I wrote last week that I would wait to comment on the central themes of this series until they were fleshed out more fully in the non-pilot episodes, and I’ll admit that I was nervous about that decision at the time. I had no way of knowing whether The Americans would work to build standalone entries, in which the long term plots were tied together in each episode by a single concept or event, or if it would adopt a 24-style pacing that simply runs its larger story along and drops you in at a particular point with each new hour. Both methods could have worked for a show about espionage, but I’m glad they’ve gone with the former. If given enough time, this series can become the definitive show about the Cold War Eighties, but it will need to be able to breathe, contemplate, and build tension from time to time along the way. A show that is as thoughtful as it is thrilling is a rare thing, but it’s an attainable goal for The Americans.
Perhaps wisely, this second episode trends more often toward thrilling than thoughtful. The opening sequence mirrors last week’s, except this time it’s Phillip (as “Scott,” a suspiciously normal name) doing the seducing of a woman named Annalise whose husband often drags her to swanky parties at—where else?—Caspar Weinberger’s office. Annalise’s nifty bra camera maps the layout of the room, and suddenly Elizabeth and Phillip have their mission: bug the electronic clock on the shelf in the office of the newly appointed Secretary of Defense. Oh, and they have only three days to do it, as intel suggests an important meeting with Margaret Thatcher and John Nott on the horizon. After many serious looks and discussions of the children’s futures, they agree to attempt the impossible.
You know you’re winning a game when your opponent is forced to rely on lucky breaks just to keep up. With Reagan’s recent crackdown on Directive S (the code name for Elizabeth and Phillip’s unit, as we learn this week) and turmoil among the folks in Moscow and the Russian Embassy, the Jenningses are in desperate need of a hot hand if they’re going to rebound from the events of the pilot episode. Although they are masters when it comes to the things they can control—from their unassuming travel agency home base to Elizabeth’s perfect execution of a classic umbrella poisoning—the elements they can’t control are on the fritz. Viola, the housekeeper they task with obtaining the clock, is beholden first and foremost to her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ (who must have voted for Reagan or something), so even the threat of her son’s agonizing death doesn’t motivate her to obey the Jenningses’ directives. On another front, Annalise is coming unhinged, as sexy Scott the Swede has proven too sexy for his own good. She half-jokingly suggests that the two of them should run away together, and although Phillip calms her with some admirable silver tonguing, she leaves him in a bad place—by which I mean that she literally gets out of the car in a poorly lit part of town and walks home.
Even in the domestic sphere, Elizabeth is frustrated to see that Paige is beginning to pull away from her by doing her own bra shopping, among other things. “Mom,” Paige tells her, “things are different than when you grew up. People are, like, freer.” That’s the problem for Phillip and Elizabeth. Despite their efforts at manipulation, people are still free to ignore their threats, demand too much of them, or go off the reservation at a moment’s notice. If they’re going to keep up with Stan and the FBI, they need a number of free people to behave in predictable ways—and that, my friends, is a hot hand with a low probability.
Stan isn’t in such a position. His efforts in this episode provide a stark contrast to the Jenningses’ mission: he bullies and cajoles and threatens the members of an illegal caviar-for-stereos scheme (so Cold War Eighties) until he has himself a new informant working in the Soviet Embassy. He lucks into a rational sequence of human behavior and methodically achieves what he set out to achieve. Stan’s a goal-oriented guy who’s currently up in the count, and as he eyes the Jenningses’ house through his kitchen window (a vantage point that will surely play a role in the future), it seems clear that he isn’t about to lose sight of the ultimate prize anytime soon.
At the end of the episode, Phillip and Elizabeth just barely manage to pull off what has to have been their most dangerous mission ever. But it only comes after a fevered escalation of their intensity on all fronts—Phillip smothering Viola’s son and daring her to let him die, “Scott” telling Annalise that he loves her to placate her for the night, and, in an uncomfortable and unintended parallel to Moonrise Kingdom, Elizabeth convincing Paige to let her mother pierce her ears for her. The spot of blood that falls from Paige’s ear onto the bedsheet is probably supposed to be symbolic of Paige’s transition into womanhood, but the fact that her mother does the piercing is a detail I will leave for another reviewer to unpack. In any case, the Jenningses had to push their luck with every wild factor in their lives, and they just so happened to get away with it this time. I don’t see it happening again.
The big reveal at the end of the episode—I don’t see how it can be spoiled, seeing as how it’s history—is that Weinberger was meeting with Thatcher and Nott to discuss Reagan’s newly commissioned missile defense program. There are a lot of jaws dropping at the Soviet Embassy when this bit of information comes over the wire, but I wasn’t exactly blown away by it. Unless Phillip and Elizabeth will somehow be tasked with shutting down Star Wars, it shouldn’t affect them directly. What is perhaps more likely is that, as Moscow gets antsy, their missions will continue to intensify in their urgency and difficulty level, placing a greater strain on the relationship. That’s just a guess, though. Maybe next week will just be an hour-long racquetball match between Phillip and Stan (would totally watch).
Official Wig Count for This Episode:
(a mustache counts as a “face wig” and thus will be awarded a half point)
John Bender is a Twitter anarchist with questionable opinions about celebrity lifestyles and the Lost finale. He edits erotic novels by day and works tirelessly by night to improve upon his personal record of 41.06 in the Mecha Marathon minigame in Mario Party 2. He also plays in Fitness.