[This is a review of The Americans season 3, episode 4. There will be SPOILERS.]
Last week, director Thomas Schlamme presented The Americans with a pulse-pounding example of the tradecraft that is one half of the series’ bread and butter. It was a lengthy, brilliantly directed and composed sequence in which Elizabeth evaded her CIA pursuers. With observers and participants stacked three deep around the isolated spy, the set piece illustrated just how layered the concept of being watched really is this season. The notion of constant surveillance, then, was reiterated when Philip extracted Elizabeth’s shattered tooth in the relative seclusion of their home’s laundry room.
The moment was just between them; there were no CIA agents in semi-anonymous pursuit of the couple. Instead, the couple stared into one another’s eyes, as Philip caused Elizabeth unspeakable but necessary pain. The audience became the third layer of surveillance, as viewers were asked to bear witness to an extreme example of the show’s dramatic other half: the increasingly intense domestic drama roiling within the four walls of the Jennings’ home.
And for the most part, that’s where ‘Dimebag’ keeps things. While Philip spends time out with Stan at yet another round of EST meetings and wrestles with the morality of turning Kimberly (Julia Garner), the daughter of the head of the CIA’s Afghan group, into an asset, the most essential bits of drama unfold within the aforementioned household.
But that drama still has a hint of tradecraft and plenty of intrigue to it, as the friction between Philip and Elizabeth escalates to the point the couple seems headed toward another division. Believing Elizabeth to be assessing and working Paige by attending church and social functions with her, Philip appeals to his daughter as the “cool dad,” buying her the new Yaz album everyone (i.e., Kimberly and her fake ID-buying pals) has been talking about. The resulting fallout between spies is part competition for their child’s affection, and part ideological battleground, which Elizabeth intensifies by announcing her plans to ready Paige for the truth, with or without Philip.
Their fighting is a smokescreen, but instead of concealing their intentions, it makes Philip and Elizabeth blind to what their kid is up to. Paige manages to manipulate her mother and father into an uncomfortable dinner with Pastor Tim (Kelly Aucoin) and his wife Alice (Suzy Jane Hunt), after which she announces her desire to be baptized, to wash away her old self, and become clean for a belief neither parent share – eventually forcing her parents to form a unified front.
In the moments directly following Paige’s request, Schlamme continues the season’s visual trend of isolating Elizabeth, revealing her emotional state by sequestering her from everything else on screen. Here, the camera is removed from the dinner table; it peers through an opening from the adjacent room. The camera moves from its focus on Philip, Tim, Alice, and the kids, to a lingering shot of Elizabeth in figurative solitude. A wall separating the camera from the dining room breaks the smooth panning motion of the shot, suggesting the distance between Elizabeth and everyone else is not just air; it’s filled with something substantial and concrete – at least to her.
There is a confessional tone to the rest of the episode as Stan is caught between his gut feeling that Zinaida isn’t all Milky Way bars and anti-Afghan War rhetoric, and a need to purge his wrongdoings to Sandra, to come clean about his affair with Nina and to recognize the damage he caused. This is in stark contrast to the Stan from last episode, the one who told Agent Aderholt, “People love to hear how right they are,” and yet didn’t seem to be aware of how that applied to himself. This time, in between ransacking the women’s bathroom of a greasy diner with “fair” burgers, Stan’s searching for proof of how right he is – both in terms of Zinaida and how hard he’s working to get Sandra back. So far, he’s come up empty handed.
Meanwhile, Nina comes clean to her cellmate Evi (Katja Mira Herbers) about why it is she finds herself imprisoned in a Russian labor camp. The confession is real – at least the reason why – but the impetus is not to unburden herself of guilt; it’s to unburden herself of the harsh and punishing prison sentence she’s facing. But while Nina’s reasons for coming clean to Evi remain obscured, the declaration and the nightmare that brings the cellmates closer blurs the lines of the burgeoning relationship in a way that complicates things even further. What are the ethics of Nina pursuing a stranger’s imprisonment in exchange for lenience on a sentence she wholeheartedly earned?
Ethical concerns boil to the surface all around, as Paige’s baptismal remarks call to mind the ways in which innocence is questioned, coveted, desired, and exploited throughout the episode. Early on, Schlamme presents a full-on visual assault as Philip is barraged by a television commercial literally selling the promise of youth and innocence. That assault is balanced by Philip’s reluctance to turn Kimberly into an asset via the means he and Elizabeth discovered last episode.
The moral conflict is a direct parallel to the dilemma Philip is facing about Paige’s future – both in terms of learning who she is and her desire to wash away her old self. But it also calls to mind Philip’s encounter with the disgusting ’80s dudebro in the series premiere – the one who zeroed in on a much younger Paige and wound up being violently tossed around his backyard for his efforts. Right now, Philip is faced with the possibility becoming that man for the sake of Mother Russia.
It’s a burden you can feel in Matthew Rhys’ voice, when he gets the call that Kimberly wants to meet with Jim. And it’s a burden that the episode expertly makes oppressive during the awkward scene where the young woman dances for Jim to ‘Only You’ by Yazoo, under the pretense of getting warmer, only to end up under Philip’s cold, reluctant arm.
The Americans continues next Wednesday with ‘Salang Pass’ @10pm on FX.
Photos: Craig Blankenhorn & Ali Goldstein/FX
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