A review of tonight's “The Americans” coming up just as soon as I find Polaris…
Music montages have become a dramatic crutch for many dramas. Though some shows still use them well, others use it as filler, or as the simplest way to wrap up any episode. “The Americans” has been very smart in its overall musical choices so far, and judicious in its use of montages, and the one that closes “The Walk-In” is a marvel. It presents the work and personal sides of the Jennings family all sliding against one another, as Philip and Elizabeth keep finding their role as KGB spies and their roles as American parents in conflict. Philip has just had to play both parts at once in scolding Paige for lying to them and looking for “Aunt Helen” – a frustrating thing for a dad, a terrifying thing for a sleeper agent – and now he has to work at developing photos of the device that apparently got Emmett and Leeanne killed. Having failed to get answers from Aunt Helen, Paige instead turns to the friend she made on the bus ride, while Henry uses his shoddy star wheel to look for Polaris – the sort of constant that his family could very much use in these uncertain times. And Elizabeth, who has spent the entire hour pondering her responsibilities to both Leanne's family and her own, finally resolves to burn the letter Leeanne wrote to her son Jared, perhaps recognizing that the last thing this poor kid needs is to learn who his parents truly were. (And/or that she realizes it could also endanger her own family.) Score the whole thing to another great selection from the Peter Gabriel songbook in “Here Comes the Flood,” and close on that haunting image of a disguised Elizabeth squatting by the road, watching the letter burn as she's illuminated only by the fire and her car's headlights, and you've got something both beautiful to look at and that neatly, movingly sums up the conflicts of this episode and the season so far.
Of course, it helped that “The Walk-In” as a whole was “The Americans” with all its elements working in perfect harmony. We got a pair of episodic missions in the trip to the warehouse and Stan's pursuit of would-be assassin Bruce Dameran that each built on larger ongoing story arcs (the aftermath of Emmett and Leanne's murder, and Nina's seduction of Stan, respectively). Paige's investigation into her larger family, and the strange gaps in what her parents tell her, built on what happened at the end of the year and felt like a logical thing an inquisitive kid like Paige would do.(*)
(*) Where so many adult dramas fall down with their teen characters is in having them do stupid things that cause problems for the grown-ups; here, Paige is using her brain, and the danger of either kid finding out the truth is a piece of tension baked into the premise.
And in mixing the present-day scenes with mid-'60s flashbacks, we not only got a stronger sense of Elizabeth's friendship with Leeanne, but a strong contrast of where the Jennings marriage was back in the day (behold the wounded look on Philip's face as Elizabeth explains in such unemotional terms why she's ready to have a baby with him) versus now (behold the sexy rubbing of ointment as Elizabeth gets out of the shower).
Stan's end of things, meanwhile, explains why Nina told him about the walk-in – this was orchestrated by Arkady from the start, to both help Nina's cover and to eliminate a potential problem in Dameran – while also adding new complexity to that relationship. Yes, Nina is acting on Arkady's orders, and clearly wants revenge for the murder of Vlad, but you can see on her face as she recalls Stan's declaration of love that the words pleased her for more than just professional reasons.
Every important relationship on this show has a blend of reality and artifice. Philip and Elizabeth are more like a real married couple than ever, but his only legal marriage is to Martha. Theya re the genuine parents to Paige and Henry, but they are not who their kids believe them to be. Stan and Nina are sleeping together in a relationship where each believes they are manipulating the other, and yet where their feelings aren't totally a put-on.
It's all a mess, and it's all so fascinating to watch. The premiere opened season 2 with a series of bangs, but “The Walk-In” demonstrates how great Fields, Weisberg and company have gotten at exploiting all the emotional complexities of the elaborate web of lies they've spun. Great, great episode, and a fantastic closing.
Some other thoughts:
* Among this week's '80s references: Stan's wife goes to an EST seminar run by Werner Erhard, and Oleg describes the Capitals as “the largely untalented hockey club that plays in Washington.” (In the 1981-82 season, the Caps finished with a 26-41-13 record, good for 5th place in the now-defunct Patrick Division. Alex Ovechkin would not even be born for three more years.)
* Keri Russell is not the largest of humans, but she does wield a crowbar well enough to convey the fear the warehouse guy felt about not getting to see his kids again. And though at first I feared, like him, that she was letting him get too good a look at her to live, her solution was more effective, and probably creates fewer problems down the road.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org