The Americans deals in a lot of Big Themes, but most of them boil down to the idea of trust. This is a show about spies, after all, and trust is the currency that enables the spy work in which Philip and Elizabeth Jennings traffic. But there’s a deeper sort of trust at play, too: The concept of belief provides much of the series’ emotional and metaphorical meat. Be it Elizabeth’s moral conviction in her cause, Paige’s spiritual faith in God, or Martha’s blind certainty in the man she knows as Clark, most of the characters on this show have — or had — a baseline relationship with what they know to be “the truth,” which provides reasons for why they do the things they do. And when that foundational trust is shaken, it can turn their world upside down.
Philip’s connection to Directorate S’s mission has never been as steadfast as Elizabeth’s — this has always been the main schism in their relationship — but throughout season three, we saw his trust in the Centre and the KGB deteriorate in the face of one indignity after the other (suitcasing Annalise, seducing Kimmy, losing the Paige battle). By the end of the season, he was thoroughly unmoored, searching for meaning in EST, which brings us to the quote that closes this episode’s “previously on” curtain-raiser: “You’re so stuck in your mind, but what you’re just learning is that these feelings in your gut are just as important — more important — than all the shit in your head.”
“Trust your gut” seems like pretty banal advice for a spy, but as is usually the case with The Americans, it goes much deeper than that. Philip’s emotional torment is filtered through a repeated flashback sequence: We see him as an adolescent first evading some bullies, and then, when he’s cornered, bludgeoning one of them to death with a rock. It’s fair to assume we’re seeing Philip’s first kill, and given his subsequent history with murder, I think it’s safe to say this is exactly the sort of formative moment he wonders aloud about to Martha later in the episode.
Which isn’t to say Philip does what he does because he was bullied as a child; that sort of logic would be far too simple for The Americans. Instead, it establishes the circumstances under which he would kill: for self-defense, and to stand up against those who would harm him or his way of life. Perhaps this is why it makes him feel “strong,” which is the only word he can come up with to describe the feeling during his safe-for-EST version of the story. (“He moved away.”) Philip has a long and storied history of violence — not to mention the general wrongdoing inherent in spy work — but up to a point, he could tell himself it wasn’t senseless violence. He was a soldier, carrying out orders based on the belief that he was acting for the greater good. He had baseline trust, the sort of grounding belief that facilitates “trusting your gut.”
As Philip’s connection to Directorate S’s mission has eroded, so has his gut-level certainty, leaving space for all that “shit in your head” to complicate things. What Philip has to do as a spy — killing, yes, but also putting himself and his family in danger — no longer make sense to him. He killed a complete innocent when he staged Gene’s suicide to cover for Martha, and he can no longer justify such actions to himself. Note his fixation, in both this episode and the season-three finale, with Gene’s toys, those little tokens of childhood innocence mocking his moral corruption. Look at his face when Martha succumbs to remorse for her role in Gene’s death — remorse he likely feels as well but cannot engage with. This is a man stripped down to doubt and uncertainty, who no longer knows who he is or what he does. (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell do consistently great, subtle work on this show, but Rhys is the MVP this week for this scene alone.)
These are bad emotional circumstances for a spy under normal conditions, but they’re especially problematic given the dangerous milieu in which the Jenningses now find themselves operating. It seems as though biological weapons will be the focus of the Directorate S’s attentions in season four. (Things seem to be progressing nicely back in the motherland, thanks to Anton and the stealth technology that formed the crux of their season-two exploits.) Even Gabriel seems to sense it might be a bridge too far, telling Philip and Elizabeth he tried to keep them out of this mission as long as possible. However, the KGB is certain the U.S. is working on similar weapons despite international treaties (there’s that trust theme again), so the Jennings have been tapped to help the Centre fight fire with fire.
Elizabeth offers her shoulder to Gabriel’s vaccination (“for a kind of meningitis”) with the assurance of someone who truly believes she is, as she put it to Paige just a few scenes earlier, “making the world a safer place for everyone.” While we don’t see Philip get his shot, we can assume he did, since he later handles a vial of the virus that causes glanders (trust me, don’t Google it). But nevertheless, his doubt and fear are telegraphed through the lens of Thomas Schlamme, one of the series’ best guest directors: Philip looms silent and visibly concerned in the background, while Gabriel vaccinates Elizabeth in the foreground.
Will this be the mission that finally breaks Philip? Probably not; it’s hard to imagine him tapping out of the whole spy thing completely. (Then again, a couple of seasons ago I would have said it’s hard to imagine Philip and Elizabeth revealing their true identities to Paige, and that turned out to be a boon to season three. You never know with The Americans.) Still, he’s spooked to a degree we haven’t really seen before. He scrubs their first attempt at a pickup with William (Dylan Baker) based on “a bad feeling,” which he can’t articulate to Elizabeth when pressed. (More great visual storytelling in that parking-garage scene, which uses cagelike fencing to isolate husband and wife from each other.) And after Stan comes barreling out of the darkness like an angry silverback to confront him about seeming “intimate” with Sandra at EST, Philip is obviously shaken — literally and figuratively — by the possibility of even the tiniest crack in that fragile vial.
Speaking of Stan, it’s a little hard to tell what’s going on with him right now. He’s on the outs with Gaad and seems kind of over the whole FBI thing. (Given the murky moral waters he has waded these past few seasons, I’m surprised it took him so long to arrive at this point.) Also, he doesn’t utter the word Nina once — something I don’t think he’s gone an episode without doing since season one, episode two. No FBI, no Nina … for the first time, Stan appears to be kind of aimless, which may be why he lashes out at Philip after Tori tattles on him and Sandra. (Seriously, Tori, that was so not EST of you.) He’s a man without a mission — or, maybe, like Philip, a man with a mission he no longer believes. Without trust in whatever makes us do the things we do, the world can seem like a much darker place.
That’s a conclusion Paige is coming to as well, as she struggles to process the new shades of gray in her black-and-white moral universe. Having Paige find religion continues to be one of the smartest things The Americans ever did, as it opens up so many new avenues to explore the central ideas of trust and what is “right.” For what is faith if not trust — trust in God, in the Church, in your own conviction? Paige’s moral compass led her to out Philip and Elizabeth to Pastor Tim in the season-three finale, but in “Glanders” she’s having second thoughts. (Jet lag can make a person do crazy things.) She tries to close Pandora’s box, but it’s clearly too late — the next episode’s title, “Pastor Tim,” is further evidence of this — and she must grapple with the idea that her previously steadfast beliefs in truth and honesty could cause irreparable damage to her family and herself.
It’s safe to assume The Americans will tease out these ideas of uncertainty and disconnection even further, particularly as they apply to Philip, Paige, and the Jenningses’ bioweapons mission. But “Glanders” also introduces a host of other questions we can hope to have answered this season, such as:
- Wait, Nina has a husband? When did that happen?
- What’s Tatiana’s deal, and exactly how is she going to screw over Arkady?
- Will Henry ever find the cologne that is right for him?
- What’s our pal Mail Robot been up to? (Okay, the episode doesn’t actually show Mail Robot, but he’s the Poochie of The Americans. Whenever he’s not onscreen, everyone should be asking, “Where’s Mail Robot?”)
- Beard wigs: A crime against nature, or confusingly sexy?
Luckily, The Americans has a whole season to play out these developments. And while we can never be absolutely certain, my gut is telling me it’s going to be great.