[This is a review of The Americans season 2, episode 10. There will be SPOILERS.]
Most often, The Americans is an examination of borders and boundaries. It is, at its heart, interested in pinpointing the specific lines of separation in nearly every instance, the kind that demarcates nations and ideologies, the sort of thing that wars are fought over. In that sense, the Cold War is the series’ primary boundary. But it is far more interested in probing the myriad separations individuals experience on a personal level in their daily lives.
The series has become one of television’s top dramas because those divisions are explored in exacting detail, rooting out the humanity in the often-dehumanizing efforts these individuals undertake in order to ensure one of the nations separating them emerges the victor from the zero sum conflict they’re engaged in.
In essence, The Americans is always at its best when looking at how character interaction is defined by the boundaries various individuals are willing or allowed to cross. The show doesn’t deal in relationships so much as it exists in the spaces between them. It’s all varying degrees of ideological warfare.
‘Yousaf’ begins with a terrific example when Arkady shows up at Gaad’s home to discuss the agent’s recent reinstatement, which was due to the Soviet government accepting the findings of the investigation into Vlad Kosygin’s death. The two acknowledge the death’s of their operatives – Gaad even briefly eulogizes Agent Amador – in effect redrawing the line between them.
They’re acquainted now; Gaad could have figuratively blown them both up, but chose not to, which generates a different boundary. There is something in their mutuality that goes beyond the assurance of one another’s destruction, should the other act in haste. It’s certainly not friendship, and it’s not quite professional admiration or respect either; it’s somewhere in between and it marks the new boundary they each must recognize.
But recognition of those boundaries gets far more complicated the more they begin to intersect the professional with the personal. Gaad and Arkady are ostensibly on the perimeter, while Philip, Elizabeth, Stan, and Nina are crisscrossing so many lines of demarcation it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish them any more.
As things get more intricate for those on the ground, ‘Yousaf’ demonstrates the way in which Philip is looking to simplify, to begin drawing a new boundary that further establishes a separation from his family and the world of spycraft. But establishing that line inevitably requires the creation of a new one – or many different lines – which is precisely what happens when he asks Annelise (Gillian Alexy) to take Elizabeth’s place in seducing the titular Pakistani official, Yousaf (Rahul Khanna).
The act, which winds up with the wife of the deputy undersecretary of defense in bed with a man of sudden international importance, is the latest in a string of morally convoluted sacrificial offerings Philip has either brought to the alter, or engaged in the bloodletting himself. It’s another vexing mark in the dissolution column for Philip – one where he must weigh putting an eager, but naïve and innocent woman in an incredibly compromising position over doing the same with the woman he loves.
The devastating kicker, of course, is that despite the efforts of Annelise, Elizabeth still has to assassinate Yousaf’s superior Javid (Mahadeo Shivraj) in a hotel swimming pool.
It’s a reminder of the Center asking its Directorate S operatives to do the impossible, without recognizing the toll it takes on them personally. That dehumanization becomes more pronounced with quiet but explicit scenes like the early morning interaction of Elizabeth and Philip in their kitchen. Her gentleness and recognition of his suffering is so unfamiliar and new to them both, it’s utterly disarming. It also marks the development of a new kind of intimacy between them, a new demarcation moving two disparate souls closer together through the understanding of one another’s personal needs, rather than the professional association that first introduced them.
Meanwhile, Paige, who is less versed in reading and understanding such lines begins doing what all teenagers who want to rebel from their parents do: test the boundaries of what they can acceptably get away with, and what they’re wiling to risk getting away with, in order to get what they want – which, invariably, is a sense of autonomy.
In a sense, that’s the same thing Larrick is doing, as he’s presumably operating outside the boundaries of what his employers would deem acceptable – which, considering his job, is painfully ironic – by beginning to hunt down those responsible for the Martial Eagle affair.
Through it all, The Americans and, more precisely, ‘Yousaf,’ illustrates with outstanding emotional clarity and resonance just how boundaries are synonymous with limits. And with each person who has to die, or, like Annelise, die a little inside because he pimped her out, Philip is rapidly approaching the limit of what he’s willing to do for the good of the Cause.
The Americans continues next Wednesday with ‘Stealth’ @10pm on FX.
Photos: Philip Harbron/FX