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The Americans Recap: When to Hold, Fold Them

THE AMERICANS -- "The Deal"

“The Deal,” the fifth episode of The Americans’ second season, is one of the greats. Running longer than normal and giving every major character plenty to do, it could have been titled “Quartets.” Written by Angelina Burnett and directed by Daniel Attias, it boasted more plot than some shows pack into a season, yet it was all not just intelligible, but fascinating. 

One story followed Elizabeth as she closed off her relationship with Brad, the young Navy seaman whom she had convinced to steal the files of a Navy SEAL who could lead her to the assassins of Emmett and Leanne. The second story line found Philip in an abandoned restaurant with a Mossad hitman who had interrupted his and Elizabeth’s kidnapping of Anton Baklanov, a dissident Russian Jewish scientist. The third plotline, centered on the FBI, saw Stan Beeman enlisting the help of previously pushed-out Agent Gad to find Anton. The search was triggered by a note in Anton’s file stating that if anything suspicious happened to him, it should be investigated. Gad quickly deduced that he wasn’t there to push papers around, but to use his contacts at the Department of Defense to dig deeper. The fourth plot was a triangle of sorts, focusing on Stan’s mistress Nina, her boss Arkady, and Arkady’s ambitious second-in-command, Oleg, at the Russian Embassy. These interwoven roundelays came to fruition in an unexpectedly intimate final stretch that pulled the show’s possessive, constant fascination with lies and role-playing into the spotlight.

Let’s talk about the Russians first. As we’ve discussed in previous recaps, the Nina-Stan relationship is one of the show’s most complicated. Nina started out as a double agent, feeding information to Stan, then became his lover, then a triple agent; her promotion at the end of last season added another complication: Arkady knows about her previous betrayal, but has conspired to keep it out of the official record because he values her as an asset and likes her as a person. Oleg, who’s both opportunistic and keenly observant, seems to instantly sense that there is something more to Stan and Nina’s relationship than what he read in her official reports; he was only able to gain access to those reports by working his family connections back home, and getting his security clearance bumped up a notch.

In one of the episode’s tensest scenes, Oleg confronts Nina in a hallway at the Embassy and tells her what he knows about her, both from perusing her file and from watching her and Arkady and connecting the dots. He knows that she and Stan are in a sexual relationship that probably goes beyond asset and target. He knows from reading her file that Stan recruited her, but is intrigued by the fact that the file doesn’t say what Stan recruited her for. And he knows that Nina suspects that Vlad Kosygyn, the man who used to sit at Oleg’s desk, was probably murdered by Stan as part of the FBI-KGB “hot war” that flared up near the end of season one.

Near the end of “The Deal,” the KGB and the Mossad work out the details of a swap, trading Anton for one half of the Israeli abduction team that Elizabeth and Philip broke up (a man who spent much of this episode in Philip’s custody). Oleg, already an intriguing character, becomes a great one in this episode, showing off new skills and an even more ruthless sensibility. He leads the FBI surveillance team on a false chase that ends with him standing face-to-face on the dock with Stan. After talking him into dropping his weapon — no easy feat if you’re facing an FBI agent and speaking in a Russian accent — we realize Oleg’s true motive of insisting that he be a part of the prisoner swap; he wanted to get a look at Stan and see him as a person, not just a name and a file. Why? Here’s a theory: I don’t think Oleg is motivated solely by political ambition within the department. I think he’s in love with Nina. I think he’s jealous of Stan. That’s why he threatens to expose her as an asset of Stan’s (“What can you give me in exchange for Nina’s safety?”), but doesn’t say exactly what will happen if Stan refuses. I haven’t seen next week’s episode as of this writing, so I offer this in the spirit of blind speculation, knowing that I could be totally off base, but: I wouldn’t be hugely surprised if Oleg leveraged his knowledge of Stan and Nina to get Nina to sleep with him.

Related: I found it fascinating that, after Oleg hassles Nina, her next move is to tell Stan about the tension between Arkady and Oleg at the Embassy. I don’t think this is a case of a Russian agent giving an FBI agent a piece of “useful” information that may or may not actually be useful. She may also be protecting herself. Arkady is on her side, and Oleg is, at this point, at least an adversary, and potentially a future exploiter. By hipping Stan to the battle of wills between these two men, she sets the stage to somehow undermine Oleg, or at least protect herself.

Elizabeth gets a prime piece of narrative real estate in this episode; in fact, looking back on it, I’d say that this might be more her episode than anyone’s. After leaving Philip and the captured Mossad agent, she goes over to the home of Martha, her husband’s secret wife. She’s there to talk Martha out of listing Clark (Philip) as her husband on an application for transfer to a different government post; she argues that it would jeopardize him, but of course she really means it would jeopardize Philip and Elizabeth. This section of the episode takes a fascinating dogleg when Elizabeth gets a little bit lost inside the role of “Jennifer,” Clark’s sister. If there were an Academy Award for outstanding performance in the improvised role of a nonexistent sister, Elizabeth/Jennifer would win it (I’m going to refer to Philip and Elizabeth as “Clark and Jennifer” for a while here, so that I don’t confuse myself!). Martha covers for Clark by buttressing his deception. Addressing Martha’s anger over not being able to find Clark, Jennifer says that his falling off the map is “just so typical Clark” and he’s been doing it for years. Their (nonexistent) family even has a phrase to describe this behavior: “pulling a Clark.” “He’s like that with everybody,” she says.

After they get a few drinks in them, the talk turns to Clark and Martha’s sex life, and it’s at this point that The Americans’ playful affinity for domestic sitcom shenanigans comes into view. “He’s an animal,” Martha tells Jennifer. “In the sack, he just makes me his.” Keri Russell’s reactions at this moment are glorious: She is aghast in a way that could be interpreted as a sister’s embarrassment at getting Too Much Information about her brother, but what she’s actually thinking is probably something more along the lines of, Where is this animal Martha is describing, and why haven’t I seen him lately? 

Elizabeth has another meaty subplot in this episode, dealing with the seaman Brad and his files. The scene at the Norfolk pier very subtly evokes The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the 1981 film adaptation of John Fowles’s novel that figured prominently in this season's premiere episode. The pier, the seagulls, and the framing of the “lovers” in wide shot evoke the seawall of Fowles’ book and Karel Reisz’s movie; they may also remind fans of the film of its meta-fictional subtext, the theatrical artifice of acting and the tendency of actors to identify with their roles to the point where they find truth within the lies of drama and use true moments drawn from their own lives to sell that same drama. Brad, no dummy, probably already knew when he arrived on the pier that he would get a gentle kiss-off as well as a kiss. Elizabeth, playing her second assumed role in this episode, confirms that this is indeed good-bye, thanks Brad for getting her the file that she will theoretically use to prosecute the Navy SEAL who raped her, and explains that she would love to have a relationship with him, but she’s afraid that she could not reciprocate any love he showed to her. “It’s taking me a while to start feeling things again,” she says to him. “I’m not gonna see you again, am I?” he asks. “I don’t have anything to give you,” she replies. “I wish that I did.” There is a truth within her lie, I think: Remember that in last week’s episode, Elizabeth described her character’s nonexistent rape at the hands of this Navy SEAL by drawing on her own true experience being raped as a young trainee back in Moscow some fifteen years earlier. I think that Elizabeth is telling a kind of truth here. I think she’s talking about her own coldness as a woman, that chilly detachment that we sense in her even when she is doing her best to exude the warmth that we expect of a wife or a mother. I think that Elizabeth, or her character, legitimately wishes that she could have feelings for this young man.

And — here I go overreaching again, but bear with me — it occurs to me that when she’s with Brad, she’s playing a woman her own age who is behaving like a much younger one, radiating that slightly hesitant, demure, unsteady quality that attractive but inexperienced younger women often have. When I look at the two of them together, I wonder if this is a fantasy of the normal relationship that Elizabeth might have had long ago, if she had met a man like this when she was his age, if she hadn’t entered into a sham marriage, if she hadn’t been raped during training. An actor friend once told me that the appeal of the job was ultimately very simple: for a certain period of time, the actor gets to escape their own troubles and imagine another life.

Philip, of course, got to do exactly that when he moved to America with Elizabeth under an assumed identity as an American travel agent. Like Elizabeth, he’s an actor playing a part for long stretches of his waking life, and sometimes playing roles within that role.

I mentioned the callback to Elizabeth’s memory of her rape, as explained in the pilot. There’s another prominent callback to the pilot in this episode: Philip’s love of country music. A lot of fans of The Americans fell in love with the show during that great pilot moment when Philip started spontaneously doing a solo dance in cowboy boots to Juice Newton’s “Queen of Hearts” in a department store. The opening sequence of “The Deal” invokes country music again, but this time Philip is furtively trudging down the street with Elizabeth, escorting the battered Mossad agent to the makeshift safe house. They pass a bar full of drunken revelers. We can hear Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler” playing from a jukebox. The cops stop them, saying they’ve heard gunshots in the area (part of the scuffle between the KGB and the Mossad), and the Mossad agent breaks the tension by drunkenly singing along to “The Gambler.” I don’t want to oversell the notion of a Kenny Rogers song as a metaphor, but what the hell: The song’s famous refrain says, “You gotta know when to hold them / Know when to fold them,” and in this brief moment, what are Elizabeth, Philip, and the Israeli doing? They’re bluffing.

The Mossad agent runs a classic game on Philip: get to know your captor. He quickly figures out Philip’s psychological pressure points and proceeds to jab and needle them. And even though Philip is both emotionally and physically very tough, you can tell that the captive is eating away at him. The Israeli is succeeding in humanizing himself, and in the process, getting Philip to realize things that perhaps hadn’t been at the forefront of his mind before, such as the fact that he kind of misses Russia. (What? DC’s not cold enough for him?) The ploy is so effective that Philip ends up getting in a bruising close-quarters fight with the agent after allowing him too much physical space during a bathroom break. “Sorry,” the agent says after Philip slams him against a wall and regains control. “You know I had to try.” 

The same ploy repeats itself at the end of the episode, when Philip drives Anton to the drop-off point. Anton, desperate to avoid being shipped back to the motherland he despises, fires every emotional arrow in his quiver at Philip, not knowing that Philip has only recently been through this same process back at the safe house. “What a nice bed you have to sleep in at night,” Anton says to him, after breaking down in tears in the car. “It’s not too late for me to kill you,” Philip replies. “Your name isn’t your name, is it?” he asks Philip. “Is your face your face?  Are your children your children?” And: “You’re obeying orders just like Eichmann … you are a monster … no feeling, no humanity. You might as well be dead.” 

The interactions between Philip and the Israeli, and then between Philip and Anton, remind us that Philip’s American façade is exactly that. He is a more evolved and probably more highly trained version of the man he’s holding hostage until the details of the KGB prisoner swap can be worked out. “I’m bronze, not platinum,” the Mossad agent says. “Not like you. I go home for Passover. I sing Country Western with an accent. I hide what I do. I don't hide what I am.” 

The episode’s final scene between Elizabeth and Philip at home — or maybe I should say “home” — was beautifully simple, with terse, on-point dialogue delivered in a plain medium shot of the two lying on a sofa, exhausted. “I spent the evening with your wife,” Elizabeth says. “Clark has some explaining to do.” Philip’s response: “I’ll let him know.” This is the most playful acknowledgment yet of The Americans’ endlessly fruitful study of role-playing, in espionage, in marriage, in work, and in parenthood. It wasn’t “I” who talked to Philip’s wife; it was “Jennifer” who talked to “Clark’s” wife. But actors often describe their characters’ actions by saying “Then I do this, then I say that,” so it all fits, or perhaps I should say it works as an amusing Freudian slip. It’s also another acknowledgment of just how close to farce the show’s plotlines get. “You’ve got some ‘splainin to do,” is, of course, what Cuban bandleader Ricky Ricardo used to say to his wife on I Love Lucy after one of her wacky plans had fallen apart. The Americans is a clever thriller and an intelligent domestic drama, but it is also, in its own way, a situation comedy about the misadventures of a wacky couple with a license to kill.

Odds and Ends

  • I love how Oleg is photographed on The Americans: often from low angles or in over-the-shoulder shots that emphasize his height and his railroad spike physique. He doesn’t just stand next to anyone; he’s always looming.
  • The multiple car surveillance sequence was vintage '70s cop movie cool. The choreography of the cars leaving or joining the low-speed pursuit with clockwork precision gives you a sense of how an operation like this might actually be carried out.
  • I like how the safe house scenes reveal a bit of what seems like reflexive anti-Semitism in Philip. Mocking his Yiddish consonants in his “Gambler” sing-along, he says, “What are you? The Kenny Rogers of Tel Aviv?” Anton, the refusenik professor, is himself Jewish, one of many Russian Jews suffering the sting of ingrained anti-Semitism by Russian gentiles. This business pays off with Anton’s Eichmann reference. The banality of evil wears cowboy boots.
  • A nice touch: Near the end of the episode, there’s a cut from Arkady at the Russian Embassy listening to a radio broadcast saying that the Soviet Union has given 1,500 Russian Jews permission to emigrate to Israel. The announcer calls this “a sign that the Soviet Union is changing its stance on human rights.” Then the episode immediately cuts to a wide shot of Anton being exfiltrated back to Russia in the belly of a cargo ship, handcuffed to a steam pipe.
  • Nice fleeting moment between Stan and his wife Sandra: He asks her what she’s drawing, and she says it’s part of “her self-help regimen.” “Drawing helps you find the parts of your soul you’ve lost,” she tells him. She says this is part of “soul retrieval,” which you could say is the activity that all of these deceptive and tortured characters are engaged in, whether they realize it or not.
  • “What are you reading?” Elizabeth demands of her snooping daughter Paige. “Don’t worry, it’s not the Bible,” she replies.
Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/FX