Review: ‘The Americans’ – ‘Behind the Red Door’

Senior Television Writer
04.02.14 82 Comments

A review of tonight's “The Americans” coming up just as soon as I quit the volleyball team…

When you're married to the same person for a while, you may feel the itch to experiment. Go to new restaurants, maybe. Or vacation in the kind of place you've never been to. Or take more walks together. Or, of course, try some new things out in the bedroom.

But when your “marriage” is as complicated and fraught as the one of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, the experiments become both bolder and more problematic, which is how we wind up with Elizabeth's spectacularly ill-conceived plan to have sex with Philip-as-Clark.

I knew this would not be dropped the moment Martha raised the idea of Clark being an animal in the sack, and for a while in “Behind the Red Door,” Elizabeth's desire to experience the same thing played almost as comedy. This is a strange relationship these two have, where even if they are now treating their fake relationship as real, they still have to frequently have sex with outside partners for the sake of the job, with each other's knowledge (and often their support). In that context, a desire for some role play to see how Philip's other other half lives doesn't seem like such a terrible idea in theory. And it remains awkward and funny as he finally, reluctantly puts on the wig and the shirt and the glasses and proceeds to do all the things he usually does in bed with her.

And then… it goes into a very dark and twisted place that I imagine will eliminate any future desire for either of them to bring their work – or their wigs – into the bedroom.

Elizabeth's reaction is so strong and so angry not only because the more aggressive form of Clark (and his favored position) no doubt reminds her of her rape, but because for the first time in their marriage – and especially for the first time since the two of them started viewing it as an actual marriage – it's brought home to her that her husband is systematically sleeping with other women. It's not the literal definition of cheating – it's work product that she is fully aware of at all times – but there is a world of difference between knowing that the man you love is in bed with someone else and actually feeling what one of those other women experiences when she is with him. It's too much, all at once. It's a disaster.

It also neatly fits in with the show's title, which directly refers to the paint job Stan's wife does to their house's point of entry, but is also about how much surface appearances ultimately become something much deeper. When Philip puts on the Clark accessories, he isn't exactly Elizabeth's husband anymore, and that creates a problem when she realizes it. Sandra Beeman painting the door the same color that represents the people Stan is fighting isn't that horrible in and of itself, but it's one more thing that makes him feel disconnected from the life inside that house, and that makes him consider his life with Nina his real one, more and more.

And in seeing what Nina and Oleg are doing to Stan, and what the various KGB factions are willing to do to expose this clandestine Nicaragua operation, we are reminded of just what a ruthless business this is, above and beyond matters sexual.

It's both impressive and sad how thoroughly Nina and Oleg are working over Stan, to the point where he's not even slightly aware of it. We appear to be an episode or two at most away from one of them pointing out how compromised he now is, and giving him a choice between working for them or being charged with treason. And I have to wonder if Stan will be able to live with that. The structure of the show would suggest that he spends the series getting ever-closer to discovering his neighbors' true identities, but could we be heading to a point where the American side of the equation doesn't have a regular representative for a while?

Elizabeth's Nicaraguan protege Lucia returns, and gets to demonstrate her commitment to the great and glorious cause first by having sex with Carl (in a position similar to the one Clark uses with Elizabeth) just to allow Elizabeth access to the congressman's safe, then by putting a little something extra in his heroin to kill him in a way that will look like an overdose. You can see that Lucia has some feelings for this guy, but she does what is necessary and sadly tells him to think about his mother right before the drugs kick in. 

And though Philip and Elizabeth remain among the most valuable assets that the KGB has, it's clear from Kate's messages that the Centre is more than willing to sacrifice them – and, if it comes to it – Paige and Henry – for the sake of exposing this arrangement between the U.S. and the Nicaraguan rebels.

As with Stan, I don't expect our protagonists to actually be killed, but it's a very dangerous time – both physically and emotionally – for all involved. Things that once seemed like fiction have become real, and vice versa, and everyone is getting deeper into unfortunately circumstances that will be very hard to escape.

Such a roll this show's on right now.

Some other thoughts:

* We finally meet Andrew Larrick, and he is played by TV veteran Lee Tergesen. If you've seen “Oz,” you will have no trouble believing that Larrick is capable of doing some unspeakable things to each and every member of the Jennings family.

* At first, I was distracted that in the earlier Philip/Elizabeth post-coital scene, Elizabeth is completely naked (lying face down but filmed in full from above) while Philip is more or less fully clothed. Given that Matthew Rhys hasn't been shy about showing his body on camera in the past on this show, I'm assuming it's not a modesty issue, but a way to show both how much more vulnerable and adventurous Elizabeth is in their sex life at the moment. She wants to put it all out there, where he'd rather keep certain aspects of himself hidden.

* Stan's wife and son are discussing the recent death by drug overdose of John Belushi, which happened on March 5, 1982, and Philip and Kate meet at a bar that's showing a Ronald Reagan speech about Afghanistan that he made on March 10. Some other notable '80s references: the specs that Oleg gets (via Elizabeth and Lucia's work) are for ARPANET, which would in time lead to the series of tubes through which this blog post travels to your computer (the alternate headline for this review was going to be “The ARPANET is for porn”), while Stan discovers that the Bureau is starting to digitize all its files, which could in theory make it harder for him to illicitly copy something like he does for Oleg. Also, Paige has a Rick Springfield poster in her room, so why don't you listen to “Jessie's Girl” while reading the rest of this review?

* Boy, I hope the finality with which Margo Martindale delivered “Goodbye, Elizabeth” doesn't mean it's the end of Claudia on the show, whether through reassignment to Mother Russia as punishment for this mistake with her lover or, worse, death. I understand that she has a day job on “The Millers” (which will continue next season), and that we're lucky she was allowed to do even a handful of episodes, but she's too good a character to lose. And note that Philip does not tell Kate that they got the information on Larrick from Claudia. Always interesting to see which parts of the operation know what at any given time.

* Stan pays a visit to Agent Gaad's home, and we meet Mrs. Gaad, whom the family photos suggest he met during his service in Vietnam. Stan would be very wise to listen to Gaad's advice about being in over his head, but he won't, I'm sure.

* The end of the Elizabeth/Clark sex disaster contains the latest response to all of last year's wig questions, as it takes Philip forever to remove enough pins and clips from his hair to get the thing off.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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