‘The Americans’ Open Thread: People Are, Like, Freer

This post discusses events from the February 6 episode of The Americans.

When The Americans debuted last week, it did something that distinguished it from your average spy story: it spent a lot of time making clear that you don’t go into the espionage business for the suits and the babes. Rather, the decision to give up your life, particularly to an institution that abused you, is a particularly self-abnegating one. This week as Phillip and Elizabeth commenced a new, and exceedingly difficult operation, bugging a clock in Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s office, and Phillip manipulated a source, a bored housewife who believes he’s a Swedish diplomatic attache, the show made a different, but complimentary point. Most spy work doesn’t involve going mano a mano with a baddie on top of a moving train with the whole world at stake. It’s about hurting people low down on the food chain to get crumbs of information from people higher up.

There was something precise, both to that point, and to the racial dynamics of Washington, DC, about the way Elizabeth and Phillip decided to go about getting that bug into Weinberger’s house: they poisoned the son of his maid, a young man who’s in college and on an upwardly mobile trajectory, and told the woman that they would trade an antidote for her taking and then replacing the clock. There’s an exceptional ugliness to preying on the woman’s love for her child—”He’s my life. He’s my life. I did everything you asked me to do.”—and forcing her to weigh it against the job that she presumably needs to keep him in school, and that may have provided the kind of social contacts that helped her get him there in the first place. His life is so valuable to her that she’ll even abandon her faith in God when Phillip begins to smother the boy in front of her. But even as Phillip and Elizabeth are doing awful things to this family, they also have a certain level of sympathy for and understanding of their victims.

“Don’t you worry about God?” the woman asks Phillip at one point. “No,” he tells her. “I worry about you. I worry about your son.” It’s a sentiment that would be utterly grotesque if the risks of the mission hadn’t gotten Phillip and Elizabeth talking about the possible consequences for their own children. “Henry. Henry would adjust to anything if he had to, don’t you think so?” Elizabeth asks Phillip. “If something happened to us, he’d find his way. But Paige. I worry about her.” The cruelty the KGB has subjected them to—and that they’ve constantly reupped for—is almost overwhelming. Expected to have children to maintain their cover, they’re now expected to put those children at risk of becoming parentless. But the organization understands that it provides a narcotic-like sense of accomplishment, an antidote to that pain and frustration that’s just as strong as the injection Elizabeth gives the maid’s son. “They shouldn’t ask us to do impossible things,” Elizabeth reflects after they’ve come through the mission safely. “But we did it,” said Phillip, who was initially angrier and more skeptical of the assignment than Elizabeth was. “And tonight we’re in the house of the secretary of defense.”

The damage the myth of espionage’s glamour does is clear in the second storyline of the night, as Phillip convinces Annalise, the bored Washington wife he’s seduced, to take pictures of Weinberger’s office, only to find her threatening him with exposure. She’s become convinced that life with Phillip would be a grand romantic fantasy, full of reindeer, hot cocoa, and sex on bearskin rugs—or better, at least, than a marriage that’s grown dull to her. “I’m stuck in a house, alone with him, and you’re out here doing whatever it is you do,” she pouts. But Annalise’s believe that spying is all camera harnesses that feel like bondage gear and pulling open your wrap-around top to snap pictures that you shouldn’t is a delusion that marks her not just as the kind of pretentious, silly person that Elizabeth seduced in the pilot, but a hopelessly naive sap. And her fantasies indict us, too. We’ve thrilled to James Bond, when in real life, he’d probably be off bullying a poor, African-American woman.