Matthew Rhys as Philip, Keri Russell as Elizabeth.
On the occasion of this season’s second major death, let us reflect on the nature of surprise. When Nina was unceremoniously executed back in the first half of the season, it was shocking in its abruptness, but actually not that surprising. Her arc had reached the point where it would require more narrative gymnastics to keep her alive than to kill her off. It was heartbreaking to say good-bye to a character we’d known for so long, but her death wasn’t exactly a surprise. Just sudden.
By comparison, Gaad’s demise in tonight’s episode is truly shocking. As recently as two episodes ago, I assumed Gaad had ridden off into the Thai sunset (my favorite Yankee Candle scent, by the way), disgraced professionally but still able to live out a happy life with his wife. When he first turns up in “Munchkins,” it’s a pleasant surprise, an unexpected denouement to a character whose arc had supposedly wrapped. When a group of heavily accented goons show up in Gaad’s hotel room with a “proposal,” it seems like The Americans may have found a way to prolong his story through the end of the season. (Perhaps somehow in conjunction with Martha’s Russian adventures? It seems entirely possible those hired thugs want to broker a trade with Gaad for Martha.) And then it all goes out the window — literally.
Gaad’s fatal flight through the plate-glass door is both an out-of-left-field surprise and chilling in its implied repercussions. The looks on the goons’ faces — and their repeated apologies to a dying Gaad — indicate that this is not how it all was supposed to go, and whoever hired them will not be pleased. That suspicion is confirmed a few scenes later by Arkady, who tells Tatiana, “An operation didn’t go as planned … maybe it never should have been planned in the first place.” That could apply to many things — such as the bio-weapons program, which Tatiana tells Oleg about during their post-coital debriefing — but I think it’s safe to assume that Arkady’s dismay is related to Gaad’s accident. Whether or not it can be traced back to the source, the suspicious nature of Gaad’s death will almost certainly mean problems for the Russians in some way or another. Particularly when Stan learns the details …
Another reason Gaad’s death feels so shocking is that it’s far removed from the rest of “Munchkins,” which is otherwise occupied with drama of a more domestic, familial nature. This episode title references Stan’s nickname for Gaad’s replacement, whom he views as one of an army of sycophantic clones, but it could also be interpreted in the more traditional sense of the word, as a nod to The Americans’ adolescent characters. Much of “Munchkins” is about children grappling with their perceptions of their parents and what they do. Granted, Paige has been doing that for some time now, but this episode forces her to face the implications of her parents’ work. She’s joined in teen angst by Matthew Beeman, of all people, who’s distressed — or impressed? — by Stan’s stories about Martha and her dad (“It’s intense, you know?”), and our old pal Kimmy, who unloads on “James” after her dad tells her he works for the CIA, not the State Department. Of course, “James” knows this already, and he can’t help but let a little bit of Philip come through when he chastises Kimmy for telling him her dad’s secret — you know, like the secret Paige knows about her dad? The one that she told to someone, and then that someone told someone, and now they all may have to go back to Russia? Cue the shrieking.
Paige’s freakout upon realizing she and her family may have to flee to a foreign country is likely driven by guilt. She was dismayed to learn that Pastor Tim told her secret to Alice — a known blabbermouth — but she did achieve a détente of sorts with the two of them. (And has been doing penance in the form of reporting on them to her parents.) But Pastor Tim’s disappearance while in Ethiopia — near the Soviet-supported region of Eritrea — provokes Alice to demonstrate the latent power of the weapon Paige inadvertently gave her.
“Tim wants to believe the best in everyone, but I know what you do,” an uncomfortably pregnant Alice shouts to Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige, while a dependably oblivious Henry hides under headphones in the next room. (Or so he says.) Alice is clearly panicked, but she’s also dangerous in this moment, waving the threat of her knowledge around like a loaded gun. She tells them she’s made a tape of what she knows and given it to a lawyer, as both blackmail against the people she believes have harmed her husband, and to guarantee her own safety.
Even though she’s presented as an antagonist in this situation — though with The Americans’ fuzzy moral boundaries, such labels aren’t that useful — it’s hard not to admire Alice’s fierceness as she confronts Philip and Elizabeth. There’s no denying that she’s acting out of a protective instinct for her husband and unborn child; you can draw a direct line between this and Philip’s story to Paige about his “tough” mom collecting his unpaid wages from a shady boss. Alice is in mama-bear mode, the flip side of raw, exposed vulnerability we later see her display, as she clings, sobbing, to a freaked-out Paige in Pastor Tim’s office. Alice’s comfortable, pleasant world has been turned upside-down, and she’s grasping at whatever she has left to control the situation.
Which, it turns out, is very little, and not just because Philip and Elizabeth have nothing to do with Pastor Tim’s disappearance. (The moment when they discuss whether there’s any possibility they might have something to do with it is The Americans’ subtle black humor at its finest.) Alice probably never even called a lawyer — if she did, it wasn’t from the bugged phone in Pastor Tim’s office, which Philip checks — and possibly never even recorded a tape. But then again, she didn’t need to. The threat that she did, or that she could, is more than enough to send Philip, Elizabeth, and especially Paige reeling.
We know Paige is not wrong to wonder whether her parents could be involved in Pastor Tim’s death, and Philip and Elizabeth at least have the decency to appreciate the irony of this happening after they went through such lengths to avoid killing Tim and Alice when Paige first dropped the spy-bomb. (The fact that Paige doesn’t wonder why her parents would leave Alice alive shows how little she understands the true nature of their work.) In this very specific situation, Paige is wrong to doubt her parents, but this is exactly the sort of thing Philip and Elizabeth do as spies, and it’s not something they want Paige to know about, at least not yet.
Reaching a deeper level of irony, the incident winds up reinforcing Philip and Elizabeth’s “peaceful spies” narrative to Paige. When Pastor Tim reappears after getting lost and wandering in the jungle for a few days — seriously, Tim? — Paige is chastened, apologizing to her parents for not trusting them, then telling them she decided not to ask Alice for the tape just yet. Her parents approve — and not just because they know there probably isn’t a tape. The ordeal ultimately reinforces her good judgment, as well as their trust in her. Philip and Elizabeth aren’t exactly “working” Paige in this moment, but they are engaging in some light manipulation. They can’t put the genie back in the bottle, but after such an unexpected reprieve, they can at least keep the genie sidelined.