Now that’s how you title an episode. “COMINT,” as I learned from Wikipedia today, is government/military lingo for “communications intelligence,” a term that is—in a mildly stunning display of screenwriting savvy for this show—doubly applicable to this hour of The Americans. There’s the obvious, which has to do with the fact that the Jenningses are scrambling to figure out why they can no longer intercept FBI surveillance transmissions. But there’s also the psychological notion of a particular “communications intelligence”—one among many different kinds of interpersonal intelligence—which would seem to describe a bank of intuitive knowledge about how to interact with other people in a clear and effective way. “COMINT” cleverly examines several different channels of lapsed or compromised communications, making for the tightest episode of The Americans (and the show’s absolute best wig) thus far.
A common complaint about this show (by others and me) has been its penchant for heavy-handed dialogue and condescending exposition, but this episode begins by swinging in the totally opposite direction, which is to say that I had no idea what was going on for the first ten minutes. It turns out that a key KGB informant, who is embedded deep within the developing U.S. antiballistic missile defense program, is shaken after his wife’s recent death and liable to break under minimal duress. His contact at the Russian Embassy can’t take the risk of visiting him at the moment, though, because the FBI has engineered some secret new method for scrambling their radio communications. What is this new technology? It’s up to Phillip and Elizabeth to solve the mystery.
They eventually do, because they’re good at their jobs and they have a formidable arsenal of wigs. But let’s look instead at the long list of scrambled communications that don’t emanate from the trunks of FBI vehicles in this episode. During the opening scene’s interview between Elizabeth and the KGB’s informant, he swears to her that he never once shared a detail of his work for the US government with his deceased wife. He doesn’t hesitate to confirm this fact, and he goes on to explain that his wife knew better than to ask about the nature of his work. This is the episode’s lone example of an intentionally constructed barrier to communication in a marriage, and the mere concept is stunning to Elizabeth, who, of course, has recently decided to share more of herself than she ever has with Phillip.
And how is that working out for her? The Americans has been cramming the whole “spies—even married spies—sometimes have to have sex with other people to get information” angle down our throats since the opening scene of the series, so this episode’s emphasis on sex-for-intel isn’t exactly new territory. But the argument between Phillip and Elizabeth about whether it’s his right as a husband to exact revenge on a belt-whippy informant of Elizabeth’s is the logical extension of where this marriage has been headed. Now that they both seem newly committed to the marriage, Phillip (as shown in both the pilot and “Gregory) has taken it upon himself to deter other men from exerting any untoward or hazardous influence over Elizabeth. But it might not be his right, or even good for the marriage at all, for him to do so. Part of their new give-and-take requires that Elizabeth can be trusted to manage her feelings and her interactions with mission contacts, and she has already taken the steps in “Gregory” to prove to Phillip that she’s worthy of this trust. Phillip’s feelings of inadequacy are perhaps understandable given Elizabeth’s strength and conviction, but that doesn’t make them forgivable. He has to let her figure out a workable solution for the both of them, because she’s the one adapting to his vision.
Speaking of workable solutions, Stan’s nervous contact Nina certainly dove headfirst (BOOM) into her newest double agent assignment with the Russian embassy guy. Her desperate, sexy attempts to acquire information about the meetup with Udacha reflect poorly on Stan, who obviously pressured her with his repeated praise of her physical beauty, but they also serve as a great example of the result of failed communication. When words fall short, actions must take their place, and her totally out-of-the-blue advances on her boss (his reaction: “Why now?”) represent an attempt to seize control of the situation through action rather than speech. In this way, her blow jobs are similar to the KGB’s solution to the shaky-informant problem during this episode’s nicely orchestrated meet-up scene. We can’t reach you, they say, so we choose instead to detonate the situation.
This is the likely outcome facing Stan and Sandra Beeman. Although the whole idea of an agent who gets so invested in the mission that he can’t focus on his family is kind of a tired cliché at this point, Noah Emmerich does a great job of selling Stan’s detachment regarding his wife’s concerns. When she shows up downstairs in a negligee and fails to draw him up to the bedroom, it becomes clear how far he is from her on the issue of their marriage. Punctuating this sequence is the Russian language tutor tape that plays intermittently, signaling a willingness on Stan’s part to communicate with anyone but Sandra. Things are not good here, which will be a great thing for the show as Stan finds himself compromised on the home front.
His professional life might take a hit, too, as the KGB seems to finally realize that they have a mole in their operation. If I had to guess, I’d say Nina’s days are numbered, and while I’ll be sad to see her go, I’m interested in how it will all shake out. Will she compromise Phillip and Elizabeth in some way? Will Stan fail her in her moment of need? Probably yes to both.
Final note: the wig scene in the repair garage was high comedy, as Phillip donned the most ridiculous wig/face wig combo yet in the series and tried to distract the mechanics while Elizabeth crawled, Tobias Fünke-style, from the trunk of her car into
the trunk of an FBI car before—oops!—the FBI car drove away with her in it. Loved it. So fittingly ’80s espionage. More silly sneaking, please!
WIG COUNT FOR THIS EPISODE: 3.5
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.