We open this week on two KGB operatives playing a game that serves as a metaphor for their relationship, though I’m pleased to say that, rather than the clichéd chess, they have instead opted for Scrabble. Philip and Gabriel are pulling little wooden tiles out of a cloth bag as they discuss their plans for destroying America. Perhaps the words they play will be a window into their innermost thoughts! The stentorian-voiced Gabriel plays stygian — referring to the river Styx in the underworld — which makes sense, since he’s basically the Communist Lucifer trying to seduce Paige out of her American Eden with the knowledge that she’s actually a KGB scion. Philip, meanwhile, is simply askew.
In between SAT words, they go through the list of men they’ve identified in the CIA’s Afghan group and settle on an agent named Ted Paaswell as the weakest link. Gabriel warns that the CIA will be watching these agents very closely, before shifting back to his very favorite topic: Paige joining the KGB. “I just want Paige to make her own decisions,” says Philip. “We all do,” says Gabriel. They are both lying.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth has been training a tall, lanky operative who looks like Seth Cohen in the elegant art of surveillance. We learn that he’s also a teaching assistant, and shortly before he hits on Elizabeth (and asks her opinion of stone-washed jeans), they have a brief chat about the finer points of microeconomics and communism. “The production of too many useless things results in too many useless people,” says Elizabeth, both quoting Marx and succinctly summing up her opinion of America.
Back at the Jennings homestead, Elizabeth brings up Paige’s birthday. Philip wanted to buy her a ten-speed, but she worries that more than one present might put Paige on the road to uselessness. Instead, she wants to buy a necklace that she thinks Paige will like. “Maybe you think she’d like it because you like it,” grumps Philip, never one to miss out on a passive-aggressive metaphor for their daughter’s future.
Later, the pair head to the open house for Paaswell’s home, where Elizabeth wears an amazing pair of glasses that are like the ‘80s eyewear equivalent of an elaborate Renaissance hair ornament. As she judgmentally tours a room overflowing with children’s toys, Philip heads upstairs to the agent’s office to bug what looks like an antique mobile phone. Moments after he finishes, Paaswell walks in to grab it, while making some defeatist comments about how bringing work home destroys your marriage.
It’s not advice that’s particularly applicable to the Jennings’ relationship, however; if anything, today proves the opposite. Philip and Elizabeth trail the agent in their car for an hour or so, listening in as he mournfully plays the song “All Outta Love” by Air Supply and flirts with a teenage babysitter. It’s a typical day of suburban cosplay and voyeurism, at least until eagle-eyed Elizabeth notices a passing car — the same one she saw pass them an hour and a half earlier. In a matter of seconds, they realize Gabriel was right: The CIA is staking out their Afghan agents, and now they have an entire team tailing Philip and Elizabeth, too, waiting to see where they go.
There’s a look of trapped horror on their faces as it dawns on them, but they quickly put an escape plan in motion. It’s pretty impressive to see them spring into action like this; in an instant, all their petty squabbling falls away, and they become one synchronous, well-oiled machine. As they pull through a parking lot, Philip surreptitiously rolls out of the car and calls one of their operatives with a coded message involving a certain intersection at a certain time. When Elizabeth stops at the appointed red light, there’s a fortuitous fender bender, and she slips away in the chaos through a nearby archway and into a waiting car.
When she finally makes her way home, where Philip has been waiting up anxiously, they kiss passionately as a tinny version of “The Star Spangled Banner” plays on the TV in the background. It’s terribly romantic, at least until Elizabeth’s recurring tooth pain derails the tender moment. The injury she sustained in her brawl from the season premiere isn’t healing, and she correctly anticipates that the FBI is keeping an eye on the local dentists for women fitting her description. And so instead of having sex, she and Philip head to the garage to do something that ends up feeling almost as personal: DIY dentistry.
It’s telling how little they speak in this scene — how much of it plays out in the looks they exchange, the things they assume. As odd as it sounds, there’s something deeply intimate about it all, the sense of shared pain and determination as they lock eyes and he pulls the broken tooth out of her skull with a pair of pliers. Elizabeth stops him twice so she can compose herself, and his response is attuned and instant, almost like she’s uttered a safe word. What happens here could easily be an act of torture under different circumstances, but instead it becomes a profound act of trust.
Compare and contrast with Martha and “Clark,” Philip’s other marriage, which is similarly plagued by arguments about children. Namely, Martha wants to have them — or at least adopt them — and Clark does not. “We have so much,” says Martha, who badly wants to share their good fortune with a child who has nothing, someone who can learn and grow in their care. “That kind of relationship with a young person doesn’t appeal to you at all?” she asks. Philip can barely deal with the strain of having kids in his mostly real marriage, let alone his totally fake one. So he just smiles and kisses her, saying nothing, letting her project whatever she wants to see into his useless grin. Here, silence isn’t a function of intimacy; it’s a form of deception.
Despite how often the people around her seem to treat her as an object of derision, Martha is actually a pretty impressive woman: loving, determined, and honest, not to mention highly capable. Philip seems perpetually annoyed by her for the same reasons that I like her: Over and over, she insists on being a real person who wants a real relationship and a real life, rather than simply being his compliant puppet. What she really deserves is a man like the agent who takes her aside at the mail cart to let her know that he’s into her and she’s awesome. “Talking to you is not a waste of time,” he says, a stance that tragically puts him firmly at odds with her secret fake husband.
We see the same agent quiz Stan about his undercover days with the white supremacists, and he asks how he finally took them down. “Tell them what they want to hear, over and over and over again,” says Stan. “People love hearing how right they are.” The agent stares at the KGB Pinterest board on the wall and ponders this advice, like he’s formulating a plan.
Despite the close call, Philip wants to stake out Paaswell’s next meeting with the teenage babysitter who wants to bone him. Gabriel says it’s too risky, but Philip does it anyway, probably because he hates him. Although Paaswell ultimately shuts down the girl’s not-so-subtle sexual overtures, when he finally drops her off at home Elizabeth and Philip make an even more interesting discovery: Her father is the head of the CIA’s Afghan group.
Crises have a way of cutting to the core of relationships, and whatever else you can say about the Jennings, when the shit hits the fan, they have each other’s backs with an intensity halfway between the loyalty of a soldier with the passion of a lover. What did Paige say a week ago? “You guys look out for each other, you and Dad. More than us.” Burn away all the bullshit and you’ll find a quality essential to both love and combat: a deep and implicit faith that when they need to lean on each other with the full weight of their darkest and most frightening moments, they will hold.
As they sit in the car during the operation, Elizabeth and Philip resume their conversation about Paige, except it feels different now. Maybe it’s a détente partially borne of adrenaline and endorphins, but either way the resentment is gone for the moment, replaced with camaraderie. When Philip sighs and says, “What are we going to do about Paige?” it actually feels like “we” for the first time in a long while.