A review of tonight's “The Americans” coming up just as soon as the FBI has its own comic books…
Midway through “Stealth,” Paige announces that she feels like a prisoner in her own house, and though there are only two characters in the episode who are being physically held someplace against their will – Anton as a kept man of the KGB, Kate tied up in her apartment by Andrew Larrick – there are an awful lot of characters who are feeling like prisoners of circumstances, and/or like they're on the verge of winding up like Kate or Anton.
Leaving aside Philip and Elizabeth's usual complicated feelings about their situation – which are, other than a lot of discussion about whether to let Paige go to church camp, mostly placed on hold this week to focus on the supporting cast and moving the plot along – there's an awful lot of physical and emotional confinement going on here. Kate gets bound and gagged by Larrick, then murdered when it becomes clear she's not going to give up any more information on her prized assets. Anton remains miserable being separated from his son, even though Vasili has given him a non-awful home and supplied him with attractive sexual partners. As part of the mission to deliver Stealth technology to the Soviets, Philip befriends John, an aeronautics engineer trapped in a body and mind that's slowly shutting down due to cancer he believes was caused by work on Stealth. Emmet and Leeanne's son Jared is trapped in this strange and tragic circumstance that he doesn't fully understand – though perhaps we don't fully understand it, either, give his lunch meeting with an undisguised Kate. And after masterfully playing one or both of Oleg and Stan all season, Nina starts to feel the walls closing in when Oleg reveals to her that she'll be sent back to Moscow for trial (where the best outcome would be a life sentence in a Siberian gulag) if they fail to turn Stan into a full-fledged double agent.
Let's start with Nina, because her role has been one of the most fascinating parts of this season. Most of what we've seen, this year and late last, suggests she is 100% back on Mother Russia's side, is sincerely manipulating Stan as vengeance for Vlad and redemption for her own earlier crimes, and even that her feelings for Oleg are real. But the way the character is written, and the way Annet
Mahendru plays her, there's always at least a 5% level of ambiguity to it all – that, at a minimum, Nina does still have feelings for Stan, even as she's ensnaring him in Arkady and Oleg's trap, but also with the possibility that she is trying to keep her options open in case her needs change – as they so clearly have here. It's telling that Oleg – who once upon a time seemed the slick hustler who kept himself above everyone else in the game – is so shattered by the news of Nina's treason, and that he would go so far as to both reveal what Arkady told him in confidence(*) and warn her to run. Costa Ronin's been sneaky-good in this role, and was great in the first chance he had to show vulnerability rather than smirking superiority.
(*) It's entirely possible that Arkady, who has his own very warm (but more paternal) feelings for Nina, desired this exact response from Oleg, but it seemed more that he was telling him in the event Oleg could use his family connections to ease Nina's sentence if the worst-case scenario materialized.
And it's really hard to say how Stan will react if/when Nina tries to turn him. He's not in a good way right now, between the crumbling of his marriage, his guilt over the collateral damage of murdering Vlad, and his ambivalence over being called a hero for killing Bruce Dameran. I have a feeling he's more likely to choose suicide or prison over treason, but he's just rattled and lost enough that it really could go in any direction, up to and including violence against Nina the moment she tells him what's really been happening.
This episode already provides us with a large man violently subduing, then murdering, a smaller woman, as Larrick takes over Kate's apartment and figures out how to decode messages from the Centre using her notebook. Kate didn't make a huge impression as anything other than the polar opposite of Claudia (and I wonder how this whole story would have played out were it not for Margo Martindale's day job), so the impact of her death mainly comes from getting another example of the threat Larrick poses to Philip and Elizabeth (or, worse, to Paige and Henry), and from continuing the mystery of Emmett and Leanne's murder. Why was Kate meeting with Jared? Why was she doing it without any attempt to conceal her identity? What exactly does Jared know, and why was Kate's dying message to Philip and Elizabeth a request to get Jared out of his present circumstances? We still don't really know who killed Jared's parents, or why, and there's not a lot of season to wrap that up while also dealing with the many other threads, but the trail is intriguing.
And back to Paige, I remain impressed with how well the show has managed to integrate her (and, to a much lesser extent, Henry) this season. In general, this kind of show does not do well by the offspring of its adult characters, since their stories can feel, at best, like a distraction from what the show's really about. But in the case of “The Americans,” the family drama is fundamentally baked into the concept, it provides frequent tension both personally and professionally for Philip (who has made clear that he would choose his kids over the cause) and Elizabeth (who is more of a true believer), and the battle of Soviet and US ideologies makes a story as innocuous as Paige's interest in church become something much thornier and more interesting. So here, we understand where Elizabeth is coming from in her fear of religious indoctrination, even as Philip seems to recognize that they're doing more harm than good by making church into a forbidden thing for their daughter. Paige has no idea what's really driving her parents' opposition, but she accidentally stumbles upon an angle that helps bridge the gap between them: her church's activism against nuclear weapons.
It's not a permanent release from the ideological prison she finds herself in, but at least it's a furlough. Whether anyone else – anyone still living, that is – can escape their current horrible circumstances remains to be seen over the season's last two episodes. I don't expect them to be dull.
Some other thoughts:
* Tonight's creative credits read like a Best of the '80s selection: script by “St. Elsewhere” co-creator Joshua Brand, direction by “Hill Street Blues” veteran Gregory Hoblit. (And in case you missed it, I wrote a thing about the “Hill Street Blues” DVD last week.)
* Boy, was Zeljko Ivanek wonderful at conveying just how lost and empty and confused John has become due to the cancer. Some of that is excellent work by the costume and makeup people, but that dead look in his eyes is all performance. He's had recent experience playing a cancer victim on “Banshee” (a show pitched in a very different frequency to this one), and won an Emmy in 2008 for his last FX gig, playing Ray Fiske on “Damages.” A great character actor whom the business doesn't always know how to use properly (see “The Mob Doctor”), but he was amazing tonight.
* We've reached this place in television where snapping an opponents' neck is treated as this thing that not only every killer can do, but do with relative ease. Larrick is the kind of guy who would have that training, and I appreciated that at least it was presented as something that required some real physical effort, despite the size/strength differential between him and Kate.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com