A review of tonight's The Americans coming up just as soon as my skin has no natural lubricants…
“It's not just one thing. It's too much.” -Gabriel
When the fourth season premiered, the Glanders vial in the tobacco tin sure seemed like an apt metaphor for all that was happening in Philip and Elizabeth's life. In “Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow,” the sample appears to break open, at least enough to infect Gabriel, while at the same time it feels like the plague of their secret is finally getting ready to open up and destroy everything around them.
For a few weeks now, it's seemed like there was no good solution to the Pastor Tim problem. Tonight, several are proposed, including the new and startling idea of having the entire family move (or, for Philip and Elizabeth, move back) to the Soviet Union. This would please no one – other than maybe Elizabeth, who might think she has a better chance of indoctrinating her kids to the glories of communism if they're away from seductive Western elements like church and Intellivision – and likely drive a permanent wedge between the parents and children.
Gabriel, at last recognizing (or, at least, finally feeling free to say out loud) that the decision to recruit Paige was a colossal mistake, finally proposes the best of a bunch of bad options: arranging an “accident” for Pastor Tim and his wife while the Jenningses are down in Orlando. As Philip notes, this will ruin Paige for spy work, since she'll figure it out once she truly understands what her parents do for a living, but even Gabriel's theory that she'll never be sure – “People believe what they want to believe” – seems awfully thin. Paige isn't dumb. Even if everything hadn't gone pear-shaped with Gabriel's illness forcing Elizabeth, Philip, and William to quarantine themselves in his apartment, Pastor Tim's death would have nagged and nagged at Paige until the guilt forced her to do something harmful to herself, her parents, or both. That they now have to cancel the Epcot trip only adds another layer of crazy tension(*) to the episode's end: we can feel reasonably confident that Philip and Elizabeth aren't going to die, but what if the “accident” happens anyway when Paige isn't standing next to them to verify their whereabouts?
(*) I like that even as things are getting very frantic with the state of Gabriel's health and the question of who else has been infected, the show is able to add a bit of levity, with William making like Usain Bolt and sprinting the hell away from Philip as soon as he realizes what's going on. (Also, Philip spitting in William's eye to ensure his help in treating them all was a nice move.)
But even before we get to the bad surprise in Gabriel's apartment, there's an enormous sense of dread hanging over this whole episode, making it simultaneously riveting and tough to watch. Even when Philip is trying to manage the problem by helping coach Paige on how to talk to Pastor Tim, it feels ugly and wrong because he's essentially teaching her many of the things he knows about how to work and control an asset. (We get to see him do this a bit later, in fact, when his conversation with Sandra – who was supposed to be an oasis from his spy life – turns into an attempt to bring his friendship with Stan back online by any means necessary.) This is everything he wanted to keep her the hell away from, and now he has no choice but to pull her in deeper…
… though everything can change enormously depending on what happens during and after this quarantine. Based on how everything has gone for the family of late, it's hard to imagine any change being one for the better.
Some other thoughts:
* Earlier this month, Fields and Weisberg were guests on Andy Greenwald's podcast, and they revealed something interesting about their creative philosophy for the show: they don't care if the audience can follow all the details or professional motivations for Philip and Elizabeth's various operations, so long as the emotional context of it makes sense with what they're dealing with elsewhere on the show. The subplot here with Elizabeth's new Korean friend Young-Hee fits that bill nicely, in that we have no idea yet what is that Elizabeth is going to need her to do, but we can still appreciate how genuinely happy and relaxed Elizabeth seems under her Linda Evans wig and makeup. She very badly needs a friend, even if it'd be an even faker friendship than the one Philip used to have with Stan.
* Worse for Martha: That Stan is now spying on her, or that Paige now wants to know where her father is spending those two nights a week when he's not at home? Almost certainly the former, but I like the fact that Stan can have common interests with both Jennings kids, even if he's unaware of it in both cases.
* Claudia! Always nice when Character Actress Margo Martindale can find time to revisit her old friends here. Things have worked out very well with Frank Langella as Gabriel, but Claudia's greater emotional distance from Philip and Elizabeth always adds an interesting flavor to these discussions.
* Things aren't looking good for Nina, who's already been found guilty of her latest crime, and now only awaits word of whether she'll get “exceptional punishment.” Yet the look on her face when she reads Anton's statement on her behalf – not to mention his presence in her dream trumping Stan's – goes a long way towards underlining exactly why she did it. She cares deeply for this man, and was willing to sacrifice everything for a longshot chance of helping him feel less guilt over being stolen from his family. Even in the midst of an episode very much focused on events in America, Annet Mahendru's brief work stands out.
* Party like it's 1983: The episode is titled after the full name of what was then known as EPCOT Center, and these days simply as Epcot. Epcot had only opened a few months before the events of this episode, and there were fewer rides there at the time. Meanwhile, Young Hee complains about Cabbage Patch Kids, a line of extremely ugly dolls that for some reason were such a retail sensation in the early-mid '80s that fights would break out in toy stores near Christmastime between parents desperate to get their hands on one for their kids before it sold out.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com