The Americans Gets a Little Darker

The most recent episode delved into Philip's harrowing past, while Elizabeth committed the show's most shocking murder to date.

Craig Blankenhorn/FX

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

Sims: The show is continuing to walk very fine moral lines in its overarching plots this season, but “Salang Pass” returned to one of the fundamental themes of The Americans: the strange blend of performance and genuine intimacy that defines Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage. The two were united by the KGB as a brilliant piece of staging, and trained (as shown in graphic detail) to emotionally disassociate themselves from sex so they could use it as a tool of extortion. Viewers have been grimly aware of Elizabeth’s harrowing trials as a young agent since the pilot episode, but Philip’s training had its own strange angle: He had sex with men and women, old and young, in some dark Russian dungeon.

This, one assumes, was designed to wall off his emotions from the act so that he could “fake it,” as Elizabeth puts it. That’s how he can convince Martha of his affection for her, or even Kimberly, with whom he has to step up his deceit this week, getting high with her in her parents’ house and eventually making out with her on her bed before running out the back door at the sound of her mom and dad coming home. As he admitted to Elizabeth, it’s as if he’s regressing—something that might understandably appeal as the world around Philip gets more and more threatening.

As much as he'd warned Martha off the idea of having children, the couple visited a foster home, and Philip was undeniably excited at the concept of raising another kid, although he wouldn’t admit it. That led him to a nostalgic conversation with Elizabeth about Paige and Henry’s toddlerhood, and a dress-shopping bonanza with Paige for her baptism that was clearly an effort to stay on memory lane. “What are you doing?” Elizabeth asked, and Philip didn’t really have an answer—but it was also clear there’s no place he’d less like to be than in the present.

Otherwise, this week functioned (from a plot perspective) as a bit of a table-setter. Elizabeth moved closer to her big score on the CIA sub-contractor, and in doing so committed a rather shocking murder-by-dropped-vehicle that had to be seen to be believed. Oleg and Stan began to spin the wheels of a possible escape plot for Nina to have her pose as a defector—a clever resolution to the plot of the main defector, who aroused baseless suspicions in Stan but led him to the concept of Nina becoming a triple-agent just to get her back in the States.

One thing I’ll admit to feeling a little stiffed on at this point: Frank Langella, who dropped by for one scene a week to softly mutter some advice to either Philip or Elizabeth but otherwise didn’t have the kind of presence that Margo Martindale possessed as their handler. One imagines some big twist or plot arc will wrap their semi-retired mentor into the Afghan War plot a little more concretely, but I wish Langella had a bigger role, considering his stature as a performer. So far he mostly exists to make the subtext a little more textual, which is my least favorite part of any serious drama. It's already understand that there are ongoing fractures in Philip and Elizabeth’s relationship. Why have him underline them?

Khazan: I watched this episode as a wind-down from a busy day, and let’s just say I was unprepared for those final three minutes. Philip’s recollections of his own training are, in a way, what I’ve been wanting all along—some sort of background on what he had to endure and how his psyche functions. And yet, there was something about the sight of that old man looking Young Philip in the eye, smirking, and dropping trou that made me wish I had never asked. No wonder Philip wants to dwell on the comparatively blissful childhoods of Paige and Henry: both his present and past are horrific.

It’s telling, though, that Elizabeth hesitated when Philip asked her if he should sleep with Kimmie. Elizabeth had just killed an innocent man by dropping a car on him, so it’s interesting to see what her boundaries are.

I found it oddly cute that this was (I think?) the first time Oleg and Stan admitted to each other that they both loved Nina. If nothing else can bring the Cold-Warring countries together, perhaps a beautiful girl can. It's kind of surprising that the Russians hadn’t thought of the double-defector idea before. It’s pretty clever, but presumably it would also get Stan back on thin ice with his job. It’s still not clear to me which he loves more: Nina or America.

In the same vein, I enjoyed the subtle wink at 1980s sexual politics in Stan and Philip’s dinner-table talk. A woman asked Stan out! The nerve! It’s pretty telling that both he and Philip find this act so unusual that it’s worth discussing.

One of my favorite things about this episode was that it revealed a lot about several of the more obtuse characters through the monologues of others. Philip gave Stan some parenting advice he wishes he himself had taken more often: He urged him to relish time spent without Mom around—something he clearly enjoyed while at the dress shop. Later, Kimmie dished to Philip about the harsh toll of having absentee parents. It wouldn’t surprise her, she said, if her father confessed he had another family. With Martha, Philip actually does, and he deeply regrets it. I’m reminded of the time, a few episodes ago, when Philip asked Paige how she was doing, she said “fine,” and he clearly didn’t believe her. Kimmie’s openness allowed Philip to find out what it’s really like for a 15-year-old to have a dad who’s barely there. He’s more disgusted by his job than ever in this episode. But will he do anything about it?

Orr: That was a terrific ending, and not only the hallucinatory, pot-fueled memories of Philip’s training. (Though you’re right, Olga, about the old man leering at Philip as he took his pants down; that’s an image it will take a while to get out of my head.) But I loved what followed, when Elizabeth asked Philip “Do you ever have to ‘make it real’ with me?” and he responded, “Sometimes.” It was one of those moments that’s very particular to Elizabeth and Philip’s unorthodox marriage, but one that nonetheless captures the reality of any long-term intimacy. Everyone pretends about one thing or another “sometimes.”

Of course, the situation is considerably less complicated for those whose jobs don’t require them to seduce other people on a regular basis. It’s a miracle that Philip and Elizabeth can even tell when they’re pretending anymore. A couple of episodes ago, I noted a scene in which Elizabeth seemed to be trying to seduce Philip to defuse an argument and he replied, essentially, why don’t you go seduce Hans instead? As I mentioned then, I think it’s wise that the show doesn’t go to this well of sexual-marital tension too often; but when it does, it can make for extremely powerful TV.

It was nice, too, that this week's episode ended with Philip amending his “sometimes” with “ ... not now.” Their subsequent kisses—more romantic than overtly sexual—offered one of the few glimpses of real warmth and affection between Elizabeth and Philip this season, and arguably the only one that didn’t involve a molar getting yanked out with pliers. Lord knows both of them could use a little TLC, with Elizabeth having committed possibly the most cold-hearted killing we’ve seen on the show to date and Philip on the cusp of having sex with a 15-year-old.

Regarding the former, I liked the way the show backed into it. I can’t be the only viewer whose response when Elizabeth was first casing her target’s garage was “Wait? Who is this guy? What did I miss?” As for the murder itself—the purpose of which was merely to create an opening at the local Northrup plant for Elizabeth’s AA friend to fill—has Elizabeth or Philip ever killed anyone so far removed from the center of their plots? If so, I can’t remember it.

Meanwhile, Philip’s ongoing seduction of Kimberly is flat-out excruciating. Last week, I thought the show’s narrative twinning of Philip’s latest asset with his own daughter was elegantly executed, but now it feels they’re almost overdoing it. The segue from talking about the “summer of skinned knees” to “Where are you with Kimberly?”; Elizabeth’s later comparison of daughters who don’t know their fathers are spies ... We get it.

That said, the exchange between Kimberly and Philip in which she described her always-absent parents and her happy childhood memories of herself, her dad, and their two rakes was genuinely painful. And I like the way the Kimberly storyline plays off Martha wanting a foster child as a kind of black joke. The latter’s cringe-inducing line to Philip this week was “Think about what it would be like to come home and have that little girl running towards you and throwing her arms around you.”

And as long as we’re on the subject of inappropriate romances, what’s up with Henry’s apparent infatuation with Stan’s soon-to-be-ex-wife, Sandra? First, it was the swimsuit photo; now it’s him bringing her up over dinner, only to have Paige swiftly change the subject. This is a storyline (or at least potential storyline) that I’d be glad to see abandoned.

I did like the way that, yet again, Elizabeth’s suspicion of consumerism, and specifically presents for Paige—the bike, the necklace, the Yaz record, and now the dress—served as a proxy for all her disagreements with Philip. When Paige announced that she wanted something new to wear for her baptism, her mother’s response was a horrified “Don’t you have a dress?” A second dress! Those decadent capitalists with their needless extravagances!

I completely agree with you, David, about the use—or misuse—of Gabriel lately. I thought Langella was magnificent over the first three episodes, but he didn’t appear in last week’s episode, and his use tonight seemed entirely perfunctory. (“Conscience can be dangerous”? C’mon, give this actor dialogue worthy of his talent.)

Overall, I found the episode a tad disappointing—especially compared to the last three, which were excellent. As you note, David, it felt like a “table-setter.” But I worry a bit, for the first time since the series premiere, that the show may be trying to juggle too many storylines at once: Elizabeth’s Northrup plot; Philip’s Kimberly seduction; Elizabeth’s training of Hans; Philip’s relationship with Martha; Paige’s religious awakening; Stan’s personal life; Nina’s imprisonment; Philip’s penetration of Pakistani intelligence; etc, etc.

Two of the central questions of the season so far—whether to recruit Paige and what Zinaida is up to—both seemed to recede into the background tonight. And while it was nice to see Yousaf again, I kind of agree, narratively speaking, with his assessment that he’s already played his part. (His comments about the Afghan “barbarians” slaughtering Soviet soldiers also seemed designed to echo a little too loudly with present-day affairs.)

Finally, there was the question—for me at least—of the title of tonight’s episode, “Salang Pass,” which is the name of a critical mountain pass in Afghanistan with a tunnel in its midst. That tunnel was the scene of a disastrous fire in 1982, killing—depending on the account—scores, hundreds, or perhaps even thousands of Soviet soldiers and Afghan people. But apart from Philip listening to a BBC report of the calamity on the radio, the title didn’t really seem to inform the episode in any overarching way. Or perhaps it’s just that, in contrast to some previous episodes, this one didn’t quite cohere into a satisfying whole. (Also, nitpicky historical point: The Salang Tunnel fire actually took place a week before the death of Leonid Brezhnev.)

Still, the good outweighed the bad tonight—in particular, the creepy Philip flashbacks followed by his and Elizabeth’s momentary hint of redemption. If we know anything about The Americans, it’s that this won’t last.