The Americans Waxes Nostalgic for the 80s

Despite the authentic use of Pink Floyd, the latest episode strained to draw parallels between Soviet recruitment and the civil-rights struggle.


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: This episode dropped us right in the midst of the Great Feared Baptism. I love how the pastor called Paige's spiritual rebirth her "most defiant act of protest yet" as her parents looked on, grimacing. This is perhaps the best evidence that Elizabeth and Philip have mastered how not to act like Russian parents—they never say what they really think.

Beyond the baptism, it really looks like the entire Jennings family threatens to fall apart at the seams. Both parents are now independently trying to corner Paige alone and bring her over to their side. First, Philip launched into a Seventh-Heaven style speech about how "you should never feel pressured to do anything you don't feel is right for you. No one knows what's better for you than you." Later, Paige saw Elizabeth smoking, and there was a rare moment of softness between mother and daughter. (Remember when they were at each others' throats just a few episodes ago?) "You've grown up so fast," Elizabeth said. Subtext: In fact, you're now grown-up enough to undertake secret, dangerous missions for our true homeland, the USSR.

Back in the gulag, Nina had almost finished working her magic on her Belgian roommate, Evi. It was so interesting to hear Nina's version of her love affairs: "I had two lovers," she said. "One communist; one capitalist." (Who says women have types?) "I was whatever they wanted me to be, but they loved their countries more than me." To this, Evi confessed that her boyfriend didn't set her up; that she did things "for love." How heartbreaking must it be for Nina to know that she was betrayed not just by one, but two men, while Evi went to prison with her man seemingly still loyal to her? Maybe that's why she decided to sell her out for some red wine and potatoes.

Finally, there was the plotline with the expertly creepy Philip in disguise, who was trying his best to be seductive with Kimberly while still battling his deep ethical conflict. Kimberly clearly wanted him (or thought she did), asking him to take a bath with her, and then dropping her towel. Meanwhile, another KGB agent planted a tape in Kimberly's dad's bag. Here, Philip pulled two seemingly genius moves: First, he darted into the other room and asked for his colleague's earrings to gift Kimberly, thereby distracting her from her smutty purpose. Then, he told Kimberly the reason he can't sleep with her is because he's recently found religion.

This endlessly amused Elizabeth as the two shared a joint later that night. "Jesus really came through for me tonight," Philip said. Do any Christians watch this show? I'd be curious to learn whether they think the show has become too offensive toward religion for its own good. Still, it's nice to see the couple bonding over something together. Also, is Elizabeth jealous of Kimberly? That look seemed to flash across her face as they wrapped up their late-night pot sesh, but it's so out of character for her I can't really tell.

Philip's basking in his own ingenuity didn't last long, however. Further solidifying his role as dude-who-shows-up-to-play-mindgames-and-Scrabble, Gabriel broke it to Philip that he has a Russian son fighting in Afghanistan. He'd better get on with knowing Kimberly in the biblical sense, in other words. His son's life is, indirectly, at stake. Later, Gabriel told Elizabeth that she doesn't seem to be making any progress on turning Paige—"you're not going ahead."

When Elizabeth took Paige out to a poorer neighborhood to begin the re-education, I was a little let down by how tame the conversation was. Elizabeth largely spoke in vague generalities about the couples' past civil-rights protests. But that could mean anything—what '80s child didn't have hippie parents, after all? "We chained ourselves to some nuclear power plants" is a far cry from "Our whole family is secretly Russian, and we kill Americans on the reg." The truth that Elizabeth and Philip have hidden from their children for their whole lives is so great, and so explosive, that I think it will rupture the entire family when it comes out. I'm curious to see how Elizabeth will try to control that explosion.

Chris, what do you think? Will you also be shuddering at the sight of aviator glasses for a while? How long do we think Philip can fend off Kimberly while still having access to the tapes every week?

Orr: Well, Jesus certainly did come through for Philip tonight—and by extension, for us viewers as well, insofar as we did not have to witness what would have been by far the most disturbing seduction on the show to date. The narrative twinning of Paige and Kimberly that we’ve been talking about for weeks came to a head as the episode pivoted into its climax. Elizabeth picks up Paige at school unexpectedly; Philip (as “James”) does the same for Kimberly. Both, it seems, are about to take a crucial step in the corruption of their young charges.

But, no! Philip has a chaste ace up his sleeve. They say the best liars are the ones who incorporate elements of the truth into their tales, and Philip did so elegantly tonight, interweaving Paige’s story of religious rebirth with his own of responsibility to a son he’s never met. As a result, it appears he’ll be able to avoid (or at least delay) the statutory rape of a 15-year-old in favor of weekly prayer meetings. Regardless of one’s religious leanings, this is a huge upgrade. It was nice the way the episode quietly built toward this outcome: the discussion of church and est during dinner at the Jennings’ with Stan’s new lady friend (“Whatever works. Everybody’s got their own thing”), Paige’s prayer talk with her Mom, etc. Nice, too, the little joke at the end of the Philip and Kimberly’s spiritual bonding session: “That was amazing.” “It was.” All that was missing was the cigarette.

On the subject of Deception 101, Nina’s playing of her cellmate Evi brought to mind the crucial line in David Mamet’s con artistry classic House of Games, in which Joe Mantegna explains, “It's called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.” Shifting referential gears (and engaging in a bit of roundtable cross-pollination), the subsequent scene when Nina stonily watched Evi get dragged out—presumably to her execution—reminded me of Arya’s leaving the Hound to his fate in the finale of Game of Thrones last season. Hope that was a good glass of red, Nina!

I was very pleased to see the show make good use of Frank Langella as Gabriel for the first time in a few episodes. When he’s given worthwhile material, he makes the very most of it. As you note, Olga, his spurring of both Philip and Elizabeth to action this episode was masterful. And I loved the relish with which he explained that the Soviets would use Reagan’s closeness to the apartheid regime in South Africa against him: “The whole world watches while he cozies up to the most racist government on the planet. And we are going to break him with it.” There aren’t more than a handful of actors alive who can go mephistophelian as magnificently as Langella.

That said, do we really need yet another plot—in both senses of the word? We already have the Jennings’ penetration of the Afghan group via Kimberly, their penetration of Northrup via Elizabeth’s AA buddy, and their penetration of Pakistani intelligence via Yousaf (in addition, of course, to the many storylines that are not explicitly missions). What’s next? Are they going to start leveraging the Iran-Iraq war? It’s little wonder that, like last week’s, this episode felt a bit scattered until it collected itself for its final act.

I worry a bit, too, about veering back into Stan’s love life. I could very happily live without ever hearing another word of his new est friend’s psychobabble (“It’s about being in touch with where you’re at”), which pricks a particular '80s-era nerve that I forgot I had. And while I’m not sure where tonight’s hint of reconciliation between Stan and Sandra (over their deceased friend) might be headed, the truth is that I’d rather not find out.

By contrast, it will be interesting to see how Elizabeth’s recruitment of Paige continues. As you note. Olga, there’s an awful lot of ground between “We were civil rights activists who occasionally broke the law” and “We’re Russian spies who seduce and murder in order to destroy the United States—and, by the way, wanna join?” I’m curious to see how Elizabeth hopes to navigate this terrain.

A few last thoughts. As someone who was precisely the same age as Paige and Kimberly in 1982, let me say that I knew with neurological certainty that the music Philip/James was playing for the latter when they were baked in her room was going to be Pink Floyd. It was, without meaningful competition, the band of choice for teens in that particular psychochemical state—or so I was told. The only question is Dark Side or The Wall? I feel pretty confident in picking the former. Also, as long as we’re talking ganja, do we think Elizabeth would really toke up in the house on the same night that Paige had already busted her for smoking cigarettes? Talk about tempting fate.

Finally, correct me if I’m misremembering, but when Elizabeth and Philip met with their previous handler, Margo Martindale’s Claudia, didn’t they often do so together? The way in which they consistently meet Gabriel individually would seem to give him an obvious opportunity to divide them (as, in fact, he constantly does). Also, what’s become of the cloak-and-dagger meetings of previous seasons? Stopping by Gabriel’s apartment day after day for coffee and Scrabble may be charming, but it doesn’t seem like the sharpest tradecraft. But what do I know?

How about you, David? Where do you come down on Philip’s religious bait-and-switch and Elizabeth’s effort to bring Paige into the family business? Also, Dark Side or The Wall? Dark Side, right?

Sims: I bought Dark Side on cassette when I was ten years old, so it will always remain the sentimental favorite for me. No doubt The Wall’s iconoclastic message might appeal to rebellious young Kimberly, but since she’s blitzed out of her mind, you have to imagine Philip picked Dark Side. Far more appropriate from an atmospheric point of view.

I think you’re picking up on something with the pair’s separate visits to Gabriel’s apartment, Chris. I think the effect is intentional—the once-united front of the Jennings family has crumbled, and the KGB knows it, happy to play them off each other to achieve its overall goals. Still, it’s undeniably helpful from a plot perspective that these visits are now done solo, and it feels almost a little too clean, although like you say, it sure is fun to watch Langella work his dark magic on each character. We’re mired in the middle of the season, so the plot indeed feels very scattered. But I think the talk of Reagan’s support for South Africa’s apartheid government is just a plot device, a bridge to connect the Soviets to Paige’s general ‘80s activism. Are you young, American, and anti-authoritarian? Maybe you have more in common with the USSR than you think!

I loved the staging of that final scene—The Americans is a show brave enough to end an episode on vague dialogue, rather than a big plot bomb being dropped. We know Elizabeth is laying the groundwork for her ultimate revelation, but a sillier show would have had her confess to her daughter right then and there, just to move things along. Gabriel and Elizabeth’s argument is nonsensical: If you reject apartheid and want nuclear disarmament, that hardly sets you up as a fan of the Soviet Union, with all its stockpiled nukes, its imperialist war in the Middle East and its utter lack of free speech rights. But the skill of Elizabeth (and Philip) is how well they can sell their targets on doing something crazy, with just a wisp of an argument. Paige is still Elizabeth’s daughter first—and their scene together in the garage was great—but she’s also getting worked over, just the same as any of Elizabeth’s usual marks.

Philip’s work on Kimberly was just as masterful, and just on the edge of believable—she’s a scared kid, and he’s a hell of an actor, so I could just about buy her being happy to pray alongside him rather than get in bed. Still, I couldn’t help thinking that the main reason Philip couldn’t commit this transgression is that he just can’t, because he’d lose the audience watching forever. The Americans is a boundary-pushing show, especially for basic cable, but even anti-heroes have to obey certain codes. We’re now entering territory similar to his relationship with Martha—I’ll believe it if he somehow strings Kimberly along for weekly meetings, but we’re stretching credulity, so the plot should probably drop into the background.

I predict that exactly that will happen, though, because with Nina on her way back to America (perhaps?) one imagines the central plotting is about to kick into higher gear. Season three doesn’t have the frightening central mystery of the previous year (the mysterious murder of the fellow sleeper agents) but it’s arguably more gripping, because letting Paige in on the family secret will be the biggest game-changer in the show’s run thus far. I was on the edge of my seat just wondering what Elizabeth was going to say on that park bench; it’s the rare series that can drag that kind of tension out of a mere conversation. I’m excited to see what happens when things actually go haywire.