Review: ‘The Americans’ – ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’

Senior Television Writer
03.20.13 118 Comments


A review of tonight’s “The Americans” coming up just as soon as my thing is Ecclesiastical…

“If you start to think of your marriage as real, it doesn’t work.” -Granny

“Mutually Assured Destruction” is far from a bad episode of “The Americans,” but it feels like one that will be better appreciated as part of the whole season rather than as a standalone hour airing in the week between “Duty and Honor” and whatever’s coming next week.

Part of that is because Phillip and Elizabeth’s assignment of the week was one of their less interesting ones so far. The amount of  confusion back in the mother country that necessitated the assignment is an important part of the larger picture, but their specific pursuit of the assassin felt a bit by-the-numbers.(*)

(*) Also, I’m curious how many other people initially mistook the prostitute at the hotel bar for Elizabeth in one of her wigs. She’s not a dead ringer for Keri Russell, but there’s a superficial physical resemblance, and a greater vocal one, such that I started to get confused in later scenes why Elizabeth was acting like she hadn’t met their target yet. Once the hooker reappeared, it became clearer what was going on (and I then rewound to check the earlier scene again, where it was clear this was a different character), but I spent a couple of scenes being puzzled. Was I alone in this?

But the other part is that the ups and downs of the fake Jennings marriage are starting to blur together a bit. I believe that a relationship this artificial and fraught would get very complicated, and would have the partners waxing and waning in how they felt about it. But I think I would prefer there to be some level of equilibrium for a few episodes at a time, even if things abruptly change after that. I feel like I’m going to be exhausted on the state of the couple by the time we hit the end of this season, let alone if the show runs for years to come.

The Stan/Nina arc has been a more linear progression, and was the most satisfying part of “Mutually Assured Destruction.” Their first encounter at the safe house was a pretty brutal guilt trip on Stan, who likes to think of himself as the good guy, yet has Nina telling him to think of how he’ll feel looking at her dead one day, and later insisting, “I do everything for you; I’m trying my best.” Noah Emmerich’s reaction to the latter line, and the realization of just how fake and twisted this relationship is – as false in its own way as what the couple who live across the street from Stan has – was perfect. We’re apparently meant to take Nina at face value – as an operative in over her head and trying her best not to drown – but it’s hard to imagine John-Boy giving the order to exfiltrate her anytime soon.

Nina’s stuck with Stan, but are Elizabeth and Phillip stuck together? Phillip raises an interesting point at the episode’s end about the changing social mores of 1981 versus when they first arrived in America. If anything, the two of them separating would only strengthen their cover in that environment, assuming neither of them tried to start up a relationship with a civilian.

Would the series go to that well this early in the run? If so, I hope it’s something that takes for a while.

Some other thoughts:

* The episode’s pre-credits scenes had a much lighter tone than anything the show has done previously, almost like it was the USA (the cable channel, not the country) version of the concept. It was there to set up the tension later in the episode by showing us just what Phillip and Elizabeth had to lose now that they seemed happy and it was quite a change from how they usually operate. (A friend asked me last week whether we’d ever seen Elizabeth smile when she wasn’t wearing a wig.)

* As William Safire noted back in 2006, “It is what it is” is a phrase that dates back at least to 1949, and probably quite a bit further. Still, it feels contemporary enough that it was a bit jarring to hear Elizabeth use it to discuss the state of their marriage.

* Chris finally gets more to do, as we find out that he’s the lousy ex-boyfriend Martha had been telling “Clark” about earlier. Whether he’s following her now out of romantic concerns or professional ones, seems like it’ll only be a matter of time before he gets a good look at Phillip-as-Clark, which will end well for no one.

* As the headline alludes to, the song Martha plays for Clark to put them in the mood is Pablo Cruise’s “Love Will Find a Way.” Meanwhile, the episode closes with The Cure’s “Siamese Twins,” which was on an album (“Pornography”) that didn’t come out until 1982. Given that it’s not played as source music that a character is listening to, I’ll allow it. (Like how “Mad Men” played a yet-to-be-released Dylan song at the end of season 1.)

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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