“Marriage is hard,” Elizabeth Jennings tells Sandra Beeman in “Duty and Honor.” “Well, it’s not for sissies, that’s for sure,” Sandra replies, “but at the end of the day, you either choose to keep going or you don’t.”
That exchange sums up the episode, and maybe The Americans as well. I’ve written in other recaps that this series is about espionage in the way that The Sopranos was about the mob, meaning it isn’t — not really. The main topics are love, lust, marriage, and commitment, and the complex, volatile interplay of all four elements. More so than any episode since “Gregory,” “Duty and Honor” zeroes in on the barely healed fissures that exist in all relationships, even seemingly stable ones, and that sometimes crack under stress.
The Jenningses are at the center of the episode, naturally — and wow, this is one beleaguered marriage! Between Phillip giving Elizabeth the cold shoulder for selling him out as a closet Yankee, the psychic disruptions of past lovers showing up in the couple’s workplace (Elizabeth’s eternal suitor Gregory in “Gregory,” Phillip’s ex-lover Irina in this episode), and the peculiar demands of their KGB spying gig — which requires them to be unfaithful, then compartmentalize it as Part of the Job — they’re in the Thermopylae of modern TV marriages. Each week brings a new test, a new threat. When Sandra, whose husband is about to cheat on her with a hot young mole he’s installed at the Russian consulate, tells Elizabeth that she envies her and Phillip for being able to work together and share trade secrets, she has no idea what their marital reality is actually like.
Nobody looking at another person’s marriage ever knows, though; appearances deceive. “You work together, you’re partners, you’re a team,” Sandra tells Elizabeth. “I don’t think that I could ever see Stan and I doing that.” The poor woman seems so wistful; if she only knew that Phillip barely speaks to Elizabeth and flinches from her touch because he blames her for the ordeal they endured at the hands of their KGB bosses in “Trust Me.”
Stan, meanwhile, seems to be suffering from his undercover stint with white supremacists back in St. Louis; his trauma has driven him ever deeper into his FBI counterintelligence gig, and his chivalrous protectiveness toward his lovely Russian mole, Nina, flowered into adultery this week. Like Phillip — and like so many Mad Men characters, come to think of it — Stan seems estranged from himself in ways he won’t or can’t articulate; and he’s inclined to reinvent himself in secret, if for no other reason than to distract himself from the pain he’s feeling but can’t discuss with his two life partners: his workplace spouse Chris Amador (Maximiliano Hernández) and his wife, Sandra.
“Duty and Honor” — which was written by series co-producer Joshua Brand and directed by Alex Chapple — compares and contrasts Stan and Phillip, both of whom cheat while momentarily withdrawing from their marriages. During after-work drinks, the single Chris urges Stan to flirt with a woman at the bar and drown his sorrows in “some strange.” Stan is righteously appalled; a subsequent shot of Stan downing a shot after Chris leaves ends with Stan’s left hand in close-up, his wedding band glinting. Stan cryptically told Chris, “I’ve got some things on my mind,” and boy, does he: not just the lovely Nina (who seems more obviously doomed with each new episode) but the horrendous experience he had in St. Louis yet still hasn’t discussed. Judging from Nina’s own ability to compartmentalize, she would have made a good spy herself. “Whatever happened, happened,” she tells Stan, post-coitus. “You Americans think everything is black and white. For us, everything is gray.” Some people can live in the gray area. Stan probably isn’t one of them.
Phillip, meanwhile, begins the episode horrified by his wife’s touch — practically quaking with barely concealed disgust at her selling him out — then has a sort of lost weekend in New York with Irina (a.k.a. Anne from Montreal), with whom he’s collaborating in a plot to smear a Polish anti-Communist priest and Solidarity “footsoldier.” Phillip is even told that he has a son by Irina, a bombshell revelation; but a cryptic exchange near the end of the episode leaves the truth of her statement rather fuzzy. (“The boy, is he real?” he asks at the train station. “Only duty and honor are real, Mischa,” she replies, using his birth name. “Isn’t that what we were told?”) Back home, Elizabeth intimidates a mobbed-up bookie to free a defense contractor/spy from gambling debts, pining all the while for the husband that she’s been systematically pushing away for weeks.
The Americans is really, really good at showing the ebb and flow of attraction within a long marriage; it uses sexy/violent metaphors to get there, but the big picture always rings true. You’re not always in love with your spouse; sometimes you dislike them and want out; then you suddenly realize how much they mean to you — so much that whatever resentments you were fuming over earlier suddenly seem piddling — and then you’re in love again, maybe unrequited love. Elizabeth’s pangs of remorse and loneliness in this episode were piercing, maybe more so because Keri Russell’s performance errs on the side of glacial inscrutability. The woman’s husband is in New York on a “business trip” that may include sex with a former lover, a situation that would be emotionally devastating for anybody; Elizabeth was trained as a seductress herself, so in theory she’s supposed to be okay with this, but the cold reality of the job doesn’t always jibe with the emotional reality of their marriage, a cover story that has become real. She tells him, “I’ve been thinking about you. About us. I miss you.” She sniffs his shirt as if he’s dead. Brokeback Russkie. Phillip is presented with his second opportunity to run away and start a new life with another woman — the first such offer was in the second episode, “The Clock” — and he turns this one down too; but it seems to take a lot more out of him, because he really loved, and still does love, Irina.
That’s another thing The Americans is great at: showing us how past loves live on inside us, even when we’ve supposedly gotten over them and committed to somebody else. Whenever Elizabeth is around Gregory, we sense that she loves him as deeply and helplessly as he loves her, but she’s just better at hiding her feelings, or suppressing them for Phillip and the KGB’s sake. In this episode, Phillip seems as in love with Irina as he usually is with Elizabeth; that close-up of him at the train station in the beginning of the episode — lost in flashback, a goofy smile dawning on his face — rings devastatingly true. But the lure of his marriage ultimately proves stronger. He cheated on his wife when he was away, but in the end he decides to stay with her, just as Elizabeth has stayed with Phillip despite Gregory’s periodic, intensely seductive overtures over the years.
As my colleague Jesse Damiani writes, what separates The Americans from other series with anti-heroic or morally compromised heroes “ … is its foregrounding of the simplest device in the history of narrative: love. In effect, The Americans is an extended remarriage plot. Sure, it’s replete with the trappings of espionage, but all the mad chases, brutality, and political intrigue function in service of its romantic core. What leaves viewers clinging to their armrests in these moments of pulpy thrill is the underlying terror that, at any moment, the fledgling relationship between protagonists Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, will suffer a blow — whether physically, emotionally, or both — that it cannot survive.” And yet survive it does. For all its darkness and violence, this is a hopeful series. At least it seems that way for now.
Odds and Ends
• I’m pretty sure the footage of President Ronald Reagan discussing the situation in Poland is taken from from his December 23, 1981, address to the nation. You can watch the whole Reagan speech here, if you’re so inclined. For a primer on the rise and fall of Poland’s Solidarity movement, see this New York Times 30th-anniversary summary.
• The dialogue in this episode felt too flat and expository to me, particularly Matthew Beeman’s tirade against his mother, which was especially clunky. (“Are you sure he still even lives here, Mom?”) The Americans is better acted than directed, and better directed than written; considering that the acting and direction are routinely excellent-to-brilliant, it seems churlish to complain about this, but this week the quality gap (in the dialogue, not the plotting) nagged at me.
• I loved the park bench conversation between Claudia and Elizabeth. (“I’m sorry I didn’t kill you. That’s my apology.”) Claudia’s brutal treatment of the Jenningses seems to have swung the pendulum of Elizabeth’s loyalties away from the motherland and back toward her “American” identity; I’m sure it’ll swing back the other way eventually, and that’s to be expected, but for now I’m digging the change in attitude, because it adds tension to an already tense show.
• This episode is thick with birth names. The tension between the people that characters now insist they are and the people they once were is another indication of how profoundly Mad Men has influenced cable drama.
• Speaking of Mad Men, every time I watch The Americans, I think of Don’s line to Peggy in season two’s “The New Girl”: “Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” Almost everything The Americans’ main characters do and say “never happened.”