In the increasingly heated arena of the Cold War, the moment things begin to get personal is the moment failure becomes a real prospect. But throughout the first season of The Americans, it seems all anyone can do is to take the escalation of the covert war home with them, internalize it and make their side of the conflict as much a part of themselves as it can possibly be.
It’s seen in the way Stan has surrendered himself to the temptation of Nina waiting inside his FBI safe house. It’s also evident in Agent Gaad’s relentless pursuit of retribution, and more recently, in the late Agent Amador’s investigation of his co-worker and fomer romantic partner, Martha.
Perhaps it was most evident in Gregory. For him there was no line between his political, professional and personal passions – they were forever entangled with Elizabeth and the mission handed down to her by Directorate S. But when the relentless pursuit of Stan Beeman and the FBI forced those who’d committed Amador’s murder to pin it on Gregory, he opted for suicide by police gunfire, rather than a modest stipend in Moscow that was devoid of both Elizabeth and decent Chinese takeout.
That should have been the end of it, and yet there was no satisfaction in Gregory’s demise; it was a hollow victory as much as it was a heartbreaking sacrifice. And the personal loss felt by Elizabeth was made worse as the Americans’ escalation of the covert war managed to find its way into her life again with the assassination of General Zhukov.
“Change is hard, daunting. It uproots us,” Zhukov said to Elizabeth in 1964. It’s true; in no time at all, The Americans has done a terrific job of uprooting the lives of its characters and watching as they fight to acclimate themselves. More to the point, Elizabeth has lost Gregory, seen her fake marriage dissolve into a very real separation and now Zhukov, the man who shepherded her through so many changes in her life, is struck down – another casualty of the Cold War.
When he first ushered fresh-faced Misha into his office to share a cup of tea with the quiet but “exemplary” Nadezhda, who would have though that Zhukov – head of Directorate S, matchmaker, dog lover – would also have held such an important place in shaping Elizabeth’s emotional outlook? ‘Covert War’ is in many respects another episode told primarily from Elizabeth’s point of view, but what it also establishes is The Americans’ fantastic grasp on how to dole out the flashbacks as an element integral to Philip or Elizabeth’s character, rather than rely on them as either padding or the source of the actual narrative.
This time the flashbacks offer a glimpse of just how much Elizabeth had come to rely on Zhukov, and his absence leaves her feeling at first full of rage, but ultimately, just out of control. And, in a way, everyone falls into a potentially disastrous tailspin. Stan’s constant absences lead Sandra to only one possible and horrifying conclusion, while Nina is somehow pumping him for information about Vlad, since she has “a lot more access to the truth now.
Meanwhile, Philip is caught between foraging for dinner in the vending machines of seedy motels and answering urgent calls from Martha that have him discussing Clark’s religious affiliations with people who think they’re in line to be his future in-laws.
All these relationships are a lot like Zhukov and his dog: fate and circumstance brought them together. “I take care of him,” Zhukov tells Elizabeth, saying that when you take care of something “you will discover you love this creature and your life would be empty without him.” It’s easy to see how Zhukov is talking about Philip, but perhaps he’s also talking about the task at hand and how the things that are kept at arm’s length for the good of the cause may ultimately become more important than what everyone is fighting over.
“We all die alone, Elizabeth,” Zhukov says. “Before that, we make choices.”
In the end, Elizabeth chooses Philip too late, a moment that leads her to the source of the problem. Things were getting better before Grannie showed up, and now that Elizabeth is on to the manipulations, she warns that things won’t end well for the old lady. That may be true, but at this point, it’s difficult to think things are going to end well for anyone.
The Americans continues next Wednesday with ‘The Oath’ @10pm on FX. Check out a preview of the episode below:
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