The Americans Recap: It Must Be Done

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The Americans
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The Americans has distinguished itself, week after week, with meticulously edited sequences in which its protagonists engage in nerve-jangling Russian operative business, from the infiltration of military bases to the bugging of pre-internet computer systems to the filching of top-secret files from Congressional offices that double as ideal spots for desktop trysts.

This week’s episode, “Yousaf,” gave us another of those signature spy-game set pieces with the execution of that two-pronged Pakistani ISI mission, the one that toggled between the sexual dance between a scantily clad Annelise and Yousaf, and the slippery swimming-pool scuffle between Elizabeth and Yousaf’s boss, Javid. The images of those two women wrapping their legs around their respective targets’ necks, for entirely different reasons, unfolded to the sound of Pete Townshend’s “It Must Be Done,” a new song composed specifically for this episode that also served as a musical reminder of a key scene from season one’s “Covert War”: the seduction and kidnapping of CIA officer Richard Patterson, which happened in synchronicity with the beats of Townshend’s “Rough Boys.” 

Back then, Elizabeth was playing both sides of a mission, simultaneously acting as seductress and purveyor of violence at a time when she and Philip were still separated from each other. Now, a season and several months later, with their marriage back on track, she agreed to jump off the seductress beat at Philip’s suggestion. Apparently, as Philip told Annelise in a speech that clearly was spoken with Elizabeth at the front of his mind, it kills him to watch the woman he loves give herself to another man. Murder another man? That’s fine, if it must be done. But the sex part of the operation doesn’t need to be handled by Elizabeth when it can easily be outsourced to the defense undersecretary’s wife. That’s, as Elizabeth and Philip amicably agreed, the best move.

That “Covert War” callback also was notable because, in contrast to the way Elizabeth swiftly snuffed out Javid, she and Philip ultimately opted not to kill Patterson, a decision that could prove to be their downfall. In last night’s episode, when Stan Beeman met with Jared Connors, son of Emmett and Leanne, he showed him a sketch of two people who might have known Jared’s parents, whom Stan now believes were illegals working for Oleg Burov. The man and woman in that sketch strongly resembled Philip and Elizabeth, in the same disguises they wore the night they kidnapped Patterson. Stan’s obviously not entirely on-target with his theory. But he’s inching slowly toward bull’s eye.

That was just one of many ominous hints that the Jennings’ clandestine suburban life could very soon be exposed. The most obvious other threat to their status quo is Andrew Larrick, the Navy SEAL who’s seeking vengeance for the Martial Eagle killings and got a few steps closer to it when he tracked down that Bethesda KGB basement — complete with multiple high-tech rotary phones — and managed to dial up Kate. Since a call went out to Elizabeth from that location earlier in the episode, Larrick could be just a Ma Bell connection away from determining who those supposed CIA agents he met really are. (Fun fact: Grant Street and Mohawk Lane are real streets in Bethesda, not far from NIH and — additional fun fact — my high-school alma mater. Go, Walter Johnson Wildcats!)

But there were other plot and visual cues that also suggested that, with three episodes remaining in the second season, the Jennings’ cover could soon be blown and their efforts upended. That subtext was embedded in several details: the ease with which Paige forged her mother’s signature, suggesting that Elizabeth’s identity could easily be penetrated; the fact that Annelise was ironically introduced to Yousaf by Jeane Kirkpatrick, the ambassador whose anti-Communist policies influenced U.S. support for Afghanistan’s mujahideen during the Soviet War to which Kate referred; the underwater-perspective shot of Elizabeth walking away from a floating, deceased Javid, her image blurry but just visible enough to I.D. her. Collectively, it all added up to a vibe that Elizabeth and Philip may not remain effective Soviet undercover agents for much longer.

The way this episode was bookended, too — with the quiet pan into the Jennings’ kitchen that opened it and the soft conversation between Elizabeth and Philip, still in the same kitchen, that ended it — only added to the sense that the peace of their home and family could be shattered. That final shot of the two of them, captured from a distance through a doorway, conveyed the sense that they’re already being watched, as did the words Philip whispered to Elizabeth about her smoking: “They’ll smell it.”

When the Connors were killed, Elizabeth and Philip, quite naturally, became fearful for Paige’s and Henry’s safety. Even though only two months have passed since those murders, that fear seems to have subsided. This also makes me very nervous. When Paige asked to spend her summer at that fellowship camp, it wasn’t surprising that Elizabeth was concerned that her daughter would be turned into a “Jesus freak.” (As we learned from Nina’s Young Pioneers remembrances, summer camp, where everyone gets a free Lenin button, is all about indoctrination in Russia, too.) What puzzled me was that neither Elizabeth nor Philip seemed overly concerned about Paige being physically away from them, where she would become more vulnerable to anyone who might decide to use the spy kid as a way to get to spy Mom and Dad. I think it’s a terrible idea for Paige to become a CIT, not because of Jesus, but because of the enormous potential for the Cedar Grove Fellowship Camp Color Wars to turn into a Cold War hostage situation.

One thing became very clear in this episode, if it wasn’t already: that a number of the assertions I made in last week’s recap were totally off-base. Look, it was my first week jumping into Americans recap mode. I may have gotten a little overexcited, which is why I overdid it on the Elizabeth/Philip divorce metaphors — though I still contend there was a divide between them in the last episode — and why I misinterpreted the nature of the interaction between Philip and Martha. As some of you kindly noted in the comments, Philip’s really not in love with Martha, though I do think there was a moment when they were kissing when Philip was surprised by the level of intimacy he felt. But as we saw in the beginning of this episode, when Philip and Elizabeth tenderly, then heatedly, made out and made up, the state of their union is strong right now, as warm and comforting to each of them as the light that emanates from a child’s Glo Worm. (That Glo Worm appearance was tremendous, by the way. Granted, not as tremendous as the presence of Intellivision or, best of all, the reference to the Jhoon Rhee commercial two weeks ago, which was easily the best thing this D.C. child of the ‘80s has seen on TV all year. But still: pretty tremendous.)

This season opened with Elizabeth and Philip reuniting with Leanne and Emmett, a couple living a mirror version of the Jennings’ quiet spy-family life. With Gaad now reinstated and working with Stan to probe more deeply into the Connors’ murder, it seems increasingly likely that the Jennings could lose their lives, in a way that may or may not resemble the way things ended for the Connors. The question now is whether Philip and Elizabeth will realize what’s happening in time to take preventive measures, to figure out what, for them and their children, is the best move.