This season of The Americans has often felt ominously smooth, as though its characters were in the midst of a slow-motion fishtail toward some unknown catastrophe. I suspect that later, when we look back, this will be the episode where things really start to turn.
Elizabeth’s field trip to the primarily black neighborhood of Kenilworth has made quite an impression on Paige, who seems both proud of her parents’ secret past as “civil-rights activists” and indignant that she didn’t know sooner. “I can’t believe you had a friend who got killed by the police,” she says, right as her younger brother walks by. Soon Henry’s asking questions, too, and Philip finds himself in the nightmare situation of talking about murdered operatives with his kids, and quickly shuts it down. He’s none too pleased that Paige seems to be totally fired up about radical activism now, and insists there are a lot of ways to make a difference.
He heads to the bedroom and bangs around in the bathroom yelling about aspirin before he says the obvious: He’s pissed that Elizabeth moved forward with Paige, even though that was exactly what the Center demanded — and exactly what she said she was going to do.
“Am I going to come home one day and Paige will just tell me that she knows who we are?” asks Philip. There’s a long pause. “I honestly don’t know,” she answers. She told him the train was leaving the station, and this is how it feels to watch from the sidelines as it slowly pulls away with everyone he loves.
Philip takes a long shower about it, and they switch into business mode: The suspicious student that Hans pointed out last week has been meeting with a South African intelligence officer named Eugene Venter, and they’re likely planning an attack to discredit the anti-apartheid movement. The KGB is sending Reuben Ncgobo, the third-most-wanted man in South Africa, to act as bait so they can capture Venter. It also means that Hans — who has been an ever-so-eager Lisa Simpson of spycraft under Elizabeth’s tutelage — finally gets to take part in an operation as a lookout.
Later, when Philip brings home a pizza in hopes of rekindling some more daddy-daughter bonding moments, Paige barely looks up from her reading. Gone are the days when he was the cool dad with the Yaz record; now he’s just yesterday’s news with an anchovy-and-pineapple pizza. He takes the pie over to Stan’s instead for a bitch session about their respective marital problems, claiming that he and Elizabeth are “always on opposite sides” these days. But as we’ve seen over and over this season, that’s a selective interpretation of their relationship at best; the Jennings might not agree about Paige, but they’re also trust each other with their lives almost every day.
Things go awry in Philip’s second marriage as well, when Agent Aderholt finds the bug that Martha planted in Agent Gaad’s office, and the office immediately turns into a high-tech game of Whack-a-Mole. Although Martha is wise enough to book it to the ladies room and soak down all her spy gear in water before they screen her bags for electronics, she’s deeply shaken by the experience — and something shifts.
She’s always believed that “Clark” is working for the U.S. government, and either she’s simply upset by the idea that she could get caught in an inter-agency debacle, or she’s started to doubt whether any of it is really true at all. After she makes it home, we see her take the gun she learned to use earlier this season and put it away, before pulling out the Kama Sutra she and Clark have used so many times. Both possibilities seem to make her equally sad.
Either through good or bad luck, Philip decides to spend an unplanned night with Martha, who tries to pretend everything is fine when he shows up but fails miserably. For a moment, I though the show might turn Clark/Martha into a twisted mirror of Philip/Elizabeth, but it’s clear that Martha isn’t interested in teaming up with him for anything right now. She brushes off his romantic overtures and says that she wants to see his apartment for the first time, right now. Fortunately, Philip seems to have the location prepped — complete with a framed photo of her on display — but even this doesn’t assuage her paranoia. She claims that she’s not feeling well, and wants to go back home again. She knows something isn’t right, but she’s not quite ready to start pulling on this thread, because Clark is just her very favorite sweater.
As Philip crawls into bed with Elizabeth after his very weird night, he ends up telling her the big secret that has been orbiting so many of his issues: He has a 20-year-old son from an earlier relationship who is currently deployed in Afghanistan. How could he pretend to adopt a child with Martha when he already has a son he’s never even met? And how could he bring Paige into their war when he already has one child fighting it?
When Elizabeth meets with Ncgobo, he asks her a very salient question that goes to the heart of her issue: “Do your kids have any idea what a badass woman their mom is?” She laughs and says no, which is kind of the whole problem. That’s something that Philip has never quite understood: It’s not just that Elizabeth wants Paige to know the truth; it’s that she wants to be known by her.
And then comes the climactic moment of the episode, which plays out to Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” a song about the dissolution of relationships and what keeps the people inside them bound together even as they’re falling apart. Todd meets Ncgobo at a diner as Philip lurks in a nearby booth wearing a Ramones wig and Hans watches from across the street. When Philip spots Venter, he signals Elizabeth, who pulls up in a van just in time for Philip to bounce him off the windshield and throw him in back, while Ncgobo grabs Todd and takes him along for the ride.
As they pull away, Hans looks a little bit stunned at exactly how much ass he watched them kick. It’s a small glimpse, maybe, of how Paige is going to feel when Ncgobo’s question finally gets answered.