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The Americans Recap: Partial Truths

THE AMERICANS -- "A Little Night Music" -- Episode 4 (Airs Wednesday, March 19, 10:00 PM e/p) -- Pictured: (L-R) Margo Martindale as Claudia, Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings -- CR: Patrick Harbron/FX

"Lying will not be tolerated," Philip Jennings told his rebellious daughter Paige in last week's episode  of The Americans. You have to be a good actor to say that with a straight face when you're into the sorts of things Philip is into. Philip is good enough to fool his various marks and he's certainly forceful enough to intimidate his teenage daughter, but he's not intimidating enough to stop her own comparatively unconvincing lies or deceptive behavior. Elizabeth's discovery this week of the real reason Paige snuck out (to attend a Bible study group introduced to her by a girl she met on the bus ride to Aunt Helen's last week) is a devastating blow for both parents. In expressing their anger, they have to concentrate on the basic act of deception (claiming to be one place when she was really somewhere else). They can't discuss the real reasons they're so upset: They feel guilty for neglecting Paige's discontent because they're overworked, forever rushing around committing crimes in the name of Mother Russia.

Neither Paige nor Henry has any clue what their parents are really up to, much less who they really are. They have no way of knowing how deep Elizabeth's disgust at religion runs because they don't know she was raised as an atheist in another country, on another continent, speaking a different language and living under a different name. This show is a layer cake of lies. And yet the characters who behave deceptively in the name of their jobs still have to be truthful in aspects of their private lives, and the parents among them have to instill some semblance of good values in their children. Under such circumstances, every move is a kind of hypocrisy.

Written by newly installed Americans co-producer Stephen Schiff, a film critic turned screenwriter, this week's installment was called "A Little Night Music," but despite lifting its title from a Stephen Sondheim musical, there was no singing; it was more of an homage to Sondheim's source, Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, which traced the romantic problems of several couples over the course of one evening, and was itself strongly influenced by Shakepeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream

We followed many pairings over the course of this episode, some romantic, others platonic. At the Soviet embassy, Oleg used his family connections to gain access to Nina's sexually explicit reports on her trysts with FBI agent Stan Beeman. This was the triumphant end to a personal mission that has always struck me as being more about Oleg's personal attraction to Nina than to any legitimate concern about the mother country. Oleg's monologue to Nina about how sexual body parts know only truth even when they're being deployed in service of lies would've seemed boldly flirtatious if he hadn't been looming over Nina, his big arm blocking her from leaving the room. Looped into all this Oleg-Nina business was Nina's boss, Arkady. He and Nina are one more couple, a platonic one. Arkady has grown professionally close to Nina and become a sort of mentor to her, forgiving her earlier betrayal of Russia after she converted it into double-agency by bedding down with Stan. 

Stan, meanwhile, is part of two couples. He's married to Sandra yet sleeping with Nina. He drunkenly confesses his adultery to Philip in a bar — a disclosure that will surely be used against him later — but it seems triggered by other events in his professional life: the fallout from his shooting of an assassin last week. The act should have won Stan a commendation (his first; tellingly, he received medals for his undercover work but never picked them up) but instead it triggered a joint House-Senate inquiry to learn why such a dangerous Soviet agent was allowed to roam freely through D.C. in the first place. Beeman's boss, Agent Gad, was superseded by another officer brought in from Atlanta. (I feel like we're being set up for a couple of mirrored subplots involving officers at the FBI and the Rezidentura: Gad and Arkady, both of whom are endangered by office intrigue and the actions of subordinates.)

Intriguingly, Stan isn't the only outwardly respectable character in this episode who's having an intense secret affair. There's also a dissident Russian Jew that the consulate wants abducted, as punishment for siding against them and out of fear that he'll help the Americans with submarine cloaking technology; as Philip tracks him, the man begins to seem like a kind of dopplegänger for Stan, and maybe for Phillip as well, who's embroiled in a secret marriage to Martha, who works as a secretary for Stan's boss at the FBI. (Judging from the arguments about the "lazy romantic morning" gone awry, it looks as though this plotline is about to be written out somehow.)

Let's back up to that moment between Stan and Philip in the bar, though, because it's indicative of one of this show's great talents: portraying the emotional domino effect that leads people to make a decision, commit an act of violence, or disclose a secret in one part of their life after suffering trauma in another. 

Stan reveals his affair with Nina (though he doesn't mention her name or occupation) only after talking to Philip about shooting that would-be assassin. It's clear from this scene and an earlier one between him and Gad that the act awakened old traumas from his undercover days, and somehow these feelings turned over and over inside him until he spat out the disclosure of his affair. It's as if he couldn't tell the whole truth about one thing (the shooting, or shootings, that he's been a part of), so he told a partial truth about something else (the affair). This is psychologically true to how human beings behave, and it's the sort of mental machination you rarely see depicted on TV. 

Something similar is happening with Elizabeth in this episode. Early on, she and Philip are surprised (as are we!) by the reappearance of their old boss Claudia (Margo Martindale; welcome back, old friend), who gives them what sounds suspiciously like an off-the-books mission: track down the assassin of Leanne and Emmett and their daughter. The probable assassin, she tells them, is a man named Andrew Larrick, who was being blackmailed by Emmett and Leanne for being gay (which can't have been an easy way to live if you're a Navy SEAL circa 1981, as this character apparently is). To get to Larrick, the Jennings will need to go through Brett Mullen, a seaman living in Down Neck. Philip volunteers to go because the young man is clearly a bookish type who offers "a lot of ways in," but Elizabeth insists on going herself. Why?

Initially, I think it's because she still feels tremendous guilt over the killings of Leanne and her family, and a sense of personal responsibility for Leanne's teenage son, an academically gifted young man who was about to go off to college. There's something strangely motherly about the way she flirts with Brett, who's almost young enough to be her own son, and I think it's also revealing that when he says he can't go through with stealing Larrick's file, rather than have some sort of intercourse with him, she gives him a hand job in the front seat of his car, as if (in some perverse way), she's trying to maintain boundaries. 

There's also a powerful transference going on when Elizabeth tells Brett that she wants the file in order to punish Larrick for raping her. Larrick did not rape her, of course; but Elizabeth was raped back in Russia, when she was about Brett's age, by a superior officer who fit the physical description of the Navy Seal she's going after in the present. When Elizabeth tells Brett about the anger and helplessness she felt as she was being attacked (stopping just short of providing physical details, just as Stan stops short of providing physical details of the shootings he's committed) she nearly breaks down. She's telling a lie, but she's also telling the truth: a classic Americans moment.

All the scenes between Elizabeth and Brett mix a strange maternal protectiveness with femme fatale manipulation and a bizarre eruption of self-therapy. It all coalesces in that final scene of Philip and Elizabeth trying to abduct the dissident and getting attacked by another male-female team of unknown assailants. Elizabeth's opponent is a hulking man who nearly gets the better of her. It's surely no accident that she finally gains the upper hand after he turns her around and pushes her against the car, in a position similar to the one she described to Brett (describing a made-up rape) and back in the pilot, to Philip (recalling her actual rape). She keeps bashing the guy's head over and over and over, to Philip's horror; it's clear to him, and probably to her, that there's something else going on besides a street fight. Philip and Elizabeth beat and killed Elizabeth's rapist in the pilot episode, of course, and it's worth remembering where Elizabeth's initial showdown with her assailant took place: in the Jennings' garage, in a close-quarters fistfight that occurred right next to a sedan very similar to the one that Elizabeth gets slammed against in the final scene of "A Little Night Music."

Photo: FX