Review: ‘The Americans’ – ‘Duty and Honor’

Senior Television Writer
03.13.13 78 Comments

A review of tonight’s “The Americans” coming up just as soon as I have 16 pairs of legwarmers…

“I’m ready now, Mischa.” -Irina

It’s one thing to tell us that Phillip and Elizabeth have given up any chance at a normal life in service to their mission. It’s quite another thing to give face to that sacrifice, as “Duty and Honor” does mostly well(*) in introducing us to Irina, the woman Phillip loved before he was assigned to his fake marriage to Elizabeth.

(*) I say “mostly” only because I spent parts of the episode distracted by my attempt to calculate the trajectory of Irina’s career, the odds that both halves of this couple would wind up as sleeper agents – if, indeed, that’s what Irina is, since it wasn’t entirely clear. (She could be based in Montreal as “Ann,” or she could just have a flawless accent but have been flown in for this specific mission.) If they’re roughly the same age and she was really pregnant with Phillip’s son – as opposed to using that as a lie to re-strengthen their bond and gain a companion in her new fugitive lifestyle – what are the odds she catches up to the position Phillip is in right now, more or less? Not saying it’s not possible, just that the details were sketchier than they maybe needed to be, given how important the story was to Phillip’s past, present and future.  

Irina’s arrival came at a particularly bad time for Phillip. Pre-mole hunt, he probably regrets their parting but feels 100 percent on board with his marriage to Elizabeth. Post-mole hunt, though, he’s being reminded again of the difference between spouses and partners(**), and it’s at least tempting to consider abandoning life in Falls Church – and his very real children – to go back to his one true love, rather than return to the current tension and feelings of betrayal with Elizabeth.

(**) Making Stan’s wife’s envy of the Jennings marriage particularly ironic. As bad as she and Stan have it, they at least chose each other way back when.

This was a great showcase for Matthew Rhys, but what made the story work was that it wasn’t simply a reunion between ex-lovers, but another mission. Phillip has to contemplate his past, present and future while he’s in the middle of framing a man for rape, and he and Irina get a very painful reminder of the life they have currently chosen when Phillip has to coldly beat her up as part of the frame job. This is why Irina wants out, and why Phillip has been questioning things for so long, and I appreciate how “The Americans” always frames these meditations on marriage within a spy context (or, if you prefer, how it always adds a marital element to a spy story).

Phillip returns from this business trip – and I loved how the episode’s opening scenes framed it in the context of a spouse acting as if their partner’s work trip is a glamorous vacation – determined to make things work, as is Elizabeth. But they begin this new phase of their marriage the way spies should: with more lies, since Phillip doesn’t let on any of what happened with Irina in New York. Those details may never come out, but it’s a reminder that no matter what either party feels, or how hard they work at it, they’re trying to patch together a structure built on a rotten foundation.

Another great episode of what continues to be a sterling debut season.

Some other thoughts:

* Hands up, everyone else who thought that, at certain angles, actress Marina Squerciati (as Irina/Ann) looked exactly like Lizzy Caplan?

* While Phillip’s up in New York reconnecting with Irina/Ann, Elizabeth gets to tie together several recent threads, as she hooks up with part of the cell that was led by the man she shot in the head two weeks ago, while she and Granny have their first encounter since Elizabeth turned her face into hamburger. Margo Martindale’s delivery of “Better luck next time” (in response to Elizabeth’s “I’m sorry I didn’t kill you. That’s my apology.”) should, mathematically, be enough to secure her next Emmy right now, shouldn’t it?

* Meanwhile, Stan and Nina finally go to bed together, after Chris prods Stan into having sex to ease his troubled mind. It’s interesting to consider the post-coital scene – which includes Nina explaining, “You Americans think everything is black and white; for us, everything is grey” – in light of what Special Agent in Charge John-Boy tells Stan later. Yes, it’s in John-Boy’s best interests to keep her in place as an asset, and to tell handler Stan whatever he has to do placate him, but Nina is a spy of sorts, even if a low-level one, and she’s done very well at her new job as a double agent. Who’s to say she’s the poor unfortunate innocent Stan has made her out to be, rather than someone ruthless and self-preservationist enough to present herself that way to the do-gooder FBI agent?

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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