Let’s overread this episode title, shall we? “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” may have been the first thing that sprang to mind when the writers of The Americans thought about what to name an episode where the action expands to Topeka. After all, Thomas Frank’s book has been a touchstone for political scientists and pundits since it was published in 2004, accounting for why a state once defined by left-wing populism had, in recent years, shifted hard to right-wing conservatism. Many of the particulars don’t apply to The Americans: Frank’s book is not a period reference, and the show’s ideological battleground doesn’t include cultural wedge issues like abortion and gay rights. Broadly speaking, however, What’s the Matter With Kansas? shares with The Americans the possibility of shifting political allegiances, and ideologies that perhaps aren’t as rigid as they appear to be.
Consider a couple of minor scenes from this episode. In one, Philip is undercover sharing a beer with Alexei, the defector whom the CIA has brought to the U.S. as an agricultural expert. In scene after scene with Alexei, we’re witnessed a similar and often darkly funny dynamic: Now totally free to speak his mind in America, Alexei pops off in Russian against the Soviet Union, which pisses off his wife and son who bitterly resent being hijacked to a new home, and doesn’t play well with the Jennings and Tuan, who are sacrificing their lives for the country he’s badmouthing. And yet, even in those earlier scenes, you get the sense that Philip is more open to what Alexei is saying than anyone else. Their conversation at the bar supports that idea. Alexei talks in some detail about the terrible problems in distribution in Russia, where “they still move food by horse,” and questions the country’s ability to compete with the U.S., their adversary in the Cold War. It goes back to the question that’s haunting Oleg this season, too: What kind of country fails to feed its own people?
In the other scene, Paige babysits for Pastor Tim and Alice, and before they leave, Tim hands her a copy of Karl Marx’s Capital: Critique of Political Economy, which he had marked up as a college student. There’s no guarantee that Tim’s political views haven’t changed — after all, college is a time for experimentation in all sorts of things, including ideology — but he tells Paige that Marx had some insight into class and poverty. The passage Tim cites concerns the alienation of labor, due to the disconnect between the worker and the products of his efforts: If he’s not invested in what’s he’s doing, “his labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor.” Marx likened this “external labor” to reducing human beings to their animal functions, but that’s not particularly relevant here. Tim loaning a Marx book to Paige is his way of reassuring her that he embraces the social doctrine underpinning her parents’ mission. What we don’t know, however, is whether Pastor Tim’s various outreach programs are rooted in Marxist dogma or if he’s putting up a front. Which Kansas is he?
There’s a lot the matter with Kansas for Philip and Elizabeth, who are loathe to accept a new assignment related to the possible sabotage of Soviet grain by a company called Agricorps. They claim to Gabriel that they’re overextended dealing with Alexei, the Beemans, and Pastor Tim, but it’s obvious there’s more to it than that. When Elizabeth says, “We understand how important this is …” Gabriel doesn’t even let her get to the “but,” and Philip picks up the folders for two single Agricorps employees like they’re signed death warrants. After his tortured relationship with Martha, which ruined her life and sent him fleeing to EST, Philip and Elizabeth have finally stabilized as a team — and perhaps as a couple, too, given the intimacy of that scene between them in an Oklahoma City hotel room.
As it stands now, Philip and Elizabeth will be flying back and forth to Topeka, at staggered intervals, to cheat on each other. However much they accept sexual relationships with sources as part of the job, they’ve shown themselves to be human, too, in the complicated feelings they develop with their marks and the suspicion and resentment that seeps into their own marriage. “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” pairs Philip with the workaholic Deirdre and Elizabeth with Ben, a charismatic Kris Kristofferson type who’s into health food and nature trails. Already the disparities are painfully apparent: Philip struggles to make a connection with Deirdre, who’s either slow to accept his advances or sensitive to the reluctance behind his attempts to seduce her. His sunken facial expression on the flight to Topeka scarcely changes when he sidles up next to her on an exercise bike.
By contrast, Elizabeth’s ease with Ben is almost chillingly assured. Whenever Elizabeth is playing another role, Keri Russell breaks out a practiced, lilting laugh that puts her sources at ease, but rings as conspicuously hollow the more you hear it. When she pulls off her meet-cute with Ben at a health-food store, her performance is so deft that you forget it’s a performance at all; he seems like a charming and earnest guy and she’s an excellent flirt. There’s a brightness to Elizabeth in her scenes with Ben that makes it seem like she’s genuinely found some relief from the grim circumstances of her life with Philip. At the very end of the episode, even Philip starts to sound jealous about hearing that Ben is “nice” and “funny,” and likes birds and hiking. Then the real Elizabeth emerges, hardening her tone: “I have to sit there with him while he makes his jokes. The guy’s laughing while he’s trying to starve an entire country.”
The rest of “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” is full of blackmail and arm-twisting, as various characters try to leverage control over dire situations. Elizabeth wonders if the information Paige digs up about parishioners in Pastor Tim’s diary could be used to keep him in line; Stan threatens to make his role in an extrajudicial killing of a KGB agent public if the CIA continues to harass Oleg in Moscow; Oleg and an interrogator threaten a grocer until she gives up the name of a corrupt department head, but Oleg questions the tactic of exploiting the “weakness” of a family with a son serving in Afghanistan. Stan and Oleg are now drawn in parallel: Both are patriots and public servants who are appalled by the indecency of their organizations in pursuit of a larger victory, and it may threaten their jobs (and their faith in their jobs) in the long term. As for Paige, the intercutting between her snooping around Pastor Tim’s house and her mother having a make-out session with a source in Topeka suggests that Project Paige is starting to work. But that, of course, brings another set of dangers.
Hammers and Sickles
• Don’t miss Brian Moylan’s hilarious list of excuses for why Henry is never around. This week finds him moping over Apple Jacks in the kitchen and possibly getting in trouble at school, so maybe that squeaky wheel will finally get a little grease.
• After several close calls, including this week’s tense set piece at the Austrian border, Philip’s son has finally landed at JFK airport, putting him a short train ride away from detonating in the Jennings’ lives. It’s hard to even fathom what will happen when he surfaces.
• “The decent thing to do is what’s best for the country.” Oleg gets the same retort to his objections over exploiting a young man’s service in Afghanistan as Stan got when he first tried to keep the CIA from harassing Oleg. In both cases, personal honor and integrity become collateral damage in the service of bigger goals. Sometimes, institutions have a harder time with matters of right and wrong than individuals do.
• The final shot of the episode quotes the ending of The Graduate, which finds Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross, having just fled from Ross’s wedding to another man, on the back of the bus, headed toward an uncertain future together. After such a dramatic turn of events, their “now what?” look closes the film on a perfectly ambiguous note.