The Americans: Who's Conning Whom These Days?

It's getting difficult to untangle all the different layers of deception.

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: Well, after all that talk of intimate tooth-pulling last week, all it took was a Yaz record to push Philip and Elizabeth into truly icy territory this week with "Dimebag," which might have been the best episode of The Americans' sterling third season so far. The issue remains the same—Paige's future—but it was exacerbated in a surprising way as Philip began developing Kimberly, a teenaged asset who might grant access to the CIA's Afghan unit but who's also by far the youngest target Philip has ever gotten involved with.

It's a credit to Matthew Rhys that he made the uncomfortable work he has to do seem plausible. Forgetting the inarguable creepiness of his having to flirt with such a young girl, it's hard to believe that he'd be able to strike up such a connection. I practically watched every scene between Philip and Kimberly with my hands over my eyes, but there was a shocking naturalism to his insidious work. It's hard for an actor to make anything look easy, and Rhys does it consistently, especially when he's playing Philip as an actor of sorts. The final scene, scored to Yaz's "Only You" (a music cue I will never get tired of, even in a corny commercial) was played with admirable subtlety. It's been made clear how much Philip hates what he's doing, but Rhys plays this latest erosion of his soul very quietly. I kept expecting him to push Kimberly away and blow the whole escapade out of horror, but his affect was more nihilistic than anything else.

Philip and Elizabeth, more than anything else, are confronting how limited their options have become at this point. Elizabeth's reaction is aggressive and defensive, while Philip seems more and more resigned to his lack of control. Paige pulled off quite the subterfuge this week by inviting her pastor over for dinner and dropping the bomb that she wants to get baptized in his church, cheerfully daring her parents to shut her down. To Elizabeth, this is all the more reason to reveal the truth; to Philip, it's a sign that she's basically out of their hands unless they want to destroy Paige's life and trust in her parents.

In a way, they're having their own moment of clarity, as is Stan, who finally realizes what should have already been obvious to him—that he drove his wife away by falling in love with, and consummating an affair with, another woman. There's a power to that acknowledgement that he doesn't fully understand until attending an est meeting where he's forced to role-play a confrontation with his wife. The show seems a little lost for what to do with Stan right now—his untrusting but sweet relationship with the defector will surely play out in some interesting way, but I don't know how much more there needs to be on his relationship with Sandra, who has clearly moved on herself. (Still, Noah Emmerich did masterful work in that apology to her).

It remains so easy to sympathize with Philip's side of things, but I wonder if the show is trying to push back against that natural inclination by giving the audience this incredibly uncomfortable Kimberly plotline to contend with. As much as he wants to be the more accepting, approving father, his own moral compass is fundamentally busted, no matter who's giving his marching orders on this latest asset. More than anything, season three is exploring the fungible moral limits every character on the show has set for themselves, and how willing they are to test them—witness Nina working over her cellmate to get a more lenient sentence from the Soviets. Chris, how did you feel about Philip and Kimberly's moment with "Only You"?

Orr: I couldn’t agree with you more, David. We’ve been trained to look at Philip as the good guy (at least relatively speaking): the sensitive, conflicted soul regularly contrasted with Elizabeth’s committed Soviet patriot. But this episode, more than any other to date, raises the uncomfortable question of who’s worse: the person who commits evil deeds for a cause she truly believes in, or the person who commits evil deeds merely because it’s his job?

Philip’s recruitment of Kimberly was, as you note, mundane yet excruciating. In its understated way, the episode really pulled out all the stops to emphasize the creepiness of this assignment. Take the explicit twinning of Kimberly with Paige: Philip, obviously unhappy, tells Elizabeth “We’ve never used anyone this young,” she replies “I know,” and—right on cue—the front door opens and we hear Paige’s “Hello.” (It was so on-the-nose that I almost wondered if it was inspired by a gag on the old sitcom Laverne & Shirley, in which their neighbors, Lenny and Squiggy, always burst in—with Squiggy’s trademark “Hello”—in the middle of a conversation about something disgusting.)

Then there was the ad for Luv’s Baby Soft (“because innocence is sexier than you think”) that Philip watched on TV—possibly the most disturbing commercial of all time. And finally there was Kimberly’s self-infantilizing request that he call her “Kimmy.” (Also, was anyone else reminded of Martha’s line last episode regarding foster children: “That kind of relationship with a young person, that doesn’t appeal to you at all?”) Small wonder that by the time we get to that concluding “Only You” scene, with Kimberly nestling in next to Philip, his face carries an expression of bone-deep self-loathing.

It was a truly great moment for Rhys, who may be the most underrated actor on television. Among other talents, he succeeds at playing an American—a wide range of Americans, in fact—so brilliantly that I occasionally have to remind myself that he’s Welsh. Plenty of actors manage to play alternative nationalities capably (although some don’t, as Jamie Dornan reminded me in Fifty Shades of Grey), but few disappear so effortlessly into them.

I liked the way Elizabeth and Philip’s argument over Paige’s birthday present, and the former’s suspicion of American consumerism in general (“You just bought her a record for no reason?”), again served as a proxy for the deeper argument over whether or not they should allow Paige to be recruited into the KGB. The dental détente that Elizabeth and Philip achieved last week sure seems to be over, with her declaring “I am doing this, with you or without you” just a handful of scenes after berating him for not “wearing the pants” in his relationship with Martha.

Of course, Elizabeth’s best-laid plans begin to come apart with Paige’s birthday-dinner announcement that she wants to get baptized. I loved the way this scene revealed Elizabeth’s simplified, binary view of politics. All this while she’s been assuming that if she can prevent Paige from being seduced by American luxuries and instill in her a belief in a higher cause, that cause will inevitably be the Soviet Union. It never occurred to her that Paige might choose an alternative form of self-abnegation and anti-capitalist protest. Paige’s urge to “wash away her old self and make herself clean for Jesus Christ” is pretty much exactly what Elizabeth wants; she just wants Paige to do it for godless communism, rather than God. It’s hard to see how this can turn out well.

It will be interesting, too, to see where Stan’s suspicions of Zinaida are headed. I thought the scene in which he tore apart the diner bathroom—very cleverly scored to Yaz’s “Don’t Go”—was particularly good. Stan is so much more compelling as a character when the show focuses on his professional skills rather than his troubled personal life. That said, I agree that his scene with Sandra admitting the affair was another in a series of powerful moments between the two of them.

It was also one of the rare moments of candor in the entire episode. Like you, David, I was struck at the degree to which almost everyone was running a con: Nina’s turned jailhouse informant, Zinaida sure seems to be set up to be revealed as a double agent, and Paige hustled her parents expertly with the baptism trap. All we need now is to find out that Agent Gaad is secretly working for the Chinese.

What about you, Olga? What struck you about tonight’s episode? Will you ever listen to Yaz the same way again?

Khazan: I have to say, I'm finding the sexual dynamics of this show increasingly difficult to understand. Is Kimberly trying to con Philip, too? Otherwise, what on earth would a teen girl want with a forty-something man? (Though I love how they used that disturbing Baby Soft commercial, which I know mainly from its inclusion on many roundups of the grossest ads ever.)

I concur that Stan's work is far more interesting, at this point, than his personal life. As the roundtable's resident woman, I have to say I don't really understand the mass appeal of his character as a boyfriend or husband or even paramour. The idea that women would openly throw themselves at him is a bit of a reach.

And Martha, much as she might think she loves Clark, has to realize that she's basically a doormat—except a doormat usually sees its owner at least once a day. Sure she has low self-esteem, but especially now that people are flirting with her at work and "Clark" adamantly refuses to consider children, I can't see that marriage holding together much longer.

My favorite thing about this episode was Nina's ability to dupe anyone she comes across. The scene where she woke up screaming—"They're going to kill me! My God, they're going to kill me!"—was so compelling, and it worked flawlessly. Her roommate rushed over to cuddle her, and the frostiness that was between them earlier seemed to have thawed for good.

And Chris, I totally agree about Matthew Rhys. The remarkable thing about him is that he not only plays Americans so well, but that he also looks so dang Russian. The Slav is not exactly strong with Keri Russell, but Rhys is a bit of an ethnic chameleon, and that really serves him well on the show.

Ah, the Baptism of Paige Jennings. Elizabeth and Philip are such pros, it's occasionally delightful to see them in situations they did not see coming. So, I have Russian parents, as we know. I grew up in West Texas. For whatever reason, the leasing office of the apartment complex where we lived would convert into a Baptist Sunday school for the neighborhood kids every week. I attended, alone, out of boredom and curiosity and a desire for Teddy Grahams. One Sunday, the pastors decided to baptize all of us in the swimming pool of the apartment complex. They had asked my parents’ permission ahead of time, and my parents begrudgingly said yes. “This was like a comedy,” my mom said. “We did not understand the purpose of this, but if they want to put small children in the pool, fine.”

The thing about atheism is that you typically don't think Jesus and heaven and such are real. After my chlorinated sacrament, I returned home soaking wet and babbling on to my atheist-Jew father about how I couldn't wait to go to Christian heaven.

I guess I don't see why this is such a big deal for Philip and Elizabeth. Say Paige does get baptized. If they later choose to induct her into Soviet espionage, and she goes along with it, I don't think her religion would be antithetical to KGB service. She could either abandon her faith completely, or she could join the ranks of the thousands of Russians who hid or minimized their personal beliefs during Communist times so as not to break official Party rules. The Jenningses have much bigger fish to fry, anyway.