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The Americans Recap: The Body Count Continues

THE AMERICANS -- Covert War

This is the moment of my season-one crush on a promising new show when I have a crisis of faith and start to wonder if the object of my affection will delight or disappoint me over the long haul. Homeland, a show I fell head-over-heels for in season one, did disappoint in season two; other first-season crushes held up pretty well, all things considered, particularly Louie and Mad Men and the brilliant, prematurely canceled Enlightened, so you never know. Being a romantic at heart, I'll continue to dream of Happily Ever After, even though this week's Americans episode, however gripping, worried me.

I write this recap not having seen the rest of the season, so I'm voicing misgivings that could be answered within a week. But nevertheless, this show is killing off significant characters at such a rapid rate, without having set up comparably rich characters to replace them, that I worry that executive producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields are sacrificing long-term dramatic solidity for the "Oh, shit!" factor that drives so much of dark cable drama. As in, "Oh, shit! I can't believe they did that!" "That" could refer to any of the major events of the last few weeks — mostly killings. Over four consecutive weeks, The Americans has killed off Stan's partner Chris Amador, Elizabeth's ex-lover and sometime espionage partner Gregory, and Nina's office mate and puppy dog crush nurturer Vlad. The body count continues in this week's "Covert War," which whacked Elizabeth's mentor and sorta father-figure General Zhukov.

What I found particularly striking about both this episode and the one in which Amador died is the fact that both of these characters were defined and deepened retroactively, via flashbacks. The Amador flashbacks were believable and affecting, and the Zhukov flashbacks were terrific, too — particularly the General's monologue about his dog Malysh (Russian for "baby"), which concluded, “He isn’t particularly smart. He isn’t pretty. But I love him, because I take care of him. Every day. And he, in his way, is taking care of me. If you are taking care of something, Elizabeth, one day you will discover that you love this creature and your life will be empty without it.” That story is a wonderful, understated metaphor for marriage, indeed for any relationship of any emotional significance. It connects with the notion of life as performance as well — the acting-as-living thing. Oleg Krupa is (or was) just right as Zhukov, perhaps the show's second strongest semi-regular after Derek Luke, whom I already miss terribly.

Still, though, doesn't it seem like some or all of these characters should have been kept around a while longer, and not just because they were so likable? I would have liked to have seen Zhukov say some of the things he said in flashback in the present-tense, to circa 1982 Elizabeth, just as I would have liked to have seen Stan and Amador develop their relationship in the present, rather than having a lot of the development occur around or after Amador’s death. I know it's a danger to speculate on a show different from the one you're watching, but surely some of you have the same worries? Let me know.

On the plus side, if you take away the flashback problem, which might not be a problem for some of you, this episode was another winner, taut and mordantly funny in the best Americans tradition. Writers Joshua Brand and Melissa James Gibson and director Nicole Kassell push away from the dominant mode of the last few weeks — a kind of Coen Brothers–like black-comedy noir in which people die because of misunderstood or partially understood or withheld information or unfortunate coincidence — and head toward more of a John Le Carre feeling of machinelike futility. Both the KGB and the American intelligence agencies are locked in a doom spiral of macho one-upsmanship, a chest-thumping tribal rage thing that turns the Cold War into a hot war, albeit one of necessarily limited scope.

It's fascinating how the Beeman and Jennings marriages fluctuate along the happiness continuum. When the show started, the Jenningses were at odds, with Elizabeth intensely loyal to the mother country and Phillip so enamored with life in the United States that he wanted to defect. Now the Beeman marriage is falling apart. Sandra's rage at Stan in the kitchen was the show's most intense domestic confrontation to date, a touch of Cassavetes in the middle of a cable network thriller; her realization that she'd been denying the obvious — her husband was having an affair and covering it up by calling it "work" — merged the show's espionage and domestic drama elements brilliantly. It's also fascinating that Phillip's seemingly cool acceptance of his separation from Elizabeth appears to have made Elizabeth reconsider her decision. Is it a case of absence making the heart grow fonder? Sure, but the fact that Phillip is getting much, much, much closer to one of his seduction targets, Martha — to the point of meeting her parents! — weighs on her as well. There's a part of her that would rather Phillip have a "sham" relationship with her than with some other woman. At least they already have a history. Plus, it sucks being a single mom, even if your "ex" stops in regularly and has the kids stay at his motel and eat "dinner" out of vending machines.

This was a terrific episode for Elizabeth and for Keri Russell, who got to play every note on the grief-and-rage keyboard, angling to kill Patterson, Zhukov's assassin, seducing him in a bar bathroom and beating the hell of him, then taking him to a warehouse and letting herself be talked out of eye-for-an-eye (she wouldn't let Phillip do the deed for her, either). Releasing this guy can't be a good thing. He was blindfolded, but he knows he was dealing with a man and a woman; the FBI is going to put the pieces together and figure out that so much of the espionage-related mayhem in D.C. is the work of a couple, and hey, look who's living across the street from the Beemans: a nice, ordinary couple who are out at odd hours and get weird bruises and scrapes and work at a travel agency that happens to employ a lot of Russians.

The Stan-Nina story has become increasingly fascinating as well. It's much more than an FBI-guy-falls-for-sexy-source story. Nina's a much tougher woman than we might have initially assumed from her damsel-in-distress introduction; she seems to be much better at compartmentalizing her real feelings for Stan than Stan is at compartmentalizing his feeling for Nina. As far as she's concerned, what happens in the safe house stays in the safe house. Stan's mind doesn't work that way. He seems to be treating Nina as an emotional safe harbor, a person/place he can run to rather than face his disintegrating marriage or the related PTSD of both Amador’s death and that as-yet-unspecified horror story involving the white supremacists in St. Louis. His urgency about extraditing her seems motivated by more than lust, love, or chivalry. There's an aspect of desperation as well. He felt powerless in the face of Amador’s kidnapping and murder; that's why he overcorrected horribly and exacted Old Testament vengeance on Nina's pal Vlad, a sweet young man who never wanted a KGB career and was talking about leaving the spy service to become a doctor. He wants and needs to have her exfiltrated, but the longer she stays at the consulate, the more important she becomes there, and the more trusted and influential she becomes, and the more valuable she is to the FBI as an asset. It's an impossible situation for all involved, just horrible; I really hope it doesn't end tragically, though things seem to be headed in that direction. And when Nina finally finds out that she's sleeping with the same guy who put a bullet through her friend's skull, well, that'll be an emotional wrinkle of a different sort.

Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/FX