“I keep asking myself what the odds are.”
So says Elizabeth to Claudia about a particularly risky meeting she’s set in the cafeteria at the State Department — which, for a Russian operative in 1987, is equivalent to picnicking in the lion’s den. In the end, it’s a successful mission: She slips away from a guided tour, eludes security, and comes away with valuable information about Ronald Reagan’s diminished mental state and how it might affect arms negotiations with the Soviets. The Jennings have experienced their share of close calls over six seasons, and here was another one.
Or is it?
“Tchaikovsky” focuses heavily on Elizabeth’s precarious situation — as an overtaxed one-woman operation, as a mother trying (and failing) to protect her daughter from the ugliest of truths, as a soldier in a Cold War that’s rapidly thawing. Her exposure has increased while her relevance has decreased, which is a dangerous combination. The Cold War has given her a purpose, and the end of it portends the end of her mission — and perhaps, the end of her life. The subtext of her skepticism over the summit and her efforts to secure that lithium-based radiation sensor is that she needs to stand in the way of progress. Otherwise, she’s rendered useless, a casualty of a losing cause. And then she’ll have to think about the sacrifices she’s made and the lives she’s destroyed, all in support of the wrong side of history.
The title of the episode comes from a recording Claudia plays for Paige, prefaced by the grim biographical note that “[Tchaikovsky’s] mother died when he was young and his life was full of loneliness.” As a one-line summary of Tchaikovsky’s life, that’s an awfully peculiar and suggestive point of emphasis. Paige is older than Tchaikovsky was when his mother died of cholera — he was 14, and already traumatized by their separation four years earlier, when his talent landed him in a prep school far away from his family — but she’s nonetheless in a vulnerable state, relying on her mother much more than a typical college-age woman would. Claudia probably doesn’t intend to send Paige a message here, but the show drops hints all episode long about Elizabeth’s possible exit. She knows the odds are worsening — she’s a second away from disaster twice in this episode alone — and she seems to be preparing for those odds to turn on her completely.
Her chief source of concern is Project Paige, which has advanced to the point where Paige is out in the field and onboard ideologically, but in crucial respects hasn’t moved forward at all since the time jump. Elizabeth is still withholding information about the unsavory aspects of the job. In last week’s premiere, she tied up one of Paige’s loose ends by killing a naval security officer. This week, she evades Paige’s question about women spies using their bodies to get closer to a source. (“There’s a lot of bullshit out there Paige,” says Elizabeth, bullshitting.) There’s an expectation, at the end of the line, that Paige will infiltrate the State Department or the CIA, where she presumably won’t have to bed or kill anyone and can subvert American interests from her office. Never forget that The Americans is a show about parenting, and parents always want the younger generation to have it better than they did.
But there may come a time when Elizabeth’s idealistic charade doesn’t hold up to scrutiny anymore, and that time could be when Paige sees an Air Force general’s brains splattered all over her mother’s face. Remember that when a younger Paige saw Elizabeth dispatch a mugger in a parking lot, the trauma was so extraordinary that her parents found her curled up in her bedroom closet. At the time, Elizabeth seized the opportunity to teach Paige self-defense, so she wouldn’t have to fear being defenseless in a situation like that. But she was also feeding Paige a sanitized version of the spy game while shielding her from the horrors of the job. Again: The Americans is a show about parenting, and all parents try to control or finesse truths that they don’t feel their children can process unfiltered. The downside is when the truth can’t be controlled or finessed and the child isn’t prepared for the shock of it. That’s where Elizabeth and Paige are left at the end of the episode.
Elsewhere, the episode cleverly juxtaposes the stakes of Philip’s and Elizabeth’s operations by crosscutting between Elizabeth sneaking her way into the State Department cafeteria and Philip “bumping into” a longtime client who has defected to another travel agency. Same skill set, different applications. We don’t know yet how far Philip will go in poking into Elizabeth’s affairs, but he does make a gentle inquiry about her well-being and she offers up her concern over Paige getting a name wrong. There’s a fine line between being a supportive husband and merely playing the role, and it’s not clear yet where Philip is going to land.
Hammers and sickles
• A thought about Stan, in relation to the Jennings: He can incentivize cooperation, but he doesn’t have the same freedom to terminate relationships when they don’t work out. Sofia Kovalenko, for example, has been a difficult contact from the start, with a tendency to spill secrets to those who get close to her. Stan and Dennis were fortunate that Sofia’s once-fiancé/now-husband/soon-to-be-ex Gennadi turned out to be enormously helpful as a courier between the U.S. and Russia, but there were no guarantees. Now that their marriage is falling apart and another man is privy to Sofia’s secrets, the danger has been renewed. There’s just not much Stan can do about it, other than hope for the best.
• Elizabeth volunteering to help Glenn Haskard’s wife commit suicide is an act of compassion that achieves greater access and trust from him ahead of the summit. Despite Elizabeth’s questionable bedside manner — she can’t hide her contempt for art (“I don’t know why people spend their life doing that”) and her disapproval about off-schedule pain relief — she seems genuinely affected by the situation. Erica Haskard is tough, and she’s forcing Elizabeth to confront inner feelings that she’s more comfortable denying.
• After packing the soundtrack with eclectic pop music last week, the show only has one non-classical music cue, but it’s a doozy: Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” is used over a tense delivery sequence in an airport restroom. And since that song appears in Stop Making Sense, the greatest concert film ever made, that’s a good excuse to check out the clip.