[This is a review of The Americans season 3, episode 11. There will be SPOILERS.]
At the start of ‘One Day in the Life of Anton Baklanov,’ The Americans puts Philip and Elizabeth in a familiar situation, but pitted against an unfamiliar adversary. The two are being grilled in the kitchen of their suburban home about the secrets they’ve been hiding; their questioner is seeking the truth.
The setting is dramatically different from the last time the couple was at the mercy of someone they knew – then it was Claudia, investigating whether or not the two had been compromised. Times were so much simpler then. Now, the person doing the grilling is their own daughter, and the information being sought concerns more than the reality behind the unassuming couple with Russian names and American accents; it concerns Paige’s personal truth.
The importance of where the conversation takes place, the specific location where secrets are spilled and tones made hushed is vital to an episode so concentrated on matters of hearing and listening, the innate power of words and knowledge, and the messages sent in the silences between moments of discussion. What was once the location where plans were discussed under the sound of running water, has turned into an interrogation room, one where the ears of another could pick up on the conversation at any moment, over the sound of his Eddie Murphy routine, even.
For a house with so many closed doors and hushed conversations, the free flowing exchange of information feel less like the breakthrough that will bring the family closer together and more like the leak that will sink the ship. Like the discussions held outside the FBI’s vault – or more specifically inside Agent Gaad’s office – the words Anton Baklanov writes to his son Jacob, or project ZEPHYR, there is a rush to account for what’s been said as a way to assess the damage that has been done or to predict the damage yet to come.
That’s the thing about secrets: once they’re out, there’s no pulling them back in. All you can do is try to minimize the damage and move on. Sometimes that means creating new secrets, while others times it means hazarding the uncharted territory of an unavoidable narrative. The Americans succeeds by striking the right balance to its engagement of both, often without saying a single word.
The episode begins with Philip and Elizabeth figuratively opening the door to their daughter. It is a flood of dialogue as Paige launches a barrage of questions, as any 16-year-old who recently discovered her parents were Soviet spies would be wont to do. That is in direct opposition to the way the hour ends: with Paige silently closing the door on her parents. The difference between the two moments of confrontation is striking, not only in their disparity, but also in the ramifications intimated by them. There is a sense of security in Paige’s curiosity, her need to know the truth. The need to engage and confront her parents about the lies they’ve been feeding her is Philip and Elizabeth’s only card to play: what Paige doesn’t know keeps her coming back, keeps her close and loyal.
The situation is not unlike how Clark coaches Martha to lie to Walter Taffet. Martha may be the one being questioned, the one sitting under gaze of suspicion, but she has all the power. Taffet only knows what he thinks he knows; Martha knows what she knows, and what Taffet doesn’t know. The balance of power is unequal, but more importantly, it is held by the person being interrogated, not the interrogator. So long as Martha can look Taffet in the eye (or the tip of his nose) and deny she had anything to do with the bug in Gaad’s office, she’s in the clear. And so long as Philip and Elizabeth can keep Paige asking questions, they will be able to control her actions. In a way, it’s the fulfillment of Elizabeth’s hope for her child: Paige has now discovered who she is. The twisted part is: that discovery has become her shackle.
So much of the episode revolves around what people need to hear that it begins to blur the importance of the truth. Philip is frustrated that all he hears from Gabriel is “no,” when he has sacrificed so much. Philip needs to hear a “yes” from his handler, not questions of whether or not he’s cracking under the pressure. At the same time, Elizabeth needs to hear the conversations she has with her daughter about the truth are strictly confidential, while Anton Baklanov (though he doesn’t ask for it) needs to hear that Nina isn’t going to report the letters he’s been writing to his son. Or maybe Nina just needs to hear those words as a means of leveraging information from Anton to secure her freedom.
And yet, with that much focus on the sway words can hold, and the necessity of announcing what needs to be said, ‘One Day in the Life of Anton Baklanov’ finds some of its messages are best conveyed without words. Elizabeth’s seduction of Neal the hotel manager takes its inevitable course, with both of them getting what they want – only its Elizabeth who has to drive home alone to her other life. Sitting there in her garage, we have no way of knowing exactly what she’s thinking, but considering the location of her last conversation with Paige – the place where she came for quiet; the place where, after being regaled with stories of her grandmother, she asks, “How can I believe anything you say?” – it is not hard to imagine Elizabeth is weighing the true cost of the kinds of information she’s seeking and delivering.
Later, Elizabeth’s silent approach on a sleeping Philip tells him everything he needs to know about what she’s been up to. As it has done so many times this season, The Americans ends another fantastic episode by showing its protagonists in bed, the place where the truth is often revealed, the place where they tell one another everything, whether they want to hear it or not. This time, though, their vault is opened to Paige, who finds the information contained within anything but welcoming. She exits the room without saying a word, returning only to close the door behind her. In an episode that explores the ramifications of locked doors being flung open, perhaps the most profound discovery comes in the silent understanding that some doors should remain shut.
The Americans continues next Wednesday with ‘I Am Abassin Zadran’ @10pm on FX.
Photos: Patrick Harbon/FX