A review of tonight's “The Americans” you give me your earrings…
“No, I brought you here because I wanted you to know that I'm more like you than you think.” -Elizabeth
Where last week's episode was largely defined by the terrible role that sex plays in Philip and Elizabeth's work, “Born Again” was for the most part (save Tori with Stan) about a very different sort of seduction. Here, words were used instead of physical advances, but the net effect is the same, as various characters – including Philip and Elizabeth themselves – get sucked into doing, saying and believing things they shouldn't, all because the person opposite them has said the right words in the proper order.
It's another masterful episode in a season that's been full of them, and what's so impressive is how much power the show is getting out of the simple moral implications of things. My notes for the hour are littered with the kind and amount of profanity that I usually reserve for episodes of “The Sopranos” or “The Wire” or “Breaking Bad” where characters I like get killed, but this is an episode without any significant violence, and where most of what upset me was the emotional harm being done.
The intercutting of Philip with Kimmy and Elizabeth with Paige in the episode's closing minutes was particularly brutal, even though Philip ultimately finds a way to avoid (for now) having to have sex with his 15-year-old target. Both of them are reeling in these girls who have no business being associated with the spy world, and in a way likely to do terrible, lasting damage to each.
But really, there were moments throughout the hour that made me feel sick to my stomach, even as I admired the craft with which “The Americans” creative team was giving me nausea. Think, for instance, of Gabriel telling Philip about his illegitimate son being a soldier in Afghanistan(*). Whether true or not – and the genius is that the nature of Philip's deep cover identity is that it will be impossible for him to ever verify the story – it is exactly what he needs to hear in order to step things up on the Kimmy front, no matter how much it gives him the same feeling the episode gave me. Or look at the way Nina wolfs down the food given to her as reward for eliciting a confession from Evi: a woman reduced to an animal who will do anything to survive her dire circumstances.
(*) Watch Matthew Rhys in that scene, and the way his breathing slows to the point where you can chart every millimeter movement of his Adam's apple as he tries to process this information and what it means to him as a man, a father, and a spy who now has to double his efforts with the poor babysitter. The man is doing spectacular work.
One of the things the actors and writers on this show talk about is how it's important for the characters' lies to seem convincing, and the simplest way to do that is to interlace them with the truth, which happens again and again here. Philip really has been to church recently, and he's feeling newfound guilt over the son he fathered as a teenager. (And as an added bonus, this confession of paternal guilt only makes him more appealing to Kimmy, whom we know is seeking a father substitute.) Elizabeth really has been working secretly on political causes, and did care deeply for Gregory. Nina actually was betrayed by two different men she loved. There are lies, half-truths and hidden motivations tied in with all that, but the power – to both us and to the targets of these lies – comes from knowing how much of this is real.
We open with the baptism that prompts the episode's title, and as Pastor Tim describes all of Paige's activities in the church, his words sound like someone Elizabeth can be proud of – but also like someone who just might be more susceptible than she realized to joining the cause. This will be a long, step-by-step process taking her from church girl to KGB asset, just as Philip is going to have to find ways to string Kimmy along so he can keep coming back to check the recording device(**), and it's going to be as fascinating to watch as it will be unpleasant for our protagonists.
(**) Watch Keri Russell's face when Elizabeth – already very troubled by the notion of her husband having sex with this girl – finds out that the visits will have to be weekly, rather than monthly. Rhys isn't the only one doing incredible work this week (or season).
How does this show get better every week? It's ridiculous.
Some other thoughts:
* Interesting to see Philip's own attempt to manipulate Paige fail so utterly. He's at a disadvantage here, because he can't come right out and say “Your mother is a KGB spy who wants you to work for the Soviets,” and so the most he can do is sound ominous warnings that unfortunately come across like more complaints about Pastor Tim and the church.
* Dutch actress Katja Herbers, who plays Evi (and is so good on WGN's “Manhattan”), went really thick on her native accent in this role, and between that and other sound in the scene, it wasn't easy to make out exactly what she was telling Nina to incriminate herself. But the gist is that she says her boyfriend never lied to her, which means she knew all along what he was doing, and makes her complicit in his crimes against the Soviet state.
* This show doesn't often get the credit of a “Better Call Saul” or a “Hannibal” when it comes to its visual style, but its shots are so gorgeous and so meticulous in the way the compositions tell the story. A couple of great ones tonight involved people smoking pot, first with Kimmy lying on her bed while Philip watches her experience marijuana and Pink Floyd for the first time, later with Philip and Elizabeth framed in their bedroom window as they toke up. In the latter case, it's of the show turning a negative – filming inside a darkened studio, rather than in an actual house – into a positive, because I can't imagine something filmed on location looking nearly as intimate as that.
* Sometimes, it's the little details that add so much, like the sour expression on the female KGB agent's face when Philip asks for her earrings. She's basically there as a plot device, but that look turns her into a person who liked those earrings and is annoyed they will now belong to some spoiled American girl.
* Things continue to simmer between Martha and Agent Aderholt, who smoothly solves her problem with the mail robot and confidential documents. How many more episodes before he just becomes too charming for her to resist, part-time husband or no?
* Paige taking down her Rick Springfield poster seems less tied to her new status with God than with Springfield nearing the end of his peak as a rock star.
* Hands up, everyone who saw Stan's concentration broken by the photo of Sandra and thought, “Just give all those pictures to Henry!” Also, while Tori takes Stan's confession of his feelings for his not-quite-ex-wife as a good enough sign to take things to another level physically, it's clear from Sandra's later visit to the house – and the very long hug Stan gives her when she offers condolences on the death of his former colleague – that he is not over her, and not likely to be anytime soon. Noah Emmerich's stuff is a bit background so far this year due to all the Jennings family tension, but he's been awfully good in his own right.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com