[This is a review of The Americans season 3, episode 5. There will be SPOILERS.]
No matter what situation in which they find themselves, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings have been hanging precariously on the verge of decisive action all season long. There has been a lingering sense of pending and irrevocable action that the narrative has allowed to build since the season premiere. And that accumulation of tension has resulted in riveting, emotionally wrought viewing that makes The Americans such a pleasure to watch. But it also elevates the stakes for an episode like ‘Born Again,’ in which decisive action is taken by a number of characters, setting up how the repercussions of those actions will undoubtedly be the next source of unbearable tension.
This is made no more apparent in the episode (or the season, for that matter), than during the climactic back-to-back scenes between Philip and Kimberly, and Elizabeth and Paige, which feature such precise, well written, and revealing dialogue, that you wish all four characters could have been in the same room together, just to watch them hash it out. These two scenes carry the season’s weight in its entirety. What’s more, they exist on the verge of being interconnected, illustrating exactly what each character wants and how he or she will act in order to get precisely what is desired.
Philip (as James) is the outlier in this situation. His actions are to prevent something from happening, as he continues to walk a fine line between what must be done to accomplish the mission and the ethical line he’s drawn when it comes to handling Kimberly as an asset. After almost losing her due to an earlier rejection, Philip makes a plea for the teenager to understand where it is he’s coming from – which isn’t entirely untrue, since Philip mixes Jim’s fictional “born again” status with the very personal struggle of not only being reminded he has an adult son back in the Soviet Union, but that Irina, the mother of that son, has been arrested by the Russian government.
Following his half-true confession, James’ request that Kimmy pray with him is a surprisingly effective bit of emotional espionage. The exchange between the inappropriate would-be couple is charged primarily by Philip’s emotional vulnerability. Philip’s words come from the burdened part of his psyche he’s chosen to keep partitioned from Elizabeth, making Kimmy more than just a potential asset; she’s a surrogate wife, priest, therapist, and friend, all rolled into an adolescent ball of tangled blonde curls and hormonally-charged feelings. Philip succeeds in forming a bond with her, like Gabriel asked, and he does so without having to cross the physical line he had been dreading since their first encounter, but it is hard not to see their otherwise benign prayer on her bed as another act of emotional sabotage, destined to leave young Kimmy scarred for life.
The analogous confessional tones struck between Philip’s interaction with Kim, and Elizabeth and Paige’s discussion in Gregory’s old neighborhood make the latter conversation a more startling and significant event, as it presages the genesis of Paige’s indoctrination (or at least an attempt thereof) into the dark, covert world inhabited by her parents. Elizabeth’s approach, to appeal to her daughter’s eagerness to stand up to and speak out against systems of oppression is a masterstroke of spycraft that walks an even finer line, given the sudden genuineness of the mother-daughter relationship that has developed largely as a result of the Centre’s orders to turn Paige into a second generation agent in the Cold War.
These scenes have both been a long time coming, and even though there are still plenty of variables left in the air regarding Kim’s feelings towards Philip and the potentially lengthy, arduous journey Elizabeth has in front of her with regard to leading Paige toward the truth, they both are decisive actions made in response to the spouses’ individual meetings with Gabriel.
It feels like Frank Langella’s work on The Americans this season is a bit like the show itself: fantastic in nearly every way, and yet, for one reason or another, not enough people are talking about it. There is such a startling difference between the managerial styles of Claudia and Gabriel that at first, the latter’s personal and personable way of handling the Jenningses was like a breath of fresh air. But now, as Philip and Elizabeth begin to spend more time with their fatherly supervisor on a one-on-one basis, his effortless manipulation of them both affords a convincing glimpse into the hierarchical nature of the spy business: dubious persuasions tend to run downhill.
Whatever Gabriel’s role in the future of Philip and Elizabeth’s relationship, and with regard to Paige possibly learning the truth about her parents, it is fascinating how the two accept everything the paternal figure has to say at face value, and yet were quite open to feeling deceived by Claudia from the get-go. Sure, things with Claudia got off to a rocky start (and pretty much stayed that way for the length of their association) but there was something more truthful in the way she antagonized Philip and Elizabeth, as opposed to the troublingly Svengali-like influence Gabriel wields over them both.
It is clear that Gabriel fills a void in their lives, and with that comes the willingness to make decisive actions on his behalf. And in ‘Born Again,’ the sense that decisive action will somehow fill a void becomes paramount for the other threads explored by the episode.
Everyone gets in on the action, as Stan first brings Tori (Callie Throne) by his surrogate family’s house for dinner (apparently so she can be grilled by Henry as to what EST is, exactly), but later, the death of a close friend encourages him to seek out the family he squandered. Stan may have pulled the trigger with regard to being intimate with Tori, but the scene with Sandra and Matthew – which is punctuated by Stan’s awkwardly long embrace of his ex-wife (though not technically) – is far a more potent example of that void-filling intimacy running through the episode.
The same can be said for Nina, who takes the notion more literally, by making choosing steak dinners and glasses of red wine (and the possibility of freedom), over her cellmate Evi. This may be the last time Nina sees the young woman she so expertly manipulated (by essentially telling the truth), but there’s no chance the sound of Evi’s frantic screams won’t linger in Nina’s ear for a lifetime. But, as the episode aims to prove, decisive actions are hard, and with each choice comes the inevitable consequence that everyone must learn to live with.
The Americans continues next Wednesday with ‘Walter Taffet’ @10pm on FX.
Photos: Craig Blankenhorn/FX