[This is a review of The Americans season 3, episode 7. There will be SPOILERS.]
The Americans tried out a new director with 'Walter Taffet' – some guy named Noah Emmerich – and the results turned out pretty darn well. As it turns out, Emmerich's talents extend far beyond his inimitable onscreen presence, as the man who brings Stan Beeman to life week after week has, on his first outing behind the camera, crafted another tight, compelling, and tense episode of the best series on television. Oh, and he also dropped one heck of a musical cue to end things on.
The strange but powerful alchemy of mixing intense scenes of clandestine spycraft set to Fleetwood Mac aside, 'Walter Taffet' is an episode primarily concerned with security breaches both big and small – though the magnitude of the violation may vary depending on the perspective of those involved. For instance, Philip coming home to discover Paige is now aware of his and Elizabeth's past involvement in civil rights activism may not seem like as pressing a concern as Martha's excruciating day at work, but they both constitute a major shift in each character's narrative.
For his part, Emmerich handles the tension and intrigue of both domestic and governmental situations as they should be handled, which is to say: as matters of equally pressing concern. By framing the domestic around Philip's apprehension that Elizabeth isn't keeping him in the loop with matters concerning Paige, and that he will come home one day to discover their daughter knows who her parents really are, the episode successfully tackles the cliffhanger from last week's phenomenal 'Born Again'. Moreover, it does so without completely leveling the narrative. Instead, the incremental progression of one of the season's most essential plot points illustrates the deft precision and level of craft in The Americans' storytelling.
As so much of the series revolves around the realities of Philip and Elizabeth's relationship, and the unique position they find themselves in as partners, parents, and now actually man and wife, dropping a tiny bomb on their fragile emotional alliance is potentially devastating. But by doling out Elizabeth's attempts to indoctrinate Paige piecemeal, the series serves the journey of its protagonists far better, shifting the focus to the battle over what's right for the child of two Soviet Spies: knowing who she is, or having the opportunity for a life that is completely different from her parents (i.e., free from the complex moral and emotional pressures of spycraft, not so much the rigors of running a travel agency).
In an interesting twist, 'Walter Taffet' examines the Jennings' relationship most effectively through their efforts running assets. Writer Lara Shaprio concocts a revealing scene where Philip and Elizabeth's dinner with Lisa (Karen Pittman) isn't just them working to get her inside Northrup; it's a chance for them to reflect on the troubles in their real relationship, underneath the many fabricated layers of Michelle and Jack's nascent romance. There's legitimate weight to Jack's words regarding the way he feels about Michelle. Meanwhile, the notion that Jack doesn't have any kids lingers long after everyone's left the table. In fact, it's still in the air when the two arrive home, and Philip announces he's going over Martha's house, the way an upset spouse might declare his intentions of sleeping on the couch. Of course, after the day Martha had, Philip's just walking from one troubled domestic relationship to another.
The episode's title is derived from the OPR (Office of Professional Responsibility) representative brought in to investigate the listening device found in Agent Gaad's pen, but it uses the discovery and the resulting anxiety to underline the growing discord in two key relationships related to the FBI office. One is, of course, Martha's marriage to Clark, without which a listening device never would have been planted. The other is Agent Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden), the ambitious, efficient, question-asking addition to the office who is getting on Stan's nerves by maybe showing him up a little.
Aderholt has been an interesting addition to the series; he's not quite the foil that Agent Amador was. In fact, it almost seems like Stan, given the many, many things he's done over the course of The Americans' run, is acting as Aderholt's foil. Emmerich does a tricky bit of double-duty in the scene where the bug is discovered. By framing Stan looking into Gaad's office, both director and actor convey the frustration of being left out of the conversation – a conversation that, considering the way the shot is framed, just may be about him. What's so great about it is that Stan's frustration and anxiety is conveyed through body language and action alone; there's no need for any dialogue, just as there's no need for any dialogue when Aderholt discovers the device.
Martha's panic over the receiver in her purse – which she expertly disassembles and conceals in the bathroom – adds to the anxiety during what is essentially a prolonged sequence of discovery. But it leads to some powerful developments that put the spotlight on Martha and the faith that she loses in Clark, as a result of her duplicity nearly being discovered.
The Americans has put Martha in one of the toughest positions of any character on the series, and Alison Wright does phenomenal work walking across the emotional high wire that is her character's arc. Playing a woman who has been duped because a man expertly exploited her greatest weakness might have been easy if the show wrote her as someone who is easily duped. But because the series respects the character, and doesn't treat her like a joke or a mere plot device, Martha's plight – not coincidentally at work and at home – feels real, earned, and increasingly harrowing.
What's more, Martha's questioning of Clark leads to a terrific and intimate scene where Elizabeth admits she should have discussed her intentions regarding Paige, and Philip confesses he has a 20-year-old son fighting in Afghanistan. The scene underlines Philip's concerns over Paige's involvement in their world (and leads to a great moment of levity about Martha's desire to take in a foster child), but, thanks to the way the shot is framed, it also illustrates how small and how intimate the Jennings' world has become, how their most poignant moments of reflection and understanding come when they are alone in their room, in bed, and often in one another's arms. (Take a look at the end of 'Salang Pass' for another great example of this.) That level of intimacy isn't easy to pull off, but The Americans seems to do it at will.
The majority of 'Water Taffet' is so tight and so well constructed that it's easy to forget the episode ends on a thrilling action sequence set to Fleetwood Mac's 'The Chain'. Not only is it a callback to the use of 'Tusk' – which also punctuated a thrilling action sequence – in the series premiere, but it also sets the stage for what's to come, as the season's storyline shifts to focus on the intrigue around South Africa and the undoubtedly troubling elements contained therein.
The Americans continues next Wednesday with 'Divestment' @10pm on FX.
Photos: Patrick Harbron/FX