A review of tonight's “The Americans” coming up just as soon as I'm the Kenny Rogers of Haifa…
“You're a monster! You're not a man! Whatever you once were, whoever you were, they trained it out of you! No feeling, no humanity, you may as well be dead!” -Anton
“The Deal” is an installment of “The Americans” where the whole isn't as strong as the sum of the individual parts, because even though the parts are mostly terrific, there are too many of them. FX has given this show, like many of its dramas, the freedom to come in long when the creative team needs the extra time, but in this case I would say being forced to hit a rigid time would have been useful.
So much of what's strong about the episode comes from the tension of the ticking clock on Philip's situation, where there's only so long that he and the captured Mossad agent can stay in that abandoned building before any attempt to trade him for Anton falls apart and Philip has to execute a rival spy. When the action cuts away from the two of them to show other characters dealing with their own end of this mission (Arkady plotting to make the swap, Stan trying to track Oleg), or else dealing with unintended fallout from it (Elizabeth visiting Martha to talk her off the ledge while “Clark” is unavailable), the tension level remains impressively high. But when Elizabeth also has time during this window to give seaman Brad the brush-off after he gives her the information she needs on the rogue SEAL, a lot of the air goes out of the episode, even though it's only one scene (and a good one; I've been really impressed by Jefferson White, the actor playing Brad). Similarly, I think the Elizabeth/Paige conflict, while brief, could have been put on hold for a week. There are times when more can be more on a show operating at as high a level as “The Americans” is at this season, but for a claustrophobic, focused episode like “The Deal,” less probably would have been more.
That being said, there were so many incredible original moments. Martha and Elizabeth's drunken bull session was a thing of sad comic wonder, as Elizabeth finds a non-fatal way to put this particular genie back in the bottle but has to endure hearing her husband's other wife discuss their sex life – and in terms suggesting there are parts of himself that Philip has only shown to Martha. Each woman believes that the relationship they have with this man is real, and while Elizabeth has a much stronger emotional claim to that belief, the nature of their work makes it impossible to know for sure.
And our country-singing friend from Israel pegs Philip almost instantly, working him psychologically – and, briefly with his stunt in the bathroom, physically(*). He isn't the same kind of deep-cover operative that Philip is, but he recognizes his captor for who he is and begins poking at his vulnerabilities, and the way his identity and loyalties and feelings have blurred so much over his decades away from Mother Russia. And though he never agitates him enough to convince Philip to simply let him go, he does beat him up enough that Philip is in very poor emotional shape when a tearful Anton begins yelling at him in the car. Again, Philip is a professional and isn't swayed from his duty, but you can see in Matthew Rhys' face just how badly this is hitting him.
(*) What a great little scene that was. It starts off being about the unglamorous life of a spy, as Philip has to help his captive use this filthy, forgotten toilet and clean up after, then turns into a brief action set piece as Mr. Mossad tries to escape. And it closes on a note of pragmatic professional respect; Philip's annoyed he had to fight the guy, but also recognizes that it was a thing he had to try (and that Philip would have had the roles been reversed).
And while Philip is suffering in a cold and dark restaurant in a complete information vacuum, we get a marvelous game of cat and mouse between the FBI and the KGB, and something of a sub-game between Arkady and Oleg. Our Blondie-loving new arrival has turned out to be much cagier than Arkady or Nina are giving him credit for, and his plan to bait Stan so he can get a look at Nina's lover – and stir up trouble for one or both of them – suggested that he's going to be a big problem for everyone. And that will include Philip and Elizabeth on the day when he finally gets access to the Directorate S agents – which you know is only a matter of time.
We close with poor Anton shacked to a pipe on the boat, staring forlornly out the porthole at the country he risked so much to get to, and that he believes he'll never see again (the situation would improve within 7 years for Soviet Jewry in general, but perhaps not for a valued, kidnapped asset like him), while Philip returns to the house he occupies in America, even as he dreams of one day experiencing another Russian winter. Neither man is where he really wants to be, but Philip's situation is vastly better (and more voluntary) than Anton's.
It's tough, this spy game.
Some other thoughts:
* Among this week's period references: “The Gambler” was a big hit in 1982, but was still pretty ubiquitous on radio years later, as Kenny Rogers was enough of a star to parlay his musical success into movie roles. (That year, he'd star in “Six Pack” as a stock-car driver who takes in six orphans, two of them played by a very young Diane Lane and Anthony Michael Hall, and featured this earworm. You're welcome.) The Centre communicates with Elizabeth by posing as representatives of Columbia House, a mail-order music club (which today still sells DVDs, and in 1982 would probably have been selling audio cassettes). Martha is watching an episode of “Hill Street Blues” from the February 1982 arc about the murder of Joyce Davenport's fellow public defender Pam Gilliam.
* Philip and Elizabeth get a new, much younger handler in Kate, played by Wrenn Schmidt (who recently played Richard Harrow's bride on “Boardwalk Empire”), as the Centre overreacts to their dismissal of Claudia by giving them the least experienced handler available.
* Despite Agent Gaad being replaced as the head of the counter-espionage unit, Stan brings him in to help with this operation. And based on the minimal screentime and non-introduction for the new boss, I'm guessing Gaad will somehow be back in that office momentarily.
* Paige's explanation for why she's interested in religion – because she “doesn't know where to put everything” in her life – nicely applies to her parents, as well. They've been trained to compartmentalize, but they have too much going on, too many identities and too many feelings.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org