The Americans aired its first great second-season episode last night, "The Walk-In." With its intricately arranged scenes of espionage and domestic distress, plus some characteristically clever use of flashbacks to beef up characters who were killed off before we really got a chance to know them, this was very close to a perfect hour, capped with one of the show's trademark Deep Cuts montages, this one set to Peter Gabriel's "Here Comes the Flood."
The episode also distributed its attention almost evenly between every major character — including Paige, who snuck away, hopped a bus, and went on a mission to locate Aunt Helen (a mysterious and undefined character who is most definitely not related to the Jennings).
The Aunt Helen business was one of the eerier one-episode subplots in the show's brief history. It crossed the domestic and spy aspects of the series in a series of moments that enriched Paige's character by deepening both her curiosity about her parents (the worst she can imagine is that one of them is having an affair, probably) and her own increased determination not to be defined by them. Paige is acting out in rebellion against the lies her parents have told her, lies she hasn't fully uncovered yet; by the episode's end, she's sneaking out to meet her new friend and confidant Kelly, whom she met on the bus to see Aunt Helen.
Paige's story is but one of several stories united by an obsession with official histories, cover stories, and the emotional consequences of a life defined by dishonest or corrupt authority figures. Nearly every major character is being pressured to do something fundamentally immoral in the name of some alleged greater good, including Stan and Nina (who are continuing to use each other, in a way that emotionally confuses both of them) to Philip and Elizabeth, who are increasingly afraid that their spy work will cause their kids to be killed, injured, or orphaned.
Bruce Dameran, the titular walk-in, is a Vietnam vet turned assassin whom Stan successfully tracks and kills off moments before he can finish his mission. Bruce is driven by all the lies he was told throughout his adult life, about everything from the United States' mission in Vietnam to the current activities of the World Bank. His last words are "Ronald Reagan lied to us!" an on-the-nose assertion of daddy-figure hatred if we've ever heard one.
Elizabeth and Philip are dealing with heavy guilt for living lives that put their kids in jeopardy. They probably always had to cope with a bit of this, but their anxiety has been amplified recently by the murder of their colleagues Emmett and Leanne, who were parents like them, and by an increased workload that has them running around like headless chickens and neglecting their own children's daily routines. Now they're terrified of losing the children they don't even have time to properly appreciate. “How are we going to live like this?” Elizabeth asks Philip early in the episode. “We’ll get used to it,” he said. “Like we got used to everything else.”
Elizabeth goes to visit the foster family that has taken in the sole surviving son of the massacre that claimed Emmet, Leanne, and their teenage daughter. We still don't know who perpetrated the killings or for what reasons. Elizabeth's relationship with Leanne is fleshed out in a series of flashbacks that start in Russia in 1966, with the women talking in a park, and continues through the late sixties in America (where Elizabeth decides to have sex with her then-sham husband, Phillip, setting them down the path toward nuclear family-hood), ending in a lovely shot during the closing montage of Elizabeth cradling the infant Paige, who'll be at her throat 15 years later.
It's chillingly appropriate that, when Phillip and Elizabeth visit the propeller factory to take illicit photos for their Soviet masters, the worker that Elizabeth intimidates with a crowbar subtly pleads for mercy by showing her pictures of his three sons. "They expect me home for supper," he says. "They must keep you on your feet," Elizabeth says. (Americans co-star Keri Russell has never been more menacing than she is in this sequence, putting her blank stare and porcelain doll face to truly intimidating use.) She spares the man's life, but I wouldn't be terribly surprised if this turned out to be a temporary reprieve; it would be ironic but appropriate if Elizabeth had to visit the same terrible fate on this warehouse worker that she fears will be visited on her own family.
Odds and Ends
- Intriguingly, Vietnam, the first "bad war" in American history that was widely recognized as such while it was going on, is a major presence in this episode. So are veterans such as Bruce Dameran and Agent Gadd, who were stereotyped as unhinged killers in '70s and '80s popular culture even as their mental health needs were underserved by the government.
- "You know, Salisbury steak is technically hamburger," Paige tells Elizabeth early in the episode, a perfect moment of teenage know-it-all-ism (teensplaining?), as well as yet another example of a thing being represented as something it really is not.