“We’re all spies,” Nina tells Stan near the end of “Behind the Red Door,” when he asks her if she has any idea how Oleg found out about the backstory of her becoming a double agent. Everybody on this show is a spy. They are also — if this is not a redundancy — actors. The Americans has always kept this at the forefront of its mind, but from the opening of season two, with its dual mentions of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, it became clear that performance would be a major theme this season. And it has been, arguably eclipsing what series creator Joe Weisberg and co-executive producer Joel Fields said would be the show’s focus: family.
Performance as an activity linking almost every major character: This was established in the shot that gives the episode its title. “Behind the Red Door” refers to the red door that Stan’s wife, Sandra, had freshly painted. Stan sees it for the first time returning home from his fateful meeting with Oleg. He contemplates it in a wide shot that makes him look like a pitiful giant in the frame. Then he opens the door and walks inside, the door framed left, and as he steps through it, the episode cuts to a reverse angle of an interior of Philip and Elizabeth’s house, where Elizabeth, herself an actress of Meryl Streep–level versatility, completes the action that Stan began, and comes home.
Things have gotten so complicated that you practically need a wall-size flow chart to keep track of everybody’s motivations and multiple identities. You’ve got agents becoming double agents becoming triple agents and being pressured to become quadruple agents. You’ve got people pretending to be other people and occasionally pretending to be yet additional people within that second identity. It’s a hall of mirrors in which everyone and everything reflects everyone and everything else. We have real people pretending to be fake people and carrying out treacherous agendas, but feeling real things as they perform, and feeling guilt and love while they perform.
The episode’s two peak moments were both intimate scenes between couples. One was that incredible self-contained scene in which Lucille, the young field agent being inadvertently mentored by Elizabeth, kills off her mark, the drug-addicted aide to a congressman, by giving him tainted heroin. She is only doing her duty and carrying out orders, assigned by Elizabeth. But even though she’s a good actress, she felt affection for the aide — but not so much that she lost her nerve and couldn’t go through with it. As he chokes to death, she cradles him in her arms and shushes him like a baby. “Think about Doris,” she says, referring to his mother. “Think about how much you love her.” (In this same episode, the Beemans discuss the recent death by heroin overdose of John Belushi. That’s some Mad Men-level history-as-foreshadowing there, Americans!)
The other great scene is the sex scene between Elizabeth and Philip, who has come home from a night out as Clark, the husband of FBI secretary Martha. Whenever any character on this show talks with another character about the roles they play, they wander into pronoun quicksand. “Would Clark ever be unfaithful?” Elizabeth asks. Elizabeth, intrigued by Martha’s comment last week that Clark is a “animal” in bed, decides she wants to see that animal in a different controlled environment. She asks him to keep his glasses and wig on during sex, expecting a complete transformation that will add some spice to their marriage. But he’s not doing anything different, as it turns out: Martha apparently has a different definition of “wild” than Elizabeth does. Afterwards, Clark/Philip removes his wig and glasses and stares at himself in the bathroom mirror. Who, we wonder, is he seeing? (“Behind the Red Door” is, of course, a joke on the title of one of the big surprise hit films of the 1970s, Behind the Green Door, a porno.)
Oleg, the most devious new regular in the cast, really opened up a Pandora’s box when he threatened Stan last week. He seems nearly as enamored with America as Philip, but his particular brand of ruthlessness is very American. One of the episode’s funniest sight-gags is Oleg pausing in a hallway in profile in front of a huge portrait of V.I. Lenin, as if to invite us to compare the two and laugh. “I have my own job with my own problems,” Oleg tells Stan in a secret meeting early in the episode. He pressures Stan to fetch the FBI surveillance logs covering his three months in the United States — the better, perhaps, to gain a tactical upper hand on his boss, Arkady, who doesn’t have that kind of inside juice.
It seems like he was pushing Stan to become a double agent, just as Stan and his FBI handlers had convinced Stan’s lover Nina to become a double agent months earlier. Stan would not be in such a precarious position had he not killed one of Nina’s associates, forcing his colleagues to cover for him and sparking a joint House and Senate subcommittee hearing that dragged Stan’s boss Gad out of the office. In this episode, he turns to Gad for help, visiting him in his home for what seems to be the first time. “My source at the rezidentura has been compromised,” Stan tells Gad. But Stan is too late in trying to lean on their friendship, because there is no friendship. “I am about to be called before a congressional committee to testify about the shit you pulled,” Gad says to him. “Don’t tell me anything else that I don’t need to hear.” Stan says he’s worried that Nina is in over her head. “Has it occurred to you that you might be the one in over your head?” Gad replies.
Everybody is in over their heads on this show. Not even guest-stars are allowed the luxury of being content or complacent. Andrew Larrick, the Navy SEAL accused by Claudia of the hit-squad-style murder of Emmett and Leanne, is living two secret lives: as a closeted gay man involved in cruising, and as a Soviet agent whose sexual orientation leaves him wide open for blackmail. (Larrick is played by Lee Tergesen, who was the tormented Tobias Beecher on Oz.) Despite these points of vulnerability, he doesn’t scare easily; even when Philip and Elizabeth impersonate U.S. government agents and interview/threaten him about his alleged killings, he barely bats an eyelash. Later, when Philip spots him having sex with a guy in the alley behind a nightclub, he is similarly nonchalant. “You’re not CIA,” he says to Philip-in-disguise. “I had my doubts.”
Two lingering questions were answered in “Behind the Red Door.” One was: What the hell is Claudia’s deal? It turns out she’s not acting when she says that her interest in catching Emmett and Leanne’s killers is personal. In one of the show’s more surprising and welcome revelations, we find out that Claudia blames herself for the married KGB agents’ murder. She “got involved with someone” because “[she] was lonely” and might have inadvertently left enough dots for the killer to connect. She’s worried that something similarly horrible might happen again, and give her yet another thing to feel horrendously guilty about. This is a lovely twist, not just because it deepens (and softens) the ruthless Stalingrad survivor whom we met last season, but also because it gives Margo Martindale the chance to play the classic cliché of the lovelorn agent who let her heart veto her brain. Intriguingly, a number of other Americans regulars are in this same position, or fear they are: Elizabeth (with Gregory), Nina and Stan (with each other), and Lucille (with Carl).
The other answered question is: What’s the big real-world historical development that the Soviets and the Americans are fighting over? Last season, it was the seeds of what would later be known as the “Star Wars” missile-defense program. In this season, it’s the Reagan administration’s intervention into Central America, specifically Nicaragua, the focus of many conversations in “Behind the Red Door.” The covert action is what Elizabeth is seeking to uncover when she strong-arms Lucille into seducing Carl in his boss’s office; there’s an amusingly cheeky cutaway from Carl mounting Lucille on the congressman’s desk to a portrait of Ronald Reagan hanging on the wall, practically an invitation to write your own joke involving the words Republicans and screwed.
Elizabeth is so emotionally vulnerable in this episode, particularly in her sex scenes with Philip, that we may be tempted to overlook her incredibly cold-blooded behavior towards Lucille. First, she pressures her to kick her drug-focused relationship with Carl up a notch with sex, and then, she all but orders her to kill Carl, to choke off any investigative trail that might lead back to them. Is it just me, or does Elizabeth, in this episode, exhibit characteristics that scary people might call “leadership qualities”? Claudia, who was in charge of the field agents last year, now seems scared, almost broken, as sensitive to other people’s hurt as you would think Lucille would be. But Elizabeth, not Claudia’s official replacement, steps in to fill the void. She seems very much the dark-mother figure as she guides Lucille to embrace her inner spook. “You first,” Lucille tells Carl as she offers him the fatally tainted heroin. “I like to watch.”
Before Lucille starts talking to Elizabeth in the car, she raises her fist in solidarity, as if attending a meeting of the junior diplomats club at university. There’s no question that Elizabeth, for all her past and present trouble, sees a bit of her younger self in Lucille, including the younger woman’s combination of idealism and strategic viciousness. In the scene between the two women in the car, Lucille states her ideals and starts to say what she wants. Elizabeth completes the sentence, but with a facetious tone of voice: “A world without exploitation, and dignity for all.” “Do you think it’s just a dream?” Lucille replies. We could quote Elizabeth’s answer word-for-word here, but it’s better just to refer you again to that shot of the rapidly westernizing playboy fixer, Oleg, posing mid-swagger in front of Lenin.
ODDS AND ENDS
- They’re really getting Black Ops-y with the Nicaragua stuff. Larrick is part of a “contra-training team,” putting his Navy SEAL skills to new use. The aftermath of Vietnam, and the frightening intelligence operations carried out in that war’s name, is sort of a third, shadow subject of season two. When Stan goes to the home of Gad, previously established as a decorated Vietnam vet, we learn that his wife is Asian — Vietnamese, we assume. Over their mantel is a shrine to a young Asian man who, at this point, we can assume is their son. I would not be surprised if we later discovered that Gad’s skittishness about covert ops and off-the-books operations comes from his war experience, and that his son died as a result of his involvement in such activities.
- We learned that the Vietnam veteran Larrick flipped for the KGB in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1978, as if to make the natural segue from CIA shenanigans in Vietnam to CIA shenanigans in Central and South America, seamless rhetorically as well as geographically.
- “I’m finished,” Nina tells Stan when he fills her in on Oleg’s blackmail scheme. “With you?” “With all of this.” Does that mean she’s broken up with Stan? Probably, and if so, good for her. I’d hate to see her end up chained to a steam pipe, like the dissident at the end of last week’s episode, “The Deal.”
- Lucille’s line, “You first … I like to watch,” is worth repeating because it ties in with Nina’s subsequent quote, “We are all spies.”
- Hilarious joke at the expense of primitive ’80s technology that seemed cool at the time: When Stan goes to retrieve Oleg’s file, the file-room clerk excitedly prints him out a copy by pressing a button on his desktop computer. The whine and screech of that dot matrix printer brought back many memories for this writer, none of them especially soothing.