1.04- "In Control"
Sometimes the most unnerving reaction to a crisis is total calm. Mass panic can lead to disastrous effects and often worsen the situation, but at least the frightened hordes have the basic comfort of knowing that everyone else is as freaked out as they are. A levelheaded person sticks out like a sore thumb and raises certain concerns. Why aren’t you afraid of this? What do you know that makes you think this might turn out well? What are you hiding? Confusion breeds suspicion breeds paranoia.
I point this out because Reagan got shot in this episode. It’s an easy historical event to forget about, mostly because the Tornado of Trickle-Down (cool or no?) pulled through and served as President for the next eight years. I suspect for most people it doesn’t hold the “I know exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard that news” status given to events like 9/11, OJ’s Bronco chase, and the time Nancy Grace farted on Dancing with the Stars, so I was actually spellbound by the notion that, for even a few hours, John Hinckley Jr. probably had to be investigated as a possible Soviet agent. Furthermore, with an act as seemingly random as this in the year 1981, not one person in the immediate aftermath could have had any clue what Hinckley’s motive was. The US instantly suspects the Russians but must quickly accept that this weirdo was in large part a product of the culture he was raised in. The Russians suspect this is a possible coup by Secretary of State Alexander Haig, but they’re also confident that the US will try to pin the blame on them somehow. I don’t quite buy the episode’s implication that fingers were hovering over Big, Red Bomb Buttons, but it stands to reason that there was a mad scramble for information during these twenty-four hours.
And so it is that for the second time in two episodes, Phillip and Elizabeth find themselves initiating a mission with little time to plan and an immense amount of pressure to pull it off. I loved all of the espionage stuff in this episode, from the weapons cache that triggered Elizabeth’s childhood flashback to the ill-fated trip to the Weinberger household to repeated captions of coded messages over the shortwave radio. There’s also the great scene where Stan has to make a split-second call about whether or not to initiate contact with Nina in front of a possible tail. I think these sequences really benefit from the fact that Joe Weisberg, ex-CIA-agent-turned-screenwriter, is the creator of The Americans. The characters seem to carry a hard-earned knowledge base with them through these moments that makes them seem a step ahead of the viewer but never quite complacent in that position.
The same can’t be said for the slower moments of the episode. I would assert that what this show most noticeably lacks at this point is a sense of humor about itself. I don’t mean it has to become Dr. Strangelove all of a sudden—though, now that I think about it, they’re two sides of the same coin—but it needs to find a way to lighten the burden imposed upon it by its subject matter. Scenes at the FBI are bogged down by forced agent-buddy banter and the constant groaners spouted by Stan’s boss. The same is true of Paige’s interactions with Matthew Beeman and the out-of-the-blue fight between Stan and Mrs. Stan at the end of the episode. These supporting characters are sometimes reduced to something like a Greek chorus: "We must remain strong during this calamity! There will be trouble for us all if we do not act! History hangs in the balance!" It’s really not a good look for the show, and while these moments are certainly palatable in the context of the larger picture, they do hold The Americans back right now.
The episode’s primary conflict between Phillip and Elizabeth works, though, because it mirrors the essential debates being held by their higher-ups and, on an even larger scale, arguments that have persisted throughout actual history. Simply put, Phillip is a pragmatist, but Elizabeth is driven by commitment to an ideal. He insists on keeping potentially incendiary information—that Al Haig has a copy of the nuclear football in his possession—to himself for the same reason that he considered defection in the pilot: it’s the smartest move given conditions on the ground at that moment. Elizabeth takes him to task over his willingness to wait and see, and she’s frustrated to find that he won’t budge this time, not with the possibility of a third World War on the table. It goes back to the notion that levelheadedness is difficult to trust in a crisis. Elizabeth has trouble buying into Phillip’s decision-making because he is committed to the best possible outcome rather than a fixed method, just as the Russians don’t understand how our chain of command flows so seamlessly without it meaning something else is afoot. In a way, the Cold War is a history of cooler heads prevailing in times of uncertainty, but it was also a battle of ideologies from start to finish. So, there it is. Possible theme of entire show alert!
This episode swings The Americans back into the “solidly good” category for me, if only because it continues to excel at the espionage-heavy stuff and doesn’t actively ruin itself in the character moments. That stuff will come as the actors and writers find their chemistry and their voices, but the plotting and pacing are consistently top-notch for now. Plus, as this episode illustrates, the series has plenty of compelling historical material to draw from as it continues through this season and the recently announced second season. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I feel the sudden need to reread The Catcher in the Rye and watch Taxi Driver.
OFFICIAL WIG COUNT FOR THIS EPISODE:
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.