The Americans Recap: Umbrellas and Caviar

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

After last week’s pilot, you might have worried that The Americans would bend over backward to make its characters as “likable” as possible, more sinned against than sinning. “The Clock” put such fears to rest.

It started with Phillip Jennings screwing the assistant to the undersecretary of Defense — a mirror image of the pilot’s opening, which featured Phillip’s wife Elizabeth in a similar situation — and raised the discomfort level with each scene. In the tradition of many dark cable series, the Jenningses love each other and their kids, and they have a code of honor. We don’t have any reason to doubt the sincerity of those healthy feelings — a sequence late in the episode showing Elizabeth piercing her daughter Paige’s ears was shot and scored so that it felt like a holy ritual — but they're very clearly not nice people, and their ability to compartmentalize the not-niceness is more disturbing than any individual act they commit.

This week’s Impossible Mission found Phillip and Elizabeth poisoning the son of the Defense secretary’s housekeeper Viola (Tonye Patano), to terrorize her into planting a clock that would allow them to eavesdrop on an impending meeting between Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, Margaret Thatcher, and British Defense Minister John Nott. Everything about the execution of this mission was unnervingly, well, businesslike, starting with Elizabeth administering the poison with an umbrella (very old-movie, that gimmick) and continuing with scene after scene of the Jenningses intimidating Viola in her own home, threatening to withhold the antidote if she doesn’t do their bidding. Phillip’s language during these scenes was even more chilling than his brutish physicality as he beat Viola’s hulking brother; he kept talking about “helping” her, an angle of verbal attack beloved of torturers who inflict terrible pain on victims and then frame themselves as angels of mercy who can make it all better. (“Will you let me help you and your family get through this?” “I just want a little cooperation, okay? Is that too much to ask?”)

What impressed me most, though, was how the episode, directed by Adam Arkin and written by series creator Joe Weisberg, used the mission to deepen what already seems like the central conflict in the Jenningses marriage: She’s unswervingly loyal to Mother Russia, while he’s grown used to being an American and would probably have defected to the U.S. by now if he knew that doing so wouldn’t make Elizabeth hate his guts. There are moments when Phillip’s ongoing pseudo-affair with Annalise (Gillian Alexy, a facial and vocal ringer for a young Melanie Griffith) — who knows him only as “Scott” — seems like a good deal more than a work thing. Phillip seems turned on by the fiction of being a Swedish spy with no entanglements as well as on the physical pleasures of the assignment. She wants to be told that he loves her, and there’s an excited glimpse in his eye as he lies and tells her he does.  

These tensions reach a peak in the car scene late in the episode when Annalise entices him to run away with her and start a new life together in Sweden. “We can drink hot cocoa and make love on a bearskin rug … We’ll make little babies, and it’ll be the beginning of our lives together, starting tonight.” We know he would never do that — there wouldn’t be a show if he did — but we also know he’s fantasizing about it. Between last week’s arguments between the Jenningses about turning in their captive and defecting, and this week’s discussions of their handlers’ unrealistic, even cruel timetable (Phillips calls it “an operational impossibility”), we’re keenly aware of how badly he wants out.

Overall, this was a very strong episode — tighter and in some ways better than the pilot — and it hints at how, exactly, The Americans might sustain itself over time, by building individual episodes or arcs around a particular mission and writing the particulars in ways that expose fissures in the spies’ marriage and heighten tensions between them.

Odds and Ends

  • I love all the stuff with Noah Emmerich’s Stan Beeman and his partner Chris Amador (Maximiliano Hernández) busting that woman who has a caviar-for-stereo-equipment scam via the Soviet consulate. Emmerich is brilliant in this part, and he has several moments here where he makes you feel as unnerved as the people he’s talking to. The smile on his face (and in his eyes) belies a fearsome cunning. You just don’t know what he’s capable of. The intimidation of the stereo-store guy was sensationally effective because of how Stan casually offloaded the physical part to Chris, and the late-night conversation between Phillip and Stan over caviar was even better. Emmerich is unmatched in his ability to make perfectly ordinary chitchat sound vaguely insinuating. (“As long as you take care of your responsibilities, everything’s okay.”)
  • About that ear-piercing scene: I love everything about it, but particularly the low-key, ambient synth score, which reminded me a little bit of some of Cliff Martinez’s score for Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape.
  • Although the fight between Phillip and Viola’s brother was viscerally effective, something about it grated on me — maybe the nagging suspicion that they threw it in to add Jason Bourne–style mayhem to an otherwise fairly low-key episode. I don’t think they really needed it, but that’s a nitpick. This was a great episode. I’ve got such a crush on this show.