Episode nine of The Americans starts with a traumatic separation: Phillip and Elizabeth tell their children, Paige and Henry, that they’re splitting up. Things only get worse from there. The rest of this episode — ironically titled “Safe House” — is a compendium of trauma, disappointment, misery, and, at the end, horror. At the start of the season, all of the major characters seemed to be in stable orbits. Relationships (marriages, friendships, parent-child bonds) served as gravitational forces, anchoring the characters when they did bad things or grappled with fearsomely intense emotions. Now almost every major anchor is gone.
Our main couple has split up and seems headed for divorce, and their decision has driven a wedge between them and their children. (“I don’t want to pretend that your life is a do-over, because mine isn’t,” Paige tells her mother — speaking truth to power, basically.) FBI agent Stan Beeman and his wife, Sandra, are drifting apart, accelerated by Stan’s affair with the Russian mole Nina, which itself seems an outgrowth of whatever unacknowledged trauma Stan endured as an undercover agent back in St. Louis.
Most shockingly, Stan’s workplace spouse, Chris Amador — who describes himself as a “lone wolf” in an extraordinary flashback that I’ll quote at length further down — gets wounded and then abducted to a safe house by Phillip (in disguise as “Clark”); Amador, stalking his ex-girlfriend Martha, saw “Clark” leaving her apartment building after a sleeping over and angrily confronted and tried to arrest him. Thus Stan’s work partner is taken from Stan at the same time that he’s driving his domestic partner, Sandra, away with his depression and increasingly furtive behavior: an emotional double whammy.
His partner missing, Stan becomes unmoored from whatever ethical codes he’d stuck to at the beginning of the episode: At a party at Stan’s house, his boss Gadd and many of Stan’s government colleagues, unmoored following the KGB’s devastating (and not entirely controlled) attacks against U.S. intelligence, scheme to join forces with furious CIA agents to go “off book” and get revenge. Stan initially stands as a voice of reason, declining to get involved in the “extra-legal” mission; but after Amador vanishes Stan goes further — or sinks lower — than anybody else on the American side. And when Chris turns up dead, having been dumped in a lot by Phillip, Stan goes mad with grief and anger. In the episode’s chilling climax, Stan cold-bloodedly murders a minor KGB flunkie, an office drone friend who had nothing to do with Chris’s disappearance and was nabbed by the FBI because the real target, his boss and running partner Arkady, sat out the job because of a hand injury. It’s a truly horrifying sequence, and within the context of this show, daring, because it takes one of the show’s most innately sympathetic characters and reveals his hidden, monstrous depths. All things considered, the protagonists on both sides are as horrible as any characters on The Sopranos or The Shield. That we can stand to watch them is a testament to the writers and actors; they help us see this world through the monsters’ eyes and understand that there are elements of conditioning and compulsion in their worst actions — factors that illuminate their choices without excusing them.
“Safe House” is my second favorite episode of The Americans’ season to date, after “Gregory.” It’s a marvel of story construction: a tale of mounting chaos — of things falling apart and relationships disintegrating and moral codes collapsing — that’s told in a methodical, at times ruthless fashion. If you go back and watch it a second time, as I did this morning, it feels even chillier, as if you’re reading a case file or the results of an autopsy: The victim went here, the killer did this and that, the blood and bone went there; see attached photos.
The episode’s precisely written and placed flashbacks, which fill out Stan and Chris’s relationship, have a tragic weight. They give you the sense of a full life slowly bleeding out of Chris’s body as he lies in the KGB safe house, fighting to keep silent and not betray secrets that could harm his colleagues. The scene of Stan listening to Chris’s answering-machine messages — every call is from some random woman he’s sleeping with, except for the one from his mother — is piercingly sad once you realize how this story is going to end. “If I’m not working, I’m out having a ball,” the message says. As he lies in Phillip’s dank safe house dying, he asks for water and a blanket like a sick little boy.
So much of this episode’s misery comes out of random, stupid errors, misunderstandings, and inappropriately withheld or disclosed bits of information. People make mistakes, then try to cover up or counteract or redress the mistakes, and make things worse and worse and worse. At certain points, “Safe House” reminded me of certain Coen Brothers thillers, particularly Blood Simple and Burn After Reading. Tragicomedies of error.
Odds and ends
• This episode was written by Joshua Brand, co-creator of St. Elsewhere, I’ll Fly Away, and Northern Exposure, and directed by Jim McKay, one of the best-kept secrets in American filmmaking. (Seek out his films Girls Town, Our Song, and Everyday People; you’ll be glad you did.) What a talent magnet this show is!
• I feel like a bit of a jerk for even introducing levity into a recap of such a somber hour of TV, but how the hell is it possible that Phillip/Clark’s wig could stay on all night while he sleeps at Martha’s place? Does nobody on this show pull or even stroke their partner’s hair during sex? I think maybe the show has to deal with this at some point, don’t you?
• Anybody who’s experienced divorce — whether from the point of view of a parent or a child — probably felt a shudder of recognition during that opening scene with Phillip and Elizabeth breaking the news to their kids. There were more stingingly honest moments after that, including Phillip talking to Henry through the bedroom door (love the wide shot of him slumped in the hall!) and the subsequent scene with Elizabeth confronting Henry about his “paper” on the Revolutionary War: “We won.” “You only wrote one sentence,” his mom says. “I didn’t have anything else to say,” he replies. At least he’s honest.
• Chris’s flashback monologue to Stan was Billy Wilder–worthy. “My work is my life, and my life is my art. I got no wife, no kids, no pets, no hobbies. No distractions. Except for pussy. I got no attachments. I’m as unencumbered as bedbugs in a flophouse. And I like it. It works for me.”
• Stan’s “soft mouth” monologue was just as good. Every scene with Stan was dark magic. The scene of him sitting alone in the diner with the video game beeping on the soundtrack behind him captured a particular kind of loneliness that I’ve rarely seen portrayed in series television. I hope this episode gets Emmerich a Best Supporting Actor Emmy, or at least a nomination.