Review: ‘The Americans’ – ‘Dimebag’: Phil, get off the babysitter!

A review of tonight's “The Americans” coming up just as soon as my tickets for Debussy's Symphony in B minor are available for pick up at the box office…

“Do I want certain things for her? Yeah. All parents do.” -Elizabeth

“Dimebag” didn't have anything as physically upsetting as last week's amateur dentistry, or the previous episode's lesson in proper suitcase packing, but it was about as squirm-inducing on an emotional level. “The Americans” can provide visceral shocks, but what's so great about the series is that it can dig so much deeper, and make the most upsetting things be about conflicts between the characters, and about the terrible decisions they have to make because of their work.

Philip and Elizabeth have been waging a cold war all season over Paige's future, and things in that arena grow even more complicated this week, at both home and work. Paige's birthday dinner with Pastor Tim is an excuse to tell her horrified parents about her desire to be baptized, which only fuels Elizabeth's belief that they have to indoctrinate her into the Soviet way of thinking sooner rather than later. Philip raises the very salient point that telling her the truth about her parents could blow up in their faces, but at this point Elizabeth is less concerned with whether their daughter can be a good asset for the Centre than she is with keeping her from becoming hooked on what Karl Marx once called the opiate of the masses. 

Relations between husband and wife have now become so fraught that they are paranoid about each nice thing the other one does for Paige – as if they're an estranged couple competing to curry favor with the kids left behind by the separation. It's some really ugly stuff, and works nicely in parallel with Elizabeth's mission to get closer to Lisa, her AA sponsor with a security clearance from Northrop. Lisa and her husband Maurice's problems aren't quite in the same arena – she's a recovering alcoholic, while he's off the wagon – yet when Lisa cries and talks about how much better their marriage was, it's not hard to picture the Jennings' “marriage” crumbling once again, until it gets to the point where Philip is going to EST as much for his own needs as to be with Stan.

But what really makes all this discord between husband, wife and daughter especially messy is Philip's assignment to recruit Kimmie, babysitter to their target last week, and daughter of the head of the CIA's Afghan group. As Philip notes to Elizabeth, they've never recruited an asset this young before – a concern he expresses literally seconds before Paige walks into the house. For all their concerns about what becoming part of the spy game will do to their own daughter, Philip is in the process of doing the same damn thing to someone else's teenage daughter, and using a seductive technique that's much uglier when the target is Kimmie's age than when she's a Martha or Annelise.

We don't always see a blurring of the lines between work and home for Philip and Elizabeth, but we absolutely do here, as he uses what Kimmie tells him about Yaz – a British synthpop duo (known outside of America as Yazoo) – to curry favor with Paige. Given the similarities between the two girls, and the KGB's interest in both, the whole thing made me feel nauseous in the exact way I suspect the creative team wanted. Yaz's stately, intimate “Only You” playing as Philip puts his arm around Kimmie in the episode's closing moment brings home how awful this is for him, and only seems to strengthen his resolve to keep Paige out of a world that would require this of him. It's another powerful intersection of pictures and music from a show that so often combines them beautifully, and the perfect capper to another great episode.

Some other thoughts:

* Though still thousands of miles away from the other characters, Nina remains a part of the show, here pressured to get a confession from her cellmate. It feels like at some point, the writers either need to find a way to send her back to America or kill her off (which would be a shame, but also the thing that would likely happen to someone in her position), but her isolated scenes are working for now.

* Stan's suspicions of the defector only grow this week when she passes a vending machine without buying one of her beloved Milky Way bars. The scene where he tears the diner bathroom apart was the other scene I saw being filmed when I visited the set in December. Tommy Schlamme directed both episodes, and does his usual excellent job with this one; I particularly like the composition of the moment during the dinner with Pastor Tim where it looks like the kitchen wall is physically dividing Elizabeth from everyone else. 

* Elizabeth on the pressure Clark feels from Martha to take in a foster child: “Who wears the pants in that family?” Of course, in their own marriage, she wants to be the one to wear the (high-waisted) pants.

* Hey, it's TV's Callie Thorne as the EST woman who tries asking Stan out after the seminar. I liked how Stan's earlier rant about how this is all bullshit could be read as about his marriage, or about EST – the EST crowd naturally took it as the former, but it seemed a mix of the two to me.

* And perhaps inspired by this plea for honesty, Stan finally confesses his affair to Sandra much too late for it to do any good. I hope Henry learns from Mr. Beeman's mistake when it comes time to tell Mrs. Beeman what he's been doing with her bikini photo.

* Matthew Rhys' wig as Jim the alcohol lobbyist is perhaps the most '80s thing he's sported yet, and was nicely enhanced by the use of Adam Ant's “Goody Two Shoes” on the soundtrack as he first appeared wearing it.

* The National Minimum Drinking Age Act, mandating that all states make alcohol illegal for anyone under 21, wouldn't be passed until 1984.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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