[This is a review of The Americans season 2, episode 5. There will be SPOILERS.]
Once all the various spy-related activities of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are taken into consideration, when the duties they have performed in the name of the Soviet Union are successfully tallied up, it will be no surprise that, on the surface at least, the protagonists of The Americans will come away looking like monsters. And that’s not simply due to the innocent people they’ve killed – like the security guard from season 1, or the young restaurant worker in the season 2 premiere – it also has to do with those unwittingly caught in their web; people like Martha, Viola Johnson and her son, and, most profoundly, Paige and Henry.
And so, in an episode as filled with complication and moral conundrums as ‘The Deal’ is, the takeaway becomes, in some small (or, in the case of Anton Baklanov, very large) way, maybe Philip and Elizabeth see themselves as monsters, too.
The concern over the characters’ ostensible lack of humanity is overtly drawn out when Philip is forced to babysit one of the two Mossad agents who interrupted Anton Baklanov’s abduction at the end of the previous episode. His declaration of, “I hide what I do. I don’t hide who I am,” becomes the initial plunge into the murky depths of Philip’s conscience – and everything that happens afterward serves to highlight not only the indistinct morality of their particular conflict, but also one as confounding and expansive as the Cold War.
And in war, there are going to be those who suffer at the hands of the combatants. But ‘The Deal’ looks at these victims in dramatically different terms. At the forefront is poor Anton, who, despite his pleas, and his proclamations that Philip has had his humanity trained out of him, still winds up on a slow boat to Moscow. Baklanov’s fate is dismal to be sure, but it raises an interesting issue of whether or not those (like Martha) who are ignorant to their role in the Jennings’ machinations are victims in the same right, or if their circumstance makes them something different.
When it comes to Martha, the show walks a fine line in terms of keeping her in the dark without mocking or making fun of her situation. It would be far too easy to write Martha off as some pathetic hanger-on, a would-be spinster so desperate to have a husband she’s unwilling to look past the unusual circumstances of her own marriage. Instead, The Americans has treated her as a full-fledged character with something more at stake than merely being poked fun at. The scene between her and Jennifer is both cringe inducing and revealing for both characters – further complicating their already knotty situation by demonstrating Martha’s clear affection for Clark, and the surprisingly humane manner in which Elizabeth handles a potentially explosive situation.
While Philip is dealing with Mossad, Elizabeth displays two sides of herself — one with Martha, and the other by exposing a level of vulnerability with Brad Mullen. There was a sense of catharsis when Elizabeth accessed painful memories to get what she needed from Brad. It was no doubt duplicitous, but also necessary from Elizabeth’s emotional standpoint. It’s no surprise, then, that the scene would suddenly shift away from the invasive darkness and palpable chill of Philip’s adventures with the Mossad agent and Anton Baklanov, to the dusky and far warmer palette of Elizabeth’s final meeting with the dutiful but lonely Brad Mullen.
That level of detail adds to the complexity of The Americans, and the manner in which the show challenges the audience to think about what its protagonists do – which is one of the program’s most appealing and distinguishable aspects. Just because the Jenningses are acting on the principle Arkady describes the Russian people with doesn’t make their actions right, or even defensible in a conventional “good” or “bad” kind of way; it does, however, make their actions and the characters performing them a welcome addition to one of the most compelling stories on television right now.
The Americans continues next Wednesday with ‘Behind the Red Door’ @10pm on FX.
Photos: Craig Blankenhorn/FX