A review of tonight’s “The Americans” coming up just as soon as I make insurance…
“Do you know what love is, Elizabeth?” -Zhukov
In what’s been a pretty spectacular debut season for “The Americans,” some elements here and there have been shaky (the constant back-and-forth at mid-season between which Jennings wanted their marriage to be real, for instance), but “Covert War” was the first episode that didn’t work for me overall, even as I enjoyed a lot of individual components of it.
When you do an episode this heavy with flashbacks, the goal should be to tell us something about the characters’ past that gives us a new perspective on their present. The Elizabeth/Zhukov flashbacks, though, didn’t really tell me anything about her I didn’t already know. Even her deep connection to Zhukov was conveyed in their scenes together in the pilot. We know that Elizabeth is ambivalent about her fake husband, and that this assignment has forced her to have an imitation life rather than a real one. Some of the small details were new – that even after Paige’s birth, for instance, Elizabeth felt so concerned about things with Philip that she considered aborting her second pregnancy – but the overall thrust was familiar.
And that’s not a terrible thing, particularly as the episode was built around Elizabeth going off the reservation to get revenge for this man she loved and respected so much. But those flashbacks dragged more than they should have (even with yet another dog-as-metaphor-for-life monologue), and they also didn’t illuminate what was supposed to be the episode’s centerpiece: Elizabeth’s breakdown as she realizes she can’t kill CIA officer Richard Patterson, even though he allegedly ordered Zhukov’s assassination. It just didn’t feel like what Patterson said would have had that kind of devastating effect on her, even with what we know of her past, her present, and her relationship with Zhukov. Keri Russell tried like hell to sell it, but it mainly felt like an excuse for her to emote rather than something flowing naturally out of her character.
What came out of her decision to spare his life(*) was more interesting, in that it brings us back to the tension between Grannie and her charges. I figured from the earlier scene that Claudia was sending Elizabeth after Patterson, if not why, and Elizabeth’s theory is probably the correct one, given the show’s sympathies. Still, I like the ambiguity of both the situation and of Margo Martindale’s performance; like another Martindale FX role, Claudia seems the type to be smiling at you right up until the moment that you’re dead, but Elizabeth and Philip are also enormous assets that the KGB would not want to damage. So this could go a number of ways, and only adds to the potential complications for this season’s last two episodes and then into whatever is coming next year.
(*) A potentially huge complication from that decision: the lightbulb that seems to go off above Stan’s head when Patterson refers to his captors as “a couple.” I don’t think he goes back to suspecting his neighbors again this quickly, but I imagine he’s going to be looking for suspects in a different way going forward.
One thing I hope the show is able to cool it on is, again, the constant switcheroos in the Jennings marriage, here with Elizabeth deciding to let Philip move back in, and Philip already prepared to move on to an apartment. (And he clearly figures out what she initially meant, yet declines to take her up on the implicit offer.) One of the things that’s distinguished this series is the patience it shows in letting stories unfold and letting us simply watch the two sides at work. But for some reason, it has to keep flip-flopping back and forth on this one issue, rather than letting any one iteration of the relationship breathe for a considerable stretch of time.
Some other thoughts:
* Some excellent musical choices in this one that were familiar without feeling cliche (“Slap and Tickle” by Squeeze, for instance), and the use of the instrumental bridge of Pete Townshend’s “Rough Boys” to score the fight in the bathroom nicely mirrored the use of “Tusk” back in the pilot.
* Nina gets a promotion (and a new office), and with it a big piece of intel (the bug in Weinberger’s library) that she could give Stan, but doesn’t. Do you think she remembers the mole hunt that happened after Gaad got overzealous in responding to the last big leak from the embassy, or is she simply holding out until there’s something she can ask Stan for?
* Meanwhile, Sandra Beeman rightfully calls out Stan for his cheating, and one has to assume Stan is a much more convincing liar when he’s undercover than he is with his wife. A fine, fine scene for Susan Misner (and, as always, for Noah Emmerich).
* Oh, this will not end well for Martha, now that she’s introduced her parents to “Clark.” I imagine Philip probably can’t get away with killing her now that other people have seen his face – even if, as with Elizabeth and Richard Patterson at the bar, it’s a disguised face – but the whole value of that relationship is that no one else knows he exists. Something bad has to happen, even if it’s just throwing away the Clark wig and never seeing her again.
* Speaking of Martha’s parents, her father was none other than Richard Kline, who was fairly famous in this period as Larry Dallas on “Three’s Company.”
* And speaking of disguises, we may be at the point where, dramatically speaking, they’re doing more harm than good, in that I burst out laughing when I saw Elizabeth (in a new wig) and Philip (in a new goatee) in the car at the same time. It’s a fine line between trying to depict the ways your characters go about their jobs and it turning into a drinking game, and I fear we may have crossed over with this stuff.
* “As Howard Cosell would say,” Arkady explains to Nina, right before saying something the baseball-hating Cosell would likely never say (even though he was covering baseball during this period). I actually thought the line worked, because it shows the cultural divide: Cosell was the most famous sportscaster in the country at the time, and therefore Arkady would credit any American sports reference to him, without understanding the nuances of it.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org