The Americans Recap: We’re in Trouble

The Americans

Pastor Tim
Season 4 Episode 2
Editor’s Rating *****
Keri Russell as Elizabeth, Frank Langella as Gabriel. Photo: Eric Liebowitz/FX

The titular character of “Pastor Tim” is only seen once: As a corpse, lying dead in the cabin where he goes to write his sermons, the apparent victim of a faulty space heater. This isn’t the real Pastor Tim, however, only part of Elizabeth’s dream. She watches as Paige discovers her spiritual mentor, dead at her parents’ hands, only to have the man morph into Elizabeth’s rapist, Nikolai Timoshev, whom Philip killed way back in the pilot. It’s quite the juxtaposition, and the sort of thing you can really only get away with in dream sequences — a tactic The Americans rarely deploys. In this specific case, Elizabeth’s dream functions as a canny, economical summation of her fears surrounding Paige and what she’s done.

Pastor Tim may not take part in the onscreen action in “Pastor Tim,” but he informs much of the episode’s emotional thrust, if not its main action. (More on that in a bit.) Through the bug in the church office, Elizabeth discovers that Paige told Pastor Tim her secret, leaving her parents with an impossible decision: Do they “dispose of” the problem in their usual way, leaving the very real possibility that Paige discovers what they did? Or do they, as Philip suggests, try to “work” Pastor Tim? The choice seems obvious to Elizabeth, who wants the “miserable son-of-a-bitch” out of their lives, but the ever-accumulating bloodstains on Philip’s hands make him resistant to taking down another innocent, it would seem. Elizabeth makes the very good point that if Paige were to find out, she’d almost certainly never be part of the Directorate S “second generation” — thus giving Philip what he’s wanted all along — but is it worth them losing their daughter in the process? (Of course, being raped by her commanding officer ultimately didn’t deter Elizabeth from her mission, so maybe Timoshev’s appearance in her dream implies she recognizes the faultiness of this logic deep down.)

Ultimately, it’s a decision they don’t have to make, because Paige forces their hand by coming forward and telling Elizabeth what she did. This puts them in a classic no-win situation; they can’t get rid of the man who could destroy their family without Paige figuring out what they did, which would then destroy their family. “We’re in trouble,” Elizabeth murmurs as the episode closes, as she and Philip are visually trapped within the shadows of their parked car, the specter of Pastor Tim closing in around them.

Whether Pastor Tim knows the full implications of the information he’s received is unclear — we saw him pumping Paige for more details last episode, but his motives for doing so are still open to interpretation. He could truly be acting out of a desire to help Paige and protect his community, or he could have darker motives. The thing is, his motives ultimately don’t matter; information is what matters in The Americans, which makes Pastor Tim a massive threat to the Jenningses, Directorate S, and the KGB. The specific circumstance surrounding how he got that information — through Paige — is the only thing keeping him alive.

Unfortunately, the security guard Philip encounters on the airport shuttle has no such protection. The guard stumbled upon a sensitive situation, so Philip had to neutralize the threat — brutally, and to the strains of a synth-pop classic, no less.

The Americans’ use of contemporary songs is one of its hallmarks, and tonight’s “Tainted Love” sequence is the upper echelon of the series’ musical pantheon, up there with “Tusk” from the pilot and last season’s chase scene set to “The Chain.” Soft Cell’s 1981 hit has a dark edge that belies its buoyant synth line which makes Philip’s split-second decision to “dispose of” the security guard exponentially more unsettling than it already was. Granted, Philip tries to “work” the situation first, attempting to explain away his contact’s squirrelly behavior. But the Russian pilot who’s been tasked with transporting that dangerous pathogen is far too spooked to play along with the ruse, forcing Philip to give the bioweapons mission its first instance of “collateral damage.”

Philip strangling the security guard to death (while his frightened contact looks on) is pointedly ironic, given his reluctance to kill Pastor Tim. The kill doesn’t come easily to Philip — he unloads on Elizabeth when he gets home, returning once again to his memory of bludgeoning that bully with a rock. But when faced with the possibility of blowing his cover and ruining the mission, he acts pragmatically — and brutally — to neutralize the threat. He’s capable of no such pragmatism when it comes to Pastor Tim, though, because Paige is involved. Collateral damage is one thing; ruining his daughter’s life more than he already has is quite another.

But here’s a question: Would Philip have acted so pragmatically were this another mission? He is plainly desperate to get that vial out of his possession, out of his home, and out of his life. He even resists when Gabriel informs him that he’ll be responsible for transporting the vial out of country, a battle he clearly loses. (Guess that new computer from the Center was Gabriel’s trump card.) The look of anger and terror on Philip’s face when he sees the pilot didn’t take the vial, leaving it once more in his possession and making the security guard’s death absolutely pointless — man, you just gotta feel for the guy, murderer or no.

This is all on track for where Philip’s character has been heading, but what’s interesting about “Pastor Tim” is that we begin to see Elizabeth “losing her bearings,” as Gabriel puts it during their meeting in the park. The combined stress of the Paige debacle, the Glanders threat, and her mother’s death has left Elizabeth more unsettled than we’re used to seeing her. Gabriel seems to sense this, attempting to defuse the situation any way he can — though his tactic of telling Elizabeth her dying mother said she loved her may have backfired, as she doesn’t believe it for a second. (From what we know of Elizabeth’s mom, who was apparently a sentient block of ice, she’s probably right to suspect Gabriel is trying to appease her with a lie.) Going back to that final line — “We’re in trouble” — one gets the sense that for the first time in recent memory, Elizabeth is truly at a loss. Hell, you know things are bad when she’s considering accompanying Philip to EST.

Elizabeth’s openness to EST is surprising to us as well as Philip. Up until now, we’ve gotten the sense that any sort of ideology that might fall under the “spiritual” heading is verboten in her personal philosophy. (Opiate of the masses and all that …) She’s still clearly skeptical, pressing Philip about the timing of all this and insinuating that his bad feelings about their pickup last episode stemmed from EST. But she also seems to recognize that Philip has been having a hard time lately, and the fact that she is willing to talk to him about what he’s getting from EST feels like a small victory for the Jenningses marriage, which has always been fraught with ideological tension.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, we’re treated to a quick glimpse of a much different sort of marriage: That of Nina and Boris, her heretofore unseen and almost-unmentioned husband from what seems to be a lifetime ago. (Thanks to those who pointed out last week that Nina has mentioned her husband once before, to her cellmate last season.) To call Nina and Boris “estranged” would be an understatement; while she was sending him goods from America (the scheme that got her into this mess in the first place), he was raising another family — something Nina seems aware of, and fine with. Theirs was (and is) a marriage of convenience, and both seem to recognize there’s nothing left in the relationship for them. “My world was too small for you,” says Boris, who expects Nina to finally ask for a divorce. But Nina, inscrutable as always, has other plans, slipping Boris a note to smuggle out of the country, which will inform Anton’s son that his father is alive and in Russia.

I share in Anton and the warden’s incredulity that Nina would take such a risk. I’m honestly not certain what’s motivating her behavior. Does she really have such strong feelings for Anton that she’s willing to stick her neck out for him? It wouldn’t be the first time, I guess — whatever her ultimate goals, Nina seems to have legitimate feelings for both Oleg and Stan, and took on enormous risks for both of them. Is Anton just the latest extension of that impulse? Is this part of a longer con? Or has her time in prison and the laboratory left her so fixated on the ideas of “comfort” and family — something she spent a lot of time talking with Anton about — that she feels compelled to do this for him? As is usually the case with Nina, it’s hard to tell what’s going on behind those big, gorgeous eyes.

Back in the U.S., and on the other side of the inscrutability spectrum, we have poor Henry Jennings, forgotten by everyone but Stan, who at least hasn’t transferred his anger toward Philip onto his son. Henry’s mac-and-cheese brodown with Stan is pretty much the only moment of levity in this very dark episode. It also unveils some important clues in the Mystery of Henry’s Cologne, which we now know is Ralph Lauren, and may have been stolen from Stan’s house. (We never do see Stan return with the unopened bottle of the stuff he bought for Matthew, which leads me to suspect Henry has been nurturing those kleptomaniac tendencies he first displayed a couple seasons back.)

Henry’s friendship with Stan is a strange one, not least because it highlights how far he is flying under his own parents’ radar. Paige is taking up all their energy right now, but Henry is growing up fast — fast enough to appreciate a zipper-front dress — and has potential to cause just as much trouble as his older sister, if not more. If Paige and unsuspecting Pastor Tim led to this much upheaval, imagine what Henry and Stan could be capable of. Better hope Henry never tears his eyes off that computer and actually notices what’s going on around him.