The Americans: Broken Homes, Broken Bones
Can Philip and Elizabeth's marriage survive the third season?
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.
Orr: Well, that’s more like it. After throwing us into the narrative deep end in last week’s premiere, showrunner Joe Weisberg has slowed things down a bit to let us savor the plotlines he’s unspooling. There was a lot to like here, but I’ll start with what I liked best of all: the careful emotional reshuffling of Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige.
Way back at the start of season one, Elizabeth and Philip were more like colleagues than loving spouses but, with occasional bumps, they’ve been moving in the direction of the latter ever since. But this episode, "Baggage," offered evidence that the trajectory may be reversing. It begins with an algebra-overwhelmed Paige telling her mom that "You guys look out for each other … more than us"—meaning her and little brother Henry. It’s a harsh but accurate assessment, both of the closeness that’s developed between Elizabeth and Philip, and of their inevitable tendency to focus on work at the expense of home life. But over the course of the episode, this dynamic shifts as Paige’s parents come into ever-clearer conflict over how best to "look out" for her, with Elizabeth wanting to give her life greater purpose as a KGB asset and Philip wanting to keep her from "ending up in a suitcase." (Yes, more on that scene in a minute.)
The question comes up explicitly during the argument in which Philip throws out the suitcase line, but it haunts the entire episode. There’s the dream Elizabeth (a.k.a. Nadezhda) has of her childhood in which her mother reveals that her father was shot as a deserter—a useful detail regarding the origins of her over-the-top patriotism. And there’s the scene where she returns her mother’s audiotape to Gabriel. "Maybe she’s a little happier now because her daughter’s … making a difference in the world," he tells her, in a moment of sublime manipulation. (Again, I love Frank Langella.) Nor is that all. Gabriel also comments on her mother’s beauty and the fact that she’s “aged well”—which are essentially refracted compliments on Elizabeth’s own looks. And he subtly tries to move her away from Philip and toward Paige. When Elizabeth mentions that Paige is worried her dad might be having an affair, he waves it off—nothing to worry about!—before segueing to the all-important “but she trusts you.” Indeed, it’s hard not to assume that Gabriel gave Elizabeth the tape of her dying mother as part of his whole maternal-responsibility pitch to get Elizabeth onboard with Paige’s recruitment. Anyone else think there might be a chance that Elizabeth’s mother isn’t even really dying?
The next domestic scene, in which Philip shows Elizabeth his plans for the stakeout of the CIA’s Afghan group—photos pinned to a clothesline in the basement—underlines how chilly and estranged they’ve already become. And when Philip comes back upstairs, there’s the still more telling scene with Paige reading the newspaper and complaining that, due to the government’s student-loan cutbacks, she may have to attend "Pepsi Georgetown University.” Her dad is thrown for a loop: "Since when do you read the newspaper?” His gaze shifts accusingly from Paige to Elizabeth, who allows herself a slightly self-satisfied glance back: Paige may not be ready for communism yet, but at least her political education is trending leftward. The dynamic of Paige’s first scene with the algebra homework has completely inverted. Now it’s Philip on the outside and Elizabeth and Paige operating as a team.
There are other signs of marital friction, too. When Philip suggests that Elizabeth could visit her mother, she snaps at him as though he’s a fool; when he suggests she could visit a dentist, she does the same. It’s not until the end of the episode that there’s any hint of the two trying to reach an accord. Elizabeth explains that when she was called into KGB service, her mother “didn’t blink. She told me to go and serve my country.” There are many obvious responses Philip could make—for instance, the fact that the Soviet Union isn’t Paige’s country—but he says nothing. Is this the beginning of a reconciliation? Or do they have nothing more to say to one another?
As for the rest of the episode, I’d be remiss not to comment on the scene that most literally gave “Baggage” its title, the spatial-geometry problem posed by the need to get poor Annelise’s corpse into a standard-size suitcase. The solution, as anyone who watched the episode will be hard-pressed to forget, is to crack a dozen or so of her bones so that she can be more easily “folded.” Ouch. I can’t remember how many body-removal scenes I’ve seen over the years that involved either dismemberment (typically by saw) or dissolution (acid), but this was in its way more gruesome than either of those alternatives. Perhaps it’s the physical intimacy—no tools, just hands on flesh—or the fact that Annelise remains whole but horribly broken. Or maybe it’s just that cracking noise. (Kudos to the sound designer. It may be a while before I can eat lobster again.) Regardless, it was creepy as hell.
I didn’t particularly buy Oleg’s alleyway ambush of Stan, but it did set up one of the best scenes the latter, played by Noah Emmerich, has had all series. I’ve been a fan of Emmerich’s from his early days playing lummox-y (in a good way) best friends in Beautiful Girls and The Truman Show. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him better than when Stan visits Sandra in the obvious hope that his near-shooting will make her realize that she still loves him. The entire scene was heartbreaking, and in particular her final "That’s all. That’s all there is." The look on Stan’s face made it clear that this was more painful than any bullet wound.
What else? I’m pleased that it looks like Nina Sergeevna will be with us for at least a while longer, and I thought the actor playing Oleg’s dad (like pretty much all of the Russian cast members) was extremely persuasive. I have no idea what to make of the FBI’s new defector, Ziniaida, but her bliss upon eating a Milky Way also rings true to everything I know (admittedly not much) about life in the 1980s Soviet Union. And as for life in the 1980s United States, you’d be hard-pressed to capture it better than when Philip asks the waitress at Cooper’s (where they’re surveilling the CIA team) what kinds of beer they serve. “Bud, Bud Light, Coors, Coors Light, Miller, Miller Lite…”—on and on she goes, enumerating a wasteland of flavor (with the exception of Sierra Nevada) worthy of any Soviet bloc country.
What did you think, Olga? How serious is the Elizabeth/Philip rupture? What was worse, Soviet-era candy or Reagan-era beer?
Khazan: This show will make me eye person-sized boxes and suitcases with suspicion for a while, I think. Have we seen The Americans go as graphic as that suitcase scene yet? I think what really helped that section pop (pun intended) was how subdued the show usually is by comparison.
Chris, I totally agree with you on Gabriel's ninja-level manipulation techniques. I hadn't thought of the possibility that Elizabeth's mom might not really be dying. In the original tape she talks clearly about her cancer, but maybe she was coerced into saying that somehow. Who even knows, in this world? I'm also so curious now to know what brought Philip to the KGB. We know so much about Elizabeth's harsh upbringing, but what about him? Was it just the best possible option?
I'm finding it a little hard to relate to Elizabeth in how myopic she's become. Paige is growing up in Fairfax, not Chelyabinsk. It seems like there was nothing good in store for teenage Nadezhda, but Paige has a future. At this point, telling her daughter that she has to devote her life to executing secret, dangerous missions on behalf of a regime she barely understands would be a terrible parenting mistake. I also loved how the speech by Oleg's dad—"We always try to help our children, to understand them better, but we are always disappointed"—was a perfect commentary (and possible foreshadowing) on the Paige drama. It just goes to show that helicopter parenting isn't only an American phenomenon.
Without Sandra and Nina, does Stan have anything to live for? What else explains his amazing ability to keep cool as he walks away from a jilted, angry, gun-wielding Oleg? (And as an aside, let's pour one out for Newsweek, "circulation three million." Sigh.)
One final quibble: I cringed at the Milky Way moment. Of all the things, candy was actually something the Soviet Union did reasonably well. For this, I went straight to the source: My mom, who briefly worked in a Soviet candy factory as a college student in the late 1970s.
"Every time you would walk in, there was a delightful smell," she said. At her factory, they made chocolate bonbons filled with nuts, meringue, nougat, and other stuff. Elsewhere, you could get caramels, hard candy, and marzipan. Yes, chocolate wasn't always widely available, but other candies usually were.
To further investigate, I called a friend who grew up in a medium-sized town in central Russia in the 1980s but immigrated here when he was in elementary school. He immediately rattled off his favorite Russian candy varieties. There were definitely shortages, but someone like Ziniaida would likely have had the connections necessary to get whatever she wanted.
Seriously, the USSR didn't have a lot of stuff! Have Ziniaida bolt for the Levis or Big-Macs. Even your Coors Light would be plausible. The candy was just a weird one to go with, in my view.
David, what's your favorite Soviet candy? Or, you know, what did you think of the episode?
Sims: I love a good Vdohnovenie, Olga. Okay, I'll admit I googled "Soviet candy" to get that answer, but it led me to this fascinating article, so I'm all the happier for it. The Milky Way scene definitely felt a little lazy, although I suppose Ziniaida ravenously scarfing down any other food item probably would have had the same hacky quality. It's shorthand for America's triumph of instant comfort and empty pleasure, but it felt too easy, although it was undoubtedly a cute way to introduce Ziniaida. She's obviously a smart, hard-edged Soviet operative keeping a lot of cards close to her chest, but that doesn't mean she can't have a bit of a personality.
Like Chris, I liked that this episode slowed things down a little (although it's funny to say that about an hour that included someone being smuggled into the country via air cargo and someone else being stuffed into a suitcase). Like Olga, I continue to wonder why Elizabeth's view of the world is so blinkered when her husband's isn't. What I like is that the show is not just settling on that as an accepted truth, but digging deeper. There's no doubt that Elizabeth's fatalistic streak is heavily ingrained, and one need only think back to the pilot episode's flashback to her training to remember why she might have a bleaker outlook on humanity.
But "Baggage" was an especially fascinating look at how Philip and Elizabeth process the surrealism of their lives differently. Philip seems to think of himself more as a lost soul, with his children representing some kind of salvation—if they can have normal lives, maybe it's worth it, even if he's soulless enough to approach the task of breaking a corpse into a suitcase-sized shape with methodical professionalism. Elizabeth seems far more convinced of the underlying importance of their cause, but it feels like a shield she's hiding behind, and one that's starting to crack—and I agree, Chris, that her mother's illness almost feels like a test of her resolve. There's something wonderfully suspicious about Frank Langella's friendly grandfather performance so far, and the way he's holding Elizabeth's hand while leading her down a dangerous garden path.
One thing that's never really been tested on The Americans so far is Philip and Elizabeth's united front as agents. Their marriage and their feelings about each other have been explored from minute one, but as soldiers they draw strength in unity. Is this season pointing toward a fracturing in that regard? Probably the most audacious move the pair made last year was challenging their overlords regarding the potential recruitment of their kids. Is Langella's character, and Elizabeth's mother, part of a KGB long game to divide and conquer? It makes sense, especially when considering the general emphasis on propaganda and solidarity as the foundation of the Soviet empire begins to crack. Dissent of any kind is the last thing anyone will tolerate, as we keep getting told over and over again.
That's one reason I liked the thematic pairing of Philip and Elizabeth's discord with Nina's imprisonment; here's a perfect representation of what happens when you let your defenses down. Nina has thrown them right back up, of course, shutting out any empathy for her new cellmate, but oh, what a powerful moment that was in her meeting with Oleg's father, allowing herself one moment of genuine emotion—and like you said, Olga, another great parallel to the plotline of Paige's future.
I keep coming back to the suitcase, though. The Americans rarely gets so cartoonishly graphic, but it served as a ghoulish metaphor for how chillingly everyone in this show compartmentalizes their work. Stan can at one moment be a man coolly walking away from a gun pointed at his back, and in the next kneeling by his wife, devastated at the hard truth of her rejection. As Paige said, Philip and Elizabeth do draw tremendous strength from their unity, conquering the most unthinkable tasks together. But I see rockier times ahead.