1.07- "Duty and Honor"
A massive influx of deadlines and to-dos (not to mention spending a half hour every week with Lena Dunham & Co.) has recently fostered in me an obsession over “fuck it” moments. Some examples of “fuck it” moments: you get home after a long, stressful day of work, and you realize that you need to clean your dirty dishes. Or maybe you’re attempting a particularly difficult level of a video game for the hundredth time, and your thumb is frozen over the controller as the “retry” icon appears on the screen. Or maybe you’re staring at a blank page, and your review of The Americans was due almost two weeks ago. You could just bear down and get this thing done. You really should. But, then again…
Fuck it. Or, a popular variant: fuck it, I’m having a drink.
“Duty and Honor” was an episode full of “fuck it” moments in which the main characters mostly abandoned their duties and their honors, often with drinks in their hands. One of the understated themes of The Americans is the tension between the machinelike precision of espionage campaigns and the clumsy, unreliable nature of the humans that conduct them. The show seems aware that the common yet oversimplified description of the Cold War as a “clash of principles” fails to account for the fact that the individual people who waged this war rarely adhered to their own principles, let alone those of their governments. People betray their oaths regularly, sometimes righteously and sometimes as the result of personal weakness.
The most commonly (and scandalously!) violated vows, of course, are marriage vows. The remarkable thing about Phillip and Elizabeth’s marriage is that it has only gotten shakier since they decided to take it seriously. Back when their relationship was simply a cover story, they could dispassionately seduce their ways into embassies by night and reconvene the next morning to pack lunches for the kids without having to explain things to each other. Now that they’re trying to make it “real,” as Elizabeth puts it toward the end of the episode, it requires them to foster the impulses of passion—and the attendant jealousy—that they’ve long suppressed. We see them fighting more. We see trust issues coming to the fore. Last episode, we saw Elizabeth go to Gregory in a weak moment. This week, Phillip is reunited with the girl from the picture he was fondly fingering just before he first met Elizabeth in the pilot. Phil and Liz (“Liz” is fine, right?) are trying to learn how not to hurt each other while simultaneously developing separate methods for coping with their respective emotional injuries. In a way, the Jenningses are just now figuring out how to date—twenty years after getting married.
Phillip’s plot is the most obvious threat to their domestic arrangement in this episode, and it’s also tied to the A-plot, which revolves around a dissident who has taken up the cause of Polish independence from Russia. As Phillip’s contact/former flame Irina explains, the Russians can’t just kill this guy because it would galvanize the independence movement. They have to discredit him instead. The plan is to frame him for raping and beating a woman—THE go-to move for discrediting important men—and that woman has to be Irina.
I’m going to state the obvious and point out how weird it is that Phillip (Michael, to his Russian friends) and Irina not only both entered some kind of espionage branch of the KGB, but have also come into contact on a mission twenty years after their separation. It’s also extra convenient that this chance meeting is occurring shortly after a serious rift in Phillip’s marriage involving capture and torture at the hands of the people he trusted most. Is it any wonder that he has sex with Irina despite his assurances to Elizabeth that he would not? Add to that the revelation that Phillip and Irina possibly had a son together, and there’s just too much history for Phillip to buy into at this point. He has been flailing ever since the incidents of the last episode, and the assurance that there is a full life waiting for him with Irina is attractive to him. So he flirts with the possibility.
In a parallel to Phillip’s decision, Stan finally caves and gets it on with Nina. It’s clear by now that Stan’s deep cover mission with those racist mofos has left him unable to recommit to his family. His affair with Nina differs from Phillip’s in that Stan’s not escaping from a troubled marriage so much as putting off his return the marriage he once had. Because he conflates protecting Nina with his job, messing around with her is a barely justifiable distracting from Sandra and his son. It helps that Nina is so carefree about the whole thing. “You Americans think everything is white and black. For us, everything is gray,” she tells him. Yeah, that’s exactly the sort of thing you want to hear from the mouth of your new mistress.
In the episode’s C-plot, Elizabeth has to clear up a situation with one of Adam Dorwin’s (the Strategic Missile Defense Program scientist that she offed a few episodes ago) underlings. This guy is apparently deep in some gambling debt, so she handles it by nut-crushing the thug that this guy owes. It’s not especially remarkable except for her lovely Joan Jett (or is it Chrissie Hynde?) wig. I think an argument can also be made for a minor “fuck it” moment on Elizabeth’s part when she’s in the kitchen with Sandra Beeman discussing her marriage. There’s something in her eyes as she downs a glass of wine that seems to signal a refocusing (another refocusing, I mean) on her marriage to Phillip. Her call to him later reinforces this notion, and it’s kind of painful to see how easily she buys into his straigh
t-faced lie at the end of the episode about his infidelity with Irina.
Honestly, though, it’s hard to know whether we’re supposed to blame Phillip and Stan for cheating on their spouses. Sure, it’s the dishonest and hurtful thing to do, but from a character perspective, it’s clear that both men currently find themselves tugged in several different directions by their many conflicting beliefs. This is one of the consequences of ideological warfare and the conditions of reality that inevitably dismantle it. There’s so much for these people to be concerned about, so many priorities to juggle, that the human brain eventually engages in an emergency simplification procedure by which it detonates one of its carefully managed plans. In this case, that carefully managed plans were the marriages of two of the show’s leads. Stan and Phillip don’t read as particularly lustful or impulsive men. They’re just not sure what to believe in right now. And there are beautiful women making eyes at them. And they’ve had a few drinks. So, y’know, fuck it.
WIG COUNT FOR THIS EPISODE: 2
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.