The Americans Season 1, Episode 2: ‘The Clock’

When we first met Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, they were on a bit of a hot streak in their little corner of the Cold War. Their work seemed simple, straightforward: sleep with some men, shove others into the trunk. They’d been undercover so long they no longer worried much about being blown (that sort of thing is more Elizabeth’s department anyway). They were living the American dream: a couple wigs, some light hand-to-hand combat, and still getting home in time for dinner. An oven vent was enough to mask the sound of their scheming from their utterly normal, ice cream-loving kids. But with the loss of Timoshev — a traitorous rapist sacrificed on the burning pyre of Philip and Elizabeth’s rekindled sort-of love — and the arrival of Stan Beeman, the FBI agent who moved into the neighborhood, things are definitely, as General Zhukov warned, getting “riskier.”

They’re also getting faster. “The Clock” in the episode’s title doesn’t just refer to the little electric number that Caspar Weinberger keeps on a shelf in his private study. It’s also the one enemy the KGB and the FBI share. The newly elected Ronald Reagan — either a visionary or a ranting madman, depending which side of the Iron Curtain your sympathies lie — is rattling sabers and building missile shields. Closer to home, a more muscular FBI no longer seems particularly concerned with niceties like “due process” and “civil liberties.” Desperate to keep pace, the Soviets push their decades-in-the-planning Directorate S initiative into overdrive; what was initially a deliberate chess match has become a reckless game of chicken. Philip and Elizabeth once had months to plan and execute an operation. They now have days. The Americans captures the moment when the gentlemanly spy tricks of yore — the dependable park bench, the poison-tipped umbrella — began to lose their efficacy in an increasingly rushed and violent world.

So let’s take a precious minute and tip our ushankas to the elegance of Philip and Elizabeth’s plot last night. Even under extreme duress, the two managed to gin up a classic double game in their attempt to gain access to the Weinberger manse, positioning a mustachioed Philip as the heavy and a drab-coated Elizabeth as a sympathetic nurse. The target was Viola, the Weinbergers’ loyal maid, wonderfully played by Tonye Patano. With her son slowly dying, thanks to a prick from the aforementioned poison parasol, the plan was for her to do the obvious thing and ferry the clock to and from the study so the two could bug it and be on their way. Philip, it turns out, is nearly as good an actor as Matthew Rhys, totally at home delivering zippy monologues about magical antidotes and how all he really wants is to “help” Viola and her family “get through this.” But things go Pete Tong in a hurry. Viola fights back, putting her faith first in her beefy brother — leading to a gun fight, a knife fight, and a messily broken arm — and then in Jesus. “People who believe in God always make the worst targets,” Philip says. Last week, Agent Amador rolled his eyes about Reagan’s “fundamentalism,” and now this. The Americans is a show deeply suspicious of any all-encompassing ideology. Its ground-level characters tend to lack the luxury of believing in them.

By episode’s end, the impossible has been accomplished — the Kremlin is able to listen in on high-stakes meetings between the British and American governments. But it wasn’t the result of any carefully planned spy game. What did it was blunt force: Philip held a pillow over an innocent teenager’s mouth until he got what he wanted. There’s not a contact lens in the world that can make that look decent or humane. “I know the devil!” Viola wails, but Philip appears to have only recently made his acquaintance. Afterward, in the car, the mask slips; the intensity of what he’s just done is more evident on Philip’s face than the purple bruises on his back. Elizabeth takes his hand, a gesture he’d long for at nearly any other time. But it reminded me of the conversation they had just before returning to Viola’s apartment. “This is our job,” Elizabeth had declared. “What is?” Philip asked. “Throwing our lives away for nothing?” She didn’t answer and she didn’t have to. But it seems to me like they’ve begun the process of trashing their humanity right alongside their long-term prospects for survival.

So it any wonder that earlier in the episode Philip appeared tempted to drive his rented Saab all the way to Stockholm? In his sordid fling with Anneliese, he was the honeypot, but he seemed to find her dramatic longing for reindeer and woodchopping awfully alluring. (“Make me happy even though it’s not real,” she sighs, inadvertently describing his entire marriage.) This seems significant because Philip Jennings is a man used to living within layers of fiction — it’s something he shares with Stan Beeman, and what continues to draw these inevitable enemies closer and closer together. (“Seems pretty ideal,” they chuckle to one another about their suburban utopia, located just off “Golden Meadow Lane.” Adrift in fake Americana, these two are the only ones wearing They Live -style sunglasses; they see the truth but they can’t admit it to each other.) But post-”The Clock,” it seems as if his days of playing dress-up and nights of adulterous (but professionally sanctioned) sex aren’t nearly as kicky or rewarding as they used to be. He tries joking into the pre-hidden microphone, but it’s not clear if he’s doing it to cheer Elizabeth up or keep himself sane. The only person who might share his stress is the fake wife he loves but is barely allowed to touch. When he reaches to comfort her in the brown drabness of their travel agency, the gun on her hip gets in the way.

Last week’s pilot neatly sketched out Philip as the soft one and Elizabeth as tougher than a Siberian winter. But the reality of their new situation muddied the waters considerably. Lying side by side with Philip, she moisturizes and ponders the fate of their children. Henry, she figures, would be fine should they be arrested because he’s like his father. But Paige she worries about: “She’s delicate somehow.” The unspoken implication is that she takes after her mother, and it’s fascinating to realize that Elizabeth — a hammer and sickle in Jordache — sees herself as fragile. She’s more than willing to die for the cause but that’s partly because she couldn’t bear to face her kids once they learned about it. Here, again, time is the enemy: Paige and Henry are growing up too fast. They’re no longer props, they’re flesh-and-blood Americans. “Things are different than when you grew up,” Paige tells her mother. “People are, like, freer.” Elizabeth’s retort — “We’ll see about that.” — is clever in the way this entire series is, conflating parental overprotectiveness with a vision for global Communism. But this is a personal struggle. Elizabeth can’t go bra shopping with her daughter, but she can violently pierce her ears, as if drawing blood will somehow prepare her for the more devastating hits to come.

I’m afraid my obsession with the Jennings family’s lack of work/life balance is giving short shrift to the amazing job Noah Emmerich is doing as Stan Beeman. Emmerich is an impossibly casual actor, able to charm you with a genial looseness that masks the chilly precision behind his eyes. This makes him a perfect fit for an intentionally chameleonic character. A stranger to just about everyone — his admiring partner, his dubious neighbors — Beeman’s own breeziness suggests none of his new responsibilities are proving to be particularly challenging: pushing around crude stereo-store attendants, squeezing smuggling Soviet attachés. We’ve yet to see him sweat and there’s a palpable sense that he very much prefers to be sweating, getting his hands dirty in the field rather than running agents from the safety of the office and taking congratulatory phone calls from the White House. The caviar he shared with Philip in the episode’s best scene — dumping it, like a true capitalist pig, onto supermarket potato chips — wasn’t evidence. To him, it was the spoils of war.

Philip and Elizabeth enjoy their own caviar too, once the operation is completed — only they do it properly, on blinis. For once, they’re relieved and loose enough to appreciate the indulgence. (Such a great detail, that Philip — a poor Russian who may have never experienced fish eggs of this quality — had to pretend to hate the taste of it with Beeman in order to protect his cover.) Neither could have afforded a similar luxury at home — in that, they’re no different than the family of Nina, Beeman’s newest double agent. That the Jenningses are able to purchase and appreciate such a delicacy now is thanks only to the freedoms provided by the country they’re trying to destroy. “They shouldn’t ask us to do impossible things,” Philip says, even though “they” have been doing just that from the very beginning. As if anything about their life has ever been the slightest bit tenable. As if they have a choice.

Filed Under: Commies, FX, Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Noah Emmerich, Recaps, The Americans

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Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald