Review: ‘The Americans’ – ‘Cardinal’

Senior Television Writer
03.05.14 89 Comments


A review of tonight's “The Americans” coming up just as soon as I suggest a dude ranch in Kentucky…

“I mean, how are we gonna live like this?” -Elizabeth
“We'll get used to it, like we got used to everything else.” -Philip

After the bloody explosiveness of the season premiere, “Cardinal” dials things back to deal with the ramifications of Emmett and Leeanne's murder. And that's as it should be. Though we only met the other couple last week, they were presented as such obvious parallels to Philip and Elizabeth that this is essentially like having our heroes react to their own murders. Both have always understood that this is a dangerous business, and that at any point they could leave Paige and Henry as orphans, but for the kids to be in play is not something they ever had to think about before.

It's interesting to see this happen so soon on the heels of Elizabeth getting shot. Throughout the first season, she was presented as the colder and more ruthless half of the partnership – not that Philip is any less competent, but that if I needed someone dead right this minute, I'd ask her first. After her injury, she's been more tentative than before (and Philip has handled most of the heavy work), and here we see her constantly jumping at shadows like the utility workers across the street. She's jumping at shadows, but given her line of work and what she saw in that hotel room, anything less than total paranoia is bad business.

And speaking of paranoia, Philip is victimized by it when he goes to check out Emmett's defense contractor contact Fred and gets knocked out by his electrified lock-box.(*)

(*) Given that Philip was both posing as an electrician and trying very hard not to leave fingerprints, a pair of heavy-duty gloves would have solved all of his problems here, wouldn't it?

As Philip tries to talk his way out of a bullet, he figures out that Emmett and this guy got along well enough for Emmett to let on about his family, which is an official no-no in their business but the kind of blurring of personal and professional lines that Philip himself falls prey to. He can understand the connection Fred and Emmett had, even if it was against the rules, and because he can, he lives to make it home to his own wife and kids.

And note that he does go home to them, and not to Martha's apartment as he was scheduled. His Real/Bogus marriage to Martha is crucial to the mission, and it would do some good for him to show up to nurse her when she has a cold, but in this perilous time, he chooses the Bogus/Real marriage to Elizabeth. She and the kids are who he needs to be with, even if Martha is who he's supposed to be with at that moment.

That battle between what's emotionally real versus what's important to the mission is one that's been part of the series from day one, but the stakes of this season – and the parallels we're seeing in Stan and Nina's relationship (more on that below) – have only magnified that conflict. It's a great start, even if the intensity was, by design, lower this week than last.

Some other thoughts:

* I initially took Philip's disguise in this episode as an accidental homage to Old Rust Cohle, since the episode was produced in October, well before “True Detective” debuted. Then someone at FX reminded me that Philip wore this exact same droopy wig/mustache combo back in the series pilot. So if anyone's accidentally (or intentionally) paying homage here, it's “True Detective.”

* We think we know what side Nina is on now, but it's interesting that the show keeps presenting ambiguous situations like Nina overhearing about the walk-in and telling Stan about him, without us getting evidence that she did so on Arkady's instructions. Still, the bluntness of her written reports to Arkady – “I serviced the subject orally before allowing him to penetrate me” – certainly suggest how she truly views her encounters with Agent Beeman.

* Arkady's wire back to Moscow puts the date at January 25, 1982. Among this week's '80s references: Oleg is into New Wave music and wants to meet Blondie (and if I wasn't already in the tank for this show, a scene where he made like Johnny Slash and explained that New Wave is a “totally different head” from punk would probably do it), Fred's apartment has an Empire Strikes Back model kit and Bo Derek on the cover of Playboy (which would've been a couple of years old at this point, with the “10” reference), Elizabeth and the kids play the game of Life, and she takes them to see “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which was released in the summer of '81, but could conceivably still be in theaters the following winter. (Movies weren't shuffled in and out of theaters nearly as quickly back then.)

* Elizabeth gets a temporary distraction from the Emmett and Leeanne fallout when she gets a distress call from a rookie agent from Nicaragua. Always good to see Elizabeth making a friend of sorts, as well as to acknowledge the various Communist hot zones of the period. Given the Jennings cover identity, there's no real reason why the show would send them to, say, Cuba, but the Cold War was being fought on many fronts at the time.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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