A review of tonight's “The Americans” coming up just as soon as I have a friend in Japan named Hirohito…
“The Americans” was set in the early '80s because the period features the last great gasp of the Cold War, but it also happens to be an important transitional era for espionage in general. It's still an analog world where human intelligence is still the main driver of the field, but we're just starting to get to the point where machines could duplicate or even surpass what could be obtained through people in the field like Philip, Elizabeth or Stan. And “Arpanet,” in addition to advancing many of this season's big arcs, tells a pair of linked tales of Russian man (and woman) vs. American machine, with Oleg coaching Nina on how to fool the polygraph, Philip trying to get access to Arpanet – and having to rely on the services of the all-too-human Charles Duluth.
In both situations, the humans beat the machines, as Nina passes the polygraph exam while Philip successfully bugs the Interface Message Processor. But with human operatives come human weaknesses, which lead to tension and complications throughout the hour.
Among our various communist agents and hangers-on, we learn that Lucia is vengeful to the point of irrationality when it comes to Andrew Larrick, and could be putting Philip and Elizabeth's lives at risk; Elizabeth remains jittery at work, barely keeping calm when Larrick tries to intimidate her in their meeting; and Duluth is a drunk who nearly blows the mission with his flop sweat and inattention to detail. (And because Duluth was mitaken on whether people would be in the computer lab that night, a poor technician gets killed and carried out in Philip's trash can.)
And then of course there's the dance between Nina and Oleg as he teaches her how to lie to a lie detector. It's a very compelling story, providing tension over whether Nina can succeed (and, if not, whether Stan will offer her the same chicken sandwich treatment he gave Vlad), while also giving us the spectacle of Oleg working Nina even as he's teaching her how to work the machine and Stan. Telling her to picture him in the empty space in the room is a slick damn move, both to help pass the test and ensure that he will have a very special place in her heart if she does pass. Oleg was introduced to us as a glorified tourist with a powerful father, but he's turning out to be much more clever – both personally and professionally – than Arkady or Nina would have figured at the beginning of the year.
And the actual polygraphy scene? Dynamite. While it doesn't seem probable that “The Americans” would bump off Nina at this stage of the game, it also doesn't seem impossible. So there's tension over whether Nina will survive – up until the moment where Stan lays his hands on her shoulders in a way that could either be flirtatious or a prelude to strangulation – and also over how much Nina knows about Stan (note that she looks right at him while giving the answer about who killed Vlad), how much he knows about her, what he believes her loyalties are, and even what we believe her loyalties to be. (Right now, she sure seems to be on the side of Mother Russia, but it's also not impossible that she's playing a more complicated game.)
Philip's introduction to what will one day be the information superhighway is pretty terrific in its own right. Not only do we get the comic spectacle of Philip treating one of the fundamental aspects of our life like an incomprehensible sci-fi horror, but we have the matter of Charles Duluth. He appeared a couple of times last year, but this was a much more prominent – and problematic – role for him, given how he almost screwed up the mission and the human cost of his behavior. He seems like he could very easily be a weak link in the chain, and one the Centre may be apt to request the removal of. In the meantime, though, we got that brutal edit from Philip coming face to face with the computer scientist in the wrong place at the wrong time, to Philip pushing the trash can down the hall, not looking the least bit happy about what was inside and why.
Machines also don't have the qualms with killing that men do, but in 1982 the dirty work still has to be done by complicated men and women like Philip and Nina, and Andrew Larrick. And that's hard on all of them, but very entertaining for us.
Some other thoughts:
* FX held its upfront presentation this morning, and John Landgraf reportedly said we should expect ” a formal Season 3 order soon.” The live ratings remain lousy, but FX believes in the show and in the power of delayed viewing (half the show's audience watches it on their DVRs).
* In a trend all too familiar to viewers of cable dramas featuring families with a teen boy and girl, Henry has largely been forgotten this season in favor of watching Paige explore her family tree and dabble in Christianity. Paige gets the week off, however, and instead we get to see that Henry has also picked up certain traits from being raised by spies, even if he doesn't know about it, as he uses his telescope to snoop on the neighbors and then sneaks into their home to play the forbidden Intellivision while they're away. (More of man vs. machine!)
* When Elizabeth enters the travel agency, the painters' boombox is playing “Set Me Free” by Utopia. Later, when Philip shows off the Camaro ad to Henry, he sings a few bars of Eddie Rabbitt's “Drivin' My Life Away.”
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com