'The Americans' Season 1, Episode 4 Review – Cut Off Chickens

Margo Martindale in The Americans In Control

There's really nothing like an attempted presidential assassination – in the middle of an increasingly heated Cold War, mind you – to throw a bucket of water on the first sparks of real romance in a fake marriage that two deep-cover spies have maintained for over 15 years.

But that's how things tend to work in The Americans: The trappings of family come with the job; those people become more than a mere necessity to maintain the meticulous cover granted them by the Soviet government. And somehow, after such a long time, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings have managed to survive, and now they begin to find themselves more or less on the same page – with regard to their feelings about one another, anyway.

Naturally, the same can't be said with regard to the cause - or the whole 'destruction of the United States' thing. It seems the staunch belief in the motherland that kicked this fake marriage off is moving counter to the couple's newfound affection for one another.

There's been something of a learning curve with the two lately. As a couple, they recognize that the job sometimes calls for them to be intimate with other people, but when Philip learned of Elizabeth's long-term romance with Gregory, it cut him to the quick; a sensation Elizabeth may have experienced when she learned of her partner's enduring love affair with the country he's been assigned to help bring down. As Elizabeth points out, Philip was ready to defect not too long ago, while she's maintained the steadfast and steely resolve that is expected of her. For all the progress they've seen since the series premiere, there is still some distance between them.

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russel lin The Americans In Control

But that distance isn't of the romantic kind, as 'In Control' establishes early on, it's more ideological in nature. So when the time comes for the Jenningses to begin laying the groundwork for Operation Christopher, the mission-related disconnect between the two – in the form of how best to deal with an increasingly uncertain situation – widens considerably.

That situation, of course, rears its ugly head after John Hinckley's attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981 heats up the Cold War even further, as the various governmental agencies scramble to find a Soviet connection to the would-be assassin. This, in part, sends Stan Beeman to call on his increasingly put-upon source Nina to fill the FBI in on just what is going on behind the closed doors at the Rezidentura, and to confirm whether or not the KGB was actually involved in the shooting.

What made 'In Control' another great hour of television was the tense build-up of the lengths the characters would go – shoot a neighborhood security officer in cold blood; put an asset directly in harm's way; begin mapping sniper spots to take out key U.S. leadership – in order to get close to the answer. An answer that typically included the word "escalation" in a situation that desperately needed anything but. Of course, the audience is aware the situation between the two nations never went nuclear, but that's not really what's at stake in the series; it's the internal struggles Philip and Elizabeth have between their duty to the cause, and their duty to the family that is their cover.

Keri Russell in The Americans In Control

True to its title, the episode revolves plenty around establishing control – or at least trying to understand who actually has it. Several characters like the Jennings' new handler, Claudia – formerly known as "Granny" – assert themselves, especially after Haig's declaration of "I am in control here" causes everyone who knows caviar is best eaten with blinis and not tortilla chips to speculate there's been a coup.

But as much as anyone tries, there's only the semblance of control. For the most part, it feels like escalation across the board. At one point, it seems everything hinges on Philip and Elizabeth seeing eye-to-eye on what to do with a garbled recording from Caspar Weinberger's home office that intimates Haig might have the football. It's an element the episode's writers (Joel Fields and series creator Joe Weisberg) use to great effect, in terms of the internal conflicts of the protagonists and the tricky situation they're in. Instead of contacting Moscow with the Haig/football information, Philip seizes control of the situation, knowing that the only people really escalating anything are the two operatives of Directorate S who are scoping out assassination targets with a cache of high explosives in their van. As far as Philip's concerned, they're helping pusha dangerous situation to the edge, but the outcome (total nuclear annihilation) is not something anyone in their right mind would desire.

The conflict draws some interesting parallels between the characters' devotion to what is a fabrication and what is, ostensibly, real. But oddly enough it's the struggle of the Jenningses to think differently about their relationship and kids that Agent Beeman might best relate to. As Elizabeth tells Philip, "I fit in just fine, but I remember where I came from." As Beeman explains to his wife, several years in deep cover with a bunch of hate mongers has him thinking too often about where he's been, but, as Stan confesses, he just doesn't feel like he fits in with his wife and kid anymore. That sense of estrangement might explain why he's so keen on the neighbors down the street.

Annet Mahendru and Noah Emmerich in The Americans In Control

Various Items:

  • Philip smolders at the mention of Gregory's name. It's good to see that he (and hopefully Derek Luke) wasn’t just a tool to progress last week's plot. Perhaps we'll be seeing more of Gregory in the future.
  • Paige has gotten pretty cozy with the Beeman's son Matthew, it seems. Although the episode was not overt about where the storyline is headed with the two characters, it seems likely that a romance might spring up
  • If she's to be believed, Claudia apparently survived Stalingrad, which makes her pep talk to Elizabeth seem much more convincing.
  • The newest character with the most potential seems to be Charles Duluth, a journalist and ex-socialist who is now chummy with the Reagan administration. He seems to be a unique go-between for Philip to use, and with any luck, Philip will need his assistance in the near future.


The Americans continues next Wednesday with 'Comint' @10pm on FX. Check out a preview below:

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