A review of tonight's “The Americans” coming up just as soon as I look into the tip of your nose…
“You forget what it's like to have your own life.” -Nina
The title “One Day in the Life of Anton Baklanov” suggests an episode spent entirely in the Russian lab with Anton, Nina, and the disapproving matron. Instead, that's just one part of a busy hour. Yet the title doesn't feel inaccurate, because for this week, everyone is Anton Baklanov: trapped in situations they didn't ask for, and that there seems no hope of escaping from back to the life they thought they were living. Anton's prison is the most overt, because he was literally taken against his will (even Nina confessed to Arkady, knowing the gulag was a potential result), but Paige, Martha and even Philip and Elizabeth all find themselves living lives not their own, where they have to dance to a tune called by others.
That thematic unity, and the usual superb performances by the ensemble, ties together another episode that has arguably too much plot. Unlike certain other cable dramas that can overly complicate things (even ones I love, like “Justified”), the various stories on “The Americans” are relatively straightforward; there are just too many of them, and it's starting to distract from the emotional power of what's going on with the Jennings family, and with Stan and Martha and Nina. I know that the show needs missions for each week, and the fact that Philip and Elizabeth are running so many different operations at once – to the point where I had all but forgotten about Lisa and her estranged husband until he returned to ask “Michelle” to cut them in on the consulting deal – helps us understand just how much stress the two of them are under all the time. But I'd like to see the narrative tighten up a fair amount in season 4, if that's possible.
Even so, this felt like more than just a piece-mover episode because of the recurring feeling of the screws being tightened on so many characters.
Paige is still grappling with what she learned about her parents, and with the enormous trust issues this knowledge has created. Elizabeth and Philip each try telling her about Elizabeth's dying mother in a sincere attempt to be more open with her, but all it does is remind her that she's been lied to by them for her whole life, and therefore can't trust anything they say now(*). And knowing that Paige is now aware of at least some of what they do seems to be coloring Elizabeth's behavior for much of the episode. Her operation with the hotel manager is the first honey trap(**) she's performed in quite a while; that gap, and their attempt last week to wait for a female manager, suggests that it's not a part of the spy trade she wants to practice anymore, but the whole thing seems to be weighing on her even more because of Paige. There will come a point, she knows, where her daughter will ask for more specifics about the kinds of things she and Philip do, and while I can't imagine her talking about this, or the necklacing, all these activities feel very different when she can now imagine seeing them through Paige's eyes rather than her own. She's trying to sway Paige to the Soviet cause, but I wonder if the long-term result of this will have the opposite effect.
(*) Even here, Elizabeth is lying to her to a degree. She says that she and Philip really wanted both kids, when in fact it's part of the whole operation, because a childless couple wouldn't blend in so seamlessly. That they came to love Paige and Henry is absolutely true, but Paige was created on orders from the Centre.
(**) And she does it in an episode where Paige has previously asked Elizabeth to stop calling her “honey.”
The Martha/Taffet material, meanwhile, remains on simmer, but it's hard not to feel like he knows much more than he's letting on, despite Philip's coaching. Stan also seemed to start wondering about Martha last week; are we reaching a point where she is about to be found out, and/or to suffer the deadly fate we all assumed was coming for her at the end of season 1? Whatever happens, Alison Wright has been killing it all season, and continued to do so here.
And I really liked Philip and Gabriel's conversation by the water about where Philip's head is at, as well as the Centre's penchant for saying no to his every request. (Remember, it was Elizabeth who asked for Mischa to be recalled from Afghanistan.) Gabriel remains a man of mystery, whose placid, grandfatherly demeanor could very well just be concealing a ruthless KGB operative who knows how to best manipulate his agents. But he's not wrong to wonder if Philip is falling apart, since we've seen that happening basically since the series began. The process has just accelerated this year because of the Paige situation.
In an earlier scene, Yousaf wonders how Philip does the things he has to do. Philip says he ultimately tries to focus on the ways in which he can try to fix the world. But we also know that the part of the world he ultimately cares about more than any other is his family, and at the moment the mission is coming into conflict with that.
With only two episodes to go in the season, I'm expecting some major ugliness. But I could also stand for a little more tidiness by this time next year.
Some other thoughts:
* As one of the few characters who can see some light at the end of her particular tunnel, Nina is playing the Anton situation very well. She finds the unsendable letters he writes to his son, and even when he catches her using Jacob's name, she spins that into another reason for him to trust her. He is trapped; she may not be.
* Today, in Alan Wants a Web Series: “Dine-In Like Flynn,” where Walter White Jr. and Henry Jennings sample various breakfast foods and discuss being relegated to a life of oblivious bacon and cereal consumption while everyone else in their families is dealing with insane drama.
* Also, I like that Henry's Eddie Murphy impression has now become a running gag, even when we don't actually hear him do it. But can Keidrich Sellati do Buckwheat?
* More '80s pop culture: the transcripts from the mail robot's listening device include an agent complaining about the USFL, the short-lived attempt to compete with the NFL, which featured players like Jim Kelly, Hershel Walker, and Steve Young, and was the subject of a fun “30 for 30” film called “Small Potatoes.”
* I'm assuming that the beeps, which a tired and bored Oleg started joking about with Tatiana, will turn out to be a hugely valuable piece of information before all is said and done.
* Hans gets to wear his first disguise, even if you can only barely make him out as the man in glasses creating the distraction at the hotel check-in desk that gives Elizabeth unfettered access to the reservation computer. Also, Elizabeth seems to be putting a lot of trust in Hans at this point, apparently choosing to look at his murder of Todd not as a sign that he's an unstable element, but that he's really committed to the cause.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com