t mainly about espionage, just as The Sopranos wasn’t mainly about the mob. The Americans is shaping up as a series about identity and secrets and the role of both within relationships. Who do we think we are? Who do we tell lovers, friends, and employers we are? And who are we, really? Do we even know for sure? What happens when our established identity — the face we present to the world, and maybe to ourselves in the mirror — is peeled back to reveal a different face underneath? What happens then?

In this episode, we encounter a few big secrets that, when revealed, put lives and hearts in danger. The most affecting is Elizabeth and Gregory’s. They have a more primal romantic bond than Elizabeth and Phillip, who were paired off in an arranged marriage by their KGB handlers, and they still have deep feelings for each other. When Elizabeth approaches him about setting up an operation in Philadelphia — to snatch slain KGB agent Robert’s secret wife Joyce Ramirez (Audrey Esparza) and their baby — he goes the extra mile, executing the operation with such finesse that FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) declares him “a genius.” Gregory wouldn’t have gone to those lengths if he didn’t adore Elizabeth and secretly dream that one day she’d leave Phillip and the kids to be with him. He presses Elizabeth to leave her husband to be with a true soul mate; he knows he’s it because she’s told him he’s the one, arriving at his house on a rainy night one a month before her daughter Paige was born. Elizabeth’s conflicted reaction to Gregory’s pitch rings true: She’s not denying what they had together, but she’s also steeling herself to tell him that things have changed between her and Phillip. Gregory’s “I just want to do right by you … I love you” is the most agonized, unaffected, brave romantic confession I’ve seen on a TV drama in some time.

As it turns out, Gregory’s fantasy is never going to happen — not just because the marriage is, as Gregory puts it, Elizabeth’s “cover,” but because in the two weeks following Phillip and Elizabeth’s murder of a KGB defector, she’s suddenly looking at her husband differently and seeing him as a mate rather than a mere partner. You know that horrible, soul-wrenching statement “I love you, but I’m not in love with you”? It appears that Elizabeth once might have said that to Phillip, but by the two-thirds mark in this episode, she’s essentially said it to Gregory, though not in precisely those words.

Back to the list of secrets: Phillip and Elizabeth learn that, unbeknownst to the Soviets, Robert secretly got married and had a baby. Joyce learns that her husband was secretly a KGB agent (with all his furtive behavior, she thought maybe he was a drug dealer). Phillip learns that Elizabeth once told Gregory that she wasn’t in love with Phillip, a revelation that devastates Phillip so completely that the first time Elizabeth tries to take his hand in this episode (one of two such gestures), he practically jumps out of his chair to avoid her touch. (Gregory is the one who drops the bombshell, asking Phillip point-blank if he truly loves his wife. In a contest between romantic rivals, one of whom is married to the other’s object of affection, I believe this is known as the Nuclear Option.)

The script obliquely compares the secret-wife story line and the Gregory-Elizabeth-Phillip triangle glancingly but very precisely, so that one subliminally blends with the other. Gregory presses his go-for-broke romantic attack — revealing how the massively pregnant Elizabeth secretly visited him — while Phillip is bathing a scrap of paper in chemicals to reveal hidden secrets. A later scene between Gregory, Elizabeth, and Phillip gives Phillip an exit line that’s factually about Joyce, but emotionally about Gregory and Elizabeth: “If you touch his wife, I’ll kill you, you understand?”

When I watched “Gregory” a second time, the haunting climax — scored to a section of Roxy Music’s 1973 “Sunset” — the scene of the KGB agent delivering the baby to the murdered agent’s parents and the subsequent shot of Joyce dead in the car seemed to deliver veiled, mysterious closure to the Gregory-Elizabeth story line. They were unbearably sad on their own terms — and seventies movie vicious, a Corleone-style solution to an inconvenient problem. But they also seemed to represent confirmation of the death of Gregory’s romantic hopes. The last two scenes had a horrendous poetic or dreamlike logic, showing you one set of things while perhaps making you think of other things. Gregory’s secret wife — Elizabeth — is, for all intents and purposes, dead now. His baby belongs to someone else.

Odds and Ends

  • No, of course, I wasn’t going to get through this recap without mentioning Margo Martindale, who makes her first appearance as Grannie. Great casting, great performance (as expected; she’s formidable). My favorite scene was her tenderly helping Joyce and the baby into the van, smiling at her like, well, a grandma, the kind who makes you feel safe and loved — an old lady with a smile in her voice.
  • Schlamme’s direction of Gregory’s Joyce-grab was terrific. It was shot and edited in a way that reminded me of Sidney Pollack’s 1973 classic Three Days of the Condor, an elegant thriller that uses whip-pans to reveal new information, build paranoia, and suggest relationships between characters that haven’t been fully defined yet. The abandon-all-hope color scheme — bleak midwinter blue — was also Condor-like. The cinematographer for this episode is Richard Rutkowski, and the editor is Daniel Valverde.
  • I laughed when Agent Gadd (Richard Thomas) incredulously compared the disappearing Joyce to the magician Doug Henning. Viewers of a particular age will remember that charming, long-haired illusionist. I saw him perform in Dallas in 1978 with Connie Francis opening. My brother and I liked Henning, but all my mom could talk about was how great Connie Francis looked. I have no idea why I just shared that. Moving on!
  • I've already read some complaints, or concerns, about President Ronald Reagan's so-called "Star Wars" missile defense shield story line, which figured into the Joyce material and climaxed with that brutal scene in the warehouse. The worry seems to be that knowing "Star Wars" never came to fruition, and that the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991, ten years after this episode's events, makes the show's espionage seem weightless, or at the very least, low-stakes. I can see that point of view, but I like the sense of futility that hangs over all the spying and killing. It feeds the notion that The Americans isn't ultimately about the Cold War or spying — that it's all ultimately about discovering the secret places inside these characters' hearts and minds, and examining love and marriage from a variety of different angles. They could be doing anything as their "job." That they're doing dangerous, sometimes sexy stuff just makes the show more entertaining, and gives the filmmakers a chance to weave period details and music into the stories and pay tribute to their favorite seventies and eighties films.
  • I love how the climactic scene built around Elizabeth’s monologue about the marriage starts with a wide shot and holds on it for an uncomfortably long time, equating the physical and emotional distance between them at that moment. This seems like a simple filmmaking choice, but it’s appalling how many TV series don’t have the nerve to make it, preferring instead to let nearly everything play out in close-up while cutting constantly out of terror that we’ll get bored and change the channel.
  • Speaking of metaphor, Gregory’s drug use — and Elizabeth’s disapproving attitude toward it — also ties into the episode’s central triangle. Gregory and Elizabeth once had an addictively intense love; Elizabeth seems to have given up the drug, but Gregory can’t stop smoking. He can’t imagine life without the high.
  • “When she told me who she was, it was like I already knew.” Great line by Gregory, one that could apply to any relationship between two people who, for whatever reason, instantly connect and understand one another. Ladies and gentlemen, this is one hell of a sexy show. I'm so close to asking it to be my Valentine.