TV Check-in: ‘The Americans’ Remains at the Top of Its Excellent Spy Game in ‘The Deal’
I’ve been thinking a lot about the laundry room. Sure, it’s a convenient, if ironic, spot for Philip and Elizabeth Jennings to do their dirt. With two kids, there’s no shortage of soiled clothes to go through, and the comforting hum of the dryer can mask all sorts of things, from heated conversations about blown cover to the unmistakable snap of a fresh clip being slipped into an old gun. Until Paige’s recent adolescent burst of curiosity, the laundry room was also the part of the house least likely to be investigated by children. Kids hate doing laundry almost as much as they hate eating vegetables. And do you have any idea how hard it is to stash stolen satellite blueprints in the crisper?
Still, the main reason I’ve been thinking about the laundry room as we hurtle toward the halfway point of The Americans’ brilliant and riveting second season isn’t because every episode sets at least one scene down there, nestled tightly among the pipes and machines. (And it’s not because my attempts to draw metatextual parallels between the Russian Bear and Snuggle fabric softener have panned out. They haven’t.) Rather, all the time spent in the laundry room has me fixated on the nonautomated cycles that happen there, of cleaning, sorting, and folding. Even if she didn’t have secret audio tapes of her mother stashed next to the bleach, Elizabeth would probably still find the siren song of the laundry room impossible to ignore. After all, her life is permanently pressed on all sides: family, work, honeypots, street-fighting, paranoia, her husband’s other family. For someone who stays alive only by compartmentalizing, the rare chance to put things away neatly must be intoxicating. Pillowcases aren’t identities but they’re better than nothing.
That’s what made it so utterly heartbreaking last night when Paige approached her mother in the laundry room — Elizabeth barely had time to stash the purloined files underneath a towel — not to accuse but to apologize. “It’s not all you,” Paige stammered. “It’s me, my life, my crazy life. I don’t know where to put everything.” At first Elizabeth appeared stunned by the honesty — it’s not a currency that gets much use in that house. But then she looked gutted by recognition. All immigrants to this country, even the ones who seek to destroy it, want a better life for their kids. Seeing Paige struggling with the very same issues of compartmentalization that torment her mother was devastating to Elizabeth. But then her training kicked in. “What do you mean?” she asked, not so much in denial as in character. Paige went into the basement looking for her mother. What she found was a spy. And both walked away unhappy.
“The Deal” was among the very best episodes of The Americans to date, primarily because of the exciting, artful, and ultimately crushing ways it teased out the central conflict of the series: Families aren’t cover stories. Philip and Elizabeth can lie with impunity to everyone they meet. They can even lie to themselves. But there’s no shaking the slow-dawning realization that the bonds they’ve established with each other are real. (Sorry, Kris Humphries, there’s no such thing as a fake marriage. They’re all just contracts with agreed-upon rules, whether they last three months or a lifetime.) And that the children they’ve created are even more real — they’ve blossomed into uncontrollable young people full of love, curiosity, and questions. Paige and Henry can’t be slipped back into a drawer or tossed into the river like every other prop. It’s a fact that becomes harder and harder for Philip and Elizabeth to ignore with each passing day.
Or should I say each passing night? One of the things that made “The Deal” so taut and effective was the way all its drama — psycho- and otherwise — played out over a single, restless night. (And the only thing that made “The Deal” disappointing was the decision to shoehorn Elizabeth’s boardwalk farewell to her naval cadet into the episode. I generally don’t mind the impossible busyness of the Jenningses’ lives, but crashing a daylight scene into the world’s longest night was far too jarring.) Philip was holed up in a filthy restaurant just yards from where they lost Anton Baklanov — if you ask me, the Pizza Place really let itself go after the Two Guys and a Girl split — where he was forced to deal not only with Yossi, his Israeli prisoner, but also Kate, a fresh-faced handler. With her clipped demeanor, duffel bag full of peanut butter, and evident admiration for Philip, Kate made a strong first impression. (It helped that she’s played by Boardwalk Empire’s appealing and formidable Wrenn Schmidt.) Things with Yossi were decidedly more complicated.
At first it appeared that Yossi was meant to be Philip’s twin: Both are foreign agents working in America, both are physically capable professionals, both have a soft spot for country music. But Yossi is actually Yossi. As he says through the pain of his broken arm, “I hide what I do. I don’t hide who I am.” “Philip” is actually a carefully assembled construct: Neither his name nor his accent is his own. If he is, as Anton put it, “a monster,” then he’s more Frankenstein’s monster than anything else: stitched together out of borrowed parts, brought to unnatural life for reasons he can no longer remember.
This is a change from the way The Americans once presented its male lead. One of the most memorable — and, I thought, important — moments in the show’s pilot was the sight of Philip, a KGB sleeper agent, happily line-dancing in cowboy boots. The implication early on was that unlike his devoted wife, Philip Jennings actually enjoyed being Philip Jennings. That American citizenship fit him even more snugly than Clark Westerfeld’s hairpiece. But now even that is in question. In the second-season premiere, Philip was once again wearing boots, but he used them for a much more grim purpose. The incident at the restaurant took the pilot’s moment of ten-gallon happiness and spattered it with blood; Philip will never strap on a Stetson the same way again. And last night we heard him speak of the Soviet Union for the first time not as an abstract employer but as home: the icicles on the trees, the familiar cold that somehow felt like warmth.
For Yossi, spying is a job. No matter what extralegal mischief he makes in D.C., he still gets to fly back to Haifa for Passover and see his kids. (In typical Americans cleverness, the script, credited to Angelina Burnett, stretched the wayward kid metaphor to include hot-rodding Israel and its disapproving dad, America.) For Philip, spying is everything. It’s all he has and all he knows. We actual Americans like to talk about the pluses and minuses of “losing yourself” in work. But Philip is utterly lost. After Arkady worked a surprise deal with the Israeli government and Yossi was swapped for Anton, Philip did his best to suppress his humanity, to make himself as silent and functional as the cables that had bound Yossi to the counter or the chains that would soon lock Anton to his miserable future. But it didn’t work. Philip is “platinum” with his government, but still flesh and bone. He actually had to do the awful things he did. He had to live with the memories of doing them and with himself.
And so the drive to the port was excruciating: Philip emotionless in the front seat, Anton howling in the back. In the end it wasn’t ideology that made America so attractive to Anton. It wasn’t religious freedom or blue jeans or anything as banal as that. It was the opportunity to provide something better for his son. Through tears, he begs Philip to let him betray the United States from within the safety of its borders. Anything not to miss the chance to see his son become a man. The parallels for Philip’s own potential fate were obvious: One false move and it’s exfiltration, whether he’s ready to see the icicles again or not. But the line that slayed me was when Anton bellowed “They’ll think I died.” Imagine the uncertainty, the lack of control. One day you have your life. The next day you have someone else’s. And everyone you loved and who loved you will never know what happened. The cargo ship that transported Anton from one existence to another loomed large over the frame, dwarfing everything else. Mossad might argue that this one act was bigger than any two people: Anton’s enslavement led directly to the freeing of more than 1,500 refuseniks. But questions of perspective and scale don’t much matter when you’re the little guy about to get squashed.
The unseen plight of Anton’s wife ran through the episode’s other brilliant scene as well. Alison Wright’s Martha is a smart, sensitive and altogether worthwhile person who has somehow found herself married to a fiction. If and when Clark disappears, she’ll have absolutely nothing to remember him by. (“They’ll think I died …”) And what’s worse, she won’t be treated as a victim. She’ll be mocked as a joke. Pairing Martha up with a bewigged Elizabeth for a long and boozy conversation about a phantom would have been absolutely hilarious if it also wasn’t so depressing. I love any chance to see Keri Russell playing Elizabeth playing a real human being. (Good luck finding “Betty Buttinsky” in any Russian-English dictionaries!) Even better are the fleeting opportunities to see Elizabeth’s actual, carefully buried humanity come bubbling to the surface. (“It’s taken me a while to start feeling things again,” she told Brad at the boardwalk.) When Martha confided in Elizabeth about the secret wild side of their shared husband — “he’s an animal!” — Elizabeth’s face went dead behind the oversize glasses. What upset her more? The jealousy of sharing her husband with another woman? (Remember, that while Elizabeth and Philip have hammered and sickeled strangers from Foggy Bottom to Columbia Heights, they’ve never actually married anyone else.) Or the realization that everyone, spy or no spy, is always withholding something?
The hour ended with Oleg playing Stan like a balalaika. After leading the FBI on an extremely polite interstate car chase — shot with a wonderful air of moodiness and doom by director Daniel Attias — Oleg turned the tables yet again on the suddenly hapless Agent Beeman. Whether Oleg is working a freelance capitalist scheme of his own devising or applying an Arkady-approved triple cross remains to be seen. But the unsettling nature of their interaction was in keeping with what has revealed itself to be an exceedingly unsettling season. The doomsday clock of Philip and Elizabeth’s existence has been pushed closer to midnight. All the questions they were able to ignore for years are now demanding answers; all the fictions they’ve used as cover are now leaving them more and more exposed. Home isn’t a place you fight for as an abstract or remember, vaguely, as a place of extreme weather and childhood games. Home is the place you return to at the end of the day, the place where you curl up on the couch, where you take off your disguise. For Stan, that place has become the crash pad he shares with Nina. For Oleg to threaten that is a provocation worse than the Bay of Pigs.
And no matter how much they may still try to deny it, for Philip and Elizabeth that place is now their actual house. From the basement to the bedroom, it’s no longer a spot to hide in plain sight. It’s a haven, perhaps the only one they have left. There was something so beautiful and cruel about the way the episode ended. The Jenningses were together, lost in the memories of the selves they cast aside decades ago. They were free to indulge in the secret morning dream of every parent: to have your children nearby and safe, but also have them remain deeply asleep so the cruelties of the world can’t touch them and they can’t disrupt you. In that brief, intimate moment, all of Philip and Elizabeth’s dirty laundry was forgotten or neatly folded away. Their awful work was done. And then, from upstairs, came the two questions that will define the rest of the season, if not the series. “Mom?” cried Paige. “Dad?”