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The Americans Recap: We Had an Arrangement

THE AMERICANS -- Mutually Assured Destruction -- Episode 8 (Airs Wednesday, March 20, 10:00 pm e/p) -- Pictured: (L-R) Annet Mahendru as Nina, Noah Emmerich as FBI Agent Stan Beeman

“If you start to think of your marriage as real, you’re of no use to us.”

Claudia, a.k.a. Granny, says that to her distrustful KGB agent Elizabeth Jennings in an early scene in “Mutually Assured Destruction.” (What a great title!) The minute she said it, I realized that some of the commenters on last week’s recap were likely right about that business in New York, with Phillip sleeping with an old flame (Irina, a.k.a. Anne from Montreal) who tells him he has a son he didn’t know about, and invites him to leave his wife and kids and start over with her and the boy. A comment by SayWhatNow is so prescient that I’m going to quote it at length here:

“Part of me thinks that this ‘Son’ is not real and was a setup for Mischa/Philip to have the anger and wherewithal to ‘beat up’ his ex-love, which was needed for the mission. I also think that the KGB totally set this up as a test for Philip to see what he would do and where his loyalties lie. Philip loves his kids and won't leave them behind with Elizabeth. Does he love Elizabeth? Yes, but the trust and loyalty to her went out the window in last week's episode. I think his love for her is for the sake of the kids now. The trouble is now that he has lied to her about what happened with Irina and we can all foreshadow that this will come out eventually. Who's to say Claudia doesn't know what went down in NYC and doesn't use it to her advantage? We have to assume the KGB knows everything, right?”

Pretty much every word of this turned out to be spot-on. That scene between Claudia and Elizabeth sets up everything that happens between Elizabeth and Phillip in the rest of the episode — a nail-biter in which the Jenningses try to stop an assassin who’s been recalled by the KGB before he can kill scientists working on the American “Star Wars” missile defense program. Claudia’s comments to Elizabeth push her out of that lovey-dovey zone she’s been in recently. Suddenly she’s thinking about her marriage to Phillip not as something real, but something fictional, a cover story that has to be maintained.

The spark for this change is the scene in which Elizabeth demands to know if Phillip lied at the end of the last episode when he said he didn’t sleep with Irina in New York. Caught in an untruth, he fesses up; Elizabeth is quietly furious, and the doting wife disappears, replaced by the icy professional we always see when Elizabeth is out on jobs. As season one of The Americans unfolds, we’re starting to discern the rules of the Jenningses’ marriage with regard to sex on missions. As I see it, it goes like this: If you’re only pretending to care about somebody, the adultery doesn’t count, but if you have real feelings for the person, the sex is considered cheating, or at the very least problematic. That’s why Phillip was so powerfully threatened by Elizabeth’s ex in “Gregory,” and it’s why Elizabeth considers Phillip’s lie about Irina to be such a horrible betrayal.

And the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that Irina’s “son” by Phillip isn’t real and that Phillip got sent to New York for two reasons: to take care of the Solidarity figurehead that he helped frame for rape and assault, and to get entangled with Irina, the better to drive a wedge between him and Elizabeth and reestablish that the Jenningses are KGB agents who maintain a cover story as a married couple, rather than a married couple who happen to work for the KGB. Priorities, priorities.

However this shakes out, it’s clear that Elizabeth’s insistence on a kind of fidelity — however seemingly arbitrary — has an effect on Phillip. When posing as Clark — the lover of Martha, the woman who works in Stan’s FBI office — Phillip loses his, er, ardor when he’s in bed with her. He even demands that she remove the necklace he gave her a couple of episodes ago — a piece of jewelry that belonged to Elizabeth and that he took partly in retaliation for Elizabeth telling Claudia that she wasn’t sure how loyal Phillip was to the motherland, and maybe bringing on that savage beating in the warehouse.

“We can’t do our jobs if we’re emotional,” Elizabeth tells Phillip in a scene near the end of “Mutually Assured Destruction,” undoing the emotional work she’d been doing over the past few weeks and pushing her husband away. Then she adds, “We have to stop this” — meaning the emotional volleyball over love and fidelity these last few episodes — “We were never married. We had an arrangement, and it worked.” Phillip’s response is devastatingly practical: If this marriage is nothing more than a cover story to her, and if she rather it be only that, why not divorce him?

I don’t think they’ll get divorced — not this early in the show’s run. The Americans is about marriage more than it’s about anything else, and I don’t think they’ve scratched the surface of Elizabeth and Phillip as a couple, fictive or “real.” But if the series continues for a few seasons, they could split up. A divorce would be painful to watch, yet the aftermath could be fascinating. Divorced couples don’t cease being couples; their couplehood just becomes more complex and thorny and painful, especially with kids involved. The Americans makes me miss being married. Which, given how much pain it depicts, is a pretty amazing achievement.

Odds and ends

  • The Chris-Martha thing is hilarious and feels believable. It also lends dimension to both characters and sets up a possible future subplot, with Chris wrestling over whether to expose Martha’s spying for “Clark” or use the information to pressure her into getting back together with him.
  • The close-quarters action scene between Phillip, Elizabeth, and the West German–born KGB assassin was terrifically well staged. As I’ve written in other recaps, The Americans seems to make a point of pride of serving up at least one superbly choreographed small-scale action sequence per episode. I hope they don’t get so invested in maintaining their track record that they shoehorn action scenes into episodes that don’t really need them, but so far they’ve got a hell of a track record, and this one was really intense. I also liked that they showed us the Jackson Pollock blood spatters in the bathroom where the charge went off — along with Phillip and Elizabeth’s coolly aghast faces — but didn’t show the assassin’s body, or whatever was left of it.
  • Along similar lines, I love the sex on this show, which splits the difference between frankness and circumspection. There’s none of that vague caressing-with-close-ups-of-clasping-hands-while-wind-billows-through-curtains nonsense. The characters look as if they have genitals and know what to do with them. And yet the sex is not pornographically explicit. I don’t think we’ve seen a female nipple yet, or any pubes, but we’ve seen plenty else, including hips and buttocks, and somehow the directors manage to get across the idea that the lovers are naked, or mostly naked, and doing certain things, without showing precise details. The actions are R-rated, verging on X, but the visuals are almost PG-13. Mad Men has a knack for this kind of sex, too.
  • I’m totally invested in the Stan-Nina relationship, which is developing real heat and real affection and could potentially turn tragic. Agent Gadd must know that the relationship could blow up and leave Stan, his most valuable field agent, a wreck. Yet he hands Stan the keys to a “safe house” — or love nest — so that he and Nina can have somewhere they can “debrief.” I get a knot in my stomach just writing about Stan and Nina. It’s clear that he sees her as an emotional escape from his increasingly unsatisfying home life and from the lingering trauma of what happened to him in St. Louis; she in turn sees him as the vehicle of her deliverance from death, imprisonment, exile, or whatever fate awaits her once the Russians figure out she’s the mole within the consulate. Plus, they just flat-out dig each other. You can see that in their love scenes. There’s real chemistry there, real sweetness.
  • I love the pillow-talk scene between Stan and Nina in which Nina gently chides him for thinking about espionage like a cop, somebody who’s looking to bust bad guys and put them in jail. That’s not how he should be thinking, she tells him — and she’s right. “We want everyone to stay where they are and bleed everything they know of out of them,” she says.
  • That statement raises the tantalizing possibility that Nina is about to turn triple-agent to save her own skin. Imagine this: Nina might have already been identified as the real mole within the consulate. Once exposed, she has two choices: accept whatever fate her bosses have decided to inflict on her, or bargain with them. If she bargains, what has she got to work with? An existing sexual relationship with an FBI counterterrorist agent who adores her — quite a bargaining chip. She could keep Stan on the hook indefinitely while feeding him KGB-approved misinformation and, ahem, pumping him for tidbits on whatever the FBI is up to. I’m not making a prediction, mind you, just spinning one possible direction for The Americans to go in. Nina seems to have a core of decency, and her affection for Stan seems genuine; but she’s also expedient and rationally self-interested, and she’s proven that she’s willing to make unsavory choices to save her own skin. That’s how she became a mole for the FBI in the first place.
  • One touch in the Martha-Clark scenes didn’t jibe for me: Martha wants Phillip to take his glasses off, but he refuses, saying he’d rather see her clearly. That makes fiction-workshop-symbolic sense, I guess; no illusions and all that. But if you were a spy feeling guilty about sleeping with someone other than your wife, wouldn’t you want to take the glasses off so that the woman you’re cheating with would become blurry and thus more abstract?
  • Then again, maybe I’m overthinking this and it’s just a comic-book joke: If “Clark” takes off his glasses, everyone will know he’s Superman.
  • Karen Fratti of the Huffington Post has the best summary of the Martha and Phillip/Clark relationship: "Martha is trying to make her prince out of Philip. She's one meeting away from ironing his clothes. Her help is tainted with her need for a man in her life. She copies files not for him, really, but because she wants him to get ahead at the agency to fit the Perfect Man (or Not A Jerk) role she's created in her head. Her attraction to 'Clark,' and denying Chris, is going to be her downfall."
  • This show needs to have a scene with Phillip and/or Elizabeth affixing their amazing wigs before going out on a mission/date. They are clearly Wig Masters, and I need to see the magic happening. And as a Twitter follower asked last night, what happens if one of them has sex with somebody who likes to pull hair? What then, eh? Answer the questions, show. Your audience needs to know these things.
Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/FX