Review: ‘The Americans’ – ‘Salang Pass’: Just a gigolo?

A quick review of tonight's “The Americans” coming up just as soon as we combine the Jiffy Pop and Rocky Road…

“They kept telling us we had to make it real, to ourselves.” -Philip

“The Americans” is a show about marriage disguised as a show about spies, or vice versa. Sometimes, the balance tips heavily towards the relationship aspect, sometimes towards the espionage. Sometimes, though – as in a special, murky episode like “Salang Pass” – it not only manages to be about both, but about how the combination of the two elements makes both the marriage and the spy work wholly unique.

Early in the episode, Elizabeth comes home to find Philip listening to news radio, and their conversation jumps from Martha's desire to take in a foster kid, to memories of Henry and Paige when they were little, to talk of Philip's squirm-inducing recruitment of Kimberly. And all I could notice throughout the scene – and for any ensuing scene where Philip wasn't in disguise as Clark or Jim the lobbyist – was just how tired and pale Philip looked. This is all weighing heavily on him – in some ways, more than last season when he kept killing innocent bystanders – as he tries to juggle the conflicting needs of the many women in his life, including Mother Russia herself. He and Elizabeth are fighting a cold war in miniature over Paige's future, he seems to be warming to Martha's foster parent idea(*), and the entire war in Afghanistan seemingly (at least, to hear Gabriek tell it) hinges on him having sex with a 15-year-old girl who thinks she wants him to be her lover when what she needs a hell of a lot more is for him to be her father. He's not ending lives, but he's destroying them in ways that may feel worse than death to these new victims.

(*) If this actually comes to pass, at some point in the series, we must get a flash-forward to this poor individual as an adult in therapy, explaining that their foster dad was a Russian spy with another family and a completely different hairline.

So all of that was powerful and uncomfortable as so much of this season has been. But then we arrived at the last scene, and “Salang Pass” became even stranger, and more powerful, and more uniquely “Americans,” than almost anything the show has done before.

Of all the complicated aspects of their partnership, the one that's rarely come up in discussion between these two has been the sexual component of their jobs. It's just a thing that they learned to accept as a fact of life because they were trained to do so as teenagers – as we see from Philip's POV in a chilling string of flashbacks intercut with their present conversation. It came up a few times last season, both when Elizabeth had the historically awful idea of wanting to have sex with “Clark,” and when Philip decided he'd rather use Annelise for the honey trap on Yousaf, but neither situation was primarily about the sex itself; in the former, Elizabeth was jealous of the notion that she never got to see the side of her husband that Martha did, while in the latter, Philip was worried about Elizabeth (still weak and vulnerable after the shooting) putting herself in a dangerous position.

Their discussion of that training, and the way that the Centre expects them to be prostitutes on top of being killers and thieves and blackmailers, isn't novel in and of itself. The sexual component of spycraft is a frequent theme in espionage stories. But the way these issues are being shown from Philip's perspective – when he had to do the job in an age before Viagra – makes it feel like something different, and something the show is very smart to be addressing before Philip has to go any further with this awful assignment.

It's also interesting that Elizabeth should be curious about this at this very precarious moment in their relationship. They're wildly at odds over the Paige thing, viewing each thing the other one does involving their daughter as a strategic maneuver – and are usually correct in that view. They're also getting glimpses of the separated life from others, as Elizabeth encourages Lisa from Northrop to move away from her husband – to Lisa's great relief – while Philip hears Stan discuss moving on from Sandra, and the difficulty of connecting with his son. One version of divorce seems encouraging, the other depressing, but I don't think it's a coincidence we get both in the same episode, and while things are so fraught between our central couple.

When Gabriel tells Philip that “so many lives rely on one man's relationship with an adolescent girl,” he's referring directly to Kimberly. But Philip's relationship with the adolescent girl who lives under his roof is likely to have an even bigger impact on the lives of those immediately around him, and could potentially destroy the fake marriage both he and Elizabeth have tried to make real.

Some other thoughts:

* Stan proposes an improbable team-up to Oleg, which could result in Nina returning to America – though in a position where it's hard to imagine how she'd continue being part of the show – or could simply wind up being a role reversal of the mind game that Oleg, Nina and Arkady tried to run on him last season. Stan's generally not one for tricks, so I'm assuming he's saying what he means, but it would be an interesting benefit if Oleg winds up compromised for his role in this off-the-books operation.

* Elizabeth murdering the Northrop employee to arrange Lisa's transfer to the other plant was cold, but also a bit confusingly set up. The glimpse of the Northrop parking sticker on his car after she crushed him to death with it made clear who he was and why she was taking him out, but I don't know if that punchline was worth leaving it unclear both earlier in that scene and the one before it. Also, does the KGB just have a bunch of friendly dogs handy for when one of their agents needs a disguise accessory?

* If this show was a bigger hit, I would worry about the impact this episode would have on Jiffy Pop stock prices tomorrow, because I can't imagine anyone watching tonight wanting to try the product again anytime soon, lest they think about the creepy Philip/Kimberly food fight. Also, remember that Philip and Paige used to play a game where he would throw food (albeit grapes, not popcorn) into her mouth.

* No Yaz this week, but Flock of Seagulls' “I Ran” is playing at the high school party where Philip picks up Kimberly.

* Is Henry's continued interest in Sandra Beeman – here brought up in the most awkward fashion possible, as Stan dines with the Jennings family – meant as a weird comic relief parallel of what Philip is doing with Kimberly?

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at