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The Americans Recap: Who’s in Charge Here?

THE AMERICANS -- In Control -- Episode 4 (Airs Wednesday, February 20, 10:00 pm e/p) -- Pictured: (L-R) Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings, Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings

“One mistake,” the Russian consulate employee Nina tells her FBI contact Stan Beeman. “That’s all it takes.” It helps to keep that in mind while watching “In Control.” The fourth episode of The Americans deals with the March 30, 1981, assassination attempt against President Ronald Reagan, who was shot and wounded by Jodie Foster–obsessed loner John Hinckley. 

There’s a tendency to look back at a nation’s past and think of attempted assassinations as mere footnotes or historical curiosities, as opposed to assassinations, which can cause intense, prolonged national trauma and change a country’s historical trajectory. Compare how people talk about, say, the murders of John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X, versus the botched assassination attempts against Governor George Wallace and Presidents Gerald Ford and Reagan, and you’ll see what I mean. When an assassination attempt does not succeed, the phrase “Well, at least we dodged that bullet” resonates on a couple of levels. There’s a sense that something horrible could have happened that day, but for whatever reason did not, and therefore history (personal as well as national) can march on unimpeded.

But something horrible did happen on March 30, 1981 — the shooting of a sitting president, a secret service agent, and a press secretary (James Brady, whose severe wounding ultimately led to 1993’s Brady Bill). Remember, this was just eighteen years after John F. Kennedy’s assassination (which itself was followed by a seemingly endless string of killings and attempted killings of U.S. leaders) and not quite three months after the murder of John Lennon by another mentally ill, celebrity-obsessed loner. There was a sense of national instability, of violence lurking just under the surface of every seemingly placid day. Television newscasts kept showing video of the shootings on endless repeat. “They keep showing the same thing over and over,” Paige tells Stan’s son, a potential boyfriend (in an uncomfortably Homeland-like coincidence). She calls the news coverage “ghoulish,” but her beau rightly replies, “The president could die, you know. Any one of those guys that got shot could die. Isn’t that pretty ghoulish?”

Absolutely. For 24, maybe 36 hours after the shooting, we didn’t know exactly what happened or what the political and historical fallout would be. There were rumors that Reagan was dead but the government was too paralyzed and stunned to give us the bad news. The notion that the Soviets might have been involved seems absurd only in smug hindsight. Reagan’s saber-rattling brought Cold War tensions to a new peak, inspiring jingoistic Hollywood movies (Red Dawn, Missing in Action, Top Gun, the second and third Rambo films) and apocalyptic TV spectacles (The Day After, Amerika). In the aftermath of the shooting, there were false reports that Brady had died (“In Control” contains an actual radio report where an anchor repeats that misinformation).

“In Control,” written by Joel Fields and series creator Joseph Weisberg and directed by the great Jean de Segonzac, longtime cinematographer of Homicide: Life on the Street, is a work of fiction, and seemingly a wild one. But how wild is it, really? Much of the episode shows Russian spies reacting to the Reagan shooting, trying to determine whether it was just an unfortunate violent incident or the opening salvo in a Seven Days in May–style takeover of the White House by the U.S. military, one predicated on the falsehood that the USSR put Hinckley up to the shootings. Through early-eighties Russian eyes, this is quite plausible. Philip, Elizabeth, their new KGB handler Claudia (new recurring cast member Margo Martindale), and the rest of the Russkies fear that what happens all the time in the Eastern bloc could happen in the U.S., setting off a chain of hostilities that might end in nuclear war. “They think this could be a coup,” Elizabeth tells Phillip, siding with the POV of their handlers.

Exhibit A is then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig (a onetime U.S. Army general) telling reporters that with the president incapacitated and the vice-president (onetime CIA head George H.W. Bush) in hiding, that he was “in control” of the government. (This is, as people knew even then, a gross misreading of the governmental chain of command, which puts the speaker of the House of Representatives on the ladder’s third rung.) When Phillip and Elizabeth eavesdrop on a conversation between Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and another official (a scene that pays off the bugged-clock plotline from episode two), they hear discussion of fighter plane scramble-times and submarines and a duplicate nuclear “football,” a.k.a. the briefcase containing launch codes for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Elizabeth immediately assumes the worst: that Operation Christopher — a code name for Russian agents engaging in guerilla warfare in the event of a coup — is about to begin, and that its horrors could match what Claudia went through in Stalingrad.

The Americans is shaping up to be as historically conscious a drama as Mad Men, with actual events driving and transforming the characters’ lives. (This episode’s historical context includes references to the USSR declaring martial law over Poland. There’s even a line about a schoolteacher who offhandedly described Poland as “part of Russia”!) But the interaction between fact and fiction seemed awkward, at times inorganic. I believe that the stress over the shootings and the possibility of a “coup” would dredge up Phillip and Elizabeth’s American-dream-versus-Russian-loyalty issues, but I didn’t like how the episode handled it; in that first Phillip-Elizabeth argument (over the Weinberger tape) it seemed as though “In Control” had suddenly reminded itself that it wasn’t a docudrama with espionage elements, and that it had to tie everything back to the central marriage or be accused of digression. (Elizabeth: “The Americans are capable of anything. Do you listen to what they say? What they say about us?” Phillip: “Do you listen to yourself when you talk about them?” Ugh.) Subsequent conversations were smoother and more credible. (Elizabeth: “Why do you think that they’re so different, that they’re so pure?” Phillip: “The last two times our leaders died, our government pretended they weren’t dead for weeks. Things are different here.”) But I still hope the show doesn’t feel obligated to go to the political/martial conflict well every single week, otherwise the tension will smack of sitcom mismatch. He loves Uncle Sam! She’s loyal to Mother Russia! Together, they’re The Americans!

Odds and ends

  • Haig was quite a character in real life. As his New York Times obituary points out, he was "a rare American breed: a political general. His bids for the presidency quickly came undone. But his ambition to be president was thinly veiled, and that was his undoing." His conduct on the day of Reagan's shooting confirms Nina's belief that one mistake is all it takes. March 30, 1981, was but one day in Haig's life, but his deluded assertion of control led all of his obituaries.
  • I’m really liking Richard Thomas’s performance as Agent Gadd, a character who could’ve been a tediously by-the-book boss but is acquiring nuances, and whose authority seems hard-won.
  • Nice office politics one-liner by Gadd: “When they get all the division heads on [the phone] at once, it means nothing’s happening.”
  • I also liked Stan talking about the day John F. Kennedy was killed. He was at a coffee shop when he heard the news. “I just jumped in my car and went to my parents’ house. I just wanted to be home.”
  • I don’t want to bore you with this, but I need to go on record again saying how utterly and completely awesome Noah Emmerich is as Stan. I’ve always liked this actor, but I’ve never seen him in a role with such gravitas and quiet emotional power. The more time we spend around this character, the more obvious it becomes that he’s a deeply traumatized person who does a reasonably good job of hiding the pain. We got a glimpse into the source of that pain in the scene where he and his wife discuss troubles in their marriage, and he alludes to the deep cover operation in St. Louis that required him to live among white supremacists. She wants to know why he never talks to her, and he says, “I was living with psycho militants for too long, I don’t know.” As the critic Craig Simpson said this morning, "I've never seen an open-faced actor as enigmatic as Emmerich."
  • Elizabeth’s telling Phillip, “If Moscow ever finds out we sat on the Haig intelligence, we’re finished,” feels like a Chekovian rifle to me.
  •  I was 12 when Reagan got shot. I vividly recall talking about the violence with friends after school as we waited for our parents to pick us up.  My friend Mike launched into a weird little dance and sang, in a Muppet-y doo-wop falsetto, “He’s gonna die, oooo-ooo!” Of course Mike didn’t actually want the president to die; he was just trying to break the tension by being silly. Unfortunately, a teacher overheard him, and was so upset that he grabbed Mike by the shoulders, shook him hard, and yelled, “What the fuck is wrong with you, boy? The president got shot! Have some respect!” Then he let Mike go and walked away, angry and embarrassed. To my knowledge, there were no repercussions from the teacher shaking the kid; I know none of us ever talked about it again. I think everybody understood why he lost control. It was an intense day.
Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/FX