[This is a review of The Americans season 2, episode 8. There will be SPOILERS.]
This season, The Americans may have successfully cornered a market, as far as continually delivering emotionally unsettling and resonant episodes is concerned. The series has long been infatuated with the tricky morality of its protagonists and their devotion to the Cause that has delivered Philip and Elizabeth into the waiting arms of the enemy and its fundamentally divergent ideologies, expecting them to remain steadfast in their adherence to the principles of a government that happens to be on the other side of the globe.
While that has been a constant theme running through almost every episode, 'New Car,' with its titular automobile – in this case a Camaro Z28 – purchased and noisily driven home by Philip (with Henry riding shotgun), exemplifies just how blurred the lines can become for a spy who finds himself increasingly appreciative of his foreign assignment.
Philip's dabbling in the pleasures of his locale, and especially its consumer culture, has been one of the many aspects of his personality that seemingly puts him at odds with the purpose of his mission. But it also puts him at odds with his wife and partner, who in this case, would like to see her husband be made happy, but also recognizes the inherent danger and superfluity of such a pursuit as it pertains to their true objective.
Elizabeth answers Philip's inquiry about liking or not liking where they live by telling him: "It's nicer, easier, not better." There's a hint of warning in her words that underlines the drama that later unfolds with regard to the faulty submarine plans they stole, as well as the truth behind their need to keep Captain Larrick alive.
There's also a strong parallel between Philip and Oleg, in terms of reaping the benefits of a plum assignment in the United States. The only difference is, while Oleg's integration into the system may be greater, considering the deep familial connections he enjoys, his assimilation into the life will never be as complete as Philip's. Oleg will forever be seen as an outsider – a fact that has its advantages and disadvantages, especially when it comes to dealing with someone like Stan – which Oleg's foreigner status ironically allows him to do outright. Meanwhile, Philip must often choose between the levels of exposure he's willing to risk while undertaking a mission.
That level of exposure plays into the belief in the system each character is or is not loyal to. Exposure also pertains to the degree in which operatives allow their emotional states to come into play with regard to the task at hand.
Philip's adoration of his new car turns sour after learning the Americans deliberately planted faulty plans for a submarine – which the Soviet government officially blames for the death of 160 men aboard the hastily built and dangerously untested vessel. But it is when director John Dahl wisely refuses to cut away from Lucia's horrific and drawn-out death at the hands of the man she wanted to kill above all else that tests the limits of loyalty and the value of limited exposure.
In that moment, the audience becomes Elizabeth, and like her, we have to watch as the enemy (in this case, a man) murders a young woman who simply couldn't put her need for revenge behind "what comes first." The implication brought forth by the similitude between Lucia and Elizabeth – and their dealings with men – further establishes just how well The Americans handles conflict and contradiction within a single character, and why that paradox makes the series so compelling to watch.
In the end, 'New Car' winds up being another palpably devastating episode that is capped off with a fine performance by young Keidrich Sellati, as Henry desperately tries to convince his parents of his inherent goodness, despite the wrong that he committed by breaking into their neighbors' home to play video games.
More troubling, however, is Henry's fear that his discovery has forever marked him as something he is not and that he's somehow changed in his parents' eyes. This fear seemingly corresponds with Philip's expressed desire not to kill an innocent man or hurt Martha with the words of others, but it also fits in with the tremendously difficult decision Elizabeth was forced to make, suggesting the hardest part of being a spy is not the constant worry of how others see you, but whether or not you can live with how you see yourself.
The Americans continues next Wednesday with 'Martial Eagle' @10pm on FX.
Photos: Craig Blankenhorn/FX
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