Is there any lonelier image than an adult eating a baked potato for dinner? It would be enough for The Americans to settle on Martha sitting alone in a dreary Russian apartment, forking away at a steaming mound of starch. But the fact that she tops the potato with what appears to be sautéed onions and mushrooms is one of those character details that separates a great show from a merely good one. It’s a sign that she believes she deserves a little bit more than what she’s been given, even now, when she’s been deposited in a foreign country with no friends, no passable suitors, and no evident hope for the life she wanted from Clark. This may rank as one of the all-time “poor Martha” moments — she brusquely claims the potato is a “snack” when Gabriel comments on it — but the embers still burn.
It seems possible that we’ll never see Martha again on The Americans, and if that’s the case, her scene in “IHOP” could not have been a more fitting sendoff. As she sits in her drab purgatory, listening to some oppressive anthem piped in on Russian radio, Martha has to marinate in certain facts: that her marriage to Clark was a sham, that she inadvertently betrayed her country, that she’ll probably never have children, that she’ll probably never see her parents again, and that she accepted Clark’s lies and suspicious demands because she didn’t think she could do any better for herself. Living with all that knowledge may be a fate worse than death, but she’s finally coming to terms with what happened to her. The note of defiance she strikes with Gabriel is genuinely stunning, given her temperament. “I understand everything now, Gabriel,” she says. “All of it. You can go. And don’t come back again.” That’s not the old Martha talking — and that, in a small way, is progress.
Martha’s reappearance aside, “IHOP” is an episode about parents, children, and the consequential mistakes that can break them apart or foment pockets of resentment between them. The opening scene with Philip and Kimmy sets the stage: Behind the max-level creep factor of Philip serenading Kimmy with “Forever Young” on her 17th birthday — and Kimmy biting her lower lip suggestively — the two get into the question of his missing son and whether he still thinks about him. To answer this question about a fake child, Philip draws on regrets about his actual children: “Some day, I’ll get married and I’ll have kids and I’ll do right by them.” Even if he can’t be perfect, he “won’t screw it up completely.”
You can take a mulligan when reminiscing about a nonexistent child, but in reality, Philip has Paige and Henry, whose lives have been sabotaged in different ways by his double life. With the entire season devoted heavily to Paige, “IHOP” takes a moment to acknowledge Henry and the heavy cost of the Jennings’ regret. Because they know so little about their son’s activities, Philip and Elizabeth were caught off guard by the news that he’s thriving in school, especially in math, and now they’re reeling at his desire to attend a private boarding school in New Hampshire. Despite the obvious upsides of having Henry out of the house — he would never have to be exposed to their work, and his non-presence would not have to be accounted for — the Jennings are pained by the thought. Philip puts it bluntly: “Henry, do you not want to live here?” It wouldn’t be fair to call Henry’s desire to further his education a rebuke to his parents, but it stings Philip anyway — and angers him, too. He grew up in extraordinary hardship and now his son, who’s known privilege behind his wildest dreams, doesn’t feel like his home is good enough. That’s a tough pill to swallow.
Five thousand miles away, Oleg and his father are also in conflict about his upbringing and the regrettable mistakes made along the way. The topic turns to Oleg’s mother, whose time in a labor camp was kept hidden from Oleg, who feels he’s been deprived of an important piece of information about their family. When Oleg asks why he was never told about his mother and the camps, his father’s response — “So you could have this life” — echoes Philip’s thoughts on Henry. Parents have an instinct to shield their children from painful truths; that may not be the appropriate instinct all the time, but it’s common. Later, we learn the depth of Oleg’s bitterness when he talks to a source in prison about how his father could have gotten his brother out of Afghanistan but his brother wouldn’t let him because he was an officer. “Now he’s a picture on the wall,” Oleg says. “And my mom walks around like a ghost.” Oleg doesn’t want his source to make the same mistake and get his son killed.
By contrast, family obligations also drive — or allegedly drive — Tuan to risk his life and livelihood by taking a Greyhound bus to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in order to check up on his adoptive brother in Seattle. We haven’t seen much vulnerability from Tuan — quite the opposite, in fact, given his seething contempt for Pasha and his eagerness to turn the bullies on him. But Tuan has been grousing all season about Philip and Elizabeth needing to spend more time at the house and it may not be just the necessity of them not looking like a convincing family. There’s an emotional neediness to Tuan, too, that comes out after they interrogate him about his trip to Harrisburg. On the ride home, Elizabeth says she feels like his excuse is genuine, but Philip does some projecting about his motives: “Maybe that’s what he wants — to be pulled out of this shit and start over.” Elizabeth rejects that theory (“That’s not who he is”), rejecting her husband in the process.
Hammers and Sickles
• There are still four episodes left in the season, but the Oleg-Russia subplot has been a little slow to take form. (This is the rare week I haven’t relegated it to bullet points.) With all the intrigue involving Stan, we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop on Oleg’s head, but even by Americans standards, the show is taking its sweet time about it.
• Another day, another disillusion: Thanks to the tape recorder tucked into Kimmy’s father’s briefcase, there’s evidence that the bioweapon that killed William Crandall is being used in the fight against the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Philip has questioned the rightness of the cause for some time, and here’s more evidence to support him.
• Terrific scene with Stan visiting Frank Gaad’s widow in the hope that she’ll grant him absolution in the hunt for Gaad’s KGB assassins. Nope. Now he’s in the impossible position of choosing to protect Oleg for doing the right thing or allowing the CIA to blackmail him in order to get revenge for Gaad’s death. This spells mortal trouble for Oleg and moral trouble for Stan.
• The challenge of spying on a spy leads to a fine series of sequences in which the Jennings and their team follow Tuan and communicate via walkie-talkie signals. But my favorite detail is Elizabeth using a ruler to measure the exact length of the opening in Tuan’s closet door, in case he feels like something is off about the house. Careful as she was, Paige didn’t have the training to be that scrupulous when she was rifling through Pastor Tim’s stuff, which may explain why her parents were so alarmed by her initiative.