The Americans Recap: Games Without Frontiers

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

I love how The Americans isolates and magnifies true feelings in dishonest situations. The best example came last week, when Philip, in disguise as “Clark,” married the FBI secretary Martha in the company of “in-laws” played by his actual wife, Elizabeth (posing as Clark’s sister), and his boss Claudia (as Clark’s mom).  It was an I Love Lucy-worthy scenario, patently absurd. But as the vows were exchanged, I still felt a bit of that knee-jerk sentimentality one often feels at weddings: Best of luck, Martha and guy pretending to be Clark! When Elizabeth, who’d never had a proper wedding ceremony with Philip and felt pangs of regret throughout, asked him if thought their union wouldn’t have collapsed if they’d exchanged vows, the moment was so poignant that you almost (almost!) forgot that the disguises made Phillip and Elizabeth look like missing members of Mama’s Family.

Last night’s season finale had many moments like that. My favorite was Philip calling his neighbor, FBI agent Stan Beeman, on the phone to ask if he could please watch their kids while he and Elizabeth left town to visit an injured aunt. The fatherly solidarity Stan displayed toward Philip rang true. The understated affection in both men’s voices was touching enough to make me forget the real reason they were going out of town: because Elizabeth had been shot in an aborted surveillance-tape pickup, very possibly with a bullet fired from Stan’s gun.

So many scenes in The Americans have this emotional pretzel-logic quality, including that priceless bit where Stan comes back to the love nest to tell Nina that the mission failed and she won’t be exfiltrated after all. Nina’s acting ability lives up to her boss’ praise as she makes Stan think she’s disappointed when she’s secretly relieved. The woman hugging Stan is plausible as a heartbroken damsel in distress, and I felt that there was something authentic in her fakery, as if she were briefly grieving for her old self; but beneath the façade beat the heart of a born double-agent who might spend season two plumbing Stan for state secrets under false pretenses, just as Philip/Clark is doing with Martha. (She still doesn’t know for sure that Stan murdered her friend Vlad, though on some level she must suspect.)

The finale leaves many stories unresolved, but in a good way leaves the writers some maneuvering room in season two. Elizabeth will need time to recover from her gunshot wound, and we don’t know precisely how or when her marriage will heal. But at least the trauma brought her and Phillip closer together; the pain shattered her this-woman-is-an-island stoicism and forced her to reach out to her husband after surgery and invite him home. (She asked in Russian, which twinned the question with that wonderful scene of Elizabeth in the basement listening to a cassette tape recorded by the mother she left behind in Russia.) Nina is in place as a double agent, pretending to be pretending to be loyal to Stan while serving the motherland and ascending the professional ladder at the consulate. Stan’s marriage is still on the rocks, so mangled by his furtive behavior and aloofness that Sandra refused to accept his peace offering of a tropical getaway. We aren’t quite sure what will become of Claudia, who was forced to fill out a 27-page document after the Jenningses wrote Moscow requesting her reassignment. (She’s in dramatic limbo for extra-dramatic reasons: Margo Martindale has been cast in Will Arnett’s new sitcom, currently awaiting pickup by CBS.)

“The Colonel” wasn’t on the level of the season’s best episodes (my picks are “Gregory” and “Only You”) but it was consistently terrific, laying out enormous amounts of relevant plot information while still keeping the characters’ emotional through-lines in sight. The scenes of Philip and Elizabeth arguing about who will pick up the nonexistent Weinberger-Baker tape and who will meet with the Colonel articulate two complex, intertwined missions without forgetting what the conversations are really about: which of the parents should stay behind if only one can survive. Elizabeth insists Philip should pick up the tapes (the less dangerous mission, in theory) because the kids like him better. Philip defers to her status as mother, as any good Russian boy would. In the end, Phillip acts like the stereotypical daddy, making an executive decision for both of them and going to meet with the colonel. We can never know if Phillip would have lived, died or ended up in custody if he’d gone after the tape instead of meeting with the colonel, but it seems to me that if he hadn’t put Elizabeth in that situation, and then “rescued” her, she wouldn’t have gotten shot. Ah, the irony.

The episode is filled with parallels between individuals and couples. I already mentioned the way Nina’s deception with Stan mirrors Philip/Clark’s deception of Martha, and the mirroring of two wobbly marriages (Stan/Sandra and Philip/Elizabeth) is a factor, too. But my favorite bit of mirroring is the way that both Stan and Claudia act independently on instinct, and get results because their bosses trust them. Stan thinks Prince is hiding something and will be begging to confess and cut a deal if they just leave him alone in the interrogation room for a while; Stan’s boss, Agent Gadd, trusts him and is glad he did. Likewise, Claudia’s long history in the KGB tells her that the FBI is setting up a trap, even though she can’t rationally explain why. Arkady comes around to her point-of-view, but only after Nina gives him information that she got from Stan. He marks KGB cars with a makeshift “abort” symbol (via spray paint can) and turns what might have been an intelligence disaster into a mere bloody comedy of errors, thereby preserving his job.*

Bottom line: “The Colonel” rings down the curtain on a strong first season of The Americans, maybe the best freshman outing I’ve seen since season one of Homeland. As on Homeland, there were bum scenes and questionable plot twists along the way, a bit of good-enough-for-Soviet-government-work dialogue, and moments where it felt as though the series was retroactively spackling characterization gaps (building the deaths of both Zhukov and Chris Amador around personality-deepening flashbacks feels more like cheating the more I think about it). I sincerely hope that The Americans doesn’t crater as Homeland did, but I doubt that it will, for one big reason: where Homeland’s first season hinged mainly on a relationship between two specific characters, Carrie and Brody, in a specific situation (hunter and hunted in love), The Americans is primarily about the idea of partnership, marriage but also mentorship, friendship and professional camaraderie. It’s at once more thematically specific and more dramatically wide-ranging than Homeland. As a result, it feels at once more rooted and more free.

Odds and ends

* I laughed when Philip/Clark finishes going down on Martha, then instantly puts his glasses back on. The show still hasn’t addressed whether the wigs are glued on firmly enough to withstand hair-pulling sex, but maybe they’ll get to that in season two.

* The park bench conversation between The Colonel and Phillip set my faux-hindsight alarm bells ringing. That Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defense system was a gambit to trick the Soviet Union into spending itself into bankruptcy didn’t become common wisdom until the mid-‘90s, after the USSR had gone the way of hoop skirts and the dodo.

* The scenes between Claudia and Elizabeth have been fascinating and often bitterly funny, and if Margo Martindale leaves The Americans for a CBS sitcom, we won’t get to see any more of them. If this is her last episode, at least she’ll have gone out on a high note. The coffee shop scene between her and Keri Russell was terrifically acted, and the dialogue was choice, too. I love Claudia telling Elizabeth that she worried that the agency was “in danger of losing you, and whether you see it or not, I’m right.” Elizabeth’s response is as funny as it is overconfident: “I’m surprised they gave you this job when you have no understanding of people at all.”

* Claudia’s revenge-murder of Richard Patterson, Zhukov’s assassin, was one of the show’s more chilling acts of violence to date. Paralyzing a guy for twenty minutes, then nicking his jugular and informing him he’ll bleed out in ten, and using that time to deliver a self-justifying monologue? That’s as cold as the Siberian work camp Claudia might end up in if that reassignment goes through.

* I like Arkady more after this episode because he’s got the practical mentality of a good leader. He proves it by seeing past Nina’s confessed betrayal to think about why she was able to pull it off, then use those talents on the KGB’s behalf instead of punishing and neutering her. “If you were able to fool us this long,” he says, “I believe you might be quite effective with the American.” (Meaning Stan.) “The ultimate goal is to turn him,” he adds. “I don’t think he can be turned,” Nina replies. We’ll see if Stan is, as Arkady puts it, “weaker and more vulnerable than he seems.” I think he is, mainly because Noah Emmerich’s performance does such a good job of hinting at the irreparable psychic damage and soul-deep loneliness that lurk under Stan’s laid-back, gung-ho attitude.

* The Americans has the best pop soundtrack on TV. Period. Closing out the season with Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers” was a masterstroke.

* This recap previously stated that Arkady decided to abort the mission as a result of Claudia's doubt.