Paranoia is swallowing The Americans. At first it seems odd that you can feel it so keenly in every scene, given that this is a show about spies, and spies are by nature paranoid. But here Philip and Elizabeth are, looking nervously at everyone and everything, because they fear that in the next moment they could lose their children.
Elizabeth seems to have been hit especially hard; throughout “Cardinal,” which was written by series creator Joe Weisberg and executive producer Joel Fields and directed by Daniel Sackheim, she keeps looking out of the windows of her house, staring at the maintenance van across the street and wondering if it contains assassins. Does someone want them dead? Who killed fellow KGB agents Emmett and Leanne in the hotel at the park? Why did they kill their daughter, too? There’s a disquieting suggestion that the sole survivor of the massacre, a teenage boy, might be deemed a loose end and summarily finished off. “How are we gonna live like this?” Elizabeth asks Phillip near the end of the episode, referring to the pervasive sense of fear. “The same way we get used to everything else,” he replies.
Phillip and Elizabeth wonder if a mole (John Carroll Lynch) whom Phillip interacted with at the park somehow triggered the massacre, perhaps by spilling his arrangement to somebody on the outside of it. (The secrets he’s smuggling appear to have something to do with stealing submarine technology — thus his warning Phillip that he has to hurry if he wants to break into the plant where propellers are being manufactured and steal their specifications.) But when Phillip confronts the mole, he says he didn’t spill. His distress over the killings is so obviously genuine (he considered Emmett and Leanne friends of his, and had no idea they were murdered at the park) that Phillip takes his words at face value. Phillip knows through his connection with Martha (wife of Phillip’s alter ego Clark) that the FBI counterintelligence office has no insight into who committed the murders. It’s a bloody question mark.
The FBI, meanwhile, is obsessed with uncovering the identity of an American who walked into the Soviet embassy and stayed a while. These “walk-ins,” as they’re called, often signal a high-level defection or betrayal. “Last guy walked into the Soviet embassy gave them the trigger design they use on their nukes,” agent Frank Gadd tells Stan. They eventually figure out that the walk-in is a guy named Bruce Dameran.
As is often the case on The Americans, everybody’s using everyone else, and after having expended great energy and resourcefulness to maneuver the used people into their proper slot, they have to work hard to keep them there. Phillip and Elizabeth’s fear of losing their children could spur them to seriously consider quitting the KGB (if indeed one can simply quit such an organization; from everything we’ve seen, it looks like it’s easier to quit the Mafia). They’re obviously being run ragged by their bosses. This episode and the last one were tied together by a sense of exhaustion. The sequence of events revolving around the game of Life (I see what you did there, Americans) and Elizabeth’s sudden decision to see Raiders of the Lost Ark (again, presumably; the episode is set in early 1982, and Raiders was a summer of ‘81 film) perfectly captures what it feels like for a parent to try to seem in-the-moment even though her thoughts and feelings are elsewhere. Both parents are badly overextended. They’re half-assing the child-rearing part of their lives, and both kids sense it — especially Paige, who’s suspicious of her folks and spends a fair amount of her free time snooping around looking for insight into what they’re really doing when they disappear and stay disappeared for days.
Stan and Nina are continuing to exploit each other in their love nest/safe house, with Stan literally and figuratively pumping his mistress for information on Washington KGB boss Arkady, Nina’s superior, and Nina in turn feeding Stan misleading or false information and using him to figure out what the FBI is up to. The scene in which she types a report to her superior might be the episode’s best; it cross-cuts between Nina recounting her latest tryst in clinical language and images of Stan and Nina being tenderly intimate, expressing emotion that clearly goes beyond subterfuge and role-playing. “I serviced the subject orally before allowing him to penetrate me,” she types at one point, as if writing an instruction manual. Then she adds, “I have reason to believe the subject’s feelings for me will continue to grow deeper,” over images of Stan and Nina in bed, Nina’s obvious postcoital comfort belying the coldness of her language.
All in all this feels like a bridge episode, joining the season premiere to some spectacular payoff further down the line, but it’s quite satisfying, mainly because of its precision. The Americans was strong right out of the gate in season one, but it seems to have refined both its messages and its methods in season two. Every scene seems carefully calibrated to express or enhance the show’s themes or set up some plot development that will flower somewhere further down the road, and yet somehow these same scenes never feel purely functional; there’s always some nifty bit of character development, mood-setting, or period detail.
One example is the sequence of mini-scenes wherein Elizabeth comes to the aide of a young KGB agent stranded in an alley with an aide to a congressman who overdosed after smoking cocaine with her. Elizabeth’s brisk handling of the situation reminds us of how tough and experienced she is, but there’s also a sense in which, by dealing with this problem, she’s also conversing with a younger version of herself, which lets us see how far she’s come (or how much she’s hardened).
Their conversation also alludes to an important political development in the 1980s, the United States and the Soviet Union’s use of other countries as Cold War battlefields. Just as the opening bloodbath in the Afghan restaurant last week reminded us of the Soviet occupation and counterinsurgency there (which eventually gave rise to Al Qaeda, ironically), the scenes in the alley this week are a real-world call back to the troubles in Latin America, which the Reagan administration was terrified might go totally Commie. I don’t think the scene specifically reveals which country is in play (if it did, I missed it), but it’s clear that The Americans has a strong point of view on these shenanigans and others — that there was, in fact, a strong Soviet presence in Latin America, that it was part of the larger ideological battle between the USSR and the free West, and that a lot of people died or had their lives ruined as a result of it. Considering that the overwhelming majority of TV series, past and present, have no sense of global history at all, much less a point of view on it, The Americans’ awareness of its fictional characters’ place in the world seems all the more remarkable.