“ARPANET” is a tight, propulsive episode of The Americans, a show that produces little else. Written by Joshua Brand and directed by Kevin Dowling, it also moves the story forward politically, moving it deeper into the ‘80s and closer to the end of the Cold War — not that anyone involved in this tale has any idea that there will be an end.
The main lines of action are Oleg, Nina, Stan, and the lie detector test; Phillip’s attempt to bug ARPANET (the progenitor of what we now know as the internet), and Elizabeth’s “handling” of Lucia, the Nicaraguan-born Soviet agent who’s as hot tempered as she is committed. The latter story line ties in with the ongoing plot about Andrew Larrick, the Navy SEAL and Soviet asset believed to have massacred a family of agents in the season premiere. In the end, much of this feeds back into the U.S.-USSR tango over who would claim Central America as a cluster of ideological client states.
Lucia is an example of how personal and political motives can work at cross purposes. She holds Larrick responsible for the death of her father, a newspaper editor who opposed the regime of Somoza (full name Antonio Somoza Debayle), and wants him dead. Elizabeth is worried that Lucia could compromise the operation they’re preparing: an assault on a training field where U.S.-backed Contras are being prepared for a covert operation to mine the harbor in Managua. (With the possible exception of Mad Men, no current drama ties its events so closely to history.) Elizabeth argues for a utilitarian perspective: In order to do the greatest amount of good for the cause of the USSR, Lucia will need to overcome her personal animosity toward Larrick. But it’s obvious from this episode and previous ones that Lucia is an unstable element who will eventually need to be dealt with, through official channels or off the books.
Speaking of unstable elements: Philip, tasked with his new handler to bug ARPANET, has to partner up with an alcoholic asset named Charles Duluth (as in Duluth, Minnesota, a fact that’s the source of mirth here). The scene in which a university professor named Rosenblum explains ARPANET is a terrific example of historical as well as dramatic exposition. It is both amusing and edifying to watch two profoundly twentieth-century men listen incredulously to an explanation of life in the 21st-century that people watching this very series are quite comfortable with. The professor describes ARPANET as a virtual space that allows information to travel from point to point without worrying about geography. The highlight of this excellent sequence is a shot that cranes up, cued by the word heaven, and passes through the floor of the professor’s office and into the computer lab. The lab may or may not be directly above the professor’s office. The machine’s exact location doesn’t matter, as this clever shot proves the professor’s point: New technology makes geography moot.
Charles nearly screws up the mission by writing a purloined access code on his sweaty palm. His iffy memory comes through for his partner Philip, though, and when they rendezvous in the bar afterwards, Charles is unreasonably self-righteous about getting it right, as well as deceptive about the extent of his drinking. In retrospect, we can’t help wondering if that moment in the hallway when Philip yelled at Charles might’ve been the decisive factor in putting Philip in a position where he had to kill a student who just happened upon the lab as he was breaking into it.
This killing weighs heavily on Philip. Collateral damage always does; the man is a seducer, a thief, a spy, and a killer, but he has a soldier’s code. An accumulation of incidents this season has made him more aware of collateral damage, and what it costs him emotionally and morally. First the massacre, then the intellectual hotboxing by the captive Israeli agent and then the dissident Russian, and now this: Almost every week, there’s a new albatross around his neck, a new reminder that the brutality he practices did not come naturally, that it was learned, and is a choice. Philip hates that he killed an innocent person “for some Xs and 0s on a virtual highway, I don’t even know what that means. Do you know how many people I’ve killed? Have you looked into their eyes, watched them die?”
If Philip and Elizabeth Jennings ever divorce, the cause may be ideological. Philip’s distressed monologue at the bar felt like the inverse of Elizabeth’s statement to Lucia, about how certain appalling crimes are permissible if they contribute to the successful completion of a worthy mission that benefits a nation and its people. We are increasingly seeing Elizabeth as a woman who will do anything it takes to further the cause of the glorious mother country, and Philip as a man who will do so reluctantly, sometimes under duress, often with deep regrets. And even though both parents have done a remarkable job of hiding their secret lives from their children, the children seem to have picked up on it anyway, and either acted out against it (Paige’s snooping, running away to see Aunt Helen, and joining a Bible study group) or absorbed it as if by osmosis (Henry breaking into a neighbor’s house to play their coveted Intellivision). The phrase “call and response,” used knowingly and with great joy by Oleg, might be a template for this episode. For every cause, an effect. For every action, an equal and often horrible reaction.
Speaking of Oleg, I foretold an affair between him and Nina weeks ago, but I was still taken aback by the big reveal at the end: that it was already in progress. In some ways, I wish we’d had a chance to see things progress incrementally. Still, we can accuse the show of keeping us in the dark. Everything about Nina and Oleg’s interaction during the polygraph prep scenes suggests either a couple or potential couple. They speak to each other with an easy intimacy, more like lovers than co-workers, particularly when Oleg suggests that Nina tighten her anus to focus her mind as she lies (“it works”), and that she focus on a random spot in the room and visualize him standing there.
“I must lie to myself,” Nina says at one point. “You must lie to tell a greater truth,” Oleg replies, faintly echoing one of the motifs in this episode, the idea of doing wrong in order to do right.