Review: ‘The Americans’ – ‘Walter Taffet’: Never break the chain

Senior Television Writer
03.11.15 138 Comments

FX

A review of tonight's “The Americans” coming up just as soon as I'm not a part of this discourse…

“Is this how it's gonna work?” -Philip

“Walter Taffet” opens with Philip in the laundry room listening to a radio news report about the dire situation in Afghanistan, a look on his face that makes clear he is thinking of the son he has never met, and who is too far away for him to protect (beyond whatever he can accomplish by having sex with a 15-year-old girl, that is). He walks through the rest of the house and goes to see Paige, who's physically near enough to wrap his arms around, and learns that Elizabeth has now moved her beyond his emotional grasp. Whether near or far, his children are at the mercy of forces he can't do anything about, and one of those forces is the wife he couldn't possibly feel more distant from.

It's an inescapable waking nightmare, and the episode, written by Lara Shapiro and directed by Noah Emmerich, does an impressive job of conveying just how defeated Philip feels by all of it. Every thing he does or says comes with an undercurrent of impotent rage, even something as mundane as brushing his teeth.

As I've said, “The Americans” tends to be at its best when the spy conflicts are completely informing the family ones, and vice versa, and boy did we get a lot of that here. Philip is so disgusted with what his wife is doing, and at such a loss to do anything to stop her, that he feels the best thing to do is to run off to spend the night with his other “wife” – only because of the nature of his relationships with both Martha and Elizabeth, he can actually just tell Elizabeth what he's doing out of spite. It's cold and ultimately pointless, but it's all he's got at the moment.

And what's so sad and darkly hilarious and ultimately scary all at once is that Philip heads over to Martha's expecting her to be the easier of his two wives, having zero idea that she feels just as trapped as him, and even more terrified.

As a rookie “Americans” director, Emmerich acquitted himself well throughout the hour, but particularly in the sequence where Martha realizes that Aderholt, Gaad and Stan have discovered the bug she planted in Gaad's office on behalf of Clark. The world just absolutely closes in on poor Martha – and that's with her thinking that her husband is also working for the U.S. government, rather than the very spies her office is hunting. Terrific work from Alison Wright both during the initial shock and threat of exposure, and later as this turn of events causes her to question everything about this man she married without ever once getting a look at his apartment.

Though their night together does little to assuage Martha's paranoia, it does at least remind Philip of which wife he genuinely cares about, regardless of how terrible things are right now. As he finally tells her about the son he had with Irina, he's also spooning her on the bed, and she finally turns to face him upon realizing what Gabriel has done in telling Philip about this now. It's the most intimate and connected they have been with each other in quite some time, even if it doesn't solve the larger conflict about Paige.

At the end of the next scene, we hear the opening chords of “The Chain,” from Fleetwood Mac's iconic “Rumours” album, which will play throughout the closing sequence where Philip and Elizabeth work as a team to abduct the South African official and Hans's classmate. This is the first time the show has put Fleetwood Mac on the soundtrack since the pilot episode's memorable use of “Tusk.” It's not only another song that works stunningly well to underscore an action scene, but the lyrics about relationships that have fallen into resentful disrepair (“Damn your love, damn your lies”) – inspired by the simultaneous break-up of every relationship among members of the band at the time – speaks to the very fragile state of things for our central couple. And because the last time we heard this band on the show was at the very start of Philip's attempt to turn his fake marriage into a real one, hearing Stevie and Lindsey and the rest sounds ominously like it could signal the closing of that chapter.

Or maybe it's just a great damn song, used at the climax of another great damn episode of “The Americans.”

Some other thoughts:

* I interviewed Noah Emmerich about directing this episode, getting a chance to pay attention to the non-Stan portions of the show for once, dipping back into the Fleetwood Mac well, and more.

* In that interview, Emmerich notes that over the two days production had allotted to film the episode's climax, one was a whiteout snow day, while the other had clear blue skies. The northeast has been through some rough and volatile weather of late, so look for more snow, and more inconsistency in outdoor scenes, as the season goes along. As Fields and Weisberg have told me, at a certain point each season, they just have to concede defeat to Mother Nature.

* Emmerich's on-camera contributions aren't insubstantial this week, as Stan has to deal with Sandra's request to go ahead with divorce proceedings, then opens up to Matthew about his undercover assignment. The Stan/Matthew scene makes a nice contrast to what both Elizabeth and Philip have been doing with Paige: here's another parent opening up about his past to a teenage child, but with no ulterior motive beyond trying to forge a connection. (And, maybe, finding someone he can go to on the really bad days, now that Sandra has drawn a divorce line in the sand.)

* While Philip's dilemma is the more visceral one, in part because he has no power at the moment, in part because our perspective as contemporary Americans makes us want to root against Paige joining the KGB, the show hasn't forgotten about the inner struggle Elizabeth is going through on this. Her conversations with their South African contact did a good job of illustrating why this remains so important to her, regardless of the damage it's doing to her marriage.

* It gets a bit lost in all that's going on with Paige and Martha, but interesting to see Philip and Elizabeth baiting the hook for Lisa from Northrop, and particularly having to act so flirty at a time when there's so much distance between them.

* Before Philip took Martha to Clark's apartment, I wondered exactly where it was he went to change clothes, put on the wig, etc. I suppose he could probably do it in some gas station bathroom, but it seems safer and smarter for the KGB to have both an apartment he can go in case of an emergency like this, and simply as a weigh station from his life as Philip Jennings.

* Speaking of wigs, I'm not saying no one in 1982 wore their hair like the wig she wears in the closing sequence (pictured above), but that one seems more likely to attract attention than when she's wearing the John Denver wig Keri Russell hates so much.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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