Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/FX
The best, slyest moment in this week’s excellent, ominous episode of The Americans came via a gesture and comment made by Martha Hanson.
“I love everything about you,” she said to Clark/Actually Philip. Then she touched his hairline, right where the glue that keeps his fake nerd do in place had probably only recently dried. “I even love your toupée.”
It was a dramatically ironic wink at the audience (maybe she read our slideshow?), because of course we know that “Clark” has been fake-hairing it this whole time, for reasons Martha still hasn’t fully grasped. But it was also a moment that, for just a second, made this viewer question whether Martha might be more clued in to her husband’s backstory than she’s revealed. Is she really so blinded by her devotion to Clark that she’ll happily bring home reams of top secret documents from the FBI just to please him? Or is it possible there’s more going on with Martha than we can see on the surface, that she might even be working with Agent Gaad to expose his identity?
“How long have you known?” Clark/Philip asked after she made the toupée comment. He was referring to the hair piece, but the fear that subtly, for a flash, washed over his face suggested that Philip also was wondering if, somehow, she might have known-known all along.
A couple of scenes later, when Martha brought up the possibility of starting a family — a possibility Clark bluntly dismissed — any suspicions about her possibly secret agenda seemed completely unfounded. She clearly loves this guy, to the point of being utterly delusional. Still, the way Martha’s toupée remark prompted sharp intake of breath only intensified the sense that all the characters in The Americans are currently residing in a warm powder keg, where things have gotten just about hot enough to blow.
“One day it’s coming,” Elizabeth said ominously to Philip. “You know it is.” She meant that at some point, they will likely have to send Paige and Henry away in the same manner Elizabeth swiftly dispatched Jared — who, as Philip confirmed, did know about his parents’ spy lives — to a remote location. But the urgency in her voice was thick with foreshadowing. One day it’s coming. That day could even be as soon as next Wednesday, when The Americans season two finale airs.
In this week’s episode, called “Operation Chronicle,” there were admittedly a few plot points that stretched the limits of believability a little too far. As previously noted, Martha’s brazen borrowing of classified documents seemed a little too extreme, regardless of how disorganized and mail-robot-careless the atmosphere may be at FBI HQ. Larrick — who was only a few minutes behind Elizabeth on every step of her journey with Jared — also got the information he needed about the kid’s whereabouts with remarkable ease. (Larrick, to train station attendant: “I’m looking for a teenager with brown hair — ” Train station attendant: “Oh, him! Here, let me tell you which train he was on, then give you the directions to the remote shack where he’s currently hiding … ”) And then there were Paige’s freshly stoked suspicions about her parents’ secret lives. Where did that come from? During the past several episodes, Paige has been frustrated with her parents. But ever since she joined the church, her days of poking around in the laundry room or trotting off to investigate Aunt Helen seemed to be behind her. Last week, she seemed really pleased by her mother’s willingness to let her join that protest in Pennsylvania, which made her parental skepticism seem a little out of nowhere in this episode.
But here’s the thing: I don’t care. Even if The Americans occasionally overreaches to keep all its plotlines on course, it more than makes up for that in terms of execution, which, once again this week, was brisk, brimming with mounting tension and devoid of a single wasted moment.
I loved the way that Elizabeth’s scenes with Jared, as juxtaposed against the ones involving Paige, who felt frustrated and abandoned by her mother, emphasized the potential connectivity between the fates of the Connor kids and the Jennings children. It was sad to watch Elizabeth acting as a mother hen to a boy who no longer has a mother: carefully preparing his backpack, telling him his old life is over, then saying a final farewell as he got out of her car and stepped into a black hole of uncertainty. It was even sadder that her maternal responsibility to a boy she barely knew meant she could not help her own daughter prepare for her less momentous trip and couldn’t even get home in time to give Paige the good-bye she deserved. I have a feeling that missed opportunity may haunt Elizabeth for a long, long time.
I also loved the scene where Elizabeth prepared to deal with her Jared-related “work emergency” while Paige gave her the third degree, sarcastic-teenager-style. (“Did a plane full of your clients crash?”) The way the laugh track from an episode of Diff’rent Strokes crept in to the conversation gave Paige’s line of questioning a subtle “What’choo talkin’ ‘bout, Elizabeth?” quality and, more important, underlined the fact that life in the Jennings household isn’t exactly a delightful sitcom. In this family, when Dad threatens to take away the touchtone phone in his daughter’s room, it’s not because she’s gabbing too much with her friends. It’s because she won’t stop doing surveillance on her parents’ surveillance activities.
As various strands of the season’s multiple plotlines started to braid together in this episode — the Stealth/Echo business, the ramifications of the Connors’ death, Paige’s relationship with Pastor Tim and the church, the situation with Nadia and Stan — it became increasingly clear that several key players who are at odds on the surface are now essentially playing for the same team. After seeing the apparent danger Nadia was facing (an act, but not entirely), Stan betrayed all his FBI ethics and attempted to get access to Echo, for ultimately the same reason Elizabeth and Philip were asking Fred to pick up samples of that radar-absorbent paint from a factory floor: so Russia can beat the Americans at their stealth-operation game. The across-the-street Falls Church neighbors are now working for the same cause even if they don’t know it, a truth emphasized visually by the closing scenes in which Stan, then Elizabeth, entered their respective, practically identical foyers to have conversations with their spouses about their precarious family situations.
Even though these people are spies and FBI employees, individuals trained to look critically at all information before them, it’s notable that Stan, Philip, Elizabeth, and Martha were all so confident in their ability to escape detection and in the consistency of their organization’s behavior. Stan batted down Nina’s suggestion that he could be in trouble for fiddling with surveillance reports, noting that things are so disorganized at the bureau that he could easily blame any breach on a mole, an attitude that echoed Martha’s rant about mail robots and general FBI disorganization. When Elizabeth darted out of the house to deal with the Jared situation, she told Philip to signal the Centre from their home instead of another location, because “What are the odds the FBI is signal-chasing in Falls Church, right now?” (I don’t know … not terrible, considering that an FBI agent lives across the freakin’ street?) And later, when Elizabeth expressed concern about their safety, Philip said of their Russian bosses, “If they thought we were at risk, they’d tell us.” Philip was trusting entirely that their mother country would protect them, even though it’s obvious no one in the KGB is keeping particularly tight tabs on Larrick.
It’s human nature to want to believe in the institutions in which we’re taught to have faith from the earliest of ages: our parents, our government, our church, our fellow countrymen. But sometimes that faith is not repaid. Nina Sergeevna learned that lesson this week when she allowed herself to be physically brutalized for the sake of duping Stan into infiltrating Echo, only to realize via the mute counsel of Oleg that her sacrifice won’t be rewarded. She’ll likely be sent back to Russia to face trial no matter what she does. The only option she has is to silently take Oleg’s money and run.
“They tried not to make it hurt too much,” Nina told Oleg of the bruises and bumps she suffered in the name of Stan Beeman–brainwashing theater, “but it had to look good.”
It was a line that I could imagine a much older Paige or Henry or Jared saying someday about the secret undercover world they were unwittingly pulled into by their own parents: “They tried not to make it hurt too much. But it had to look good.” Then again, maybe these kids of undercover KGB agents are tougher than they seem.
Jared certainly handled an alarming and uncertain situation with remarkable calm. And when Elizabeth said that if Paige and Henry were in Jared’s shoes, “they’d be dead in a week,” I immediately flashed back to that time when the Jennings kids escaped that weird dude who picked them up from the mall. In that instance, they were resilient, fast-acting, and able to escape potential danger. They looked out for each other. As much as I fear for their safety, I also know they have their parents’ DNA in them. That means maybe, somehow, they can figure out a way to avoid the hurt altogether.