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The Americans Recap: Show Them Your Face!

THE AMERICANS -- Trust Me -- Episode 6 (Airs Wednesday, March 6, 10:00 pm e/p) -- Pictured: (L-R) Robert Bogue as Cal, Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings

“Trust Me” is the perfect title for the sixth episode of The Americans, and not just because all of the major characters are dealing with high-stakes issues of trust. “Trust me” is what filmmakers implicitly assure viewers: Trust me, I know what I’m doing. Trust me, this is going somewhere. Or, Trust me, I won’t betray your respect.

Of course, in a certain kind of thriller, the filmmakers ask for your trust only so they can betray it; and as it turns out, “Trust Me” is that kind of thriller. As written by Sneha Koorse and directed by Daniel Sackheim, it’s a pull-the-rug-out-from-under-you episode that puts the audience in the position of many of its major characters. It plunges you into unfamiliar, terrifying situations. You aren’t sure what’s happening, whom to trust, what it all means, where it’s all leading.

Are those guys terrorizing Phillip and Elizabeth employed by the FBI, the CIA, or the KGB? The latter, as it turns out — they’re agents trying to learn the identity of the mole who gave up last week’s encryption code scam to the FBI — and cynical viewers probably figured that out early, since the show’s not going to blow the spies’ cover this soon; still, we don’t find out for sure until deep into the episode, and their ordeal is intensely frightening. Is the driver who gives Paige and Henry a ride after their parents’ kidnappings leave them stranded at the mall a KGB agent, too? Or is he just a run-of-the-mill sleazeball molester-rapist out of a seventies after-school special? At first I assumed the former, then the latter, and cheered when Henry smashed a beer bottle over his head; but we ultimately have no proof that the guy was anything other than creepy — the folding knife doesn’t necessarily prove intent to harm or kill — and feeling unsafe isn’t a legally justifiable reason to brain a guy with a beer bottle.

The episode’s storytelling strategy could be summed up as “Mind-eff first, explain later,” and it’s exemplified in smaller moments as well. After Phillip and Elizabeth’s release, we see them driving together and assume their stony silence is purely marriage-related (he’s convinced that she brought on the torture by badmouthing his American sympathies to the KGB); then Philip drives the car into a tree, and we realize they were steeling themselves to create a cover story for disappearing without warning and returning home to their children bloodied and bruised. Nina’s contact at the consulate stops by a tea shop, and the clerk — secretly in cahoots with the feds — “accidentally” spills change on the floor, then puts something in the tea sack when the Russian isn’t looking. The something turns out to be diamonds; that, combined with a not-so-cleverly planted camera and a string of faux-incriminating calls by Stan, makes it seem as though the guy is the mole, even though we know it’s Nina. (Parts of this episode reminded me of 1975’s Marathon Man; diamonds figured prominently in that movie, and there were many scenes that deliberately confused or misled the audience.)

Trust has always been at the center of The Americans, but this episode put it in the foreground. Can Phillip trust Elizabeth to put the integrity of their marriage over the integrity of her own personal loyalties to the USSR? Can Elizabeth trust Phillip to stay Russian and not succumb to the siren song of defection? Can Nina, the real mole inside the Russian consulate, trust Stan to protect her? Can Stan trust his bosses to protect Nina? Can Stan’s wife, Sandra (Susan Beeman), trust Stan to be stable and loving, and not succumb to the psychological stress of his Top Secret job or the allure of Nina, a damsel in distress whose existence she doesn’t even know about?

This episode was also about power: who has it, and whether they use or abuse it when dealing with the (relatively) powerless. Both the Russian consulate and the FBI hold Nina’s fate in their hands, and (Stan’s affections notwithstanding) I don’t trust them to treat her as a human being rather than as an asset. The KGB has absolute power over Phillip and Elizabeth — expressed most chillingly in that moment when goons stick Elizabeth in a cell plastered with family photos — and they’ve abused that trust time and again, most flagrantly this week, which saw Phillip being savagely beaten and Elizabeth abducted from her own home in a sequence that felt like an outtake from the original Halloween. The driver has absolute power over Paige and Henry and seems as though he’s about to abuse it horribly until Henry smashes the bottle over his head. (I love the moment later where he confesses that he wet himself; he and his sister have a loving, nonjudgmental relationship that’s rare among siblings.) Phillip and Elizabeth have power over their kids, and although they obviously love them, their line of work constitutes a sort of built-in neglect. When Mommy or Daddy work late at the office, it often means they’re spying on the American government, assuming false identities to sleep with sources, assassinating people, etc., and as this episode proves, if anything goes majorly wrong that day for either of them, the kids will end up orphaned.

Where’s the higher power in all this? Is there a God keeping watch over these characters, or is it all formless, amoral chaos? That seems a strange question to ask of a TV episode, but The Americans repeatedly poses it in “Trust Me.” In the scene where Agent Gadd prompts Stan to put all the encryption-kerfuffle pieces together, he jokingly asks if he’s going to have to put his Carnac the Magnificent hat on, a reference to Johnny Carson’s fake psychic on The Tonight Show. Gadd counters, “My mother used to say coincidence is God’s way of winking at you.” The last thing the creepy driver says before the beer bottle hits is “Without a higher power, we’re no better than wild dogs.” The exchange between Elizabeth and Gregory — which seems to lead directly to the business with the diamonds — contains an exchange with faint theological overtones. Gregory: “No one knows you exist.” Elizabeth: “Someone knows.” Gregory: “I’ll be your eyes.”

Odds and Ends

  • I just can’t see poor Nina lasting through the end of this season, can you? She’s got “sacrificial lamb” written all over her.
  • More great work from Noah Emmerich as Stan in this episode, and from Annet Mahendru as Nina. Their not-quite-affair is enormously affecting, and I love the little touches that code it as such, like the moment near the end of the episode when the phone next to Stan and Sandra’s bed rings, and Stan snatches it before Sandra can answer it. Classic cheating-husband behavior.
  • Just when the Jennings’ marriage seems to be shaping up, here comes torture to get in the middle of it. Phillip was right to be pissed, though, and I laughed at his passive-aggressive retaliation against Elizabeth for ratting him out: demanding a piece of jewelry to give to the contact he didn’t get to see earlier.
  • Felicity’s stranglehold over Keri Russell’s image died last night. Time of death was exactly 10:34 pm Eastern, when Elizabeth opened a can of whoop-ass on Claudia, then told her, "Show them your face! Show it to them!"
  • Now Claudia has trust issues with Elizabeth, and Elizabeth with Claudia. Complications, complications.
  • Henry’s vertically striped rainbow ski vest, or whatever the hell that was, gave me flashbacks to being a kid in the seventies and eighties. The Carter-Reagan era was a fashion disaster for everybody, but the children suffered most.   
Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/FX