A review of tonight's “The Americans” coming up just as soon as I have half a sock drawer…
“The Americans” is a show about espionage, and it's a show about a marriage, and at its best – which so much of this season, including tonight's episode, “A Little Night Music,” has been – it is about both at once, about the blurring of the lines between the fictional lives of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings and the real emotions that the spies playing them (who might, on occasion, still think of themselves as Mischa and Nadezhda) are experiencing.
“A Little Night Music” was filled with such intersections of reality and invention. Some were light, like Philip and Elizabeth folding laundry while calmly divvying up a honey-do list that includes affairs, extra spouses, blackmail and more. Many others were less fun, but each fascinating in its own right.
We learn, for instance, that Paige's new friend Kelly is not a KGB watchdog, as many of you suggested last week, but simply an enthusiastic Christian girl whose existence is incredibly threatening to Philip and Elizabeth's way of life. Even if Paige's parents were exactly whom she believes them to be, the introduction of religion into an atheist household would be fraught enough. But what elevates this particular subplot over its equivalent on “The Good Wife” is that Paige's newfound interest in religion is a fundamental threat to the way of life – a way of life which teaches that religion is, as Elizabeth succinctly puts it, an opiate for the masses – that her parents have done so many terrible things to protect. It is not a coincidence that the episode opens first with Philip at a synagogue, listening to a refusenik Jewish scientist named Anton discuss his escape from the Soviet union – an escape that Philip, Elizabeth, Arkady and Oleg are all plotting to undo – as it primes the pump for the religious threat the Jenningses find in their home later in the hour.
Or look at the fight between Martha and “Clark.” It is a conflict entirely generated by Philip so he can get the heck out of that apartment and participate in the abduction of Anton, and yet the rhythms of their argument feel entirely authentic – they sound like an actual married couple (which they technically are, give or take Philip's multiple fake identities) having it out over issues that have been brewing for weeks or months or years. And Clark's abrupt exit, while necessary to his mission, winds up creating a very real problem that Philip is going to have to solve when a drunk, bitter Martha vows to fill out a federal job application form that will have Clark's name on it as her spouse.
And there's Elizabeth's seduction of lonely sailor Brad, who could help her figure out whether a SEAL on his base might have been Emmett and Leeanne's killer. Keri Russell is excellent in those scenes, fragile in a way the undercover role she's playing would need to be to hook this poor guy, but also reflecting the emotional turmoil she's been feeling since her shooting and since the murders in the season premiere. There's a moment in Brad's motel room where Elizabeth pulls back from kissing him, and it isn't clear at first whether this is part of the play or if taking her marriage to Philip seriously has made it harder for her to use her body with other men, even for Mother Russia. And then a few scenes later we discover that she has been playing him masterfully – and yet when the moment comes for her to actually perform a sexual act to keep Brad motivated, we see on her face how much she has come to loathe this part of the job. It is, like so many parts of her life, two things at once.
The frontseat of Brad's car isn't the only place where Elizabeth's focus falters. Claudia makes a welcome return right before the opening credits – I cannot express enough the pleasure I felt at seeing Margo Martindale back here after she departed for “The Millers” – and not only sets Philip and Elizabeth on the trail of Emmett and Leeanne's killer (adding a strand of whodunnit to the show's already complicated DNA), but expresses genuine concern about the condition Elizabeth is in after recent events. Elizabeth understandably doesn't trust the woman who imprisoned and tortured them, and whose face was turned into hamburger in response, but we know from the first season finale that Claudia's concern for her charges is genuine, just as we know from watching the show this season that Elizabeth isn't quite right yet. And Claudia's concern proves true in the exciting, unexpected concluding sequence, as the attempt to snatch Anton is interrupted by a pair of enemy combatants, origin unknown. Philip and Elizabeth do well fighting against them both (in a nice touch, each goes up against their opposite gender rival), but then Elizabeth gets so distracted venting all her recent frustration on her opponent that she doesn't even notice that Philip's has climbed into the car and driven off with their package inside the trunk.
It's a genuine cliffhanger on a show that hasn't often felt the need to use them, but it works because of the very uncertain times in which Philip and Elizabeth are living, and because it's not just a piece of thriller business, but something that ties into so much of what the two of them are dealing with on all fronts: the attempt to send a religious man back to a country that looks down on his religion, the new threat level created by the murders, and Elizabeth's recent problems.
Put that all together and you've got another multi-layered, wonderful installment of “The Americans” season 2.
Some other thoughts:
* Fewer '80s references than in most of the recent episodes – Henry's campaign for an Intellivision, for instance, is continued from the premiere – but Anton's involvement with stealth technology is a big deal for the period, and a far more viable piece of defense engineering than SDI.
* More of spy art imitating life: when Stan has to talk to someone about his affair with Nina, who should he choose but his new best pal Philip Jennings? Their discussion of whether Philip has ever cheated on his wife is a loaded one: technically, he is not cheating on Elizabeth, both because they're not really married and because she is aware of all the women he sleeps with and why, but he is cheating on Martha every time he goes back home to Elizabeth.
* Then there's Oleg, stirring up trouble right and left. He uses his family connections to get his security clearance raised, forcing himself more on Arkady in the process while also gaining access to the reports about Stan and Nina. Interesting that Arkady is trying to keep Oleg from finding out the nature of how Stan and Nina's relationship began, but Oleg seems a relentless sort who will keep pushing until he has access to everything and everyone he wants.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org