The Americans Recap: Stupid Glanders

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Keri Russell as Elizabeth, Matthew Rhys as Philip. Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/FX
The Americans
Episode Title
Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow
Season
4
Episode
3
Editor’s Rating
5/5

Gabriel's reaction to the Glanders vial — "Can't seem to get rid of this, can I?" — could just as easily apply to the Pastor Tim Problem that's dogging Directorate S. The two biggest threats to the Jennings are narratively linked: They appeared at roughly the same time, and they function as metaphorical echoes of each other. The vial and the pastor have enormous destructive potential, so they must be handled carefully if the Jenningses are to survive. On a more symbolic level, they both represent the terrifying potential of the unknown, and the complete lack of "good choices" available to Philip and Elizabeth.

"Experimental Prototype City Of Tomorrow" finds the Jenningses and Gabriel attempting to close these twin Pandora's boxes, with little to guide them but gut instinct and the will to survive. Managing the Pastor Tim Problem is an extremely delicate act; with Paige in the picture, there is no "neat" approach. Philip and Elizabeth's attempt to placate the man seems to go nowhere. (Even Philip can't resist throwing a big ol' side-eye when Elizabeth suggests, "What we do isn't so different from what you do.") After that, Philip tries to guide Paige through "working" Pastor Tim, and her inability to tell even a wisp of a lie somehow makes the situation even worse. At this point, Philip is all-in on the cut-and-run approach, although as Elizabeth points out, Henry and Paige would have zero context or capacity for life in Russia. In the end, Philip seems resigned to the fact that Elizabeth and Gabriel intend to return to Plan A — killing Pastor Tim — but now with a slight addendum: The Centre will find someone else to "take care of" him and his wife, Alice, while Philip and Elizabeth take the kids to Disney's brand-new EPCOT Center, theoretically negating any of Paige's suspicions.

It's a very bad plan. (Well, aside from the EPCOT part. That part seems great!) Philip knows as much and says so. Elizabeth seems to know too, but can't bring herself to admit it. Even Gabriel expresses his preference to "take them home" during his sit-down with Claudia. (Hi, Claudia! I'm glad you're back because you're played by Margo Martindale, but also not glad because you always mean extra trouble for Philip and Elizabeth.) Paige is many things — principled, naïve, impulsive — but she is not stupid, and everyone seems to know that she won't be fooled by such obfuscation. If Pastor Tim is "managed" in this manner, Claudia ultimately concedes that any plans to recruit Paige as a second-generation spy will have to be scrapped. But such sacrifices must be made, as Pastor Tim represents the biggest threat to all of them.

Or rather, he did. Once Philip and Elizabeth see Gabriel coughing up blood — an apparent victim of Project Glanders — all thoughts of EPCOT and double-homicides are immediately put on the back-burner. (Sorry, Henry.) After all, the threat Pastor Tim poses to Directorate S is still purely theoretical. His gossipy wife Helen Lovejoy — oops, I mean Alice — knows about Philip and Elizabeth, but as far as we know, it ends there. The information is therefore still containable. Whether the infection now ravaging Gabriel's body is similarly contained is a much more open, terrifying question.

I can't remember ever seeing Philip and Elizabeth look as overtly panicked as they do when they realize why Gabriel is sick. They're not bioweapons experts, after all; they've simply been tapped to help transport dangerous materials. The only information they have is what they've been told by Gabriel and William, which essentially amounts to, "This is a super-scary, super-infectious disease you want absolutely nothing to do with, please get it away from us!" And here they are, covered in Gabriel's spit and blood, with no real way of knowing if they're infected. As threats go, this is both incredibly immediate and terrifyingly vague.

Enter William, who does little to assuage Philip and Elizabeth's fears. (Bolting in the other direction when someone tells you they might be infected doesn't really communicate, "You'll be fine, guys!") Good thing William's avoidance is no match for Philip's elite spy training — read: a big ol' gob of spit to the face — and so the biochemical scientist must reluctantly help the Jennings to help himself. His broad-spectrum antibiotic may not be a sure bet, but the methodical manner in which William goes about administering shots to the Jenningses and Gabriel and destroying the faulty vial is weirdly comforting. (And now we all know how to destroy a deadly pathogen at home! Thanks, The Americans!) William's a weirdo and more than a little rude, no doubt, but at least he seems to have a plan for addressing this threat — one that involves saving people, not killing them. That automatically puts it above the Centre's EPCOT idea on the "Good Ideas" list.

The glowering visage and low-key disdain brought to William by Dylan Baker (whom you may recognize as Colin Sweeney from The Good Wife) has thus far been a great addition to this season, but this episode introduces another guest star who may end up outshining him, if her initial appearance is any indication. "Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow" opens on the unusual scene of Elizabeth — as "Patty" — at a Mary Kay party, testing out lipstick and foundation with a group of women that includes a heavily accented Korean transplant named Young Hee, played with great warmth and humor by Tony-winning stage actress Ruthie-Ann Miles.

Young Hee is a standout from this very first scene, what with that talk of her and her Korean friends not having to "look like Martians," because "we're all Americans now." Such thematically loaded language  indicates an immediate connection between Young Hee and Elizabeth, and sure enough, we soon discover Elizabeth is working Young Hee — though at this point, her end game isn't totally clear. If I had to guess, I'd wager that her husband, whom we briefly meet during a lively family-dinner scene ("Do the Pepper Dance!"), may have access to the Level 4 bioweapons the Jennings are tasked with nabbing. This episode wisely leaves such questions unanswered, in favor of showcasing Miles and developing Young Hee's bond with Elizabeth, particularly when it comes to their opinions about raising children in an American capitalist society. Also: Unlike Elizabeth, Young Hee appears to have a genuine sense of humor, which is all the more reason to hope she sticks around. Humor and levity are precious resources on The Americans, and we should treasure them whenever they show up. (Related: Hi, Mail Robot! Good to see you again, even if you're just handing out persnickety memos about the FBI not having "feelings.")

Alas, there isn't even a whiff of humor or levity in Russia, where Nina is staring down the very real possibility of "exceptional punishment" for her failed note-smuggling scheme. What's most alarming about Nina's meeting with her lawyer (well, the Russian-prison equivalent of a lawyer) is how unconcerned she seems about a death sentence. Perhaps Nina has escaped calamity so many times that she feels untouchable, but that doesn't seem to be what's going on here. The tiny smile she gives when she reads Anton's statement, combined with a later dream sequence that features Stan and Anton in a flower-festooned safe house, indicates Nina may have lost her grip on reality. (Or, at the very least, her instinct for self-preservation.) Nina's had many white knights in the time we've known her — Stan, Oleg, and Arkady all fit the bill — and this may have rendered her infallible in her own mind. Or, on the flip side of that coin, she's experienced so much loss and betrayal in her life that she's decided to throw in the towel and let fate run its course. Either way, she seems alarmingly unconcerned with the threat of "exceptional punishment."

As with the Jennings, Nina is facing down a terrifying unknown. But unlike them, she doesn't seem to have any plan to escape that terrifying unknown. Even a bad plan is better than no plan at all, right?