The Americans: Anatomy of a Messed-Up Marriage

The Jennings finally made up. By suffering together through an amateur root canal.


Every week for the third season of FX's spy thriller The Americans, Christopher Orr, Olga Khazan, and David Sims will discuss the intrigue and domestic tiffs playing out behind closed doors in the Jennings household.

Khazan: The third episode, "Open House," combined the best of both Americans worlds—lots of plot with plenty of action. It opened with Elizabeth warning the new KGB recruit, Hans, to watch himself when he tried to hit on her during his training. Gabriel, once again in peak mind-games mode, hinted to Philip that Elizabeth "looks at him differently" these days. And back at home, Elizabeth and Philip had a tiff after the latter coolly slut-shamed her before bed, an apparent retaliation for her discussing Paige with Gabriel behind his back.

Before long, though, Elizabeth and Philip were back to work assessing Ted Paaswell, a member of the CIA Afghan Group who was selling his home. They attended the open house—fully bedecked in excellent wigs and glasses, of course—and Philip planted a bug on Paaswell's phone. Paaswell surprised Philip as he was poking around Paaswell's study, and the two had an ironic conversation about the dangers of work creeping into home life—a problem both men can relate to, no doubt.

Gabriel warned Elizabeth and Philip that the CIA would have security on Paaswell, and so it did—11 cars in all. The couple attempted to evade them by nervously driving around the D.C. 'burbs for hours, eavesdropping on a flirtation between Paaswell and a teen girl in the meantime. After night fell, Philip was able to jump out of the car, but Elizabeth was obliged to keep driving, allowing the CIA to get dangerously close to nabbing her.

Here, the most remarkable thing, for me, was just how these characters can be so close to and yet far away from modern technology. On one hand, Philip's bug was so good that the teen babysitter's every giggle came through loud and clear. On the other, there was no Waze to get them out of the CIA car chase, so they had to trace their own route with a black marker on a map. At the start of the episode, Elizabeth railed against modern conveniences, quoting Marx in stating how "the production of too many useful things results in too many useless people." It really seems like an iPhone would get the couple out of 80 percent of their scrapes, though!

Elizabeth finally returned home, and Philip hugged her tenderly with the American national anthem blaring on the TV in the background. Then she yelped in pain—her injury from the first episode still hadn't healed. Wordlessly, they both knew what had to be done next: amateur dentistry.

I think I watched the entire teeth-pulling scene with my face buried in a pillow, but my reaction to it was roughly a series of squeaks, questions, more squeaks, and then sympathy pains. There was a surprising intimacy to it, though. Elizabeth grabbed Philip's shirt, and appeared to be, as Gabriel might say, "looking at him in the same way again." The circumstances were gruesome, but at least she and her husband were on the same team, if only for a moment.

In what almost seemed like a throwaway scene, Stan told another agent that the way he's able to roll people is by telling them "what they want to hear, over and over again. People love hearing how right they are." The camera then cut to a television appearance by Zinaida, the defector, where she uttered lines railing against the USSR that her American audience appeared to eat up. As Stan watched her from backstage, to me it looked like he was starting to suspect something. Was Zinaida too on-message? Was she just telling America how right it is? (If so, her Milky Way obsession from the previous episode might have been an act put on to soften up her American hosts.)

So much else happened in this hour. David, what do you make of the flirtation between Martha and Agent Aderholt? What does this mean for the fate of Martha's new husband (Philip in disguise)? What about the fact that the teen babysitter turned out to be the daughter of the head of the CIA Afghan Group? How long will it be before you go back to the dentist after watching this?

Sims: I'm rarely fond of scenes of amateur dentistry in movies and TV—it’s impossible to watch without feeling squeamish, and they’re such an easy opportunity to build tension. But Philip yanking out Elizabeth’s tooth was an exception because of the surprising intimacy that you noticed, Olga. In an episode fraught with the marital tension that’s simmered since this season began, there was a sudden burst of tenderness between them, the kind that could really only come when you have that much shared history with a person. The Americans has always had this kind of fun, having Philip and Elizabeth’s spy shenanigans serve as a grander metaphor for marriage, but this is one of the best angles the show has found so far. It’s hard not to summon cliches—through thick and thin, in sickness and in health—when you’re watching a husband lovingly yank his wife’s injured teeth out with a pair of pliers in the basement.

It made their partnership feel a little safer despite Gabriel’s quiet machinations in the background and Elizabeth’s acknowledged flirtation with the young Hans. It helped that this episode was directed by Thomas Schlamme, one of the real masters of the TV drama, who's helmed at least one episode per season on this show. He toned everything down for the scene of Elizabeth silently arriving home after evading the CIA, and the following tooth extraction, letting things play out in near-silence, cutting infrequently and keeping the lurid moment from feeling too over-the-top.

Amid all their differences, these shared experiences are what bind Philip and Elizabeth together, right? Circles seem to be closing around every character on this show, and one imagines soon enough they'll make the call to batten down the hatches together. I’m thinking about this in reference to Martha, who feels like a character the show might have to end up shedding at some point in the future. She serves an important purpose—helping ground us in the fact that Philip is doing something truly cruel to a person even while we sympathize with him—but her storyline has run out of thread and seems more implausible with every passing appearance (and it’s never been terribly plausible). Why would she put up with such a dreadful marriage to a person who's constantly scolding her? And why would Philip keep up a relationship with a person who works in the same office as his neighbor? It’s increasingly a head-scratcher, especially as she asks reasonable questions like “If we’re married, why can’t we have children?” Plus there’s no denying the size of this cast is growing too large for this show to really keep up, so I predict some kind of conclusion to Martha’s marriage in the near future.

One relationship that’s growing ever tighter: Oleg and Arkady at the KGB, who are testing the limits of their Soviet superiors together by having Oleg stick around in America despite his father’s orders. There’s the fact that Oleg has finally found something he excels at, sure, but beyond that there’s a sense of real weakness in the motherland amid the turmoil of Brezhnev’s death and Yuri Andropov’s ascension to the top of the party. That was maybe my favorite little moment in the episode—Oleg and Arkady’s silent understanding of their rapidly shifting place in the world, and the advantages of maybe keeping an ocean between them and their superiors. Chris, what did you think?

Orr: I agree with almost everything you guys have written, so let me begin with a mild disagreement—or maybe it’s really just a deeper dive into a particular scene. I’m referring to the bedroom argument between Elizabeth and Philip, in which you describe him as “slut-shaming” her, Olga. Well … sorta. But I think there was more going on there.

The scene began with Elizabeth saying that she’d seen a necklace that she thought Paige might like for her birthday. Philip, obviously spoiling for a fight, was having none of it. “Maybe you think she’d like it because you like it,” he said, immediately turning an innocuous present suggestion into a metaphor for Elizabeth’s apparent willingness to recruit Paige into the KGB. He groused a bit more before grumpily acceding that “The necklace is fine.” Then Elizabeth nonchalantly dropped her towel and mentioned, over her shoulder, that Hans had been “checking her out.” It sure looked as though she was hinting at the prospect of some make-up sex. But Philip wasn't falling for it: “I’m sure he liked what he saw,” he says acidly. Elizabeth, trying to defuse his possible jealousy, quickly noted that she shut Hans down immediately. But Philip veered in the opposite direction, suggesting that maybe she should get friendly with Hans after all: “You recruit men. That’s part of it, right?”

It’s been a long while since the show has taken us so deep into the convoluted sexual dynamics of this marriage, in which both partners are occupationally required to sleep with other people on a fairly regular basis. (It’s just as much a part of Philip’s recruitment repertoire as it is Elizabeth’s. He actually went so far as to marry someone else.) I found the scene a fascinating dance, immaculately executed. Elizabeth, who is on some level a professional seductress, tries to seduce her husband to defuse the tension between them. Philip, himself a professional seducer, essentially says, no dice, why don’t you go seduce someone else. The show doesn’t often take us to this dark place in their marriage—and I think that’s the right choice—but for me that scene gave the entire episode an unsettling vibe. It was also an example of how FX’s sparing use of nudity renders it a much more powerful device than it is in the hands of, say, HBO. I’m a huge fan of Game of Thrones, for instance, but the show’s constant reliance on naked bodies has completely devalued the coin.

The fascinating twin of the bedroom scene, as you’ve both noted, was that gruesome-yet-tender tooth extraction, which immediately joins the pantheon of great moments in cinematic dentistry. That’s how screwed up this marriage is: Instead of make-up sex, they have a make-up root canal.

As noted, I’ve loved pretty much every scene with Frank Langella, and tonight’s was no exception. Like you, Olga, I noticed how he was playing Philip with that “she looks at you differently” line. He’s always insinuating his way into the marriage, probing for possible points of leverage. Also, how perfectly does it capture the power dynamics between the two men that during their Scrabble game Philip spelled “askew” and Gabriel spelled “stygian”? (But Philip doesn’t know the word? Really? Then again, this is a man who, for the second episode in a row, has drunk Miller Lite without coercion.)

I thought the scenes with Oleg and Arkady were superb and, like you David, really enjoy the camaraderie they’re building up. But my favorite moment at the rezidentura was when they cut directly from a shot of Andropov’s portrait replacing Brezhnev’s to one of the Lenin bust in Arkady’s office. A lovely little visual joke: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Let me also second the cause of “something has to happen with (or perhaps to) Martha.” She just doesn’t fit in the show any more. As her presumed husband, however surly and/or negligent, Philip/Clark must have to spend a lot of time with her, right? But we only see her for a couple of minutes per episode. Something’s gotta give.

Tonight’s low-speed car chase was certainly tense, but what struck me wasn’t the lack of technology available to Elizabeth and Philip but the surfeit of backup agents at their disposal. One guy threw a walkie talkie into Elizabeth’s car; another operated a radio jammer behind the CIA tail car; another crashed into said tail; yet another picked Elizabeth up. That the Soviets would have so many people on the ground to undertake a spur-of-the-moment vehicular rescue strained credulity for me. (As did the fact that none of the CIA agents tailing Elizabeth seemed to notice that the man sitting on the passenger side had disappeared.)

And as for that babysitter... . Has either of you watched the BBC show The Fall? My wife and I just finished it, and we were struck at how, between that show and this one, the Sexually Predatory Underaged Babysitter seems to be an emerging trope of the season. I guess it will take a third instance in order to officially declare it a trend.

In my recurring role as longtime DC denizen and refugee from the 1980s, I got a kick out of several of this episode’s references. Name-checking two of the Worst Bands in the History of Sound, there was Air Supply’s “All Out of Love” playing on Paaswell’s car radio and an REO Speedwagon patch on one of the guys Hans describes to Elizabeth. When Philip returned home late to Paige watching TV, there was an ad on for a legendary local automotive institution, Don Beyer Volvo—I bought a used wagon there in 2003—followed by a clip from Fantasy Island. (If you want to understand just how peculiar the 1980s were, you need only watch about three or four episodes.) And when the station finally cut off for the night (they really used to do this!), we heard the announcement that it’s a “wholly owned subsidiary of Albritton Communication Company”—a.k.a., the local media empire whose heir would years later give birth to Politico.

I wanted to close with a question that we could perhaps take up next week. On tonight’s episode, Gabriel promised “Paige will have a choice ... there is always a choice.” If memory serves, Elizabeth offered a variant of this same line last episode. But: What choice? If Elizabeth and Philip confide in Paige that they are KGB agents, and she says “no” to the invitation to join them, how is that supposed to work? Having a 14-year-old daughter who knows that you’re an enemy spy and doesn't approve would seem to be problematic, to say the least. Or is the “choice” that Paige will allegedly have not quite the choice it appears to be?