‘The Americans’ Open Thread: Al Haig and Psycho Militants

This post discusses plot points from the February 20 episode of The Americans.

When The Americans debuted in late January, one of the things that excited me about the show was the way anti-heroism functioned within it. Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, the deep-cover KGB agents at the heart of the show, weren’t being made sympathetic to us because they were incredibly badass despite using their powers for evil, as is the case with a Walter White, or many of the characters in Game of Thrones. Instead, we were being persuaded to sympathize, even more so than is the case in Showtime’s Homeland, with characters who want to bring down the United States government, and to see the United States through the lens of their ideology and their geopolitics.

Last night’s episode of The Americans was a through-the-looking-glass perspective on the Cold War that revealed the disadvantage the Soviet Union perceived itself to be at relative to the United States, and how the paranoia that governed the Soviet system poisoned its own agents’ decision-making. The catalyst for that exploration? The shooting of President Reagan outside the Washington Hilton by John Hinckley, Jr., a mentally ill man who hoped to impress Jodie Foster. As its lens on those events, The Americans generally stayed out of the inner circle, and focused on people who had a small role in the events. For Stan, the Jennings’ FBI agent neighbor, that meant confirming that Hinckley was a lone gunman rather than a Soviet agent. And for Elizabeth and Phillip, that means trying to make sure that the federal government doesn’t blame the Soviet Union for the assassination attempt.

Both parties are caught off guard in the task, though Stan gets a head start. Agent Amador is quizzing him on his Russian, and bribing him with jelly beans, in a nice nod to Reagan’s tastes, for right answers, when the news comes in. Phillip and Elizabeth, by contrast, are late to the country’s upset—they were secluded in a hotel for an afternoon tryst. “Thank you…For making us take the afternoon off,” Phillip tells Elizabeth. “That’s what you want to thank me for?” she asks him playfully. But once they see the news on a television in the hotel lobby, they’re all business, and the show parallels Stan and the Jennings activating their sources.

Elizabeth, motivated by her memories of Stalin’s death as a child in the Soviet Union, is convinced that a coup is underway, especially when Al Haig, then serving as Secretary of State, announces on television that he’s taking charge until Vice President Bush, who was on an airplane at the time, can land, be briefed, and assume command until Reagan is ready to return. Stan’s source believes the same thing, and tells him so, seeing Haig’s military rank rather than his diplomatic position. “Are you serious?” Stan asks her. “He’s one of your top generals and he’s announced he’s taking control,” Nina explains. “What do you call that?” And The Americans gives some support to the idea that the Soviets aren’t purely viewing the events through the lens of their own experience. In a downtown bar, a low-level Bush staffer complains about the constitutional questions posed by “Al, ‘I’m In Control Here’ Haig”‘s actions, while a similarly low-level Haig staffer insists that “It reflects the political reality.”

But Phillip’s one of the few characters who is able to parse that the American anxiety about Haig’s action stems from a different place than the Russian fears—it’s more about process, and less about the prospect of a long fall away from the American tradition. “All these years, walking these streets, living with these people, you don’t really understand these people. Haig could have ten nuclear footballs, and they wouldn’t have a coup,” Phillip tells Elizabeth. “Can you please just try to get yourself in a different way of looking at things?” She’s not having it. “I remember where I came from. Not having all these things. Having it be about something different than myself,” she spits at him. “You don’t think they’re all about lies and conspiracy like everything else? Why do you think it’s so different?” Phillip doesn’t have a really good argument for her yet, though he manages to win this round of the debate by switching the subject to the weakness of Soviet command and control, and convincing Elizabeth that they need to stop a war from happening. But his ability to answer Elizabeth’s query convincingly in the long run will be critical to resolving the tension between them, and the question of whether they defect and stay together, or whether Elizabeth stays loyal, while Phillip is pulled inexorably away from her, America as a whole his green light at the end of the dock.

And they aren’t the only couple who are having trouble with their cover, and with making assessments from underneath it. When Stan returns home, his wife is concerned less about Reagan’s shooting than with how they’re doing. “I thought we were going to get a chance to know each other again, living in the same house,” she explains. “You never talk to me. Why is it so hard?” Stan’s forced to confess that his stint underground, referred to memorably in the pilot of The Americans is still affecting him—he hasn’t been totally able to resurface. “I was living with psycho militants for too long. I don’t know, okay?” he tells her. “It just doesn’t feel like it did before.” Elizabeth may be unable to gage American politics because of the experiences of her childhood, while Stan’s increasingly unable to fit smoothly back into the American life from whence he came because of what he saw of his own country. What makes America different may be scarier than Elizabeth believes, or that Phillip has been able to see.