[This is a review of The Americans season 3, episode 5. There will be SPOILERS.]
In ‘Salang Pass’, The Americans offers a glimpse of Philip’s life as a series of marginally interconnected snapshots. His work-life balance has become so incredibly segmented with the sheer amount of assets he’s running and separate lives he’s living that the whole endeavor threatens to become a blurred mess of overlapping motivations and itchy wigs. Thanks to a spectacular performance by Matthew Rhys, however, the segmentation of Philip’s existence maintains a surprising level of nuance, as though Clark, Scott, and Jim aren’t merely parts he’s playing, but separate objects locked in orbit around a progressively overburdened individual.
In the rare scene where Philip is actually alone, he sits and listens to the BBC report on the Soviet Union’s ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, and the bloodshed he’s been tasked to play some role in resolving. The report clearly weighs heavily on his mind, but it is even more telling that when Elizabeth walks into the room, the only thing he wants to talk about are Paige and Henry, and to reminisce about a time when seeing their kids walk without falling on their faces was a big deal. The moment demonstrates the way in which Philip prioritizes his role as a husband and father, but at the same time it underlines the ideological schism between him and Elizabeth.
The widening gulf between them is as heartbreaking as the dehumanization of the assets Philip is working, which only worsen as the bonds he forms with people like Martha, Kimberly, and Stan begin to look and feel like the real thing. And as each relationship takes another step forward, things like Martha’s eagerness to open her home and life up to a child in need, Kimberly’s rush to become an adult, and Stan’s uneasiness at the prospect of dating again seem all the more distressing – mainly because each want is derived from an acute sense of loneliness.
The only saving grace is Yousaf, whose role as an asset is akin to a prison sentence; one that he earned ten times over for the murder of Annelise.
But it’s all supposed to be the same to Philip; who, as a spy, is required to view the world through a very specialized lens – one that sees individuals as resources to be acquired, refined, and tossed aside when their usefulness has been exhausted. It is grueling work made burdensome by the fact that he has a conscience, something Gabriel tells him “can be dangerous.”
Even though it spends a good portion of its time running between Philip’s various identities and potential moral conundrums with regard to Kim’s feelings for Jim and Martha desire to take on the responsibility of a foster child, ‘Salang Pass’ still offers a compelling examination of how conscience sometimes boils down to a matter of perspective. The episode lines up Elizabeth, Stan, and Oleg and measures them against Philip’s internal struggles, finding the depth of one’s moral agony largely depends on the person in question.
Sometimes conscience is a motivator, as evidenced by Stan’s plan to collaborate with Oleg, to uncover whether or not Zinaida is a double agent – and, when the time is right, to use her as leverage to ensure Nina’s release from the Gulag. Despite his disdain for the program, this feels like another step in Stan’s EST-driven self-improvement plan. It’s the part that follows coming clean to Sandra, as he continues to confront the decisions that have left him in a uniquely lonely, guilt-ridden position.
Other times, the question of conscience remains intriguingly opaque. Much of the season has focused on Elizabeth as she internalizes her daughter’s future, while also examining her painful past. Like everyone else, Elizabeth has been isolated by her choices and actions, and the series has visually zeroed in on that sense of segregation since the season premiere. It can be difficult to tell whether an internal struggle is roiling on underneath Elizabeth’s steely and determined exterior, and the question only becomes more profound when she crushes a human obstacle underneath her car as though it’s just business as usual.
What makes ‘Salang Pass’ another superlative, heartrending episode of The Americans is the way it balances the subtle continuation of the season-long conflict between Philip and Elizabeth, with a potent grounding of the spy genre formula that all spies are willing sexual dynamos. Philip’s recollection of his training underlines the way in which sexuality is a tool – if not a weapon. And that the strength and efficacy of that tool is derived from its user’s ability to “make it real.” But like any tool or weapon, the sign of an expert is someone who knows when its use is necessary.
Philip’s admission to Elizabeth that he had to make it real with her sometimes underlines the ugliness of their position within the KGB, and makes his need to keep a portion of his life (i.e., Paige) far removed from it, all the more pressing.
The Americans continues next Wednesday with ‘Born Again’ @10pm on FX. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Craig Blankenhorn/FX