Last night’s fourth episode of The Americans, “In Control,” provided some fascinating historical insight into the time period, but also felt like a wasted opportunity for the show. The episode centered on the 1981 attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley, Jr., probably the single biggest event in the first year of Reagan’s presidency, and ripe for what could’ve been a brilliant episode of The Americans. However, and perhaps one of the small problems with the show, is that it’s hamstrung, limited by the details of history. Rather than take a few dramatic liberties or engage in a bit of historical revisionism, the writers chose to work within the confines of history. While that it laudable, it resulted in the weakest episode of a strong series, so far.
The episode opened with Phillip and Elizabeth deciding to get away, stay in a classy hotel for an afternoon, and work on their marriage. However, during their lovemaking, Reagan got shot, an event that sent everyone into a panic. This is a key and fascinating difference between how news works now, and how it did in 1981. If the president were shot in 2013, thanks to the Internet and the speed that information travels, the entire world probably would’ve known the identity of the shooter and a detailed family history within an hour. In 1981, there was a great deal of uncertainty, both about the shooter and the President’s condition, and it was within that 24 hours — before everyone realized that President would survive the shooting, and that John Hinckley was simply nutbar — that the machinations of this episode had to work.
Stan Beemer and the FBI suspected the Soviets may have been behind the shooting, and neither Phillip, Elizabeth, or their handler, Claudia (Margo Martindale) knew whether it was their own people or not. Claudia, through Elizabeth, put in motion Operation Christopher, a plan in which Elizabeth would unearth her ARSENAL of weapons and prepare for guerrilla warfare in the event of a coup. Meanwhile, Phillip raced to his contacts to try to find out more information about the President’s status, the identity of the shooter, and his motive.
The intriguing angle here was the likely very realistic race for information between both the FBI, “The Americans,” and the Russian Embassy. They couldn’t jump on to The Drudge Report or Politico to find out what the rumblings were, so they had to use back channel sources. For the FBI and Stan Beemer, that meant their source inside the Russian Embassy, Nina, who it turned out didn’t know anymore than they did, although she risked her life — and her ability to be a source for the FBI — by meeting with Beemer, who fortunately spotted her tail.
But the most fascinating aspect of the episode was what the Russians thought they knew, owed to paranoia and a fundamental misunderstanding of how the American political system works. After Reagan was shot, there was chaos, panic, and confusion (the best example of this was the news media’s announcement that James Brady had died, when he had not). While Vice President George H. Bush was en route to Washington, Secretary of State Alexander Haig controversially remarked that he was “in control here.” Just 69 days into the presidency, and given Reagan’s indifference to Bush — who he cast as his running mate for electoral college reasons — it’s not a leap to assume that this is what Reagan would’ve wanted. But that’s not how presidential succession works.
Nevertheless, a paranoid Elizabeth — hopped up on the paranoia of Claudia and a lot of disinformation — thought that perhaps there would be a coup. Likewise, Nina from the Russian Embassy also believed that Haig was making a play to take over control of the United States. In this time of uncertainty, Phillip and Elizabeth prepared for the guerrilla warfare — to take out key figures of the American government — which led to the only bit of real action in the episode: A stone-cold Elizabeth ruthlessly shot a neighborhood patrol in the head after he threatened to call her in and check the contents of their van.
Ultimately, however, it was revealed to Phillip and Elizabeth by Beemer — over drinks at his house — that Hinkley was simply a nutjob. The Soviets were notified, the guerrilla warfare plans were scrapped, and a form of normalcy resumed.
What we learned from the episode, however, is that going forward, Elizabeth — who blew the whole debacle way out of proportion — would better trust her husband and his instincts about America. Beemer also learned that Nina is not that valuable an asset, if the Russians don’t know anymore than the FBI. However, they should also be more careful because the Russian Embassy has raised suspicions about Nina. On the home front, we learned that Phillip and Elizabeth’s teenage daughter has feelings for Stan Beeman’s son, and that Beemer’s marriage is crumbling. Most importantly, however, we better understand the slow flow of information in 1981 and how that uncertainty plays into the fear and paranoia on both sides.
Unfortunately, that lesson did not provide for the most compelling episode of The Americans, which had thus far done a brilliant job of mixing the episodic spy missions with the overall series arc. This episode fell a little flat, owing in part to the fact that we knew the identity of the assassin and the ultimate outcome. However, the context provided by the episode will be valuable going ahead in the series.