The Americans Recap: Silent Running

Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/FX
The Americans
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The Americans was oh so quiet this week, oh so still. There were no shouting matches, no pops of gunfire on military bases, and no spy-business set pieces unfolding to the blast of intense music by Pete Townshend. This one was mostly talk, a series of conversations that easily could have taken place in a library without eliciting a single “Shhh!” It was low-key, but in an effectively unsettling way, the calm before the last two episodes of the season, which may bring a serious storm to the Jennings family.

The episode was called “Stealth,” named, of course, for that U.S. military program designed to keep aircraft not just under the radar, but completely invisible from it. That name was apropos of the action and the tone in this edition of The Americans, too. The entire hour — fine, hour and six minutes — was full of the sense that something was going on beneath every surface, that many of the characters were, in a way, coating themselves in radar-absorbent material. Just say that word: stealth. It sounds like something that must be whispered, a secret that must be kept.

Even the one killing that occurred in this episode — Larrick’s offing of Kate — happened quickly and in practically hushed tones. On the list of top five quietest homicides in TV history, surely that one ranks in third place, at least. With her mouth gagged and Larrick so efficiently doing his neck-breaking business with so little warning, there was no time for the sound of screams or struggle. For the SEAL on a revenge mission, it was just: I got the codes, I don’t need you, neck-snap-good-bye. At least he was kind enough to compliment Kate’s job performance before he murdered her. Sadly, Claudia 2.0 did not live to receive the kind of formal commendation that Stan Beeman did. (“Way to kill people, Stan! Here’s a certificate! Love, the FBI.”)

Kate did last long enough to do one thing: write that code on that roll of toilet paper. Wait ... she’s the one who did that, didn’t she? Or was it Larrick, who had cracked that same code just before he caused Kate’s cervical fracture? At first I thought the former. Then I went, “No, wait a second: Larrick!” Now I’m back to thinking it was Kate, who made such a deliberate decision to remove the paper from the roll — a decision the camera pointedly focused on — that it seems clear she was the one responsible. I think. I don’t know, I could still be wrong about that. See what I mean? Everything is so {{whisper voice}} stealth.

The coded message itself was at least clear: “Get Jared out.” If Larrick was the one who wrote it, that means it’s a trap meant to ensnare Elizabeth and Philip, killers of Larrick’s soldier comrades. If Kate wrote it, that seems to confirm what Kate’s pizza-place meeting with Jared implied: that the son of the late Emmett and Leanne Connors knew who his parents really were. Third option: It was a message Kate left, and that Larrick also knew she had left, so it means both things. (Option four: My head hurts.)

Clearly Elizabeth was spooked by both her conversation with Jared — in which he noted that Stan had told him to get in touch if anything “suspicious” happens — and her view of the Kate-Jared encounter. “She hadn’t done anything to make herself look any different to him,” Elizabeth told Philip, referring to Kate. “She was just herself.” (Unspoken subtext of Elizabeth’s comment: “She wasn’t stealth.” Second subtext of Elizabeth’s comment: “Why would she show up for a meeting without a hideous wig and not-really-face-altering glasses? Sigh. Some people just don’t want to do the work.”)

If we assume that Jared knew who both Kate and his parents were, then it seems fair to conclude that he might know who Elizabeth is, too, and that he also knows he’s supposed to protect her identity. But that’s still an assumption; the writers were purposely ambiguous throughout this entire episode about exactly who knows what and at what point they will reveal it, which gave both the kitchen scene between Elizabeth and Jared and the subsequent kitchen scene between Philip and Stan the weight of nervous expectation. At any moment, it seemed like Jared or Stan might suddenly look at Elizabeth or Philip and declare: “I know exactly who you are.” That didn’t happen. But the scent of that possibility is really filling the air on The Americans right now, in a way that makes me nervous and consistently satisfied by the storytelling. This show was good from the get-go, but has become awe-inspiring in its ability to keep getting deeper and better.

Also continuing to fill the air on The Americans, as it has all season: reminders of fractured homes and children torn away from their parents. When Vasili Nikolaevich noted that Anton was adjusting nicely to his new reality — Anton, you’ll remember, is the physicist who got dragged out of America and back to Russia — Anton made a point of reminding Vasili that he remains separated from his only son. When the cancer-stricken John Skeevers (a moving and authentically frail Željko Ivanek) sat down to dig into the soup that Philip the Fake Vietnam Vet had brought him, the first question he asked was, “You got kids?” Then he offered this advice: “Leave them something instead of heartache,” as if the potential for Philip to be separated from his children sometime soon is predestined. And then there’s Jared, a son obviously permanently torn from his parents and whose safety seems precarious, if only because he was so conspicuously holding an orange — that vitamin-C-filled harbinger of doom — during his conversation with Big Glasses Elizabeth.

Homes being broken into or intruded upon has been a recurring theme throughout this season, too, from Philip’s break-in at Fred Timbrook’s, to Paige’s unannounced visit to Aunt Helen’s, to Henry’s Intellivision invasion at the neighbor’s house, to this week, when Larrick and, later, Philip and Elizabeth burst into Kate’s apartment to do some poking around. Given the presence of all of these repeating plot points and motifs, it’s becoming increasingly impossible to imagine an end-of-season-two scenario that doesn’t involve the rupturing of the Jennings family unit.

Which is why I became especially nervous for Paige after Elizabeth gave her permission to go to that anti-nukes rally in Pennsylvania. That decision provided a fascinating window into Elizabeth’s distaste for having children who are truly Americanized. That’s why she stood firm and forbid Paige to go that summer church camp, where she assumed her daughter would be “indoctrinated.” But as soon as Paige said that she and her Jesus friends wanted to protest U.S. defense policy, Elizabeth was 100 percent onboard. In essence, Paige was doing outwardly what Elizabeth and Philip have been doing on the sly: taking action that opposes programs like stealth, that could cause damage to other countries, like Russia. And Elizabeth admires that. “Paige is like me,” Elizabeth remarked in that closing scene. “She just wants to make a difference in the world.”

But that desire to make a difference could make Paige vulnerable, at a time when the heat on Elizabeth and Philip could get cranked up too high very quickly. I worry about this.

I also worry about Nina, who either has to extract stealth intel from Stan or get shipped back to Russia and face trial on charges of treason. When Oleg told her that if she didn’t think Stan would betray his country for her, she needed to run, it seemed like he was acting with her best interests at heart. But I don’t think he really wanted her to run. I think he wanted to inject such a sense of desperation in her that she’d be forced to plead for Stan’s help, administering a lie-detector test of her own, in a sense, and gauging Stan’s commitment to her above all else. Stan’s response when Nina expressed her fear of facing trial — “Nothing will come between us Nina, ever. Nothing” — sounded like insurance that she can indeed get the info she needs. That is, if Stan is really telling the truth.

Which brings us to the saddest scene in this episode: the confrontation between Stan and Sandra Beeman right after Sandra returned from her tryst with her EST boyfriend. She didn’t say the two had slept together, but it was obvious they had. Yet, when she and Stan talked, neither could come out and say their marriage was over.

“So, are we done?” Stan asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I don’t know how you’re supposed to know.”

Everything about their interaction, though, suggested they were well past done. All the signs of a broken home were there: parents separated, at least in that moment, from their son; a husband and wife separated from each other by the expanse of their bedroom and the thickness of secrets unspoken, so well-hidden, in fact, that they were undetectable; and, of course, all that quiet.

This is the way a family ends: not with a bang, but a whisper.