[This is a review of The Americans season 3, episode 3. There will be SPOILERS.]
As The Americans pushes further into season 3, one thing has become clear: the show has discovered a side of itself capable of delivering true, distinctive water cooler moments that surprise, shock, and maybe induce a cringe or two. Last week, it was the bone-snapping intensity of Philip and Elizabeth finding a way to dispose of Annelise’s corpse. This week, Philip is asked to put his skills to the test on the living, as the injuries Elizabeth suffered in the season premiere have reached the point that a little DIY dentistry is called for.
The moment is unnerving; its agonizing pace and visual bluntness are enough to make the viewer recoil and rush to cancel the next dentist’s appointment. But it’s also another glimpse at the strange places and moments where intimacy erupts in the Jennings’ household. After Philip is unable to extract the offending tooth on the first try, he gently leans Elizabeth back in their makeshift dentist’s chair, while she steadies herself by placing both hands on his chest. The scene could have lingered on the pliers prying out the shattered tooth, but instead, director Thomas Schlamme pushes the scene even closer, looking into Philip and Elizabeth’s eyes, as it moves into a rhythm of eyes, tears, and blood. The combination and connotation of all three reads like a perfect encapsulation of the series up to this point.
If you work backwards from there, ‘Open House’ delivers one beautiful composition after another. In particular, the moments leading up to the tooth removal and the tension-filled, highly organized stealth chase sequence that puts Elizabeth a breath away from apprehension for the second time this season.
The chase lines up with the awareness training Hans (Peter Mark) has been undertaking, as Elizabeth puts the skills she’s imparting to good use, spotting a tail and quickly deducing she and Philip are being followed. A quick jump from the car and call for help later, and Elizabeth’s receiving packages through the passenger side window, while Agent Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden) implores Gaad to ignore the CIA’s orders and issue a roadblock.
The action is so captivating and has so many different tension-filled elements woven throughout it can be easy to miss how well the story is told from a visual perspective. The anxiety of Elizabeth being followed steadily worsens as her pursuers close in. The scene plays out like she is trapped inside the car, even though it’s moving and she’s still in control of it. There is a sense of confinement that is augmented as Elizabeth makes her way into heavier traffic, where the overwhelming claustrophobia also becomes the means for her escape.
But Schlamme and his cinematographer convey the shifting balance of power through a brilliant shot in which Elizabeth’s pursuer remains blissfully unaware he is being pursued. While waiting at a red light, Elizabeth peers into her rearview. The shot cuts to show the CIA agent waiting at the next stoplight, but a rack focus shifts the attention from the agent to the nameless, faceless individual in the car behind him. The strength of that shot is then deepened, as the sound of interference literally comes over the agents’ radios, cutting off their intermittent squawking to reveal just how fully the situation’s power dynamic has been altered.
From a more figurative standpoint, the shifts in focus, depth of field, and pervasive sense of claustrophobia hint at the relatively minute distances between pursuer and those being pursued. The sense of closing distance harks back to Gaad’s run-in with Elizabeth in the season premiere, but it also enhances the intensity of the non-verbal exchange between Philip and Elizabeth as he struggles to extract her tooth. The message is clear: Someone is always watching. There is going to be pain, tears, and bloodshed.
Of course, the pulling of Elizabeth’s tooth is preceded by Philip’s uncomfortable discussion with Paige, where, for the second time this season, she comments on the odd hours her parents keep – though less directly than asking her mother if Philip was having an affair. Philip apologizes for being away so much, only to have Paige respond, “I’m used to it.” The terse exchange between daughter and father is another example of a shifting power dynamic that creates yet another divide inside the Jennings’ household. This time with Henry (let’s hear it for Keidrich Sellati’s growth spurt and cracking voice) being admonished for keeping a tattered photo of Sandra Beeman in a bikini by his older sister, who is doing the laundry – ostensibly assuming the role of parent in the absence of Philip and Elizabeth.
Paige’s remarks point to the division she sees between parent and child, especially how, in her house, it seems as though the parents look out for one another far more than they do their children, who are often left to their own devices and to procure photos of Sandra Beeman, apparently. Paige isn’t wrong, necessarily; her parents do seem to be gone a ridiculous amount of the time. But what the season is doing is balancing Philip and Elizabeth’s parental neglect with the excruciating and emotional decision they face regarding Paige’s future.
The division between parent and child is made clear by the choice hanging over their heads and the way Gabriel has wedged himself between Philip and Elizabeth, exacerbating the discord by appealing to one ideology over another. If there is hope, it comes from the deeper understanding between the two, summed up in the tooth pulling scene, but underlined far more richly in an amazing shot where Philip embraces Elizabeth after her harrowing night evading the CIA.
It’s dark; the scene is lit primarily by the television set in the background, turning Philip and Elizabeth into dark shapes moving toward one another. As the two silhouettes become one, the national anthem plays while an American flag waves on the screen. There is a brief sensation of union between husband and wife that is undercut by the overt example of the forces they’re up against. What’s more, the tooth extraction is pending. The station may be signing off for the night, but for the Jenningses, the work is never done.
The Americans continues next Wednesday with ‘Dimebag’ @10pm on FX.
Photos: Craig Blankenhorn/FX