Review: ‘The Americans’ – ‘New Car’

Senior Television Writer
04.16.14 90 Comments


A review of tonight's “The Americans” coming up just as soon as I sell one of my kids…

Earlier today, FX announced that “The Americans” had been renewed for a third season, an enormous relief given the great disparity between the show's quality and its live ratings. (Though, as noted in that story, half the audience watches on a DVR delay, a huge percentage for any show even in 2014.)

The sense of elation I felt at knowing this great show will be around a while longer (and hopefully live up to the “on our schedule for five years or more” vow of FX's straight-shooting PR chief) comes in a nice contrast to “New Car,” an episode whose prevailing emotions are despair and frustration that other people don't believe as deeply as you in the things that you think matter, and that even when they do, belief alone can't prevent great tragedy.

Elizabeth has always been the more ideologically pure half of the partnership, and as she sees Philip pull up to their home in the new Camaro – a big, loud, expensive symbol of the kind of American decadence she despises – it's a tough reminder that even as their feelings for each other have deepened, their feelings about their adopted country remain very far apart.

Elizabeth's sense of frustration only worsens when Lucia goes against orders and attempts to murder Andrew Larrick, putting her need for personal justice over the greater mission to expose America's involvement with the Contras. Elizabeth hasn't been above revenge herself – it's how we were introduced to her in the show's very first episode – so there's more than a little hypocrisy here. And when given the choice between saving Lucia's life or saving the Martial Eagle mission, she chooses the mission. She's not cold about it – like every piece of violence she's witnessed or experienced since her shooting, the whole thing shakes her – but she makes that choice anyway, and Lucia dies with a look of betrayal and disbelief on her face. It's a great scene.

And even Philip doesn't get to enjoy the new car smell for very long, when Kate tells him that the plans they stole earlier this season were responsible for the sinking of a Soviet submarine, with all 160 men aboard lost. Oleg later suggests to Arkady that it was the military's fault as much as theirs – that the design might have worked on an appropriately-sized sub, and with the proper testing period – but even if he's right, there are too many layers between Oleg and the Jenningses for them to hear that theory and take any solace in it.

The small tragedy of Lucia and the greater one of the dead sub crew only winds up hardening the specific beliefs of the spouses. Elizabeth watches a Ronald Reagan speech boasting of his commitment to the defense budget, and he comes across like the absolute personification of evil to her. And when they abduct the regular driver who services the Martial Eagle base's septic system, Philip refuses to kill him, despite the danger he poses to the mission, because he's tired of killing, and, especially after last week's homicide, feels bad for a hard-working guy who is just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and is not a symbol of the larger threats of American capitalism.

In the midst of all this, Henry gets caught by the Intellivision-owning family down the street and breaks down sobbing in front of his parents, so guilt-ridden over what he's done and upset at the thought that they won't think he's a good person. It's a tricky scene, because young Keidrich Sellati is still learning his craft, but the moment ultimately lands on Russell and Rhys, who have to respond to seeing their son in so much genuine distress, and also at the realization that they've raised a pretty good kid, but also that they're raising him in a culture where he would be so envious of another boy's video game system that he would break the law just to enjoy it. The longer they stay in this country, the more bound up in its ways they and, especially, their children are going to become. And it doesn't matter how ideologically pure Elizabeth remains, because the world and their specific assignments don't allow for a whole lot of purity.

Some other thoughts:

* Elizabeth isn't the only character feeling like she's the last true believer left. Stan gets frustrated that no one at the FBI or the Department of Justice will let him look into Anton's abduction and what the Soviets might be doing with his discoveries. (The irony, of course, is that he's getting so high-and-mighty even as Oleg and Nina are getting closer and closer to turning him into an asset.) And even “Clark” tries to play a holier-than-thou game with Martha when she first suggests she wants to stop spying on her colleagues. Fortunately for Philip, his surprise appearance at her apartment wins her back before he has to play her the slightly doctored audio of the FBI agents making fun of her appearance.

* Most of the show's trips back to the Soviet Union have been flashbacks to Philip and/or Elizabeth in their younger days. The scene where Anton meets our old friend Vasili – who is doing decently for himself back in Mother Russia, perhaps because Arkady informed their superiors that Vasilli was framed – suggests we may be getting more contemporary action in the USSR.

* Reagan's speech was from the 1982 CPAC, which would place the episode at the end of February. Among the '80s references: Martha and Clark are catching the tail end of a popular local ad for Jhoon Ree martial arts schools (the “Nobody Bothers Me” song was written by, of all people, Nils Lofgren). Driving home with the new Camaro, Philip and Henry go crazy to “Rock This Town” by the Stray Cats. Also, I'm pretty sure that the video game Oleg and Nina are playing is Choplifter, which I wasted many an hour on using my dad's old Apple IIe.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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